On May 12, 2016, the Brazilian Senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff, of the left-of-center Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), and begin an impeachment trial against her. Rousseff—who spent three years in prison in the 1970s during the dictatorship—is now suspended from her duties for 180 days; Michel Temer, a 75-year-old politician, will succeed her as leader of a transitional government. His cabinet is made up exclusively of white men. The transitional government’s first acts in office were to announce a series of pro-business reforms and the closing of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights—a clear sign that the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff are an attempt to move Brazilian society back to more conservative times. Opponents of the impeachment use the term “coup,” and in fact there are serious doubts as to the constitutional legitimacy of the proceedings. Rousseff has been in office since 2011 and was recently reelected—allegations of corruption have gone unproven. Instead, she was accused of fudging numbers in the budget. This offense is not enough grounds for impeachment under the law. In contrast, according to Transparency Brazil, a majority of the congressmen and senators who voted for her impeachment have been indicted for corruption, bribery, money laundering, kidnapping, and even homicide. A protest movement has formed against the transitional government and its plans to shut down the two Ministries. Around the country, artists and intellectuals have occupied buildings belonging to the Fundação Nacional de Artes (Funarte); in Rio de Janeiro, the abandoned Ministry of Culture building has been taken over by protesters. For the last week, members of the NGO Música pela Democracia have been organizing a series of spontaneous protests: “Carmina Burana” and Handel’s “Messiah,” fitted with new lyrics, have mutated into a kind of soundtrack for the demonstrations. Claudio Alves, a contrabassist at Rio’s Theatro Municipal and a professor at the Conservatório Brasileiro de Música, was there. We reached him by phone Tuesday.
VAN: How did Música pela Democracia come about? It seems like a group with a very flat hierarchy.
Claudio Alves: It started backstage at the rehearsals of the professional orchestras in Rio. The musicians all know each other from conservatory and from music festivals, and during our breaks, we talk a lot about political issues. There was a growing feeling that something had to be done, and the question became, what could that be? Music is a weapon that we can use. Actors, filmmakers, playwrights—they all protest in their own ways, in performance, on video. But orchestra musicians hadn’t started demonstrating, because it’s such a complicated problem, you want to be united as a group.
We thought about playing something small, some chamber music, on the street, in a city square, or in front of the conservatory. Then it just kept growing, because the political situation kept getting worse. At the beginning it was only the left-wing people who joined, then more and more people got involved.
So it all began in May?
It got started before that: we had our first gathering before Congress voted [to impeach Rousseff, on April 17]. We anticipated what was happening to some extent. That fatal TV broadcast—when the motion to impeach passed in Congress, and the representatives started spouting drivel on the air—woke people up. Then the musicians met up to perform a concert.
Our first idea was to play a string quintet with an amplified speaker on São Salvador Square. It was a small, almost cosy environment. Then it grew into an orchestral concert: we had 25 violins, 10 violas, seven basses.
Since then you’ve gone viral. What happened after the decisive vote in the Senate?
[Interim president] Temer gave that speech saying he was going to close the Ministry of Culture, in order to cut costs and streamline the budget. But we’re not children—artists and musicians understood that this was a retaliation against us, since we were against the coup from the beginning. This further unified the artistic community.
When the political situation got worse, we played again at the [occupied Ministry of Culture] Gustavo Capanema Palace. It was gigantic; there were too many instruments to count. The government reversed its decision to close the Ministry [on Saturday May 21], because of the public pressure, but the cultural world doesn’t want to be appeased, it doesn’t accept Temer’s government.
Can you describe the changes to the lyrics you made to “Carmina Burana” and the “Messiah”?
I think it was one of the violinists who suggested at a meeting that we turn the refrain “Hallelujah” into “Fora Cunha” [“out with Cunha,” the former Speaker of the House and the leader of the impeachment campaign]. And he was forced to resign from his position the same day. The day we sang, he fell.
For “Carmina Burana,” a musician suggested on the Facebook event we made that we do the refrain as
“Fora Temer,” because we brought Cunha down. I mean, that sounds kind of pretentious [laughs]. But the first protest resonated, and so we thought the second might too. By then, the President had already been impeached. The moment I saw the post on Facebook, I wrote the new lyrics down on the score of the “Carmina Burana” chorus. I published a picture of my score and it went viral online. Later we put the recording on at home; imagining people singing it with the new lyrics gave us goosebumps.
Where are the protests going from here?
Things are growing, but I can’t be specific because I don’t make any decisions on my own. I don’t have to work hard to motivate people—Temer manages that on his own [laughs].
I’m actually afraid of the demonstrations losing their momentum, because of the interim government’s tactics to appease us with small concessions, but it’s a matter of making people aware that we cannot negotiate with the leaders of the coup.
What is the atmosphere like in the occupied Ministry and among your colleagues?
There are mixed feelings. Some people are very engaged, even angry. Others are afraid. Older people, who have already seen what happens when democracy gets attacked, are the most skeptical. But people are really excited when you make a speech: they hug each other and cry, it can be very moving.
Are a lot of your colleagues protesting?
I’m not going to talk about my colleagues specifically. But after the “Carmina Burana,” people came up to me at rehearsal—people who I know are more conservative, or who don’t like to get involved with politics—and asked if they could participate.
Classical music has an elitist reputation; it’s also a field where people are often afraid of making political statements. How does this affect your work as an activist?
It’s a strange thing—the way classical music is sold, with this pomp and elitism, is a bit beyond our control. In Brazil, there are a lot of inclusive music education projects in local communities, so people mingle more.
In one of the groups of protesters I play with, there’s a cellist who fought as a guerrilla against the military coup of 1964. She said she had to be incredibly discrete, because being a classical musician means keeping your political convictions to yourself. She was a communist. Things are different now: these days, people are more open to different opinions.
At the Teatro Municipal, we play for the elite, and they applaud us, shout bravo. Then the concert ends, we change out of our suits, get on the subway, and nobody talks to us. Now the elite is listening—we have a voice. We don’t just exist to serve in the theater and give people a good night. We have their ear. ¶