Nationalism, Identity, Music

Nationalism, identity, music—these are the issues I am grappling with right now as I write the third chapter of my book on the formation of Brazilian national identity since the 1930s.  How these themes were driven home to me today!

This afternoon, as I was on my usual daily schedule—sitting in a coffee shop reading before I headed to my apartment to write some more—a song came on that yanked me back into the past and forced me to consider my own national identity.  As I sat there reading about Brazilian popular music in the mid-twentieth century, Cat Stevens (who evolved into Yusuf Islam) began to sing “Father and Son”.  A flood of emotions came over me as was transported back to another time and place.

In the fall of 1971, as a freshman at the University of Kansas I discovered this song on the Tea for the Tillerman album (a spectacularly brilliant group of songs).  As an 18-year-old who had just left home (in Houston) for good, the song resonated powerfully with me.  It is one of those songs that mark one’s youth (full of existential angst, anti-authoritarianism, and the desire to strike out on one’s own) the way the same song would never affect someone hearing it for the first time at, say, age 57!  As I sat there awash in emotions associated with my undergraduate life, the tumult of America in the late sixties and early seventies, and setting out on one’s own, the suddenness of the emotions compelled me to reflect on my own sense of national identity.

It reminded me of an even more vivid musical memory—in early 1974 in San José, Costa Rica.  In February 1973 I went off to Costa Rica as an exchange student at the Universidad de Costa Rica.  In December, when the rest of the group went back to the U.S., I decided to stay for another semester, until June 1974.  In the early months of 1974 (the break between the end of one academic year in Costa Rica and the beginning of the next in March), I was living with a Costa Rican family, traveling around the country, and writing what would become a senior thesis.  I often took long walks on the streets of downtown San José exploring the city.  Late one night as I wandered through the heart of the city I heard compelling familiar music and began to gravitate towards it.  As I got closer to the source (a fairly raucous party), I realized I was hearing the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick belt out “White Rabbit”.  Mesmerized, I stood in the street as my mind raced through the powerful images and emotions of a 21-year-old remembering a tumultuous decade of drugs, hippies, race riots, civil rights, assassinations, and the War in Vietnam.  For me, perhaps no other song from the sixties can quite compare with “White Rabbit” for conveying the hallucinatory craziness of the decade.

After living in Costa Rica for nearly a year, reaching a very high level of fluency in Spanish, coming to empathize with and understand Spanish American culture as well as I probably ever will, and growing ever more frustrated with the incredibly destructive actions of the United States in Latin America . . . that song brought me up short and reminded me that no matter how much I traveled, learned other languages, or deplored some of the actions of my own government, I was deeply, profoundly an American.  Like the vast majority of the people in the world, I have been shaped powerfully by the influences of my youth, influences one can never–should never—escape.  (Rarely, can one ever completely transform oneself and “go native” in another culture, never to return to one’s roots.)

I have been coming to Brazil for thirty years now, and my moments in Brazil have been marked by the popular music of the moment.  The incredibly rich music of Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, and Elis Regina (to name a few examples) helped define my first experience in Brazil in 1979-80 just as much as the political transition from dictatorship to democracy and the rising economic crisis.  Just as Cat Stevens and Grace Slick (among others) mark my coming of age in the U.S. in the late sixties and early seventies, these Brazilian artists defined my coming of age as a Brazilianist in the late seventies and early eighties.

Cat Stevens, Grace Slick, and the incomparable Elis Regina remind me of how powerfully popular music can convey the essence of historical moments and national identity—whether the 1960s in the United States, or the 1970s in Brazil.  We associate music with moments and moods that often stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Popular music both shapes and is shaped by the historical moment.  It helps create and convey the essence of national identity.  In my case, it reminds me that I am an American, and at the same time, that I am a Brazilianist, and not a Brazilian.


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