The Custodians (and Coronéis) of Culture, Protecting “The People” From Themselves, Again

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Illustration: Marcelo Almeida

(em português)

This post may feel eerily like a rerun from one posted eight months ago.

On the 25th of May, a celebration took place outside Nazaré da Mata, Pernambuco. Held on the sugar plantation that is the historic home of the city’s oldest maracatu, Cambinda Brasileira, the event was to commemorate the recognition of maracatu and cavalo marinho as “immaterial patrimony” by the Brazilian state. With a professional stage, sound system and lights, and dozens of guest performers and speakers, it was by most accounts a lovely party.

It was also total bullshit.

When you look beyond the feel-good rhetoric, you’ll find a staged spectacle for camera crews during which Pernambuco’s political and cultural elites could congratulate themselves for the work of other people, and distract attention from their continuing exploitation of cultura popular as a commodity and symbolic resource.  A mere ten days later, the same governor who spoke from the stage that evening signed a new law (Lei Nº 15.516) that forbids events in public spaces between the hours of 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., and prohibits children under the age of 14 from participating in the rich cultural traditions of their own communities.   Exceptions will be made, naturally, for events sanctioned by the state and their elaborate patronage network, which includes a state-run arts funding institution (FUNDARPE), manipulative organizations like the Maracatu Association of Pernambuco, and the odd ensemble of “cultural producers” that represent the public/private partnerships that have driven much of Brazilian cultural policy over the last few decades.

As a visual aid, I present Exhibit A, the blatant political propaganda video for the state of Pernambuco. As to be expected, the only people talking in this video are politicians, bureaucrats, and their sock-puppets from cultural organizations.  Their hypocritical sound bytes are interspersed with picturesque footage of “common people” enjoying themselves and performing.  The producers of the video couldn’t even be bothered to spell the name of Cambinda Brasileira correctly.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHbhc2MFZgY]

There are many issues at stake here, but I would like to talk about two of them in this post. The first involves the ambiguous and ambivalent nature of official recognition bestowed by the “benevolent state” as represented by the modern-day salvage missions of cultural inventories and preservation programs. The second is the conspicuous failure of the organizations claiming to represent the interests of popular artists, and their barely-concealed, shameless exploitation of those artists in the name of “promoting culture.” In the end my conclusion is that while the current impasse is tragic and despicable, it was also utterly predictable. Most cultural “preservation” efforts in modern history have a multitude of unintended consequences that, one can argue, outweigh their benefits. And in some cases, those negative consequences are not unintentional at all, but serve a broader social and political agenda of domination and control.

In October of 2014, I wrote about the police suppression of maracatu’s street rehearsals (ensaios) and their core ritual, the improvised poetic duels (sambadas) between two singer-poets or mestres, that are held in their local neighborhoods between August/September, when the sugar harvest traditionally begins, and Carnival. This situation resulted in a legal action organized by activists from inside and outside the maracatu community, based around the argument that the maracatus were being targeted by a deliberate misapplication of the law. In January of 2015, a court decided in favor of the maracatuzeiros on the issue, agreeing with the campaign that the curfew and silence law should not be applied to the relatively small and infrequent gatherings of the maracatus. To commemorate this, an all-night ensaio rehearsal was held by Maracatu Estrela Brilhante in Nazaré, including its usual roster of invited guest singers but also many hundreds of visitors from Recife who had become interested in the campaign. Many of them were visiting Nazaré, a mere 70 kilometers from Recife, for the first time in their lives, and some of them were unaccustomed to the social norms. It seemed somewhat strange to me at the time that the reconquest of space by the maracatuzeiros would be accompanied by a small invasion of young, hip cosmopolitans, but everyone got along and the evening was a success.

Given the disregard that representatives of state power have had for communities like those who create maracatu, perhaps it took the attention of so many outsiders to put pressure on the state to rethink its position. This represented a significant victory, but I did not blog about it at the time for several reasons. One was purely personal, because I was up against some serious hard deadlines in my work, but I also had my reservations about celebrating prematurely. My conversations with friends that extended through the upcoming carnival left me with the impression that most people seemed to think the battle had been won and settled. There was no sense of anticipation or apprehension about what challenges might be coming next, and almost an implicit trust that state officials were going to hold true to their word and allow the maracatus to continue their traditions in peace.

