Brazil: A Biography

by Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling, Allen Lane, 761pp, £30

In a now famous book of 1928, Manifesto Antropófago, Brazil’s leading modernist poet, Oswald de Andrade, described Brazilian culture as anthropophagic, or “cannibalistic”, eating other forms of European and African literature and music.

Brazil itself is a land of bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities: Italian, Spanish, Jewish and aboriginal Tupi-Guarani Indian have all intermarried to form an imponderable blend of South American peoples. Brazil’s very fabric is mestizo, or “mixed”, according to Brazilian academics Schwarcz and Starling, co-authors of this lively history of the country.

Brazilian music, for one thing, could not be more of a cultural mish-mash. Bossa nova in its heyday, from 1958 to 1964, merged elements of Chopin, Miles Davis, candomblé and Catholic ritual, as well as “off-key” (desafinado) samba notes. It was a sort of New World blues, suffused with a hushed intensity of emotion.

Music is a serious business in Brazil. The peerless bossanovista João Gilberto, who crops up in this book, awakened the imagination of Brazil and the wider world to the insouciant swinging rhythm and languid jazz tones of a new dance beat. In the early 1960s, his fragile singing voice sounded cool, new and modern.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection