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Brazilian Music Loses Influential Scholar, Santuza Cambraia Naves

[All links lead to Portuguese language pages, except when otherwise noted.]

A quietly influential voice in the study of Brazilian popular music fell silent on Wednesday, April 4, when Rio de Janeiro-based researcher Santuza Cambraia Naves died unexpectedly at the age of 59.

Brazilian music is its most well-known cultural export, and in the country, popular music is so much a part of daily life and Brazilian being that people almost take it for granted. As Researcher Leonardo Davino wrote:

Portanto, quem tem a autoridade para criticar canção? De todos e de ninguém, aliada à forte penetração no cotidiano, a (linguagem) canção vive e sofre a mercê do gosto de quem lhe comenta, resenha, critica. E nem podemos dizer que, diferente do que acontece com a literatura, haja uma querela entre crítica acadêmica e crítica de periódicos e blogs. Em canção, há uma ensurdecedora ausência de espírito crítico.

So, who has the authority to critique song? Belonging to everybody and nobody, linked to the strong penetration of daily life, the (language) song lives and suffers at the mercy of the likes of those who comment, write it up and critique it. And we can't say, in contrast to what happens in literature, there is a quarrel between the academy and magazines and blogs. In song, there is a deafening absence of critical spirit.

Yet in spite of what Davino describes, in recent decades, the academic study of music in contemporary Brazilian history (Bossa Nova [en], Tropicália [en], and MPB – Brazilian Popular Music [en]) has made important strides.

MPB - Photo by Flickr user minusbaby (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

MPB – Photo by Flickr user minusbaby (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Relevant, indispensable references

In her work, Cambraia was interested telling the interwoven stories of these musical movements. She articulated best what “MPB” meant in an important interview with Historia Agora (History Now), in 2007:

Quando surge o conceito de MPB nos anos 1960, criado pela geração pós-Bossa Nova, ou seja: a geração de Chico, do Edu Lobo, e etc. Que foi uma geração muito politizada, surgida dentro de um contexto nacionalista. Criou-se uma idéia de costurar o Brasil através da música. Todo mundo, nesse período estava pensando no projeto do Brasil. Não foi um nacionalismo xenófobo, é muito sofisticado.

The concept of MPB emerges in the 1960s, created by the post-Bossa Nova generation: that of Chico [Buarque], Edu Lobo, etc. That was a very politicized generation, coming out of a nationalist context. The idea was to stitch together Brazil through music. Everybody in this period was thinking about the project of Brazil. It was not a xenophobic nationalism, it is very sophisticated.

Davino cites Cambraia's book Canção popular no Brasil (Popular song in Brazil) about this period after bossa nova

[…] a canção popular tornou-se um espaço crítico em relação ao seu meio de produção, consumo e circulação. (…) Não se trata de uma crítica que se restringe à participação do intelectual na vida pública, como de fato ocorre, mas também de operar com o pensamento crítico no próprio processo criativo, lidando com procedimentos intertextuais e metalinguísticos.

Popular song became an important critical space in relation to its means of production, consumption and circulation. (…) It was not just a critique limited to intellectual participation in public life, what in fact happens, but was also about acting with critical thought in the very creative process itself, laboring with intertextual and metalinguistic methods

Cambraia provided “indispensable references” like these, beyond her work on individuals like Caetano Veloso and Noel Rosa, said Scholar Luiz Henrique Garcia on his blog Massa Crítica MPB.

This October 2011 lecture on tropicália is “classic Santuza” – she describes the movement as a reaction against the “mainstream” MPB of the time. She goes on to say how today it is almost impossible to find one “mainstream” popular music to react against.

While Cambraia's initial research was about 20 century Brazilian popular music, she was interested in what was popular in Brazil and the flip-side, Brazil's countercultures. She was at ease commenting on hip-hop, electronic, and other emergent forms of music. Her recent lectures on digital music consumption and the impacts of technological change on music production give an idea of ongoing relevance of her work.

Tributes to Santuza

Santuza Cambraia Naves, 19/05/1952 - 04/04/2012. Photo by Rui Britto (used with permission)

Santuza Cambraia Naves, 19/05/1952 – 04/04/2012. Photo by Rui Britto (used with permission)

Revista de História paid tribute and explained Cambraia's significance in the post Triste Som do Silêncio (The Sad Sound of Silence):

Em diversas oportunidades a autora destacou a importância do método historiográfico para a etnografia com textos e foi uma das pioneiras na reflexão mais profunda e sistemática sobre a MPB.

Numerous times she highlighted the importance of textual ethnography and was one of the pioneers in deeper and more systematic reflection on MPB.

Students, colleagues, publishers and cultural institutions paid tribute to her on Facebook and Twitter, including musician and ex-Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil who retweeted the sad news.

Musical group Passarela 10 (@passarela10) wrote “a great loss for those who produce and reflect on music.”

Gilberto Porcidonio (@_puppet) said “Another great professor leaves us: Santuza Cambraia Naves. How sad, how sad…”

Judging by the emotive reactions, her character was just as important as her academic production. Most knew her by her first name. As historian Cecília M. (@senhoritaci) put it “People like Santuza should not be allowed to die.”

Ethnomusicologist and Global Voices contributor Debora Baldelli, who studied with Santuza as an undergrad over a decade ago, described her as a long-time academic mentor who was “very caring and enthusiastic, and giving a lot of space.” Baldelli remembers on her blog:

Santuza tinha um modo muito próprio de dar aulas, um tom de voz muito particular também, uma risada e um sorriso contagiante e, claro, um cigarrinho fumado de um jeito muito Santuza, que entrava ali na aula como parte necessária do cenário. […] Ir para a aula da Santuza era como entrar num atmosfera à parte.

Santuza had her own way in class, a very particular tone of voice too, a laugh and a contagious smile, and of course, a little cigarette smoked in a Santuza way, which in class was a necessary part of the scene. […] Going to Santuza's class was to enter another atmosphere altogether.

Cambraia's gift of “great intelligence, sensibility and generosity, and (…) contagious joie de vivre.“, as blogger António Cicero described her, will be remembered by many.

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