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Nei Lopes: The unorthodox lexicographer

The samba historian, composer of popular music, and specialist in African languages and cultures has written over 30,000 dictionary entries

Léo Ramos Chaves

A self-taught Africanist, Nei Braz Lopes has published seven dictionaries and one encyclopedia on the languages and cultures of Africa. His production exceeds 30,000 entries. About 250 of these definitions, part of his 1999 Dicionário banto do Brasil, [Bantu dictionary of Brazil], were incorporated into the Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa [Houaiss dictionary of the Portuguese language], prepared by Antônio Houaiss. In 2016, his Dicionário da história social do samba [Dictionary of the social history of samba], coauthored with Luiz Antonio Simas, proposed a new historiographic reading of the genesis of this musical genre in Brazil, and won the Jabuti Prize in the Literature Theory and Criticism, Dictionaries, and Grammars category.

Born in 1942 in the suburb of Irajá, Rio de Janeiro, Lopes is the youngest of 13 siblings. He graduated in 1966 from the National Law School of the former University of Brazil, now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). However, a few years after graduating he decided to abandon his legal career to dedicate himself to popular music, literature, and the study of Africa. Since beginning to compose professionally in 1972, his songs have been recorded by artists such as Ivan Lins, Chico Buarque, Dudu Nobre, João Bosco, Fátima Guedes, and Martinho da Vila. He has cowritten songs with Wilson Moreira (1936–2018) and put lyrics to the works of maestro Moacir Santos (1926–2006), who is revered by several generations of Brazilian musicians.

Concerned with the didactic leanings of his intellectual production, Lopes argues that the teaching of African history in Brazilian schools should be based on the ancestral continent itself and not on the Atlantic traffic and slavery. In his view, the current focus keeps young people from being interested in the subject. In this interview, the researcher discusses his intellectual production, his experience as a novelist and composer of popular music, as well as his activism for black rights.

Age 76
African studies
Bachelor’s degree in law and social sciences from UFRJ
37 books, including seven dictionaries and one encyclopedia

How did Africa become your research subject?
I’m the youngest of 13 siblings, who are all dead now. The oldest would have already turned 100 by now. My mother, Eurydice de Mendonça Lopes, was a housewife and my father, Luiz Braz Lopes, worked as a bricklayer. I was the only one to complete basic education and, later, higher education. When I decided to quit my career as a lawyer, it was a scandal. The fact that my father was born in 1888, three months before the Abolition, was fundamental in sparking my interest in African studies. He was an example to my brothers and me, and he died the night before my eighteenth birthday. I have never known the details of his childhood or his life. His personal history was always nebulous and he died before I matured enough to be able to talk about the subject better. I know that his birth certificate recorded the names of his father and mother, but he never spoke about them. It gave me the impression that he didn’t know them and grew up somewhat abandoned. This lack of knowledge was decisive in my intellectual trajectory, because by studying Africa I realized that I also wanted to reconstruct my own past. Five years ago, the historian Flávio dos Santos Gomes told me that he was conducting a survey of churches in the center of Rio de Janeiro, in order to identify the certificates of black people baptized in the nineteenth century. I told him that my father had been baptized at Our Lady of Lampadosa church, near Tiradentes square. Then, during his research, Flavius found the baptismal record of my father and his two sisters. I never knew my father had sisters. Events like this energized me to keep researching. I’ve been married to Sonia Regina Lopes since 1982, I have a son from my first marriage and two grandchildren. My son is a physical education teacher, but my grandchildren have just entered careers similar to mine: the boy is studying history at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) and the girl studies social sciences at UFRJ.

