Cristo Redentor, braços abertos sobre a Guanabara… – Tom Jobim
If you’ve ever been to Rio, know anything about Rio or have even just seen postcards of Rio, chances are you are familiar with this view. The statue of Cristo Redentor perched atop Corcovado mountain, arms spread wide towards Botafogo and Pão de Açúcar in the middle distance, with the mouth of Guanabara Bay and Niterói in the background.
After I wrote about my first week in Salvador, I thought about how much of that week was like a postcard: a tourist’s first shallow impressions of the city. I thought about how much of it was informed by my previous experience in Brazil, and my experience of living in North American cities. Someone who had grown up in Bahía would have a completely different experience of Salvador.
Someone like, say, Caetano Veloso?
As it happens, this was the perfect week for me to discover Caetano Veloso’s masterpiece of a song, Estrangeiro (1989):
I’m still falling down the rabbit hole of discovering the golden age of Música Popular Brasileira and just being amazed at how sophisticated and wonderful this music is. It feels a bit silly to gush about Caetano Veloso – like, who really wants to hear someone who’s been living in a cave for 50 years go on about this awesome band called the Rolling Stones? – but hey, it’s all still new to me.
When I heard Estrangeiro for the first time, my ears perked up. Stevie Wonder? Claude Levi-Strauss? Man, what is this song about? I went to google the lyrics, then I listened to it maybe 10 more times trying to wrap my head around it. Caetano is a poet and he uses a poet’s language, which means his lyrics are full of words that are completely unfamiliar to me and bizarre grammatical constructions that have an aesthetic as well as semantic effect. He was also a well-read philosophy major, which means that his lyrics are brimming with intertextual references to other artists and thinkers, not unlike his autobiography Tropical Truth. Tropicália itself was replete with intellectual connections across disciplines and across history. In Estrangeiro, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his ideas about culture form the nucleus off of which Caetano launches into some very deep explorations of self vs. Other. To start the discussion, here’s a good English translation of the lyrics.
That link describes this song as being about “the feelings someone can have at first contact with Rio”, which, on the surface at least, is certainly what sets the scene. Rio has a way of overwhelming visitors with its dramatic geography, vibrant streetlife, musical culture, and a certain amount of exotic chaos. It also stuns you with visions of shocking inequality – no where else in Brasil are favelas so visible to tourists, so proximal to luxury. Foreigners are usually given over to hyperbolic descriptions of Rio, either romanticizing the exotic tropicália of the city (those soft Brazilian singers!) or exaggerating the violence and poverty. We might call this the “foreign gaze” – o olhar estrangeiro. (Speaking of which, check out the great documentary Olhar Estrangeiro, which takes an amused and critical look at the way Brazil has been depicted by foreign filmmakers over the years).
The foreign gaze does seem to be a major theme of this song. Are foreigners so blinded by their first impressions of Rio that they cannot see the “real” Rio? It’s worth noting that Caetano himself was a baiano, a stranger to Rio – and for 2 years during his exile, a foreigner living in London. Perhaps, living under the dictatorship, he even felt like a foreigner in his own country.
But beyond the foreign gaze, Estrangeiro seems to have layers of meaning that touch on all kinds of heavy philosophical questions. What is a beautiful thing? Do we love only the surface of beautiful things, unable to see to their true nature? Or do we have to be blind in order to see the beauty that is invisible to the naked eye? What does it mean to observe a culture from the outside (as foreigners, or perhaps as anthropologists)? How do we see and experience difference? It it the Other that is so different from the observer, or is it the observer that is so different form the Other?
And this being Caetano, there’s certainly a political subtext as well. He wrote this song in 1989, just a few years after the fall of the military dictatorship, when the various political parties of the left and right were engaged in a deep struggle to determine the future of the country. Do the old man (holding a rosary in some scenes) and the young girl represent the far Right and the far Left, respectively? The Catholic establishment and the revolutionary groups? – both nearly indistinguishable in their support of fundamentalist ideologies, both led primarily by white men with no interest in including women, negros or índios? Caetano, like most of the tropicalists, was deeply suspicious of both the far left and the far right.
Even with all that has been written about the lyrics to Estrangeiro, the vicarious musicologist in me asks: But what about the music? The quasi-industrial drums and synths that divide the song into into strict bars that can barely contain Caetano’s tumbling, halfway-out-of-time lyrics. The minor key piano riff that repeats, unyielding, like a synthesizer sample, while Caetano’s nearly monotone speak-singing delivery is broken only by rising major key passages. Then there are the twin voices of the old man and the young girl, speaking in temporal and harmonic unison – yet the girl’s voice is really a man singing in falsetto. And finally, the abrupt ending.
