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The nostalgic Bossa Nova

A wave of nostalgia about Rio de Janeiro, which should increase with the Pan 2007 Games, idealizes an era

NEGREIROSSomething uncommon caught the attention of the more attentive viewers during the last  8 o’clock Rede Globo soap opera entitled Pages of Life, exhibited until the first week of March. Running contrary to the films and TV programs that focus on the misery and criminal world of Rio de Janeiro, the author Manoel Carlos preferred to centralize his story on the universe of the middle classes in districts such as Leblon and Ipanema. To the sound of Wave, a classic by Tom Jobim, recorded by the composer himself for the first time in 1967 on a record of the same name, the teledrama left out the Rio shanty towns in order to, it seems, rescue a little of the magic of a Rio that goes back almost five decades to the period before the military takeover of 1964, when the Bossa Nova became the historic music of an era of development, unleashed by president Juscelino Kubitschek (1902-1976).

Among the multiple possibilities of an interpretation of the soap opera objective, one can make a verification: the desire to rescue a past that appears glorious, as against a city trapped by generalized violence and by the incapacity of the State to combat drug trafficking. A trend that should gain force during the second semester of this year with the realization of the Pan-American Games of Rio de Janeiro. The phenomenon has intensified itself over the past two years, with the launch of books, CDs and DVDs. If before the Bossa Nova was seen as a typical genre of Rio de Janeiro middle class, with penetration into some other capitals, it has invaded the electronic music and even gained  unusual dress.

In the internet shops there exist around two hundred of these products for sale related to the genre. There is everything, for all tastes, principally collectors and “re-readers”: Zelia Duncan – Pre-post-all-Bossa-Band; Jazz Moment: Bossa Nova; Clara Moreno – Dark Bossa Nova; Quincy Jones – Big Band Bossa Nova; Bossa Nova – It’s history, it’s people; Bossa Nova for lovers; MPB Bossa Nova and songs; Listen, play and sing Bossa Nova and the series Bossa Nova Lounge (five volumes), Purée Bossa Nova (twelve volumes) and MPBaby Bossa Nova (five CDs). Among the extravagant, Koi – Sushi and Bossa, described as a “delicious mix of distinct cultures in the form of music”; and the rocker Supla, with Bossa Furious – among the numbers, “Monkey Copacabana Beach Banana”.

In the book shops the latest thing was Rio Bossa Nova (Published by Casa da Palavra), by Ruy Castro, author of the “biography” of the movement, Chega de saudade [Stop Longing], from 1990, which accumulated 40,000 sold examples; and another two titles about Rio: A onda que se ergueu no mar [The wave that rose in the sea] and Ela é carioca  [She’s a Carioca] – all three published by the Companhia das Letras. But (it has been) the television media (that) has been the main vehicle diffuser of the nostalgia wave that has boomed forth the Bossa Nova time. In January of last year Rede Globo showed the series JK, in which the ex-president was shown as a mixture of predetermined hero and visionary statesman. A little before that Editora Globo had launched the book entitled JK: O presidente bossa-nova [JK: the Bossa Nova President], by Marleine Cohen. With an eye on market tendencies, the company Consul is wagering on the Bossa Nova Stove: “It’s beautiful, modern, resistant and easy to clean  All that you need!” This year, the 80th anniversary of the birth of Tom Jobim was celebrated with a Rede Globo special and a luxurious box with three DVDs.

Back in April of 2005 the magazine Veja had identified this trend with the cover story “Nostalgia of Rio…”, in which they had looked to highlight the vital importance of the city for the construction of a Brazilian identity and a better translation of the national soul – inside and outside of the country. The text brought up “five viable solutions for Rio de Janeiro to be reborn” and “the photos and stories of its glorious past”. “The reader will not find on the following pages streets closed through crossfire or images of chaos in the Rio hospitals. Principally, you will not read that Rio de Janeiro is a case without a solution”, wrote the reporter Lucila Soares.