When and why did you decide to write dictionaries?
I was 12 or 13 years old when I realized that Afro-descendant, or Afro-Brazilian, people weren’t represented positively in the media. In general, I realized that they only appeared on police news or as a biased caricature. Black artists were never known by their names, only by nicknames like Chocolate, Jamelão [Black Plum], Gasolina or Noite Ilustrada [Illustrated Night]. At that time, I began to collect trading cards and magazine clippings that showed people like me in favorable conditions. Later, in 1981, I suffered a great trauma, losing one of my children in an accident at sea. The way I found to occupy my mind and to try to overcome this loss was to start reading a lot. Ever since I was a young man I’d been really interested in Africa and had looked around in bookstores and secondhand booksellers in downtown Rio de Janeiro for works that dealt with stories, cultures, and languages from the African continent. At that time, mainly the secondhand bookstores sold large collections of books on the colonial era, as well as compilations of reports written by imperial officials. I began to acquire materials with these characteristics, without knowing that they were rare works and that they’d be important for the development of my work. I bought a lot of rare dictionaries. One of the first, which is with me to this day, was a three-volume edition of a bilingual dictionary of French and Kikongo, a language of southwestern Africa. Aware of my interest, friends traveling to Africa or Europe began to give me rare works they found. Today, I have a library with about 3,000 books and a large number of African-language dictionaries. On the other hand, I also realized that dictionaries work as an effective didactic method for disseminating knowledge. A book of this kind, with well-presented references, allows a subject of interest to be studied more easily, since the information is condensed into straightforward entries.

And so you decided to make your own dictionary…
Exactly. I decided to write a dictionary to identify, here in Brazil, the words of the Portuguese language that originate from the world of the Bantu, a designation that encompasses hundreds of African languages and dialects. In Brazil, the languages Kikongo, Umbundu, and Kimbundu exert a greater influence on Portuguese due to the greater number of Africans with these origins. Words such as babá [nanny], baia [horse stall], banda [band], caçapa [billiard table pocket], cachimbo [pipe for smoking], dengo [phony], farofa [prepared mantioch flour], fofoca [gossip], and minhoca [earthworm], for example, have probable or proven origins in Bantu languages, and Kimbundu may have been the language that contributed most to forming our vocabulary. As a result of this effort, in 1999 I published the Dicionário banto do Brasil, with over 8,000 entries. Later, in 2012, it was revised, and published in a new edition with the title Novo dicionário banto do Brasil [New Bantu dictionary of Brazil]. In this version, I corrected mistakes, added new hypotheses, and increased the number of entries, incorporating words that I identified in works regarding the surviving quilombos [communities originally formed by escaped slaves]. While determining the number of words originating from Bantu languages in circulation around the country, I wanted to prove how important these cultures are in the national context. So writing dictionaries, for me, is also a political task.

As I studied Africa, I realized that I also wanted to reconstruct my own past

How was this first dictionary received?
The first edition was accused of being an amateur and imaginative work. Some academics said that a dictionary like this can only be produced by specialists. But afterwards the book had a brilliant trajectory. Shortly before dying, [the lexicologist, diplomat, and literary critic] Antônio Houaiss (1915–1999)] called me, asking if he could include 250 etymological hypotheses I’d formulated into his Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa, which was published in 2001. By that time, I had a respectful relationship with Houaiss, who in 1987 had written a preface for my book of short stories, Casos crioulos [Creole cases].

Did this experience motivate you to continue writing dictionaries?
After the Dicionário banto do Brasil, I came up with the idea of producing another, multidisciplinary book, on the presence of Africans in Brazil and the Americas. Then, in 2004, I published the Enciclopédia brasileira da diáspora africana [The Brazilian encyclopedia of the African diaspora], with about 9,000 entries containing information related to the cultural heritage from the African world. The book addresses a variety of topics, including personal biographies, clothing, historical and contemporary events, geographic features, flora and fauna, parties and entertainment, professions, and activities. In the 2000s, I still didn’t have the respectability that I ended up gaining as an Africanist, so the project was delivered to a specialized publishing company. With the pretext of copyediting my research, they modified the information, which created a lot of tension. After a few clashes, we managed to set things straight and the book was finally published. But works like dictionaries require constant updates and new editions, which I still haven’t been able to do with this encyclopedia. Even so, I keep filing information so that I can work on an updated edition in the future. The encyclopedia is 800 pages long and is an expensive book. After publishing it, I realized that I had to produce a more accessible version, and proposed to the publisher that we develop the Dicionário escolar afro-brasileiro [Afro-Brazilian scholastic dictionary] to reach a student audience. In this new work, published in 2006, I left out some entries and included others more in keeping with the new audience. Other dictionaries I’ve done and which I like a lot are the Dicionário literário afro-brasileiro [Afro-Brazilian literary dictionary], in 2007, and the Dicionário da hinterlândia carioca [Dictionary of the Rio de Janeiro hinterlands], in 2012. “Hinterland” is a term used to define isolated locations and this book addresses definitions related to the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro.

