Book Review

Marc A. Hertzmann. 2013. Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press. 392pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-5430-7 (pbk)

Reviewed by: Jo Haynes, University of Bristol, UK

[email protected]

Keywords: Brazil; racialization; samba

Brazil is renowned for both its musical diversity and extremes: from its heavy pulsating samba (surdo) drum and its sultry bossa novas to the comical squeak of the cuica. For anyone interested in Brazilian samba, Marc A. Hertzmann’s Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil weaves together detail from its economic, social and political underbelly in order to map the contours of its journey from the margins to the centre of Brazilian culture. It does so through analysis of historical documents and records that reflect important features of and links between definitions of labour, anti-vagrancy regulations, police arrests, modes of dress, the spatial requirements of religious ceremony, taboos about racial mixing, definitions of intellectual property rights and the patenting and ownership of new music technologies.

Hertzmann departs from the dominant narrative of samba that suggests it was systematically repressed. As the music genre and cultural phenomenon most likely to be regarded as signifying Brazil, the reproduction of the notion of its widespread repression is believed by Hertzmann to act as an important critical reminder of how racism is central to configuring social relations in Brazil. Hertzmann’s objective was to examine historical evidence that might support this narrative of samba; however what he finds is that the entanglement between race and music more broadly, as I argue elsewhere (Haynes 2013), encompassed both historical and ongoing problems of racism as well as creative ethnic hybridity. Making Samba provides an opportunity to observe how historically informed discourses of racialized difference inflected a range of state and institutional regulations and practices and the extent to which they routinely marginalized and disadvantaged African, Afro-Brazilian and mixed-race individuals involved in making music. In so doing, it illustrates samba’s indirect and contradictory route to—and often contentious role at—the centre of Brazil’s national musical identity, that encompasses poverty and privilege, creative constraint and opportunity, and a fundamental dependence on the reproduction of racialized stereotypes.

Part of the explanatory appeal and power of such myths about Brazil’s musical heritage, he suggests, is due to the “assumed continuity between Africa, slavery, and the twentieth century” (36). Even though the term “samba” was not in widespread use until approximately 1910 and it did not constitute a distinct music genre until the 1920s, Hertzmann suggests that this does not prevent commentators from locating in samba a direct line between precolonial Africa and twentieth-century Brazil. However, whilst the potency and influence of diverse African cultures, colonialism and slavery is undeniable, as his superbly researched book reveals, samba’s evolution as music genre and national cultural institution took place within the context of a number of significant technological developments and social and political changes of the twentieth century that produced contradictory impulses for Brazil in terms of its national culture and citizenry, and its international profile as a racially inclusive democracy.

Through detailed and compelling archival work, Hertzmann sets out to examine the notion that samba was prohibited, which is understood and reproduced through various forms of scholarship that is referred to as the “punishment paradigm”. Hertzmann questions the apparent literal interpretation of the punishment paradigm, which uses slight evidence of incarcerated black musicians as a sign that samba was specifically repressed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The idea that samba’s dubious status may have been reflected in Brazil’s Penal Code in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as some who support the punishment paradigm suggest, does not receive support from Hertzmann’s analysis. Other scholars suggest that the authorities used the anti-vagrancy law (Article 399) as a way of directly targeting musicians, but again, after presenting analysis of police reports of those arrested under this Article, Hertzmann finds no conclusive evidence to link vagrancy with known music-makers. He also chose to analyse a sample of all arrest records both before and after 1929—the key moment from which samba entered its golden age—in order to see if music-making figured in the arrests and concludes that “[t]here is, quite simply, no evidence that music played any role in these arrests” (47). Local regulations were identified that made it difficult for particular types of music and instruments to be played at various times, but there was nothing within this code to suggest it was targeting samba per se.

In addition to the use of police records and government regulation and codes of practice, Hertzmann also traces the profiles of well-known business figures, composers, samba musicians, journalists and other important identities to illustrate their particular contribution to the development of Brazil’s musical infrastructure and cultural life, as well as the opportunities and/or struggles each faced. The travails of two well-known samba musicians and their numerous encounters with police are investigated via police records (167), Hertzmann noting again that the arrests had nothing to do with their music and that even as samba became popular, their arrests or encounters with the police were just as frequent. The interpretation here is that as samba became more acceptable and popular, their arrests would decrease if there was a direct correlation to, and thus a systematic targeting of, samba.

Hertzmann presents further analysis of other government regulation of social behaviour and cultural production, including labour laws and intellectual property rights. As the campaigns to target vice and to divide licit and illicit forms of labour tended to focus on the same population groups that were targeted through the government’s mission to “civilize” its African and Afro-Brazilian populations and thus those that are associated with samba, according to Hertzmann, it is possible that the campaigns were mashed together and interpreted as the repression of samba. There was no support for the idea that police saw musicians’ activity as a threat to the economic order in the same way that gambling, prostitution and witchdoctors were considered as problematic. Alongside the refinement of Brazil’s labour laws came the formation of organizations responsible for collecting royalty payments for the creative material of artists and composers. However, although there was evidence that the annual figures of payments to musicians/composers increased over time, albeit slowly, and that they gained state and police protection for their creations, it was generally white musicians and composers that benefited the most.

Not only is the focus on the everyday substantive material that could potentially reveal a deliberate attempt to outlaw samba one of the creative strengths of the book; a critical appraisal of the social production of each type of documentary evidence used is also provided, all of which makes for a well-crafted foray into a most compelling social history of music. It could be argued of course that the myths that are created and reproduced about samba may not be so readily influenced by counter-factual evidence; the deployment of such notions do have a social and political purpose. If it is important to continue to tell the story of samba through a lens that highlights the country’s struggle against racism, poverty and inequality, perhaps a further study should focus on those who reproduce it and why. That being said, Hertzmann’s book supports Radano and Bohlman’s (2000: 8–9) claim that discourses about music essentially derive from the construction and deployment of racial categories; it is also a testament to how complicated the nexus of social, economic, political and technological processes that underpin the racialization of a musical genre and culture can be.


Haynes, Jo. 2013. Music, Difference and the Residue of Race. New York: Routledge.

Radano, Ronald M. and Philip V. Bohlman. 2000. “Introduction: Music and Race, their Past, their Presence”. In Music and the Racial Imagination, edited by Ronald M. Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, 1–53. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.