Sounds of Political Demonstrations


Another urban situation that highlights calls to mind these tactical zones are the protests and political demonstrations that occupy streets and avenues during certain social mobilizations linked to burning issues, such as the mega events (FIFA World Cup and 2014 Olympic Games) that took place in Brazil between 2013 and 2016, during the impeachment procedure of President Dilma Rouseff and the social security reforms. We have started exploratory field work in June 2013 – primarily in Belo Horizonte and currently in Vitória – to better understand the sonorities of the action strategies implemented by political parties, popular groups, and social movements. At this stage of the research we are interested in how the presence and voices of those who take part in the demonstrations contribute to supporting or rejecting the ideas of the very leaders who organize them or those of other militant groups and activists. This dispute takes place through the use and manipulation of rhythms and melodies, songs, mottos, and slogans – a social dynamics that takes into account not only the intensity of those sounds and the distance of the listeners to their sources, but also the sequence of the sonic repertoires demonstrators access.


These political demonstrations and protests are usually organized around marches lead by one or more sound trucks from which the leaders of the social movements chant mottos, slogans, and songs. The demonstrators are not only activists associated with the social movements organizing the demonstration but also members of civil society, pedestrians, and especially other groups of activists who align politically with the issue in question, although not always completely with the guidelines of those who mobilized the march. These divergent collectives often bring their own music – mostly percussion instruments, sometimes real drums, sometimes improvised drums made of metal paint cans or plastic buckets – and locate themselves at a tactical distance from the speakers leading the protest. The distance guarantees that their sonic performance is not masked and they can both listen to what the demonstration organizers say as well as remain audible themselves.


The sound dynamics are such that the instrumental groups sometimes echo what the sound truck at the front of the demonstration emits and at other times oppose it. This divergence can emerge through the production of completely different sound repertoires, offering responses to what the opposite group proposes, or even appropriating their sonic material in order to recombine it and form another message. Thus, we sometimes observed groups vying for demonstrators through the use of very similar rhythms and melodies over which they sing very different but like-sounding lyrics, mottos or slogans. This approach often confuses the protesters, who find themselves repeating, by through proximity, ideological content with which they often do not completely agree. As a result, contending groups at the demonstration can see their numbers grow or shrink. These social dynamics constitute tactical zones in which protesters and activists find themselves bombarded by different sound repertoires. They make immediate decisions about what they want to echo based on ideological content as well as on the intensity of the sounds, the physical distance to their sources, and the number of agents who promulgate them. Therefore, a sonic dispute is established in which the opportunism of those who sound often matters more than the political content of the mottos, verses or slogans. Sometimes a shout or song “catches” the crowd more effectively by the way it is sonically or performatively manipulated than by its ability to synthesize an argument or convey a message. Hence, ideological conflicts are often audibly expressed in political manifestations  demonstrators who sound like performers or popular improvisers.