In your dictionaries on African history, you include unusual entries such as “illiteracy,” “sports aptitude in blacks,” or even “Mário de Andrade,” alongside predictable entries such as “Africanism” and “aggregates.” Why?
I think my sensibilities, coupled with my personal life experience allows me to establish these seemingly unusual relationships. I have the privilege of experiencing a long life and moving through a variety of environments. For more than 30 years, I’ve experienced the daily life of the samba schools. In addition to the recording industry and intellectual and literary circles, I move through the worlds of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban religions. These multifaceted and diverse experiences expand my repertoire beyond the exclusively theoretical and enable me to establish nonobvious relationships between certain subjects and definitions. For example, I’ve included the words “racism” and “sexism” in the Dicionário da história social do samba, as I know that these terms are relevant within the context of the book, although people don’t imagine they would find them in such a work. At the same time, the book contains entries on the “jogo do bicho” [a famous illegal lottery] and the “indústria fonográfica” [recording industry], which have a more direct relationship with the world of samba. It appears to me that this dictionary won the Jabuti prize precisely because it connects this type of more obvious information about samba with less common approaches.

Personal archive
Rio, November 18, 1997
My dearest Nei Lopes,

Allow me to express my warmest thanks for the copy you gave me of your Bantu dictionary of Brazil, which is a remarkable step forward in the lexicographical research of the Africanisms in use among us. It will always be consulted by the team that collaborates with me in developing the great dictionary. We are on Viúva Lacerda Street, 112, in Humaitá, where you will be welcome whenever you come, and where I hope to give you a hug of appreciation and maybe get a second copy of the dictionary from you. Again, my congratulations and thanks to you, your enthusiastic fan and colleague,

Antônio Houaiss

What is the historiographic purpose of the Dicionário da história social do samba?
Before samba became popular in Rio de Janeiro in the early years of the twentieth century, it was practiced in different ways in different regions of Brazil. These various strands came together to generate the kind of samba that we know as “samba carioca” [samba from Rio] and that gained the status of a national popular genre. In the book, we tried to show how this samba was created through a process that involved the practice of the musical genre in distinct regions throughout the country, deconstructing the idea that it was conceived in the city of Rio, with the emergence of the first samba schools in the 1920s. The world of samba appears even in literary records. Euclides da Cunha [1866–1909], in Os sertões, published in 1902 [and in English translation as Rebellion in the Backlands in 1957], describes situations in which samba was present during the War of Canudos, for example. Aluisio Azevedo [1857–1913] in O cortiço [The slum], from 1890, also has such descriptions. In Africa, samba already existed long before. In the dictionaries of Kikongo, the language of Angola, the word “samba” is defined as a musical form. That’s why I think it’s a mistake to think that everything started in Rio, with the emergence of the samba schools.

