Saudades de Arcoverde: nostalgia and the performance of origin

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Sharp, Daniel Benson

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This dissertation examines how popular music contributes to the production of the Northeast region as a nostalgic space within the Brazilian nation. It chronicles how musical performances of cultural roots are framed as cultural survivals—remnants of earlier days that have endured intact into the present. To detail the consequences of this framing, it outlines the trajectories of two musical groups in Brazil—Samba de Coco Raizes de Arcoverde and Cordel do Fogo Encantado—constantly shifting between the local register of their everyday life in the small interior city of Arcoverde, Pernambuco, and the broader register of the region's place as a reservoir of folklore within the national imaginary. As the two groups gain recognition outside of the semi-arid backlands of the Northeast, they access festival stages and recording studios, entering the circuits of government sponsorship of culture and the entertainment industry. Written with tinges of nostalgia and tragicomic irony, this work traces how marginal-turned-traditional musicians on the cusp of commodification navigate this newfound world of music as a commodity, rendering the idiosyncratic play of social inclusion and exclusion they face in their efforts to launch careers beyond Arcoverde. Despite their success, both groups continue to struggle with their status as emblems that serve to hold back the perceived loss of the past in an ever-changing modernity. As they embark on national and international tours, their performance of Arcoverde is received by audiences as a representative performance of origin fueled by nostalgic desire for an unmediated return to an imagined home. By invoking their hometown in a drama of origins, these bands spurred a tourism boom, inspiring fans to visit the source of their distinctive sounds. I argue that by performing everyone's 'home,' the musicians acquire a ghostly status as a fetish of culture loss, hovering between the center and the margins, never settling on one or the other. Locating nostalgia itself in the oral/aural vs. written divide, this written document is implicated in the production of the circumstances within which these musicians find themselves. By narrating their stories in a style both nostalgic and critical of nostalgia, I aim to complicate conventional objectivist-romanticist-realist folklore studies.