Academics make different readings of this phenomenon starting from their personal observations and the angle of their specialty. “Independently from political motivations, one can count and recount the history of Brazil during the 1950s decade as perhaps the single period in which we had a chance of overcoming, once and for all, our condition of a peripheral country, miserable and dependent”, observed José Estevam Gava, author of A linguagem harmônica da bossa nova [The harmonic language of the Bossa Nova] (Unesp) and who, at the end of March, launched the book Momento bossa nova [Bossa Nova Moment] (Annablume) – in which he relates the story of the movement starting from the analysis of the weekly magazine O Cruzeiro, which circulated regularly between 1928 and 1975.

Author Gava affirms that after the fall of the dictatorship and successive “democratic” governments the situation has not changed. “On the contrary, the economy tends to remain stagnant and the social tragedy grows, being well represented by the worst indices of human development, out of control criminality and the depredation of the environment.” Within this far from animating context, he added, it becomes easy to understand the recent enchantment for a time in which it appears we had in our hands the conditions to make de facto changes to this so dark reality. “JK and the Bossa Nova were two essential pivots for this dream. Off went the dictatorship and also off went the great political ideals, but there remain these nostalgic constructions of a past in which everything appeared to be doing well.”

For Gava, the image that the media and certain authors create, even without being highly concerned with the rigor of historical research, is one of the ways of re-creating the past. “It’s the past transformed into a spectacle, rather romanticized, but which doesn’t stop functioning as a form of knowledge. Shocks between versions, in this aspect, are inevitable and evidently harmful to the dissemination of more ‘correct’ historical visions, but I don’t see how we can change this, or whether it’s necessary to change.” In his new book he deals precisely with this “Bossa Nova moment” and the way in which the music participated and dialogued with these movements that had happened, all of them concerned with a severe updating of the artistic forms.

Two questions appear very relevant for Marcos Corrêa, who has his master’s degree and is preparing his doctoral thesis in Multimedia at Unicamp entitled, The takeover discourse in Jean Manzon’s documentaries for the Ipes (1962/1963). First, as to the Brazil of that period, when the country had altered its economic structure with the participation of major multinational industries.
In a rough manner , he explained, one had been dealing with a process of insertion into world commerce whilst being a peripheral economy. Nevertheless, even on the margins of the major economic powers, the process ended up causing a certain fascination for the potentialities of growth – when the habitual political and economic difficulties had already been established: inflation, strikes, the questioning of institutional powers, the swelling of city populations, new political players etc. “In spite of this, it was during this period that we had the first moment of Republican history in which democracy had structured itself in a more effective manner.”

On the other hand, it has to do with the fact that all of these movements haunted  – without significantly threatening – the period’s political structures, since new economic interests such as the presence of international capital demanded that the State take unto itself the ordination of the country’s growth in benefit of its interests. It was with this perception that a movement of opposition to the economic and social policy adopted by Jango sprung up and that foretold his removal from the Presidency in 1961. “The dictatorship, which took exception to the ‘democratization’ of the previous period, was a significant landmark in our history. I believe that this certain ‘nostalgia’ that is observed could have its origin in this profound mark in our society that interrupted a democratization process whose consequences can never be evaluated.”

To this end, says the researcher, by treating the period in an “escapist” mode, the media is attempting to carry out a certain “settling of accounts” with the past, since during this phase its participation was significant enough to ratify the social and political interests that had been in play. “I like to think of the Globo television soap operas as part of the ‘good’ products in terms of production in our open television. Nevertheless, it is important to understand this as part of the grand spectacle that is the media in Brazil that even today is a major escape valve for the population with little access to culture and entertainment.”