Did you work alone in developing the dictionaries?
In the beginning, I produced my works independently, without the support of teams or partners. I never had the funding sources to produce them, but I wish I had. The method has been to develop the dictionary, and then introduce it to the publishers. To write the first one, the Dicionário banto do Brasil, I received practical assistance from the State University of Rio de Janeiro [UERJ], which is close to the house I used to live in, in the neighborhood of Vila Isabel. At that time, I didn’t use a computer, and a friend who was the associate dean was able to get university employees to help me to digitize the researched material. However, during the process of preparing the Dicionário da história social do samba, I realized that it was necessary to divide up the tasks, because making dictionaries is difficult work. I’m 76 years old and can’t expect to publish books posthumously. I invited Luiz Antonio Simas, a historian and professor, to work with me on the project. In 2011, when I published the Dicionário da antiguidade africana [Dictionary of ancient Africa], I had the idea of developing a dictionary of Africa’s history that focused on the most critical and important period for Afro-Brazilians, i.e., the era of slavery and the Atlantic traffic that began in the seventeenth century. However, I realized that in order to arrive at this period, it was necessary, first, to address the prior era in order to illustrate the great civilizations and empires that existed in Africa from the seventh through sixteenth centuries. To do this, I looked for a partner, the historian José Rivair Macedo, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. Together, we developed the Dicionário de história da África – séculos VII a XVI [Dictionary of African history: The seventh through sixteenth centuries]. Macedo was so pleased with the result that he proposed to UFRGS that they give me an honorary doctorate, which took place in late 2017.

How do you conduct the research that results in the dictionaries? Where does your linguistic knowledge come from?
I consider myself a bibliomaniac. For example, the research done to write and later to revise the Dicionário banto do Brasil involved consulting the bibliographies of works in my collection, as well as talking with people who knew the Bantu languages and dialects, studying traditional songs, consulting lexicons, glossaries, and other dictionaries, and paying attention to people talking in the hills, ritual spaces, bars, and suburban trains. It’s a hybrid kind of research work. My library is disorganized and nothing has been cataloged yet. I often find books I didn’t even remember having. My collection is the result of a directed interest in Africa. And I don’t stray from that path. Often, I feel like studying other subjects, but I soon give it up, because I know that I need to concentrate on this enormous subject.

Addressing the history of the African continent from the standpoint of slavery pushes young audiences away

How would you assess the way the history of Africa is taught in Brazilian schools?
Teaching classes on Africa to Afro-descendant students is usually bad, because no one’s interested. Curricula normally approach the subject starting with slavery, based on the assumption that our ancestors were all slaves. This bothers the teen audience a lot. Three months ago I gave a lecture about Africa at a public school on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. I was worried about the way those students, who have a lower degree of educational development, would receive my speech. So I organized the lecture in such a way as to raise the students’ self-esteem, showing that we are not inferior to other peoples, and have an ancestral history prior to slavery. In our teachings on Africa, it’s necessary to decolonize Brazilian thinking, making it evident how the great European nations plundered the African continent, and that the reality of Africa today is the result of these actions. Until now, the discussion around the valorization of black identity is almost always restricted to closed circuits, in academic theses or activist settings. I still don’t see this discussion becoming popular, and I think that classes focused on valuing the self-esteem of the black population could help push things in this direction.

What would be the most appropriate term to define the Afro-descendant population in Brazil?
In the 1980s there wasn’t any clarity on this subject and the word “black” was considered pejorative. However, the black movement decided that it was adequate to encompass the broad world of Afro-descendants in Brazil, regardless of the tonality of their skin. Even the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, IBGE, adopts the “pretos” [blacks] and “pardos” [brown-skinned, mixed Afro-descendant] subdivisions, which may facilitate the creation of specific public policies for this segment of the population. According to the definition I use, a black person is any African descendant who assumes himself as such, or who has some conspicuous identifying feature. I, for example, have lighter skin than average for a black man, but my family is obviously Afro-descendant by our skin color. In the United States and Cuba, for example, the definition comes from the origin, in other words, “Afro-Cuban” or “Afro-American,” but this is more difficult to put into practice in Brazil.

