Tim Vickery Column: The answer and the change occuring in Brazil ahead of the World Cup
Sertanejo – the local country music – is certainly more popular in Brazil than samba. Surveys reveal that it is the type of music most played on Brazilian radio stations. But there is no space for this in the international perception of Brazil. Some of the contestants in the local version of ‘Big Brother’ – a ratings sensation in Brazil for almost a decade and a half – have played it up for all it is worth, donning cowboy hats in their attempt to project a down to earth, rustic and folksy image. One of them even rode that horse all the way to the millionaire first prize.
All of this would come as a huge shock to the millions abroad who might imagine that Brazil in its entirety, from the luscious sands of Leblon to the giant favela of Rocinha, can be found in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro.
There is much more to the story, both good and bad – and this year, as never before, the world will have the chance to discover this giant country – either as tourists and fans coming over to football’s big party, or viewers of the many TV shows on Brazil that will fill up time and whet the appetite before the tournament gets underway.
One of the things that might become apparent is the extent to which the country has been mythologised, both internally and externally. For many foreigners – the French seem to have a specific weakness for this line of approach – Brazil represents the exotic, the wild, the exuberant. Samba fits nicely into this perception. The banality of country music does not.
But Brazil has also been relentlessly mythologised from the inside, for obvious reasons. First, this is a young country – not just in the sense of being ‘discovered’ by the Europeans little more than 500 years ago, but also in the fact that, as DNA research is making increasingly clear, its population was transformed by large scale late immigration from Europe and the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This, then, was a country in need of a national identity. Indeed, perhaps the principal explanation for the importance of football in Brazilian life is that through the World Cup their nation is making its mark on the planet, so often as winners.
But also this national identity had to be forged in a society of massive inequality. Therein lies the importance of samba to the national image. The relatively benign tropical fascism of the Getulio Vargas regime in the 1930s and 40s transformed samba into a national soundtrack – after first censoring its content.
As samba developed in Rio, then the capital, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the musicians were often persecuted. The Vargas regime put a stop to that. They became national icons (it is sadly interesting that the two moments when black Brazilians have been most central to the national identity have coincided with dictatorial regimes – the samba musicians with Vargas, and Pele with the military dictatorship in the late 60s). But, to get played on the powerful, glamorous and important new medium of radio, their songs started extolling the virtues of an orderly life. The government began subsidising the parade of the samba schools in Rio’s Carnaval – after first ensuring that the theme had to be a celebration of Brazil. The idea of Brazil as a land of happiness was a conscious creation of- and clearly interesting to - an authoritarian regime.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the protest movement that flared up last June and July was the discontent that many of those involved expressed for the myths of their nationhood. Members of Brazil’s new middle class had been able to travel abroad for the first time. Some of them had been irritated by the instant identification of Brazil with football and carnival. Indeed, this feeling would seem to explain some of the ferocity demonstrated against public spending on football tournaments. In part, perhaps, it was a psychological desire on the part of the protestors to distance themselves from myths that have been spun around them. We would seem to be dealing with a generation which is anxious to create its own identity.
Of course the protest movement contained some excesses, and also worrying fascistic trends whereby political parties per se were seen as the enemy. How can there be a democracy without the organisation of competing ideas? ‘My party is Brazil’ – a slogan that cropped up during the protests – is not an answer.
But on balance, the process was not only healthy, it was inspirational. By taking to the streets such numbers Brazilians confounded a myth they had held about themselves – that they are a passive people, easily duped into tolerating arrogant and inept government.
To be in Brazil during the Confederations Cup was to watch a country changing in front of our own eyes. The Brazil of May 2013 is not coming back. Exactly where we are heading is not yet clear. What happens with the protest movement this June and July will help forge a new Brazil – which means that fans coming over for the World Cup are in for an unforgettable experience.
We all hope it will be a wonderful tournament – football needs a great World Cup. And off the pitch there should be an international party, plus an internal dynamic of progress that is hard to predict. Visitors to Brazil will be witnesses to history – and may even go home with a few sertanejo CDs.