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Rachel Horner - Review of Andrew Snyder, Critical Brass: Street Carnival & Musical Activism in Olympic Rio de Janeiro

Rachel Horner - Review of Andrew Snyder, Critical Brass: Street Carnival & Musical Activism in Olympic Rio de Janeiro

Carnival parade in Rio de Janiero

In the concluding chapter of Critical Brass: Street Carnival & Musical Activism in Olympic Rio de Janeiro, ethnomusicologist Andrew Snyder issues a call to fellow analysts of socially engaged cultural practices: “We should take nuanced accounts of activist movements to understand the real possibilities of and obstacles to creating change, especially in movements that are led by a privileged vanguard” (239). Such a call, more pressing than ever for contemporary social justice movements, animates Snyder’s comprehensive investigation of Brazilian neofanfarrismo.Roughly “neo-brass-bandism” (per the author’s translation), neofanfarrismo is a recent activist outgrowth of a larger street carnival movement that began in post-dictatorship (1985– ) Rio de Janeiro as a response to top-down, nationalist carnival celebrations (what one would find in the Sambódromo, for instance). Snyder describes neofanfarristas as “alternative,” a label that reconciles their relative racial and class privilege with their efforts to enact social change. On the one hand, given the largely white, middle-class makeup of the group, neofanfarristas are alternative in their preference for the up-and-coming and cosmopolitan. On the other hand, neofanfarristas’ “disinheritance” of both hegemonic Blackness (i.e., state-sanctioned samba) and whiteness (i.e., white supremacism) makes them an alternative cultural and political movement, one whose critiques are constantly emerging against the dominant cultural formation (Williams 1977).

With clear affiliations with other leftist movements that embody their social values through physical demonstrations, including Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados Movement, and the Arab Spring, among others, neofanfarristas articulate their politics throughperformance by filling the streets to which they lay claim with bodies and with sound. Neofanfarristas engage their musical repertoire as a “repertoire of contention” (Tilly 2010) against the cooptation, monetization, and excessive surveillance of public space. This strategy, which links neofanfarristas to other street carnivals while setting them apart as explicitly political, became especially valuable in the 2010s to navigate what Snyder terms an “Olympic city in crisis” (9). Despite the promise of a progressive government under Workers Party control, Brazil faced a growing economic recession, a series of widespread public protests, and the infrastructural demands of hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. These conditions, which placed increased financial burden on citizens and prompted violent police presence in the country’s poorer neighborhoods, led neofanfarristas to pursue “a radical critique of the neoliberal global city in which the movement is embedded and an active attempt to transform it” (11). Given that Snyder conducted fieldwork in the midst of this crisis, it is this tumultuous context in which the book intervenes.

The chapters of Critical Brass develop a multifaceted praxis of activism that hinges on methodologies of revival, experimentation, inclusion, resistance, diversification, and consolidation. These six approaches, which constitute the focus of each chapter, respectively, allow Snyder to pursue the nuanced account of neofanfarrismo for which he argues in the book’s conclusion. Chapters 1 and 2 explore in careful detail the consolidation of the neofanfarrismo movement out of the street carnival revival that marked the late 1990s and early 2000s. This revival, as chapter 1 explains, emerged as a response to increasingly cosmopolitan carnival celebrations across the country. Revitalizing “traditional” Carioca street carnival practices by leveraging their instruments’ capacity of “taking space and calling attention” (46), neofanfarristas counterposed themselves not only to commodified cultural practices but also to the larger-scale process of revival that Rio de Janeiro’s elites hoped would distance the city from its histories of violence and poverty.

Chapter 2 continues this conversation by paying closer attention to neofanfarristas’ repertoire choices and how these reveal broader discourses surrounding taste and musical circulation. Snyder traces neofanfarristas’ processes of musical engagement over time through two theoretical frames that emerged from conversations with his interlocutors. The first, rescue (resgate), refers to the nationalist impulse to foster and safeguard cultural practices outside of Brazil’s metropoles. Although neofanfarristas participate in the discourses of authenticity that reify the distinction between the folkloric and the “merely” commercial, their embracing of diverse nationalist musics counters the monocultural approach that characterizes samba schools. The second strategy, cannibalism (antropofagia), describes the tendency to adopt and adapt international cultural influences toward nationalist ends. Through this lens, neofanfarristas establish themselves as both Latin American and global through musical acts of translation. Taken together, these co-constitutive strategies “call attention to longer Brazilian histories of exchange and self-discovery, and the aim for cultural dialogue to take place on their own terms” (103).

