Tuesday, November 09, 2004

America v. Brazil

I recently entered a new environment where cultures have been clashing for months. Orkut.com, an invite only website where people can join communities on topics of interest ranging from alma maters to sports teams to singers to languages of the world. It is fun and interesting, but there has been a war raging.

It started several months back when the number of Brazilian members outnumbered Americans. Portuguese and Brazilian references are everywhere. And apparently some of our American friends got angry that they couldn't read all the postings or hit on all the cute girls. I think this is sad. Americans are notoriously (throughout the world) known for cultural elitism and ignorance. They think the American culture is superior to everything else and have never bothered to find out what everything else is. I will not waste words here arguing over America's superiority overall (because I don't think we are), but we are the world's sole remaining super power and we are a cultural presence felt throughout the world. But that doesn't negate the important contributions of other cultures. For example, French restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants, Pizza parlors...need I go on. That's cultural influence from non-American sources right there. Sure, we've perverted it to Americanized food in many cases, but it still retains core elements and the label. American culinary arts have been heavily influenced by other cultures. In fact, even the quintessential American cuisine, the hamburger, which is known throughout the world now through McDonald's and other fast food exports, is accompanied by French Fries (a gift from our English friends though not the French). And a lot of our indigenous plantlife was imported original with settlers and colonizers from other lands.

Okay, so Brazilian food, while amazingly good, is not as famous here. But no one who knows anything can deny that Brazilian music has heavily influenced American culture more than that of any other country (excepting perhaps the classical composers of Europe). From THE GIRL FROM IMPANEMA (1963) to TRIBALISTAS (2002), American musicians are listening to and reacting to the influence of Brazilian musical artists. The Bossa Nova craze started by the international notice in 1959 of Palm D'Or Winner BLACK ORPHEUS (Orfeu Negru) [which, by the way, also won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1960] is still felt today. Jazz was never the same. There was a profusion of Jazz albums pairing American and Brazilian musicians which continues today. Three of the most highly regarded Jazz albums of all time in America involve Brazilians: JAZZ SAMBA by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz (with Bossa Nova songs by Brazilian composers), GETZ/GILBERTO by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto (where IMPANEMA was released to become a hit single) and BUTTERFLY DREAMS by Flora Purim (an early example of Jazz Fusion). [Purim and Gilberto are Brazilians and other Brazilian musicians and songwriters contributed to both albums.] Paul Winter, Herbie Mann and many other known Jazz artists have done records of their own featuring Brazilian influenced music. Some of the top percussionist in pop music have roots in Brazil as well. And Brazilian percussion has been featured by top artists in the field to enhance their songs. So almost everyone I know has enjoyed the impact of Brazilian music in America. Culture ignorance aside, this deserves respect.

It makes me sad that instead of embracing the possibilities that exist, intelligent Americans interested in engaging with others and learning, get territorial and angry about an influx of non-Americans to their discussions. They should welcome the perspective and knowledge base that is different from their own, as it can only serve to enhance discussions if they let it. I mean, plenty of these Brazilian make contributions in English to the discussions. Maybe some have trouble with the grammar, but my Portuguese has problems, too. I am still learning. So are they. Cut them a break. If you want to understand Portuguese, take the time to learn it, like I did. If not, talk to those you can and use the open mind you are presumed to have in entering such spaces (it's kind of implied as Orkut.com above all else is a forum for the exchange of opinions and ideas) to learn from people who aren't like you. They have a lot of value to teach you.

The Democrats for one would love to talk to fellow Bush haters. There's even a Brazilian room for those who hate Bush. Truth is, education is different, information is different, economics, culture -- so much beyond language. So Brazilians really do see the world differently than we do. But that can only help us become more well rounded people...if we take the time to listen.
Maybe that's the problem today -- no one wants to take the time to listen. We all want our quick fix in this culture. Please the senses, satisfy the cravings, and move on. Instead of savoring the opportunities that we let pass by every day. I know I'm guilty of it, but thanks to some Brazilian and African friends, I am trying more and more not to be.

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