The granting of the title of “immaterial patrimony” for maracatu no doubt assuaged such apprehensions for the few who may have held them. This protected status, established according to UNESCO-derived criteria, would seem to provide reason enough to relax a little.   Unfortunately, a historical and cross-cultural appraisal of cultural patrimony projects also provides plenty of grounds for skepticism. In whatever ideological context they occur, the cataloging and appropriation of the creative work of “the people” into a national or regional symbol has by and large tended to gloss over inequalities and silence alternative voices. There are teams of Brazilian researchers, including anthropologists, carrying out these projects, and frankly I find them rather odd and anachronistic.

In spite of whatever theoretical language they might be dressed up in, these projects tend to codify and calcify what gets considered as “legitimate” and “authentic” cultural expression. I am sure there are intellectuals earnestly exploring how to cultivate a “polyphonal patrimony” for cultural production and I wish them the best in breaking with the weight of historical precedent that funnels these efforts into a monophonic discourse. I have colleagues who have worked on these “cultural inventory” projects, and other maracatuzeiro friends who genuinely believed and wanted this to work out well and live up to its potential benefits. Out of respect for them, I have kept my more cynical thoughts on the matter to myself. After all, I am an outsider.   However, after the events of the last two weeks, it seems that maybe it’s time to acknowledge that – despite whatever best intentions people bring into them, and no matter how nuanced and sophisticated their understandings of the art forms and the societies who practice them – such projects overwhelmingly play into the hands of powerful elites who utilize these official titles as symbolic mana to wield over their loyal subjects.

At the heart of cultural patrimony projects, since the days of Mário de Andrade or Edison Carneiro, is the idea that the cultural practices of “the people” are threatened by modernity and in danger of disappearing unless they are safeguarded in some fashion by the intervention of elites. This is a dubious presupposition at best. While most traditions have an ebb and flow of activity across their longer trajectory, and some have in fact appeared to be on the brink of “extinction” at various points in time, we are not talking about The Last White Rhino here, in captivity and unable to reproduce. These are sets of practices, beliefs, and methods belonging to living, breathing humans who typically have managed to carry on just fine with or without the “assistance” of outsiders. There is no doubt that such preservation efforts have often benefited the artists, but I see those successes as in spite of rather than because of the “salvage and safeguard” teams. Popular artists are by nature pretty sharp individuals, and many have been able to strategically use these projects to their advantage in getting access to resources and infrastructure in order to continue to practice and develop their art forms.

As a long-term strategy, I have to wonder how well this is working out for popular artists when situations like the current one arise. I would particularly like to point out that I have seen very few of these aforementioned researchers or administrators lift a finger, beyond the occasional rhetorical speech before an audience, to agitate against the discriminatory, racist, and nonsensical laws that are genuinely endangering the cultural practices they have “inventoried” and “cataloged.”  Some, like the son of the late musician and poet Mestre Salustiano who has dominated his father’s Association, continue to speak disingenuously in public as if they are  really interested in defending the rights of maracatuzeiros and doing something about it.

In the party that the state held for itself at Engenho Cumbe, all the usual dignitaries were there to offer ufanista praises about the common men and women gathered on the ground before them. The Association was there, naturally, as were the patrons who hold their purse strings, FUNDARPE. Nobody talked about the three years in which they did nothing to stop the restriction of the sambadas and ensaios. Only one speaker mentioned that FUNDARPE has still not paid artists for their carnival presentations, over four months after the fact.   In the propaganda video posted above, the current Secretary of Culture for Pernambuco stated, shamelessly and without any shred of self-awareness, that “you always have to have some give and take,” using the same verbiage traditionally used when talking about an exchange of favors, quid pro quo style (“tem que sempre ter troca”).

Ten days later, law Nº 15.516 was passed .

We are still waiting to hear what maracatus got out of this bargain.

The events of the last weeks exemplify very concisely a phenomenon that I began to observe when the initial problems with curfews began in 2011, and were met with inertia on the part of maracatu’s institutional “guardians”: these institutions have no interest in defending the cultural rights of maracatuzeiros, because their organizations benefit directly from these draconian policies. Who now has the resources and political clout to hold “cultural events” in the Mata Norte of Pernambuco? FUNDARPE, The Association of Maracatus, and the licensed “cultural producers” who carry out the leg-work. Everything is moving in the direction of more and more “mega” events organized from the top down, with chemical toilets and security and ambulances. Once again, to “protect” the people from themselves. It seems irrelevant now that the vast majority of maracatu events that I participated in across three years of fieldwork consisted of a few hundred people at most.  They were organized largely by the maracatuzeiros themselves, drawing on their own ingenuity and networks of social relationships, and occurred largely without incidents or problems.