The video presents its own intriguing images, cut together in a disjointed montage that reflects the nonlinear structure of the lyrics. Indians, suggestions of Brazil’s bloody past, and even, if you look carefully, Pão de Açúcar taking a “bullet” to the head. The illustration of Botafogo Bay comes from Hélio Eichbauer’s scenography for Oswald de Andrade’s 1967 play O rei da vela, which influenced many tropicalists. The praia de Botafogo is the stage for the priest and the young girl (who always follows a few steps behind). That endless walk across the beach – the “rolling walkway of white sand and diesel oil” – reminds me of another estrangeiro, Camus’ L’Étranger. In the closing montage, we see a younger Caetano playing the part of the “soft Brazilian singer”. And of course, the final, startling image of the toothless mouth.
I wanted to know what prompted Claude Levi-Strauss to refer to Guanabara Bay as a “toothless mouth”. I found the exact quote in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, from a chapter in which he describes his first impressions of the New World, arriving in Rio by boat after a long trip across the Atlantic:
It seems to me that the landscape of Rio is out of proportion to its own dimensions. Pão de Açúcar and Corcovado, all these vaunted places — for the traveler who enters the bay, they resemble the stumps of missing teeth in the four corners of a toothless mouth. Since these protrusions are nearly always bathed in a thick tropical mist, they seem totally unable to fill the horizon, for which in any case they would be inadequate. If you want a decent view, you must look out at the bay from the landward side and look down upon it from high up. From the sea, the optical illusion is the opposite of the one you experience in New York – here, it is nature which has the appearance of an unfinished building site.
When I first saw Guanabara Bay, I was assaulted by a sense of deception in the face of what I had imagined. It was such a huge thing, with the important places located so distant from each other, that at the time all I could think of was a mouth without teeth. I didn’t see any way to hide this feeling.”
I suspect that Levi-Strauss is not merely speaking in terms of the aesthetics of the landscape. In those familiar postcard pictures of Rio (Ipanema Beach, Pão de Açucar from Corcovado), the natural landscape dominates the skyline of the city. But these classic vistas show only a small part of Zona Sul, and Zona Sul is itself only one sinuous section of a much vaster metropolis that wraps around Guanabara Bay, from Zona Oeste to Niterói. The quaint neighborhoods and dramatic landmarks that tourists think of as “Rio” are clustered into one tiny corner of this huge urban complex.
I recall that from the window of my airplane as it landed in Rio, Cristo Redentor seemed a white speck on a low hill, dwarfed against the vastness of the bay and larger mountains to the north. Perhaps Levi-Strauss was just surprised by the small scale of the hills and mountains in comparison to the enormous circumference of the bay – they do look considerably less impressive when viewed from the middle of Guanabara:
I think Caetano is asking, how can Rio be both ugly and beautiful – the sprawling, industrial metropolis and the exotic, marvelous city? How can one place leave such divergent impressions? The answer seems to be that there is no one “true” objective Rio, that what you see depends entirely on your own identity and preconceptions as an observer. In other words, the exotic other is really you. Levi-Strauss, who participated in the revolution towards a more reflexive approach to ethnography, summed up this view nicely:
In retrospect, I must admit that in Tristes Tropiques there is a certain scientific truth which is perhaps greater than in [my] objective works, because what I did was to reintegrate the observer into the object of his observation. It’s a book written with a lense that’s called a fish-eye, I think…it shows not only what’s in front of the camera but also what is behind the camera.
Tristes Tropiques is interesting as a document of a European outsider’s first impressions Brazil. It has been noted for its free-form structure, weaving travelogue, ethnography, autobiography, and sweeping philosophical musings together into a non-linear narrative with both literary and scientific pretensions. CLS indulges in numerous asides in which he pauses his travelogue to ruminate on topics as diverse as the temporal dimension of New World vs Old World cities, the sociological basis of power, and colonialism’s effect on the environment. There are echoes of Gide, Conrad, and Proust and other writers. This disjointed structure, combined with rich language replete with detailed descriptions of smells and colors, has been compared to Symbolist poetry. Colorful language, a disjointed structure that weaves together dreamlike imagery with philosophical musings and references to other thinkers — this all seems an apt description of Estrangeiro‘s lyrics.
While researching Estrangeiro, I also found this fascinating academic article (pdf) in Portuguese which looks at the song from the perspective of ethnopoetics and anthropology. According to the authors, the song is a take on the anthropological gaze, which transforms the familiar into the exotic, and vice versa. And here is a blog post that discusses a political interpretation of the song.
There seems to be no end to the possible interpretations of this song – like the Baia de Guanabara, you see in it what you want to see.