The New York Times ran a story today about a recording trip launched by the Brazilian Minister of Culture in 1938. The Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas (or Folklore Research Mission) travelled into rural areas of the Brazilian northeast and its
intention was to record as much music as possible as quickly as possible, before encroaching influences like radio and cinema began transforming the region’s distinctive culture. Traveling by truck, horse and donkey, they recorded whoever and whatever seemed to be interesting: piano carriers, cowboys, beggars, voodoo priests, quarry workers, fishermen, dance troupes, and even children at play.
The minister, Mário de Andrade, had created the Discoteca Pública Municipal (Municipal Public Recordings Collection) de São Paolo in 1935, perhaps modeled after the Archive of Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center) at the Library of Congress, which had been established in 1932.
According to Morton Marks, “this archive of Brazilian musical folklore was meant to be a resource for the nationalist composers of the day, whose goal was to incorporate the folk and popular musics of Brazil into their compositions and to transform these styles into música erudita, or art music.” Sharing the opinion of the radical (though decidedly un-nationalist) Composers Collective of the 1930s – Charles Seeger, Elie Siegmeister, Henry Cowell, Marc Blitzstein – de Andrade considered folk music to be a thickening ingredient that added substance, local identity, and a salt-of-the-earth integrity to contemporary musical works; a prosaic means to sophisticated aesthetic (as well as political) ends.
No surprise, however, that following the mission, according to Larry Rohter in the Times, the discs languished for decades in São Paolo. After all, composers such as Hector Villalobos in Brazil and Charles Ives or Aaron Copland in the USA – composers who are celebrated for creating enduring modern works from the distillation of some essential “folk” quality of their respective homelands’ vernacular music – didn’t need a federal initiative to nudge them along.
Even despite copies being sent to the Library of Congress during the Second World War, none of these recordings was issued until 1997, when Alan Jabbour (former head of the Folklife Center) and Mickey Hart (former Dead drummer and bizarrely public face of the AFC) teamed up with Ryko to release a single disc sampler called The Discoteca Collection.
The CD is an incredible one, truly, with social and dramatic dances, epic songs, trance rituals, healing rites, originally recorded onto acetate disc. It is unfortunately lacking the beautiful, conversational, minstrel-like tunes played by duos called repentistas, but it bears two recordings of the Pancaru Indians’ praiá ritual, performed during the hog plum harvest, that are shockingly good. In the first, a female soloist repeats several lines of chant as shakers and an occasional exclamation are heard in the background. At one point in her recitation, men – presumably the masked dancers pictured in the album booklet – begin to sporadically grunt and holler, building over the course of several minutes into a steady sheet of moans and cries. Then, cutting through like a jarring overdub, a metallic-sounding flute utters a few soft breaths and the song is over. It’s a incredibly moving recording of, to quote from the notes, an “almost purely Indian music that echoes the earliest encounters between Europeans and Brazilian Indians in the 16th century.”
I go on at such length (kvelling about a CD now ten years available) – and here make my point – because the article tells us that a 6-CD set, “Musica Tradicional do Norte e Nordeste, 1938,” is now available from the Discoteca Collection, presumably produced with the engineering assistance of the pros in the Sound Lab at the Library of Congress. Like so many field-recording expeditions, the Missão was launched in the right place at the right time, and it’s only now, after the wholesale disappearance of the traditions and ways of life it set out to document, that its good work is being given the presentation and notoriety it deserves. I’m thrilled, and think it’s a cause for celebration.
A link to the set with gorgeous photos (a handful of which I’ve lifted here), audio samples, and background info (with an English translation):
If only we had Gilberto Gil as our Minster of Culture… Imagine how many magnificient reissues of regional recording trips we’d have flooding our libraries, schools, and record shops. Up the Republic!