If chapters 1 and 2 present the ongoing histories of neofanfarrismo and its associated street carnival revival, chapters 3–6 articulate this movement’s transformation of the brass ensemble from regimented and strictly festive to diversified and politically engaged. The “soundscape of public participation” that occupies chapter 3 recounts the ways that neofanfarristas have developed inclusive approaches to music education and performance, ranging from year-round music classes to musical groups comprised solely of non-professionals. Snyder builds on Thomas Turino’s (2008) conception of participatory and presentational performance to show how neofanfarristas draw from each of these modes to involve as many community members as possible. While acknowledging that neofanfarristas sometimes ignore the roles that money, gentrification, and power dynamics play in their search for a fully participatory carnival, Snyder concludes that musicians’ instrumental activism, “defined more by the political, spatial, and musical relations it constructs in the act of performance than by its signifying content” (25), is at least provisionally successful in cultivating a sense of community belonging through sound. Chapter 4 delves deeper into this form of activism, examining the ways brass band repertoire has been instrumentalized in political protest in Rio de Janeiro and beyond. Snyder relies especially on Larry Bogad’s notion of “tactical performance” (2016) to show the ways that neofanfarristas oppose sonic and physical confrontations with police. Moreover, this politicization of brass band repertoire has the reciprocal effect of cementing neofanfarrismo as an activist movement, despite a continued lack of unified political stance among the musicians.

Throughout the text, and in chapters 3 and 4 especially, Snyder is careful to examine the privileges that inhere in a social movement of whiter, middle-class musicians. To complement this, chapter 5 describes the work of all-women brass bands and of Favela Brass, a free music education program for youth in Brazil’s under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, to show the ways that neofanfarrismo not only advocates for underprivileged groups but also incorporates and supports these groups directly. Although the minoritized ensembles that Snyder analyzes maintain ties to the structures of privilege that frame neofanfarrismo, Snyder shows that these connections are “relational and destabilizing alternatives within the hierarchies of the broader movement” and, thus, enable “processes of genuine inclusion and diversification [that] bring in excluded Others not only at the tolerated margins but also invite them to contest the center” (173). Chapter 6 rounds out this discussion with a focus on the HONK! RiO Festival, a Brazilian node in an international network of activist bands that rejects police control of public spaces through the disarming and all-encompassing capacities of brass music. The HONK! RiO Festival distances neofanfarrismo from its carnival origins, renouncing capitalist sponsorship and organizing year-round (instead of strictly within the typical carnival calendar). Evoking Noriko Manabe’s (2015) distinction between informational (didactic) and experiential (immersive) models of politicized festivals, Snyder shows how HONK! consciously eschews a uniform activist stance and, instead, lays itself bare to the diverse perspectives of its participants in its “performative invitation to action” (229).

Scholars of public festivity will find in Snyder’s work a generative disavowal of Bakhtin’s well-worn concept of the carnivalesque (1965). Snyder sides with recent scholarship (Santino 2011; Bennett, Taylor, and Woodward 2014; Godet 2020) that points to the false universalism of this term and its utopian understanding of carnival’s potential to flatten social hierarchies. More importantly, however, Snyder addresses a continued lack of attention to the ways carnival both incorporates and catalyzes political and social change. Even though neofanfarristas are inevitably beholden to the very network of power they seek to dismantle, these musicians pursue what Snyder terms an “alternative carnivalesque” to revitalize carnival’s critical potential and foster social change within andbeyond carnival’s spatial and temporal boundaries. Snyder brings to this argument perspectives from his own experiences in the musical activism sphere, having played trumpet with San Francisco’s Brass Liberation Orchestra and having served as a core organizer and performer for the first HONK! RiO Festival. More on his experiences with the latter can be found in his volume on the larger HONK! movement, co-edited with Erin Allen and Reebee Garofalo (2020).

Andrew Snyder’s Critical Brass is rich with ethnographic detail and impressive in its nuanced analysis of musical activism in Brazil. The depth of its analysis does not detract from its readability, however; undergraduate students will find the text accessible, especially the more comprehensive beginning chapters. Enhancing the text’s appeal are the vibrant audio and visual examples included in the book’s companion website ( For scholars of public festivity, contemporary Brazilian history, and the political valences of popular culture, Critical Brass is an essential read, one that offers innovative and balanced insight into the neofanfarrismo movement and its implications for musical activism more broadly.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 2009 [1965]. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bennett, Andy, Jodie Taylor, and Ian Woodward, eds. 2014. The Festivalization of Culture. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Bogad, Larry. 2016. Tactical Performance. London: Routledge.

Garofalo, Reebee, Erin T. Allen, and Andrew Snyder, eds. 2020. HONK! A Street Band Renaissance of Music and Activism. New York: Routledge.

Godet, Aurélie. 2020. “Behind the Masks, the Politics of Carnival.” Journal of Festive Studies 2: 1–30.

Manabe, Noriko. 2015. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music after Fukushima. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Santino, Jack. 2011. “The Carnivalesque and the Ritualesque.” Journal of American Folklore 124: 61–73.

Snyder, Andrew. 2022. Critical Brass: Street Carnival & Musical Activism in Olympic Rio de Janeiro. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Tilly, Charles. 2010. Regimes and Repertoires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[Review length: 1676 words • Review posted on October 28, 2023]