This is precisely what organizations like FUNDARPE and the Association of Maracatus fear and dread most: the organization and self-determination of the maracatus, independent of their patronage.

The outcry against this new law began immediately on social media, and the urban “artistic class” (an actual phrase used in Brazil, and not my invention) already mobilized a demonstration involving performing artists that began at precisely 10:01 p.m. But in the social world of maracatu, humility is a virtue, and practitioners are sometimes more accustomed to stand in the presence of powerful people with their hat in hand, averting their eyes. After all, when cane cutters in the Zona da Mata mobilized half a century ago to agitate for their labor and usufruct rights in the Peasant Leagues (Ligas Camponesas), they were met with police harassment, torture, and assassinations culminating in a right-wing military coup. The current battle for cultural rights is more subtle, and the maracatus are in a much better position to make their voices heard. Or they would be, if they would stop following the example of “let’s wait and see” offered by their alleged protectors.

Illustration: Inácio Eugênio

Illustration: Inácio Eugênio. The text reads, “No thugs on the street after 10 o’clock…”

It can be hard to understand what the government of Pernambuco stands to gain from passing these authoritarian measures, without any public debates or input, while engaging in such blatantly self-serving displays of “recognition” of the cultural contribution of those segments of the population who tend to be poor, black, and with little political power. At one time, I believed it was symptomatic of a certain schizophrenia in the logic of the state, a good illustration that “The State” is not a monolithic thing. The Ministry of Culture versus the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the police, I thought, were in a power struggle to show just who had the last word over how the “popular sector” in the small towns and countryside were permitted to express themselves. But the unfolding of this saga of this Janus-faced recognition – applauding cultura popular with one hand while suffocating it with the other – suggests darker observations about the collusion between the sometimes-fractious Brazilian elites. They have found a common cause in maintaining a status quo of inequality and marginality while also drawing the disenfranchised masses further under the “protection” of the Benevolent State.

To the many cultural tourists and other outside observers who have traveled to small towns to see these performances in the plazas or street corners where they take place, the main question is still often, “Why? Why target these people who aren’t doing anything wrong?”   The increasing attempts since 2012 to police the practices of cultura popular are making something more clear to me: that the maracatuzeiro and other kinds of popular artists represent an existential threat to the social order as conceived by the ruling elites. They must be regulated, punitively if need be, to ward off the phantoms born in the endless moral panic of Brazil’s middle and upper classes – such as the assumed intrinsic violence and lawlessness of the “marginal.” All of this is, of course, racially coded, as the people who create and perform cultura popular in Pernambuco are by and large of darker skin than the people who rule and control the country. This would make laws like Nº 15.516 intrinsically racist: a claim that will send the lawmakers into hysterical and vertiginous spasms of denial and dissimulation, insisting that nothing of the sort is taking place. In Brazil there are still people (mostly found in the middle class) who subscribe to the national myth of “racial democracy,” in spite of all empirical evidence to the contrary.

Why does it seem as if the freedom and autonomy of the maracatus is diminishing in direct proportion to the degree that it gains more outside recognition and gets “elevated” in the cultural marketplace? How did it manage to get this bad?  To answer this question honestly means confronting the failure of the existing cultural institutions to act in the interests of those who create and sustain cultura popular.

The current situation with maracatu and related forms of cultural performance in Pernambuco brings to mind an immediate parallel to the early days of samba, as it moved from marginal to celebrated status. Regulation, standardization, and official “valorization” all coexisted in a series of decrees and legal measures in Rio during the first decades of the twentieth century, in attempts to both criminalize samba while simultaneously touting it as the most “authentic” example of Brazilian culture. Although the people actually responsible for creating and performing samba had been dislocated from the city center by “urban renewal”-style projects, they continued to come down from the hillside favelas to perform, in the words of Donga, anywhere there was a party. The creation of samba schools and elaborate carnival processions eventually became the sanctioned, acceptable, and controlled avenues of self-expression, while the architects of the Estado Novo made a deliberate effort to appropriate samba as a national music, prying it from its local contexts and circumstances, and promoting it at home and abroad as a symbol of Brazilian-ness.

