Naná Vasconcelos in 1979, photo by Roberto Masotti
I have fallen tragically behind with The Democracy of Sound Project, an initiative that began following Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and global rise of the far-right, attempting to use music as a means to combat bigotry and xenophobia, through its ability to shatter the boundaries which divide people from one another – neighbor from neighbor, culture from culture, country from country. While rooted in a belief that music is the most potent and democratic of all art-forms – holding the greatest social implications and political potential, the project might be approached on simpler terms. It is an attempt to access the voices of people who we may not know – to recognize their beauty and humanity, and to attempt to achieve a greater awareness of the cultures and sociopolitical realities from which they spring.
The political oppression and theft of power perpetrated by the right-wing, relies on a lack of understanding and the sustaining of abstracts – those people over there, who do those things, denied the context and humanity which we would expect for ourselves. Where ever we are, we must remember that those among us view others this way, and that many people view us this way as well. In order to fight, we must reach over the divide. While the The Democracy of Sound Project is primarily about recognizing the political potential of sound – its ability to travel and pass unmediated into our lives, it is also a way of unwinding the abstraction on which the right-wing’s power relies – to draw attention to the situation under which people suffer and what they risk, as much as to celebrate the beauty and importance of who they are.
Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that there are gathering clouds over Brazil. This is particularly ominous, given that Brazilians suffered under a right-wing military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. Those wounds have hardly healed, those lessons barely reconciled, yet these temperaments are rearing their head once more, with many beginning to advocate the return of that evil into their world.
While rooted in many of the same symptoms which have given rise to far-right in other parts of the world, the situation within Brazil is harder to deconstruct. Given its recent history, it also offers important lessons and insights. The brutal dictatorship which ruled the country for two decades, encountered very little support from its citizens. Resistance and rebellion, taking various forms, threaded through the entire period. It seems strange that it lasted so long, until you widen the view. Like so many similar authoritarian governments in Latin America during this era, it was backed and sustained by the United States and its European allies, who, during the 1950’s, were terrified by the country’s shift to the left.
The historic support for military dictatorships, by United States and European countries, can not be dismissed as a lesser evil within the Cold War. Given that the governments which proceeded them were almost always democratically elected and supported by the people, such actions operate as a lens into the true characteristics of Western democracy, and the nature of global power and economics. It is the suppression of democracy in the service of the consolidation of wealth and power – dangerous and naive to reduce to things that happen to others in another place, and another time. The world and its interests are far too interconnected. We must seek the parallels. If a governing body possesses the ethical architecture to support the oppression of a people in one part of the world, it seems fair to presume that they have found a way to do the same at home. When we witness the theft of freedom anywhere, and that act is supported or ignored, we must examine the freedom that we believe ourselves to possess. In all likelihood, it is a product of lies.
You have to give the right-wing credit. Particularly within the structure of Neoliberal Capitalism, it learns, morphs, and adapts, employing subterfuge to distance itself for the horrors it has unleashed on the past – always appearing as something new. Where ever it appears – in the conservative parties of the United States and Europe, in military dictatorships, or the fascist governments of the previous century, right-wing thinking – social and economic alike, are motivated by the theft and consolidation of power. If their reach was global half a century ago, we should presume that it is greater now. Though they have often found themselves disgraced, their failures have offered lessons, with new strategies to pursue their goals. What is transpiring in Brazil and other parts of the world, is connected to each and everyone of our lives.
Since the fall of the dictatorship in 1985, the majority of Brazil’s people and governments have rested somewhere within the political left, but, like most counties in the world, the power and economy has been retained by a small number of elites, while poverty and inequity run rampant. More or less the same as Britain and the United States. These circumstances were exasperated by the fact that Brazil was particularity hard struck by the recession which developed in 2008, and continues to labor beneath its legacies today. 14 million people are currently unemployed. Violent crime is rising, and their have been a number of scandals which have entangled the long standing, left leaning, architectures of power. As is the case with many other parts of the world, a disillusioned and desperate public has begun looking for answers in other realms, offering the far-right – religious, social, economic, and political, a foothold they haven’t known in over twenty years.
While all of this is worrying in its own right, the product of lies built upon lies, in Brazil things are taking a rapidly escalating and sinister turn. Over the last six months, there has been a shocking spike of attacks upon, and attempts to silence the arts – attempts at censorship and closure of museum exhibitions – notable in the recent abrupt closure of the Queermuseu (Queer Museum) exhibition at a cultural center in Porto Alegrecase, attacks on museum staff and visitors, and using social media to promote misinformation and harass those engaged with the promotion of the arts and free speech.
If we have learned anything from history, it is that evil grows from isolation, and that this a tool which the right-wing actively deploys. We must recognize that what is occurring in Brazil effects us all, and is connected within a global system which strives to control and oppress. If the country falls back toward the horrors which it once knew, it is because we have turned our backs. If that happens, be sure it is coming for you next.
And so I thought, what better way to keep Brazil in our hearts, minds, and watchful eye, than to celebrate one its most remarkable voices, the late Naná Vasconcelos. Brazilian music, particularly Samba and the gestures which sprang from the Tropicália movement, are widely celebrated for their singularity. It is its own world. While the music Naná Vasconcelos has been held in high regard for decades, it stands slightly on its own – bridging sounds which have sprung from the cultural specificity of Brazil – the distillations of African, indigenous, and European sonic traditions, with the practices and approaches of the avant-garde. He created folk music which could have sprung from nowhere else, while regularly collaborating with free-jazz giants like Don Cherry and Minimalist pioneers like Jon Hassell, over the course of his long career. His music is stunningly beautiful and the best of what an art form can be. It is the voice of freedom.
I leave you with two videos. One is a document of a mind-bending live berimbau performance in Rome during 1983, while the second follows Vasconcelos, as he threads music through his daily life. I hope they help keep Brazil in your heart and mind, to see the powerful potential of music, how connected we all are, and stand as a reminder of what true freedom actually is.
Naná Vasconcelos – Africadeus, live Rome (1983)