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In the footsteps of Macunaíma

Unicamp researchers retrace the 1938 folklore research mission that passed through the North and Northeast and was organized by Mario de Andrade

The world of Mario de Andrade was much larger than his Hallucinated City. With the spirit of a modern day explorer, the author of Macunaima had a project to rediscover Brazil. It was in search for this nationalistic ideal, that, in the decade of the 20’s, he took off on trips to the North and Northeast and organized, in 1938, an expedition to get to know the many Brazilians of the country and to register the expressions of popular culture of the region. This diligence became known as the folkloric research mission and revealed a huge variety of dances and typical regional music. Now, more than sixty years later after Mario’s journey, researchers at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), led by Carlos Vogt, decided to retrace the mission’s steps so as to understand what has happened to these cultural expressions.

With the support of FAPESP, the new expedition proposed to verify if the popular traditions of the country had survived with time, especially by examining the impact brought about by the media. “When Mario de Andrade organized the first expedition, there was the perception that the radio could damage cultural expressions in their original form”, advised Vogt.

The new folkloric research mission realized that the apprehension that Mario had felt made sense, but not totality. According to the researcher, the mass communication media have influenced popular culture, but have left lots of gaps for its preservation. In truth, they found only a few changes in the forms of performance. The alterations of greatest proportions occurred in the manner of performing these expressions of popular culture.

“In the 1938 expedition, there was no television and the radio was not yet a means of mass communication. For this reason, the performances had the function of entertaining the local communities”, explains Luís Adriano Daminello, a film maker who participated with Jorge Palmari in the second expedition through the Advanced Studies in Journalism Laboratory of Unicamp. “In this day and age, popular performances have acquired a more touristic character. They are no longer performed for the local public, but are promoted to attract segments of an outside public.”

For Carlos Vogt, if during the first expedition the performances worked as a ritual of social balance for the communities, now they are thought of as a media orientated event “The best example is Carnival”, sums the professor. “Television has ended up defining what entertainment means and is provoking a felling that what is not on TV can only be something for the old, or the backwoodsman. Among the young, it has become shameful to participate in popular cultural groups”, he analyzes.

The same route
Just as in the 1938 expedition, the new mission covered the same six Brazilian States – Pernambuco, Paraíba, Ceará, Piauí, Maranhão and Pará. The trajectory followed was practically the same route established by Mario in his second journey to the North and Northeast, carried out in 1928. It was after his observations during this expedition that he wrote the book Turista Aprendiz

“During this era there was the desire in Brazil and in the world at large to understand the influences of popular cultural expressions. We were living through a nationalistic ideal. It wasn’t by chance, modernism had as one of its directives a return to national questions”, explained Vogt. The work Macunaíma – O Herói sem Caráter [Macunaima – the Hero without Character] was born exactly from the anthropophagic proposal of Oswald de Andrade and reflects the search for equality of the Brazilian culture with others and incorporating the best of external influences.

In the 1938 expedition, the head of the mission was Luis Saia, architect and friend of the writer. He was accompanied by Martin Braunwieser, Benedicto Pacheco and Antônio Ladeira. Although he had planned out the expedition, Mario did not participate in the journey. The four members of the team had to record, photograph, film and study the melodies that men and women used in their work, in play and in prayer in only four months, from February to July of 1938.

For this period, there was the necessity of transporting very heavy luggage. Besides the expedition’s clothes, there were as well six bags and three chests with the research material such as recorder, amplifier, needles, microphones with cables and tripod, valves, 237 records, a generator, pre-amplifier, blocks of writing paper, note paper, ear phones, pick-up for the recorder, 118 rolls of photographic film, 21 cinematographic films, photographic camera with filters and lenses, cinematographic apparatus with lenses and leather satchels for transporting the records.

A good part of the material was used in the expedition, in spite of the difficulties of making adequate use of it. To guarantee the maximum degree of authenticity, Mario’s group developed a methodology for the capturing of information. First, assist the rehearsal of the piece, the moment during which they would obtain data so that the recording would take place with the right time scale, and the placing of the microphones, the photography and the filming could be done in an adequate manner.

