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From Politics to Pop Culture, History Professor Studies Life in Brazil - Georgetown College
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From Politics to Pop Culture, History Professor Studies Life in Brazil
March 17, 2011
Since long before Rio de Janeiro won its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Professor Bryan McCann has been helping students understand the vibrant culture and history of South America’s largest nation: Brazil.
“I consider myself really a Brazilianist first and a historian second,” McCann explained of his scholarship and teaching. “As an undergraduate, I was interested in Latin American studies generally, and did a lot of Latin American literature and history,” he said. “[I] ended up focusing on Brazil because I found the cultural mix there so fascinating.” Now, McCann serves as an Associate Professor of History, Director of the Master’s Program in Global, International and Comparative History (MAGIC), and the former Director of the Brazilian Studies Program, through Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies. His diverse interests in Latin American culture appear in the richness of his course offerings, ranging from “Popular Music in Brazil and Cuba,” to “Urban Poverty in Latin America,” and the “Global History of Soccer.”
As a scholar and a musician, McCann has long been captivated by the musical developments of Brazil, which offers genres as diverse as samba, bossa nova, and choro—an instrumental style similar to American ragtime. His first book, Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil (2004), explored the rise of radio throughout the 1930s and 50s. “There was really no coherent samba, and in fact very little in the way of coherent popular music genres [existed] before the rise of radio,” McCann explained. Radio stations and record companies helped develop the genres that became central to Brazilian culture. In many ways, he suggested, the national identity of Brazil has cohered around this musical legacy.
This interest in Brazil’s cultural trajectories has also inspired McCann’s next book, Trouble in the Marvelous City: Violence and Redemocratization in Rio de Janeiro​. His project focuses on the process of urban reform during the years that Brazil rebuilt its national democracy, emerging from two decades of military rule. McCann explained, “The ‘opening,’ as they call it in Brazil—from the mid-1960’s up until 1985 when the new democracy is consolidated—is really an interesting time in Brazilian history, as it’s a period when everything seems to be on the table and the country can be re-imagined.” He continued, “Well, in practice, of course, it doesn’t work out that easily.” In Rio de Janeiro, for example, cocaine traffickers exploited the efforts of popular reform movements by revitalizing communities where grassroots activists had failed to do so. By supplying money to these neighborhoods, drug lords exerted a level of control over city politics. While the city still struggles to extricate itself from powerful forces like the drug trade, de-industrialization, and a national debt crisis, McCann explained that Brazil is changing for the better as it becomes an increasingly important player on the global stage.
Researching the social and civic challenges in these urban communities for his book required McCann to investigate some unique source material. “I did a lot of oral history with community leaders from the 1970s and 80s, but I also did a lot of work in the city archives in urban planning documents,” he explained. He also spent time in university libraries, since the process of redemocratization brought many community activists back to school. In the years following the democratic movement, McCann found, “there are all kinds of left wing organizers who are now starting university careers, as sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, and they are all writing these master’s theses about their work in these communities. And nobody’s ever read them, basically.”
When not sifting through university archives, McCann helps Georgetown students experience the fullness of Brazilian culture. “Through my activities here, teaching in a wide range of courses, and having been director of Brazilian Studies, I’ve learned a lot beyond my research specialties, so I try to bring that to the classroom.” Admittedly, his favorite course to teach is the “Popular Music of Brazil and Cuba,” where students learn how music ties into cultural history. “I really want to teach students different ways of listening to [and] identifying different kinds of Latin American music, and engaging with those not just as a passive recipient, but really picking out…the elements that are relevant to Latin American history more generally.” He continued, “In that [class] I really feel like an advocate as well as a scholar. I really want to make this music a part of students’ lives.”
 
--Jessica Beckman
Photos of Rio de Janeiro by Ratão Diniz. Photos of Professor McCann by Yovcho Yovchev. 
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