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Songs that go on for ever

The tango, the bolero and the fado remain alive thanks to electronic media

GUILHERME LEPCAIn the past, there were the 78 rpm record and the radio; then vinyl; and today, the CD and MP3. The medium may change, but certain songs, though old, remain. These include Carinhoso, by Pixinguinha, I’ve got you under my skin, by Cole Porter, or Por una cabeza, by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera. Music genres that were forgotten for decades have come back, such as the tango. Furthermore, certain interpretations, though connected to a specific time, will always be remembered. Might there be one or several shared traits that ensure their survival?

Over ten years ago, with this far from simple question and a vast musical territory to cover, Heloísa de Araújo Duarte Valente began a broad multidisciplinary research project that resulted in a doctoral thesis and a post-doctorate, besides giving rise to articles, books and a documentary. It now involves other researchers, with support provided by FAPESP (Young Researcher Grant) and by CNPq. “There are songs that refuse to die”, she says. Her project A canção das mídias: memorial e nomadismo [The song of the media: memory and nomadism], its current name, is being conducted at the Musimid center, which is part of the Music Department at the School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo.

And what might a “song of the media” be? This is the concept that Heloísa Valente resorts to in order to define a type of song that is different from all the others that preceded it because it dictates different circumstances of hearing and performance. It may seem obvious, because it is the song we know. However, this type of song is recent, if one recalls that radio and phonographic recordings are only about one century old. “The song is the musical genre most often found in the media, ever since the latter came into being; and the presence of songs is increasing.  Songs from the media can be what one calls ‘urban popular music’, but it also includes, for example, opera arias and even traditional songs”, explains the researcher. For the study, three “nomadic” genres (i.e., genres that penetrated different cultures) were selected: the tango, the fado and the bolero. The approach employed ranged from musicology and anthropology to history and semiotics.

In over a decade of documentation and analysis of collected material, the project ‘The song of the media’ has found some answers. The first is that yes, there is a musical structure that favors permanence. “Songs with greater complexity often allow arrangers, musicians and singers to make changes, ranging from the most subtle to the most drastic”, explains the researcher. In other words, the more elaborate the song, the more it can be renewed. According to her, this complexity is found in elements such as harmonic density, melodic profile, rhythmic formulation and other elements of musical form.

Nevertheless, not only the more musically complex works survive. Another important factor is the very success of the song at a given period of time. It may come back again long after, in a new manner and often in other countries. “The hit parade ‘fads’ mean that the songs that are successful in a given genre become known in others”, says Heloísa Valente. One such example is the samba Vingança, by Lupicínio Rodrigues, which became Venganza in tango form, reworked in keeping with the taste of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Caminhemos, by Herivelto Martins, was also a hit parade success in its Hispanic version, Caminemos, performed by Trio Los Panchos. “Success is the reason behind the creation of new versions”, reiterates the researcher. Today, it is common for songs to reappear in techno format, the current style. In the genres she studies, she found not only the electrotango, but also the electronic fado, in which the source recordings are manipulated electro-acoustically.

The survival of songs may also result from a trait that the researcher called “performance authority”. In other words, there are singers or, less often, composers and writers of the words who become famous thanks to certain hits and this combination of performer plus song furthers its presence in the sound landscape. Emoções, by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, is one such example. It is in this category that she also includes performers and songs such as Frank Sinatra and I’ve got you under my skin, Yves Montand and Feuilles mortes, Nat King Cole and Stardust. They established themselves as standards underscored by the voices of those who performed them.

Songs also stick in the mind of a larger or smaller community because of their symbolic links, as the musicologist explains. In Portugal, Grândola, vila morena, a traditional song composed and sung by Zeca Afonso, was the password for the startup of the Carnation Revolution in 1975. In Brazil, O bêbado e o equilibrista, by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc, as sung by Elis Regina, established itself as the symbol of political détente in the early 1980s. Soon thereafter, Coração de estudante, by Milton Nascimento, became associated with the Diretas-já [Elections now] campaign, with Tancredo Neves [president-elect of Brazil who died before taking office] and with Brazil’s return to democracy. “In these cases there are memorable events of sociocultural origin that end up transforming these works into ‘places of memory’, in the sense advocated by the historian Pierre Nora. In one way or another, they have become history. In most cases, the connection lies directly in the words of the song, in the message that it conveys”, she adds. Finally, calendar and festive rituals also have their own repertoire that crosses generations: Holy night, by Gruber, and Máscara negra, by Zé Ketti, connected with Christmas and Carnival, being linked to Christmas and Carnival respectively.

GUILHERME LEPCAThere is still much to study, says Heloísa Valente, who has centered the research mainly on the tango and the fado. As a result, she published As vozes da canção na mídia [The voices of songs in the media] (Via Lettera/Fapesp, 2003), edited Música e mídia: novas abordagens sobre a canção [Music and media: new approaches to the song] (Via Lettera; Fapesp, 2007), Canção d’Além-mar: o fado e a cidade de Santos [Song from overseas:  fado and the city of Santos ] (Realejo/ CNPq, 2008); Canção d’Além-mar: o fado na cidade de Santos: sua gente, seus lugares [Song from overseas:  fado in the city of Santos : its people, its places] (Realejo/ FAPESP, 2009) and produced the documentary Canção d’Além-mar: o fado na cidade de Santos, pela voz de seus protagonistas [Song from overseas:  fado in the city of Santos , through the voice of its protagonists] (2008). She is in the final stages of preparing Donde estás, corazón? O tango no Brasil, o tango do Brasil [Where are you, heart? The tango in Brazil, the tango of Brazil]. Of the three genres, the bolero is the one where the survey and analysis still require further work.

