Musicians and Collective Memory in Northeast Brazil, 1938

Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM
International Ballroom A (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Micah Oelze, Florida International University
In February 1938, São Paulo’s Department of Culture supplied a group of amateur ethnographers with fieldbooks, blank acetate discs, and a portable recording studio. The group then embarked on a five-month tour of the Brazilian Northeast to investigate and record religious music. The group hoped to document several authentic experiences of Afro-Brazilian religion they could catalogue for posterity. But the local religious leaders, afraid of political persecution and unwilling to share their practices with outsiders, refused to open their doors to the ethnographers. Instead of giving up their mission, the young researchers resorted to taping pseudo-religious performances by local musicians. The archival records of these encounters—located in São Paulo's Cultural Center Archive—have been generally ignored by scholars because they provide an unreliable portrayal of Afro-Brazilian religion. Yet the field books, letters, and recordings faithfully document information of another sort. Instead of teaching the reader about priests and ceremonies, the documents reveal what the general community and local musicians knew about Afro-Brazilian religion. Afro-Brazilian priests and initiates did not hold a monopoly over theology and practice. Rather, the larger community shared a practical understanding of beliefs and rites. This broad system of shared information made up what Maurice Halbwachs terms the community’s “collective memory.” The performative context of the ethnographic encounters resulted in musicians cycling through all of their religious knowledge, weaving it together with popular superstition and presenting it all to the ethnographers with performance practices rooted in Northeastern musical traditions. Read as such, the ethnographic records provide a broad survey of the aspects of Afro-Brazilian music, theology, and ceremony registered in Northeastern collective memory. 
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