Tinhorão, the explorer

Image: Adir Sodré


Commentary on the work of the critic and historian of Brazilian popular music José Ramos Tinhorão.

Since his first books in the 1960s, José Ramos Tinhorão has conquered a place in the sun in studies of our popular music: a place marked by controversy, extreme positions, the virulence of formulations. He abhorred bossa nova, for example, and wrote an entire book to denounce the “farce” of its penetration abroad – when, thanks to the distortion of ears by Americanization, he said, he only found fans in Brazil. However, little by little he would earn his laurels, that is, respect for his dedication to research, raising him to a level where he would become unbeatable.

Having traveled, always in search of documentation, the era of the radio, the gramophone, the theater, the cinema, the theme of women, blacks in Portugal and Brazil, the Indians, the Lusitanian origins of urban song, the fado, the modinha, instruments and instrumentalists, the serial, in reports that spanned over twenty books, embarked on new adventures. In the space of two years, he has provided us with no less than five volumes, four of which are new and a reprint, the fruit of his tireless investigations.

Leading the young The carnival press in Brazil – An overview of comic language (Hedra) reviews in the first part studies by other authors, especially Bakhtin, on jokes, whether oral or written. The second part focuses on journals, highlighting beanbags, or jokes in verses typical of that vehicle. It was Eneida de Moraes, in the monumental History of the Carioca Carnival (1958), who discovered the mine of newspapers devoted to carnival, who researched extensively, transcribing hitherto unknown beanbags.

The volume brings a third part, containing reviews of more than two hundred newspapers (1830-1959), with good yields. A pity that the author does not follow the practice of consigning the files where he found them, which he does only sporadically. As some are only mentioned through citations in other publications, the reader is not sure what to stick to. Tinhorão ends up proposing the carnival press as “Brazilian originality” – and, incidentally, his present work as well –, that is, something that never happened in other countries. Not even in Venice, Nice, Munich and New Orleans, world capitals of carnival?

It is very different Festivities in colonial Brazil (Editora 34), for which the author will probe the Jesuit correspondence, the chroniclers and travelers, the processes of the Inquisition, the poetry of Gregório de Matos that underpins a large portion of the book, the relations of festivities, the royal orders, the chilean letters, the string leaflets. Moving from devout revelry to medieval merriment, such as cavalhada and theatrical processions, and from there to the baroque triumph of dynastic ephemeris, it shows how all of this would be channeled into popular street festivities that would lead to Shrovetide and Carnival, overcoming official control of the Church and State, according to Tinhorão. But the music of three centuries, as the author rightly regrets, was lost, surviving only the religious and erudite, noted in scores. And the sound of all those parties could never be reconstructed.

As usual in the researcher's work, dislodging the object from its context offers unexpected benefits. This is how a reading of Caminha's letter detects jokes in two passages, which first show the Indians in ciranda and then sailors entering the circle with harmonica and tambourine, adding foreign sounds and teaching the natives new steps. Furthermore, it is a symbolic moment, illustrating the process of fusion or hybridity that would mark our creations in this sector.

Breathtaking project unfolds in the three volumes of Popular music in the Brazilian novel (Publisher 34). Informing in the presentation that he had read five thousand works, having looked for first editions and rarities, the author declares that he was not concerned with the aesthetic quality of the texts. There is a basic conclusion, which seems to guide the work: that writers, because they belong to the middle class, would have a degrading vision of music and popular culture, of foreigners, stereotyped by the search for exoticism. The bourgeois literary heritage arising from Romanticism would aggravate the picture, camouflaging the conflicts of capital under the appearance of questions of love.

The first volume begins by dealing with the pilgrim from america and the anathema with which he fulminates the amusements of the plebs. After the twelve pages devoted to the eighteenth century, the next century will occupy the remaining two hundred pages. Returning at the beginning to the romantics, with whom he reveals no affinity, the author will then move on to realism, which, naturally, receives his approval. He examines prominent authors separately, collectively adding historical, costume, and naturalistic fiction.

It begins with Teixeira e Sousa and the wild intrigues of the fisherman's son (1843), which he considers to be terrible and moralistic, in addition to not deepening the contradictions. On the other hand, it is great for portraying a domestic soirée in which modinha is sung, also marking the novelty of the ball at a family home. Another book by the same author, a weak artist but a good observer, would mark the advent of serenades and their function in the social life of the city.

In Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, supplier of lyrics for ballads and other pieces printed in contemporary songbooks, he would discover the quintessential chronicler of fluminense pastimes, especially musical ones, ranging from ballroom dancing such as the waltz and the square dance to various types of gatherings.

With Memorias de um sargento de milicias he is enchanted – like everyone else, by the way – due to the vivid recreation of plebeian environments in the king's time and the valuable descriptions of family parties, singing, challenges, fados (Brazilian style, not Portuguese), improvised farranchos.

He arrives at Alencar and Machado, who, unlike the previous ones, would turn their backs on the less favored strata, portraying the bourgeois salons and their music imported from Europe. According to Tinhorão, Alencar is not suitable for documenting popular culture or its music. But not for anything else either, as it represents the old slaveholding landlord who stood up against the layers of the more modern bourgeoisie that were emerging in the cities. The researcher does not forgive him, although he registers his criticisms of the novelty of immoderation in greed and the cult of enrichment, even pleasant oddities going on the account of the antipathy that Romanticism had for industrial capitalism...

As for Luis Guimarães Júnior, the novelty of triangulation brings revealing results. Just one example: the famous waltz scene in Lady, by Alencar, is five years after the one that was burlesquely set up in The Needle Family, which constitutes a kind of preview parody without missing a detail – the entwined couple, the foliage through which it passes, the vertigo of the lady, the metaphor of vicarious copulation in the progress of the gyrations that go on in a crescendo, until the delirium.

He considers Machado a great writer, with the ability, thanks to the cultivation of a psychological bias, to refrain from taking sides in what he narrates. But he points out that he has also evaded a democratic compromise. All of Machado de Assis's novels, although the collection here is meager, receives the same number of pages as The Needle Family. Justified by being restricted to the novel, it wastes the writer's richest notes on the subject, which are found in the short stories, where there are some findings. “A famous man” puts on stage an unfortunate composer of polkas that the whole city sang, when what he aspired to do was compose pieces for a concert. “The machete” – recovered by John Gledson in an anthology – revolves around the prestige of this instrument, capable even of breaking up marriages, in the most modest environments. The protagonist of “Terpsichore”, a carpenter, marries a woman who indulges in prancing – he met her at the cadence of the polka – and, after winning the lottery, offers a pagoda, with good descriptions of these moves. A classical music aficionado, as is well known, the writer did not close his eyes and ears to what was happening in other sectors.

Adding the remainder of this and the two other volumes results in a less precise organization, with fluctuating criteria. A chapter on historical fiction and customs reveals precious sources for different social instances, some containing scenes of slavery, perfecting the pejorative staging of batuques. Another on the naturalists, in addition to Raul Pompeia, who mentions but does not comment, scrutinizes good veins in a florilegium of smaller authors, in a single extensive chapter. And the regional prism will predominate in the second volume, which, apart from separate chapters for Lima Barreto and for certain groups – the “scandal novels of the 1920s”, those of the “era of jazz band”, those from the “country of carnival” –, divides the books into Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, etc.

Going forward in time, the first part of the third volume outlines panoramas of prose from the mid-XNUMXth century onwards in three locations: São Paulo again, but now closer to us in time; the one that has Rio as its setting (depending on whether the authors are from Rio de Janeiro or migrated from other regions); and that of José Condé, whose stage is Caruaru. A second part submits popular music to scrutiny when, more ingrained in fiction, it becomes character and sound, appearing as fragments of the score embedded in the text, as a title or as an incorporation of extras and typical environments. After all, the harvest is plentiful and, without this much-needed work, which considerably expands the field of expertise, it would be difficult to assess how much there is on the subject in our fiction.

From reading these books, apart from so much richness, one gets the impression that they suffer from the fundamentalism of nation and people, which already marked the author's previous production. Aside from that, we have to rely on two choruses. The first is the claim to primacy or originality. The second is the denunciation of the criticism's ignorance, knowing that by “criticism” the author refers, with rare exceptions, to manuals. There are several books that fill in the gaps he accuses, such as on Macedo and on feuilleton, analyzed in Formation of Brazilian Literature, by Antonio Candido, to name just one. And Flora Süssekind boasted The Needle Family in the extensive study that presents the 1987 reissue.

As for the specifically literary aspect, the truism once again appears that the worst literature, as it is immune to aesthetic transfiguration – as is the case with most of the works analyzed in detail by Tinhorão, and with benefit for its theme – is the one that provides the best document.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is professor emeritus at FFLCH at USP. Author, among other books, of deconversation (publisher UFRJ).

Originally published in the book Shadows & Sounds

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