The study of the three genres based on their “nomadic” nature – a concept based on Paul Zunthor (1915-1995), a Swiss scholar who produced important works on this theme – is one of the major challenges in the current phase of the research. Each genre “travels” and takes on new features, sometimes different and simultaneous styles. For instance, the tango, the origin of which is still unclear despite the efforts of the many people who have studied it, contains elements of the Cuban habanera and of flamenco, blended with the tradition of the gaucho payadores [singing poets]. It is a genre typical of a specific Argentine region, the estuary of the River Plate, the area between Montevideo and Buenos Aires. In the early years of the twentieth century, it became popular  in Europe, entering by way of Paris. Thus, Argentine musicians travelled to Paris to record their tunes and to tour the neighboring cities with their music and dance. The bands dressed up in gaucho gear and gave Spanish titles to the compositions. Soon the tango started being written with words in the local language, such as French, German and Greek.

From the 1930’s to the 1940’s, the big bands achieved hits with a new type of tango. The style of singing and dancing changed, with modern or hybrid arrangements. Hollywood films that showed the tango contributed to the dissemination of a stereotyped view of it as passionate, sensual and extravagant music. At the same time, under German influence, the tango of Europe acquired the rhythm of a march, without the so-called tempi rubati , and brass instruments were added, producing a sound very reminiscent of a military band. This influence eventually spread to all the Berlin cabarets: this is what one sees in Josef von Sternberg’s classic, The Blue Angel. From Europe, it crossed over to North America and the Far East.

In Brazil, the tango arrived in the 1920’s, as Heloísa Valente explains. It appeared in its original version or in a local one, the words translated into Portuguese, sung by Brazilians and by Spanish speakers. In some cases, Brazilians wrote the words and the tunes in keeping with the signature style of the Buenos Aires tango. There is, however, a tango variation that appeared in Brazil and that developed further, according to the researcher: it was influenced by the habanera, which, in turn, blended with the polka and the lundu. Some say that the Brazilian tango and the maxixe [a type of Brazilian dance] designate the same musical genre, the word “tango” being used to attenuate the lascivious tone of the maxixe. One of its main researchers, however, the musicologist Luiz Heitor Correia de Azevedo, author of the classic 150 anos de música no Brasil (1800-1950) [150 years of music in Brazil (1800-1950)] wrote that the maxixe is not a musical genre, but a type of choreography.

In its Brazilian origins, the first tango was Olhos matadores (1871), by Henrique Alves de Mesquita, according to the researcher and composer Bruno Kiefer, author of Música e dança popular: sua influência na música erudita [Popular dance and music: its influence upon erudite music]. During that very same decade, Chiquinha Gonzaga created several highly successful Brazilian tangos. “These data prove that the Brazilian tango precedes the Argentine one – which implies the existence not of the tango, but of tangos. In any event, the Brazilian tango is associated with an instrumental genre and with the person of Ernesto Nazareth. Even though he was not directly responsible for its establishment, he consolidated the genre, leaving countless definitive piano works”, explains Heloísa Valente.

Fado is yet another genre with a strong “nomadic” characteristic. Though it is currently the visiting card of Lisbon when it comes to sound, it was born in Brazil, according to José Ramos Tinhorão, the author of several works on Brazilian popular music that have become classics. In his Fado: dança do Brasil, cantar de Lisboa [Fado: Brazilian dance, Lisbon song], he states that the genre first arose here, among the large population of Portuguese immigrants, and then put down roots in Portugal, with different features. However, it had to return to Brazil to become popular in global terms. Amália Rodrigues, the first lady of the fado, recorded for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, in 1945.

Santos was the city that this aspect of the project “The songs of the media” focused on, because it is the one that is home, proportionally speaking, to the largest number of Portuguese immigrants in the country and it is where fado, to this day, is strong. Thus, one has “pure fado” that is incessantly recomposed by the inclusion of new words, new ways of performing it – the “styling” of  fado writers-singers, the improvisations, and the circumstances surrounding live performances. In her study, the researcher investigated how fado gave rise to several ramifications –  fado mix,  working-class fado,  song-fado – creating new audiences, new arrangements and new themes.

The immigrant fado, however, has a different life, as the musicologist explains: among most of the Portuguese community in Santos and in other parts of Brazil, fado continued being heard and performed as a link with the home country. “This nomadic song established an imaginary bridge linking the Portuguese immigrants to their home country”, states Heloísa Valente.

Thus, fado survives thanks to factors of emotive, memorialistic and intellectual order. This permanence is also tied to the type of experience of its audience in the place in which it finds itself. “The reception of the immigrant, at least up to pre-Internet times, was different. For these communities, fado, like other genres, is experienced, recalled, reconstituted, the more traditional versions being their reference”, states the researcher. The most surprising thing is that the phonographic recordings have become a sort of “score to be read through careful listening.”

The importance of media such as the shortwave radio, the record and the cinema for the consolidation of the genre can also be seen in the history of the bolero in Brazil. Although born in Cuba, it became known as a romantic Mexican song, where it evolved mainly into the ranchera variant, close to Mexico’s folkloric traditions. It became very successful as from the 1920s, Augustín Lara (1897-1970) being the first Mexican artist to perform in Brazil. Jairo Severiano, author of important works on the history of Brazilian popular music, such as the tomes of A canção no tempo [Song over time], states that this triggered a period of Mexicanization of the Brazilian culture. “We still have to advance in the study of the bolero; this is the new phase of our research”, says Heloísa Valente.

The project
Songs of the media (nº 2006/60786-4); Type Young Researcher Grant; Coordinator Heloísa de Araújo Valente – USP; Investment R$ 178,876.80 (FAPESP)