by Renato Gonçalves Ferreira Filho*
Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
In the last decade, a movement of rediscovering musicians has taken place in Brazil. Documentaries, books, museums, plays, and other cultural products have brought out relevant names that were forgotten by those who officially tell the history of Brazilian popular music. Even though these artists had contributed to the construction of the refined shape and the profound meanings of popular music, they did not receive proper recognition in life. They were always there, but not always seen. What do they have in common? Being a female or a black artist stresses some structures of exclusion and oblivion based on gender and race related to the construction of history.
At the beginning of 2022, the documentary O canto livre de Nara Leão and the book Nara – Livro do disco revisited Nara Leão (1942-1989), a female Brazilian singer and arranger whose career started in the decade 1960, looking towards her relevance to popular music. For the first time in history, she was read as a serious and remarkable musician. Both initiatives go beyond the slogan “muse of bossa nova” that limited her to the image of a beautiful woman that supposedly inspired the men who invented this musical movement. Remembering Simone de Beauvoir, this idea of muses historically has been used as a male strategy of dominance. She was more than this stereotype: she had an outstanding contribution to the foundation of bossa nova. Her authentic way of singing, with a cool accent and a soft vocal emission, summed up her virtuous guitar and established some of the highest patterns for the interpretation of this gender.
As exposed in the documentary and the book, furthermore, the visionary repertoire selected by Nara, in at least more three opportunities, launched new perspectives that were later followed by other generations. As a singer linked to what was understood as an intellectualized and sophisticated popular music, respectively, in the decades of 1960, 1970, and 1980, she was a pioneer in interpreting sambas of protest written by peripherical artists, rearranging romantic songs by Roberto Carlos and Erasmo Carlos, and putting in evidence songwriters from the Brazilian northeast. Those movements were remarkable because they reframed the standards of popular music in their time.
From another cultural context, Itamar Assumpção (1949-2003), a black singer, songwriter, and arranger, initially related to the movement of Vanguarda Paulista, has been rediscovered in the last ten years by the hands of his daughter, the singer and composer Anelis Assumpção, who pursued the mission of taking care of her father’s artistic legacy. Since his death, initiatives such as launching a songbook containing all his compositions, a book with his manuscripts and notes, and a box with all his albums have occurred, but new layers of understanding were added to his work by the opera Pretoperitamar and the multi-platform museum MU.ITA (Museu Itamar Assumpção), both dedicated to his trajectory.
In life, Itamar was recognized for his unique artistic personality, which mixed up a theatrical performance and a creative way of composing in the decades of 1980 and 1990. However, his discourse about the episodes of everyday racism, for example, synthesized by the name of one of his bands, “isca de polícia” (“bait for police”, in literal translation), and his Afrofuturism attitude toward searching for new possibilities towards the creation of an Afro-Brazilian identity, as resumed in the song “Batuque”, are recent interpretations. While the opera exposes Itamar’s cultural roots, the museum draws parallels between his work and the racial themes that surrounded him throughout his career. Why haven’t we seen those points before if they had been there since the beginning?
Cultural objects are always dated to their time and so it is our reading. When Nara Leão was alive, was it possible to read her work as a feminist? Maybe we would not be capable to catch all the details that made her so revolutionary at her time. In the decade 1980, who was listening to those who were talking about racism and would identify this claim in Itamar Assumpção’s works? Outside the first local black movements, this topic did not reach the Brazilian society, historically racist and resistant to profound social changes, as once Lélia Gonzalez said. Due to the contemporary advance in gender and race discussions, now we can recapture what was missed out all these years.
More than just highlighting names and their magnitude in Brazilian culture, revisiting them gains political bounds. When there is recognition, there is reparation, even more, when we are talking about artists that were excluded by their gender or race. Fortunately, some could receive recognition and reparation in life, as Elza Soares (1937–2022) could. After decades of ostracism, the Brazilian black singer who once was considered the “voice of the millennium” by the BBC could be reverenced by new generations who saw on her the strength of her existence in a sexist and racist society. Until her death, she launched albums and received a lot of admiration.
How many other remarkable and pioneer artists have our Brazilian official history forgotten? Possibly, so many others. If it had not excluded them, at least maybe we have not listened to them properly. We had talked about gender and race, but other social marks of difference, such as sexual identity and bodies that do not correspond to the standards of beauty, have also influenced silencing in popular music. Tuca (1944-1978), for instance, was a singer, songwriter, and arranger, who produced a striking Françoise Hardy album (La question, 1971), and launched one of the first Brazilian albums to bring a homoerotic discourse (Drácula, I love you, 1974) – which was censored by the military dictatorship. Despite this unique trajectory that later would inspire other lesbian female singers, we know so little about her until nowadays.
Layers and layers of history are now being revisited. For that, an up-to-date posture of constantly reviewing and rewriting the homogenous narratives is primordial as we could observe in the cases of Nara Leão and Itamar Assumpção. There is always more than just one way of telling and interpreting popular music’s history. Why do all the most remembered names in this field are usually from white men? The question continues: what have we missed out on?
Assumpção, Itamar (2006). PretoBrás – por que que eu não pensei nisso antes? Songbook. São Paulo: Ediouro.
Assumpção, Itamar (2014). Cadernos Inéditos. São Paulo: Itaú Cultural.
Beauvoir, Simone (2016). O segundo sexo. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira.
Gonzalez, Lélia (2020). Por um feminismo afro-latino-americano. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.
Hardy, Françoise (1971). La question. Paris: Sonopresse.
Sukman, Hugo (2022). Nara Leão – Nara 1964. Rio de Janeiro: Cobogó.
Terra, Renato (2022). O canto livre de Nara Leão. Rio de Janeiro: Globoplay.
Tuca (1974). Drácula, I love you. Rio de Janeiro: Som Livre.
Renato Gonçalves Ferreira Filho is a doctor of Communication and a master of Philosophy by the University of São Paulo. Currently, he develops a postdoctoral research in the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the same university. His fields of interest are popular music, culture, history, communication, gender studies and psychoanalysis. He is the author of the books “Marina Lima – Fullgás – O livro do disco” (2022), “Eros pornografado – homoerotismo masculino e pornografia amadora” (2022), “Questões LGBT e música brasileira ontem e hoje” (2020), and “Nós duas: as representações LGBT na canção brasileira” (2016). He is also profesor at ESPM-SP. E-mail: email@example.com
Renato Gonçalves Ferreira Filho (2022) "Revisiting Nara Leão and Itamar Assumpção, the rediscovering of Brazilian female and black musicians". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. ISSN 2701-4924nameVol. 3 Num. 1. available at: https://bras-center.com/revisiting-nara-leao-and-itamar-assumpcao-the-rediscovering-of-brazilian-female-and-black-musicians/, accessed on: November 29, 2023.