This method also made easier the prioritization of questions to be given to the participants of popular groups. But not always did thing work out well. To record outdoors was very arduous, above all in places where the electrical energy supply was scarce. For an effective comparison, Vogt’s expedition captured close to sixty five hours of images and sound with digital equipment.

The gathered material
In spite of the efforts of the missionaries, the 1938 expedition was not concluded. Mario de Andrade was removed from his position as the director of the Culture Department and the journey was interrupted. Even at that, the material collected was enormous, totaling close to ten thousand articles. There were 20 field notebooks, 168 records of 78 RPM, 1,066 photographs, 9 films and 775 objects. There was an abundance of documents, but only five volumes were published about popular performances in Registros Sonoros de Folclore Musical Brasileiro [Registration of the Sounds of Brazilian Folk Music]. The themes chosen were Xango rites, African drum and Brazilian negro drum, witchcraft, babassuê and the outdoor folk play featuring a naval battle with the Moors. Not included were the documents concerning the themes bumba-meu-boi, Congo Reis reisado [Ephiphany], caboclinho [mixed Indian], cambinda and praiá.

However, although the research was extensive and some volumes were published, the 1938 mission’s material became almost useless because of poor conservation and the organization of the documents throughout the years. “Instead of complete studies, the major part of the material collected was composed of loose pieces, small samples of large cultural manifestations”, comments Vogt. Therefore the proposal of the new research was to produce current registers of these same performances and to carry out analyses done by specialists and researchers. “The idea was to complement the 1938 material”, he explains. In 1997, the first journey for making contact with the groups was carried out, and in September of 1997, the researchers left on a three month journey with sound and photography equipment. Part of the material filmed was used for the documentary Folkloric Researchers Mission, for TV Cultura.

In a second stage, the new expedition registered its work during the Recife Carnival of 2000, the same event that the team of the 1938 mission had assisted. Afterwards, in June, July and August, the Junino (June) Festivals in São Luís do Maranhão and in Belém were documented, also repeating the mission’s circuit. In Natal, new recordings of the festivals of this cycle were carried out in journeys to Recife and to Paraíba.

“Mario de Andrade had a vision that culture was dynamic and that the work of the expedition must not be a register for museum purposes. He had as his objective the perception of the transformations of a culture. He believed that culture was a process, that it was something dynamic”, analyzes Vogt. “For Mario the popular performances would not themselves disappear, they would merely be transformed”, he adds.

The song that disappeared
In the recent expedition the only form of expression that could not be reviewed were the work songs, which have disappeared. “There were various forms of work song, as was the case of the flour mill worker, and among the carriers of stones and pianos. There were even tunes for beggars. Today, the new characteristics of economic activities has finished with them”, says Daminello. On the work songs, Mario de Andrade commented in his book Danças Dramáticas [Dramatic Dances]: “Even work songs, so self-explanatory, got themselves mixed up with mysticism. The famous airs of the piano carrier, amongst others, didn’t come about, as popularly thought, from the idea of keeping the carriers in step, but through the melody that the instrument would remain in tune.”

Back in the mission of 1938, the work songs were in their final stage. The team arrived to find a group that remembered some melodies used in the work place. However, at the first attempt to record the songs, there was little success since the workers couldn’t sing the melody without the use of a piano. Only after providing the instrument were the recordings made.

Even with the death of the work songs, Vogt considers that popular cultural performances have resisted more with the transformation of society than erudite and elite music. The answer could be in fact that the people linked to the popular forms of art believe in the preservation of traditions. “They’re still very much alive and continue giving the same importance to the era of Mario de Andrade”, concluded Vogt. Once again proving the perpetuity of the ideas of the creator of Macunaíma.

The project
Folklore Research Expedition (nº 99/05410-3); Modality Regular line of research assistance; Researcher Carlos Vogt – Advanced Studies in Journalism Laboratory/Unicamp; Investment R$ 55,687.50