What project are you currently working on?
I’m developing the third dictionary on African history, focusing on the period of slavery. After that’s finished, with Luiz Antonio Simas, a dictionary about black religion in the Americas, and that will be the end of my dictionaries phase. I want to dedicate myself more intensely to fiction, an avenue of my work that’s gaining attention. The visibility is deserved, because I also give black people a voice through my literature. In Brazilian literary historiography, there are few cases of black protagonists and, in my books, the protagonism is found not only in an isolated character, but with a whole community. Such is the case in Rio Negro, 50, [Black Rio, ’50], which deals with life in the city during the 1950s, or even in O preto que falava iídiche [The black guy who spoke Yiddish], which just came out. This latest book accompanies the main character’s journey through various parts of the world. He returns to Brazil during the Revolution of 1930, which suggests that there were black protagonists involved in this historical event. Of course it’s a literary invention, but the idea is there. The first books of fiction that I published had the world of samba as their main environment. I now have a novel ready about the Baixada Fluminense [an area of Rio], where I’ve lived for ten years. I lived in the suburbs of Rio all my life, and after moving to Seropédica, about 60 kilometers from the city, I began to get a better view of how our government treats the peripheral districts. The novel is titled Agora serve o coração [Now serves the heart] and tells an amazing story of crime, drugs, corruption, and politics, also addressing the issue of neo-charismatic evangelicals. In addition to the fiction, I’m providing a consulting service to the drama division of a television network, which wants to change its approach to subjects such as black identity and the issue of the urban peripheries. It’s refreshing to see my work getting recognized, also, in other areas.

Personal archive Nei Lopes receives an honorary doctorate from the dean of UFRGSPersonal archive

What is the definition of Afro-descendant literature that you work with?
I define Afro-descendant literature as that which has Afro-descendant characters as protagonists. But there are people who claim other meanings for this literary genre. For example, in Haiti, at the beginning of the twentieth century a generation of writers appeared who wrote in Haitian Creole. That is, authors who used a kind of local dialect, normally only spoken, to make written literature. In Brazil it’s different, you wouldn’t expect an Afro-descendant literature to be written in a specific idiom, because here everyone speaks Portuguese. In Brazil, the identity of Afro-Brazilian literature is constructed, essentially, according to the protagonism that the writers give to their black characters.

How has your profile as an independent researcher affected your career?
I graduated in law and was a lawyer for a short time, but I wasn’t a good student, nor a good lawyer. I am guided more by my sensibility than by theoretical training. My search for knowledge serves my wish to salvage the self-esteem of the public that matters to me, not to answer to the calling of certain intellectual trends. Being affiliated with current lines of theoretical thinking is important for anyone who wants to pursue an academic path. I’m pragmatic; I want to see the knowledge that I produce reach the audience I’m writing about. For example, in terms of African history, [diplomat and historian] Alberto da Costa e Silva, also an Africanist, is a great example to me. Due to his research, knowledge about the African continent spread throughout Brazil. But I have no theoretical affiliation with his thinking. In the mid-1930s, both in Brazil and Cuba, there was a period in African studies that was marked by the figure of the folklorist or the ethnologist. Belonging to patriarchal families, their interest in Africa was awakened by their contact with the employees who worked in their homes. Such was the case with [sociologist and historian] Gilberto Freyre [1900–1987] and Cuban anthropologist and writer Lydia Cabrera [1899–1991]. The profile of this type of scholar is different from the intellectual who approaches subjects related to black identity because they’re an activist for the cause. I consider myself an activist, not a traditional activist, but still an activist, although I’m not affiliated with any organizations, as was the case in the 1980s, when political parties had core groups that advocated issues impacting the black populace.

How do your different lines of creative work feed off each other?
The fiction, the dictionaries, and the music composition converge on the same path. At the beginning of my career as a composer, I wrote song lyrics that also had the aim of spreading the culture of African heritage, but the market doesn’t always accept this kind of work. So sometimes I have to go for more commercial productions. When I can include questions about black identity in my music, I look to my books for support. At the same time, my fiction feeds on my life in the world of music and samba. Before, I used to say that the one who paid the bills at the writer’s house was the samba composer. Now, the two sides are balanced.