It is somewhat ironic that one of the other big objectives of the 1930 revolution, and the increasingly authoritarian measures that followed, was in fact to curtail the power of regional elites, to check the privileges of the coronéis or rural bosses by installing federally-appointed governors and bringing the states under a centralized authority. By the 1940s, the official narrative is that coronelismo was dead as a political phenomenon. Certainly, it no longer continued in the classic sense, so well-described in the studies of authors like Victor Nunes Leal or Albuquerque & Vilaça. But many of the nuances of the criteria laid out in those canonical works can still be found in the small towns and the countryside, even if the mechanisms and the families that use them may have changed. This is especially true in the emergent “cultural sector.”  I refer to this phenomenon as cultural coronelismo. 

For both the casual visitor and for my colleagues who work in other regions of Brazil, it should be noted that Pernambuco appears to be an extreme case that brings together all the worst tendencies of paternalistic attitudes and patronage politics in terms of cultural policy.  In other parts of the country, many of the progressive initiatives of the Ministry of Culture, such as the Pontos de Cultura programs and the incentives generated by the Lei Rouanet , seem to have benefited and (at least some of the time) genuinely empowered those who create cultura popular.  In Pernambuco these same initiatives have  become further tools for the mobilization of patronage networks by entrenched power brokers and elite families.

The effectiveness of this system of social control can perhaps be measured by the difficulties encountered by anybody who wishes to speak out against it. Established “name” artists from Recife like Karina Buhr or Siba Veloso can afford to publicly speak out against the shady practices of FUNDARPE in their mafia-like control over the performing arts. The director of a maracatu, who is responsible for paying the men and women who toil for three sweltering days of carnival in return for a token payment that might put bread on the table for a few days does not have that luxury. The stakes are a lot higher for these people, and speaking out against an all-powerful organization that can easily cut you out of the patronage network is a risk most are not willing to take. In part this is because “the artistic class,” usually university-educated or with some formal training, is composed of individuals, while “cultura popular” continues to be viewed as entirely collective, the property of “the anonymous man of the countryside” – a phrase that I’ve actually encountered in recent newspaper coverage of maracatu.  As such, appeals to justice must be presented in the language of collective rights, such as that which is embedded in the notion of cultural patrimony.

One of the more frustrating aspects of all this is a kind of double-consciousness I encounter when talking to my friends about these issues. They know they are being exploited constantly by these organizations, and they know that they are being treated unjustly by the state, but sometimes at the end of the day there is the sense that they don’t believe they are entitled to anything better. This is the way it has always been, and the way it will always remain.

A major obstacle in combating these injustices is that it has generally taken the intervention of outside activists and allies to organize the groups, because the maracatus have never had an organization run by maracatuzeiros that represents their interests. Certain readers might object at this point.  I have had a couple of people acquainted with these matters say to me, “But isn’t that precisely what the Association of Maracatus of Pernambuco is?”  It is not.  Unfortunately the Association is far from a democratic organization and, almost since the beginning, has been a tool of regional political elites who use it much like colonial powers would govern through the authority of local clans.

In contrast to its humble origins, today the Association directorate is dominated by figures connected to the cultural policy infrastructure of the state, who sit alongside token rank-and-file representatives who would never dare to disagree or question their leadership. At the time it was originally founded and run out of the home of musician and poet Mestre Salustiano in the 1980s, the Association served to open pathways to participation in Recife’s larger cultural life for rural artists and migrants who had been stigmatized. It undoubtedly served a useful function. At various points during the 60s and 70s, “rural” maracatu de baque solto had been prohibited from the capital’s official carnival celebrations by the Carnival Federation of Pernambuco. It was discriminated against and disparaged as a degenerate, hybrid offshoot from nação or nation-style maracatu, which is a largely urban expressive form with its own distinct trajectory more closely tied to Afrobrazilian religions.

