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July 10th 2012

Sonic Diplomacy: Music Exchange and Inspiration Between Brazil and the U.S.

I’ve just spent three weeks in Brazil, working to advance ocean conservation at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”).  It was winter in Rio, which meant chilly weather with frequent downpours, filthy puddles, and an especially dark edge to poverty on the street.  

The American fantasy of Rio de Janeiro as the ultimate spot for beach, babes, and beats glosses over the grimy reality of daily life in the city.  But the rain could not obscure the vibrant, indefatigable musical potpourri that is the heartbeat of Brazilian culture.

I kept my ears open for the sweet sounds of Brazilian music – samba, bossa nova, forró, and more --  and I was rewarded.  What I had not expected was how familiar many of the sounds were, and how frequently I encountered signs of American influence and the blending of influence from around the world. 

At times the mixing of American and Brazilian music was as obvious as a print of Tupac Shakur at the top of a neighborhood street in the neighborhood of Santa Teresa.  Or when I stumbled out of the rain into a warm bookstore, where skilled jazz musicians were performing an array of compositions from the United States.

The Brazilian propensity to adopt and integrate diverse foreign cultural influences is not occasional or accidental.  As Larry Rother describes it in Brazil on the Rise, Brazilians take pride in what they call cultural cannibalism, their ability to adopt influences from African, European, or American music and make something uniquely and quintessentially Brazilian.

The cultural exchange goes both ways: many DJs, such as Gui Boratto, Amon Tobin, and Sany Pitbull, frequently tour the U.S. and are well known names in the American musical lexicon.  At the same time, some of my favorite artists, such as Thievery Corporation, have been deeply influenced by Brazilian sounds.

While the UN creates formal dialogue between international leaders, musical exchange between cultures and communities is perhaps an even more powerful tool of diplomacy.  The world seems small and accessible when we share the common language of music.

Posted by Leila


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