UFPR Arts Department 
Electronic Musicological Review
Vol. 5, no. 1 / June 2000
Portuguese version

The Upper Middle Class Brazilian Thug Likes Chopin


Carlos Palombini


Synteesi 1/1999: 54--6, Helsinki: Suomen Semiotikan Seura

Leonardo Music Journal 9, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999


In early April this year, lecturers, workers and students in the Music Department of the Federal University of Pernambuco at Recife were invited for a recital by the London based Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen and requested to RSVP. The invitation was issued by Banco Sudameris, which is affiliated to Banque Sudameris of Paris and controlled by Grupo Banca Commerciale Italiana of Milan. Sudameris was opening its campus branch in the recently inaugurated facilities of the University Convention Centre, where the recital would take place.


What would become, through a history of rebellions and treasons, the Pernambuco state, originated from one of the first administrative successes of the young Portuguese colony. Rich in Brazil wood, the region was fought over by Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards and English pirates. The city of Recife grew under the view of Olinda --- a UNESCO-declared historic site --- as a merchant's pendant to the aristocratic old town, gradually taking over the economic lead and rising to the position of metropolis of the Brazilian Northeast. In these shores Brazil was discovered by Pinzon and not by Cabral and the ferocious Caeté Indians devoured the aptly named Bishop Sardinha, anticipating urban anthropophagi. Nowadays, latter-day saints from North-American missions stroll around, alluring with sanitized blondness mamelucos, cafusos, mulattos and mestizos.


Pernambuco boasts the oldest aristocracy in the country. Mrs Mayrink Veiga, formerly one of the top ten best-dressed ladies of Rio society and a beauty, now earns her livelihood here, telling the lower strata the dos and don'ts of upper class etiquette in the pages of the local equivalent to the London Sun (devoured as her fortune has been by extorsive interest rates charged on former employees' social security monies, which she used to borrow from the Brazilian state): 'in those days, she says, men used to wear tails... now they complain about wearing a jacket!' This was my coming out evening and I wished neither to overdo nor understate it: light brown suede shoes, white sockets (suburban in London but comme il faut in Recife), beige trousers, best white shirt (with mother of pearl buttons), bespoken terracotta linen jacket and a silver coated chain hanging from my trousers pocket. For sleazy looks, a bit of that exquisite Schwarzkopf gel wax that I brought from Dublin and, to round it off, the woody undertones of Ever, by Applewoods. 'Carlos... how beautiful you are!' my neighbour uttered in wonder as I left.


Those who earn over three hundred Pounds Sterling a month are not supposed to take busses in this country. However, I remain convinced that one should not always go native in the tropical regions. A seat on the left afforded the view of a beautiful pair of thighs on the right, and with no further ado I took it. Lost in contemplation, I was awoken by the noises of hit and broken glass, female shrieks and myriad glass fragments landing onto my face. Ladies crawled, robbery and rape stamped on their faces. No more discomfited than General Giuseppe Federico von Palombini in the aftermath of the Napoleonic debacle, I gazed around assessing the likelihood of another bullet and I pondered the wisdom of surrendering one's course to the ubiquity of fleshly gifts. Thrown at the bus by one of the countless children who roam the streets of Recife, a stone had crossed a window pane on the right, just behind those thighs, at the corresponding point to where I was seating on the left, before it went out through a left window pane, two seats behind myself. I had been saved by the imponderable laws of relative movement.


One queues for everything in this country. In São Paulo, at the Consolação branch of the Brazilian Airline, one queues to get information as to whether one should queue. In Recife, at the campus branch of the Brazilian Bank, one queues for one hour to pay a check. Those who earn over one hundred Pounds a month qualify as special clients and special clients queue in special queues. Those who earn over three hundred and fifty Pounds a month qualify as doubly special clients but doubly special clients queue in simply special queues. One hour before the concert, the Convention Centre offered a double choice of queues. I took the shortest; it was the slowest. Wearing all the appearances of clients of a distinctively selective European bank, a stocky gentleman, his plump wife and their marriageable daughter arrived, in full swing. The gentleman shouted abuse at a pair of ladies who exchanged ideas with the ticket collector at too slow a pace. Meanwhile, his wife attempted to grab my place. Having set the queue going with his yelling, the gentleman set about propelling it further with his belly. Thus, at the drop of a hat, I was rubbing shoulders and private parts with the upper echelons of financial society. Inside the concert hall, conversation ranged from basic Italian ('a scherzo?') to real estate ('my holiday homes'). At nine o'clock sharp a pair of attendants approached two young ladies who, for half an hour, had been seating in the front row. Those ladies were removed. Reservation labels were stuck to their seats. The Vice Chancellor was ushered in. Backs were slapped. He was offered those seats. A video screen unfolded. Sudameris had us know it was one and the same with the struggles of the Brazilian people. The local representative took the stage and repeated it.


Mr Cohen was sight for sore eyes. The dramatic contrasts and manifold transitions of Chopin's set of Ballades were brought to life with uncompromising technique and variegated hues. Half way though the Third Ballade, a fortissimo passage sent me away from the hall and deep into the music. I resurfaced. Refreshments were served. Soft drinks circulated freely. Italian white was the preserve of the fittest. Guests were invited to return to their seats. Procrastinators were gently pushed in. The Vice Chancellor climbed the stage. Sudameris was thanked and 'a public and high-quality university' was cheered. With a Debussy-like performance of the Second Nocturne Mr Cohen rose to the rarefied heights of Dinu Lipatti's historic Nocturne in D Flat interpretation. Fantaisie-impromptu, the Third Étude Op. 10, the First and Twelfth Études Op. 25, the First and Second Scherzi followed. Having made his way through terminal coughing, wristwatch beeps and mobile-phone calls 'in the way of a man who accepts all things, and accepts them in the spirit of cool bravery', Mr Cohen was awarded a standing ovation. He retorted with a finely crafted, superbly phrased and unbelievably fresh Minute Waltz. At half past twelve, Scriabin's Étude Pathétique drew the evening to a close.


'To synthesize and to stabilize a musical expression of popular base, as a means to conquer a language that reconciles the country in the horizontality of its territory and the verticality of its classes (raising the rustic culture to the universalized scope of bourgeois culture, and giving the bourgeois musical production a social base that it lacks)', thus Wisnik summarizes the programme of the modernist cycle of musical nationalism in Brazil (O coro dos contrários, 1977, cited by Béhague in Heitor Villa-Lobos, 1994). The middle classes like Chopin. The violence that, for centuries, the owner perpetrated against the slave was democratized by decades of military dictatorship and has been sanctioned by the democratic regime (Page, The Brazilians, 1995). In Brazilian politics today, it is not the rustic landowner from Bahia that rises to the universalized scope of bourgeois culture, it is the cosmopolitan intellectual from São Paulo that sinks to the scope of nationalized bourgeois brutality. Like the famous fur coat with which the Finance Minister, Miss Cardoso de Mello, has sought to impress Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales in a Rio gala evening, the fabric of Brazilian society is moth-eaten beyond repair. Slaughtered or ostracized, the Indians alone remain unsullied. They enshrine the nationhood that might have been. Ena mokocê-cê-maká (the boy is sleeping in the hammock).


© Leonardo Digital Reviews, 1999