Through organizing the groups of maracatus formed by migrants from the interior and their rural counterparts, which included the diffusing of the rivalries and often violent clashes between groups and uniting them under the banner of a common cause, the Association helped to carve out a space in the cultural marketplace for baque solto. This garnered the attention and praise of the cultural elite who would bestow upon it a kind of official legitimacy, as when the anti-modernist modernist Ariano Suassuna, then Secretary of Culture under governor Miguel Arraes, embraced Salustiano’s cause and made him into an official advisor. Any possibility that the Association could be an autonomous organization, run by and for maracatuzeiros, was extinguished early on. Its legacy  has largely revolved around convincing the maracatuzeiros themselves that they need to commodify their own culture as a means of survival, facilitating the cooptation by the state of maracatu’s iconography as warriors and guardians of tradition, and developing an intricate network of patron-client relationships that leave the majority of maracatuzeiros dependent on the Association for resources and performance opportunities.   At the root of some of this are more complex issues, such as the dynamic tensions surrounding the place of “traditional” arts in complex capitalist societies, a subject eloquently discussed by musician Rodrigo Caçapa in this blog post  from the other day.  (And, for those looking to explore the subject further, the subject has been extrapolated by people as diverse as George Yúdice, Néstor García Canclini, Renato Ortiz, Sally Price, Pierre Bourdieu, Howard Becker and many others).

Sadly, the Association has been instrumental in cultivating an approach that transforms maracatu into folklore – into a product made on demand, in exchange for money and political patronage, and oriented towards an audience comprised largely of outsiders to the community.

It is frustrating that influential organizations like FUNDARPE and The Association of Maracatus have refused to advocate on behalf of the maracatus as they have continued to have their practices squeezed into tighter and tighter restrictions. But it is not at all surprising. Regarding the role of the Association with its own constituents, the refrain of “it’s complicated…” was the most-heard response I received from Association leaders whenever I broached the subject of empowerment. The prevalent attitude is that the massive disparities in education and other social indices are too vast in the Northeast.  A single organization can’t be responsible for training maracatuzeiros how to use the digital cameras and computer they may have gained through becoming a Ponto de Cultura, or helping maracatuzeiros to get certified and licensed as “cultural producers” so that they can initiate their own projects instead of being dependent on outsiders who profit off their labor. Those kind of issues can only be addressed at some later point, indefinitely deferred, after the more basic socioeconomic problems have been resolved. Paternalism doesn’t like its children to grow up, you see, and a coronel depends on an ignorant and illiterate public to maintain his power and privilege. In terms of the contemporary “market” of popular culture in Pernambuco,  it is actually in the best interests of FUNDARPE and the Association that maracatuzeiros just remain illiterate cane cutters. This enables them to consolidate their power and maximize their own prestige and wealth by restricting the pool of “producers” for large mega-events like the kind they encourage and promote, keeping the expertise and political connections “within the family” and among as small a group as possible.

One advantage of being a self-appointed guardian and protector of tradition such as the Association of Maracatus is that there is nobody to hold your feet to the fire about all that  guarding and protecting business. You can pick and choose at your leisure when to back up your rhetoric with action, when it is convenient to your interests. And apparently the Association did not see the imposition of 2 a.m. curfews on the sambadas and ensaios as against their interests, in spite of those curfews being an actual, tangible threat to practices that go back nearly a hundred years. As described in my previous post, the sambada tradition requires two poet-singers (mestres) to face off against each other in a night-long duel of improvised verse that cannot end until the sun is coming up.   It is one of the most beautiful and fascinating exchanges of creativity you would be privileged to see, if you are lucky enough to have seen them before they go “extinct.”  There is literally no way these events can take place in the abbreviated restrictions being currently imposed.  They require an entire night to unfold, and that is the bottom line.

Although they sent representatives to the early meetings convened to discuss the situation, the Association and FUNDARPE soon backed away from the situation at the first sign of genuine conflict, in the form of filing the aforementioned legal motion against the Attorney General’s Office (Public Prosecutor).   Not only did that organization refuse to “defend tradition,” but it made its displeasure known to those who chose to participate in the campaign, finding themselves at the receiving end of a cold-shouldered shrug when festival time comes around, being passed over for performance opportunities.

Excuse me while I make use of an old phrase:  With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Addendum: Since this article was written, Lei Nº 15.516 was repealed. The rapid dismantling of this ill-conceived law is mostly due to a surge of grassroots organizing by artists and activists determined not to let it stand. This fact does not change my arguments about the problematic nature and systemic problems of the cultural institutions discussed here; if anything, it only highlights those institutions’ continued inertia and (one can hope) their future irrelevance.

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