Author of the master’s thesis entitled, The Wonder Years: the American identity in the televised media, Mírlei Valenzi agrees that there exists a certain nostalgic tendency of TV in relation to the Bossa Nova. “Television ends up camouflaging differences and conflicts in order to reconstruct a historical narrative that justifies the lived in reality and reinforces values considered essential in the constitution and in the preservation of a country’s cultural identity.” Thus, important or glorious historical facts are exalted because they function as symbols that mark a cultural tradition and create conditions of identification and pertinence for and between the subjects who live in a determined society.

In the same manner, underlines Mírlei, events that culminate in defeats or fiascos tend to be erased, silenced. In general, “phenomena” like this occur when society passes through moments of political turbulence. An example is the case of the impeachment of Fernando Collor de Mello and the revival of the student battles of the years 1960-70 put on the screen in the miniseries named Rebel Years. She does not consider this “looking into the past” as a form of escapism. “I think that this nostalgia demonstrates a search for important values, somewhat shaken in current society. ‘Looking into the past’ is neither something negative nor positive. It is an attempt to rescue traditions in order to (better?) understand the present and future.”

Gisele Almeida – a master in sociology from Unicamp, who defended her master’s thesis entitled, The hopes of the past – prefers the term nostalgia to the expression “escapism”. Nostalgia, in her evaluation, better adapts itself to this field of reflection which is linked to the study of social representations, in particular to collective memory. “Unless we understand escapism as that which escapes – in the socially marked out frameworks – or is lost by way of the process that ‘selects’ events and situations to be remembered or forgotten.”

In her opinion, it could be hastily said that, yes, there is a certain movement starting from what can be observed of the JK miniseries and the rescue of the Bossa Nova, which has rescued typical aspects of Brazilian social reality of the years 1950-60 until the period before the military takeover. Nevertheless, she said, this conclusion appears to be hasty if one does not observe more elements for discussion. “During the decade of the 1990’s we assisted a similar movement, but one which had exalted the years 1960-70, by way of the miniseries, also from Rede Globo, called Rebel Years, as well as other cultural products (books, films and music), the ‘revolutionary’ dimensions of the period in question.” The movement of clipping out and selecting from the past, therefore, is much more circular and subjective than the line of historical time, since the question invades the field of representation and symbolic imagination.

In Gisele’s evaluation, the soap opera entitled, Pages of Life, like other soap operas from Manoel Carlos, presents a Brazilian reality that is highly particular: that of the middle and upper classes, resident in the southern zone of Rio de Janeiro. Or that is to say, it is not only the iconographic images that are altered, artificially coloring the sky, sea and the lake, removing the shanty towns from the landscape. The image-ideas are also interfered with: the social and class conflicts disappear. Once in a while, she added, the social questions spring up as a denouncement of the “indignation of good citizens” or as a reflection of the “fight” for status of those who desire “to make up part of this social elite”, but that one way or the other were or are impeded. In this last case, the search for social ascension becomes madness/ illness or  personality disorder/exaggerated greed.

The so called JK years were always glamorous, since it was a moment  constructed with this mentality, starting from the posture of president Juscelino himself, according to Sheila Schvartzman, a social history professor at Unicamp and author of the book entitled, Humberto Mauro e as imagens do Brasil [Humberto Mauro and the images of Brazil] (Unesp). One looks towards this period because it was culturally good, had modernization, peace and prosperity – in spite of the takeover attempts. “Our time selects the facts through its very own needs, what will make sense, in order to forget the real and recover values.”

As a historian, Sheila accompanies the soap operas of the era and agrees with the film maker Jean-Luc Godard, when he says that, from the media’s point of view, history is an immense fun park. “We can note that each period takes on its own interpretation of the present, which brings on an artificial interpretation of the facts. If we were to be rigorous, we would see that every generation has its escapism. History has a movement: when bringing something in one manner, it makes that what had come before it be forgotten.” The historian does not view with concern the historical adaptations made for the TV. “The television and cinema require clichés for the necessity of fiction. Exactitude has its disadvantages and the media needs to have a spectacular tastiness in order to function.”