Brazilian identity “Almost impossible”

capoeira at the Ver-o-Peso riverside market in Belém, Brazil. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil.
capoeira at the Ver-o-Peso riverside market in Belém, Brazil. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil. | Photo (detail): Rodrigo Abd © picture alliance / AP Photo

Brazil is struggling to survive in the fight against the grim spectre that has leapt out of the history books. But it won't die, says Cláudio do Couto, and sets off in search of a Brazilian identity.

By Cláudio do Couto

It isn’t easy to describe the feeling of belonging when you live in the diaspora of an imaginary country. But the Brazil to which I belong still doesn’t leave me untouched, cradling me in its fluid borders so that I – even though I don’t even recognise the country that currently lies within Brazil’s geographical boundaries – feel that I could not possibly be from anywhere else. This Brazil I belong to is neither geography, language, nor a nationality. It’s a mindset, an incomprehensible mixture, almost an impossibility, and whatever way this utopia takes shape, the country becomes more real than any name in a passport.

I encounter this nation in many places around the world: if I spot a certain way of moving or looking from afar that could only be from this Brazil, then I’m seeing my country. And this “way” has no face. The Brazil I belong to has given an identity to the movement of bodies that isn’t ethnic but at the same time it is unmistakeable and very special. I also encounter this land of mine when people from completely different backgrounds – some of whom don’t even know each other – spontaneously make music together, glowing with a celebratory joy that’s almost mythical.

Night-time moments and a smile of salvation

The most diverse of African rhythms have been altered and mingled with equally subtle melodies from other origins to create an endless fount of beauty with the poetic qualities of a Latin language that the population has almost never been completely free to use in 519 years. The language that has survived thanks to its subtle character, through poetry and metaphors, is a different language – one that explains my country through song.

The identity of this Brazil, the one I belong to, is revealed through singing, through colours, in night-time moments, narrow alleys, in capoeira rounds, in dance, in liberated bodies, in a smile of salvation and a certain twinkle of identity in the eye. This land of mine that’s hidden today still touches my heart, and embraces me suddenly somewhere surprising – even though that’s now becoming increasingly rare.

Fear of the “other”

Maybe I’m not yet ready to describe what they are currently experiencing within the geographical boundaries of the formal, institutional, official Brazil. I didn’t know this country and I cannot identify my identity within it. It does not register the power of diversity, it throttles intelligence, despises love, suppresses joy, destroys future, burns down, tells lies, manipulates, kills. When sinister figures from history suddenly start to haunt the present day – embodied by people who have never read a history book. Perfect and hate-filled as someone can only be if they have spent centuries forgotten between books, hell-bent on revenge. They are the slave masters of the sugar cane mills of the 17th century wanting their whips back; the industrialists of the 19th century longing for the workers to submit, who had no other choice; small-minded people from all centuries hankering after misery, to allow them a sense of superiority over someone. People who oppose any knowledge and long for a collective ignorance greater than their own, or who are aware of the danger of critical thought. People who are afraid of “others”.

But people like this populate the history books of almost every country, and those countries have survived as well. And if the only way to banish these people back to the books is by opening the books – even if that means letting out the kind of characters who are in a position to create Brazil – then that could and should be so. They would also open up records, pictures, the Literatura de Cordel, Candomblé sites of worship, musical scores. Let Machado de Assis with the perfection in his writing take precedence over the slave masters, Jorge Amado describe Bahia in his books the same way Dorival Caymmi does with his music. Let Villa-Lobos amaze us with this mix of chamber works and rainforest sounds, João Gilberto reinvent guitar and song, Tom Jobim explain a special way of moving with dissonances. Let drums fill our hearts with love, as well as cavaquinhos and piano. Let the farmer with his calloused hands become king of the Congado, let the African gods syncretised to become Catholic saints drive out demons transformed into strange effigies of Christ. Let a surge of intelligence encounter even more knowledge, and things teetering on the threshold of existence – just let them be.

In the name of resistance

A country that has given us Pixinguinha, Vinícius de Moraes, Chico Buarque, Edu Lobo, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Paulo César Pinheiro, Clara Nunes, Paulinho da Viola, Guimarães Rosa, Cartola, Dona Ivone Lara, Nise da Silveira, Mãe Menininha do Gantois, Paulo Freire, Aldir Blanc, João Bosco, Milton Nascimento, Rachel de Queiroz, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and many more geniuses, both known and unknown, joy in such abundance and so much beauty, will not capitulate to nameless slave masters.

Let the Brazilian men and women from other countries, Pierre Verger, Caribé, Clarice Lispector, Carmen Miranda and many others, become more numerous still, leaning on our indigenous peoples with all their strength, passing on their beauty to our forests, rivers and beaches, until finally that ethereal, almost imaginary Brazil takes possession of the geographical borders of the Federal Republic of Brazil. When that happens, it will no longer be difficult to explain this identity. It will radiate joy, tolerance, innovation and beauty – in every corner of the world.