Dilemmas of Carioca Samba

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Two Whites Between Two Yellows, 1958


Considerations on the transformations of the musical genre decanted in the hills of Rio de Janeiro

“It is difficult to defend\ life with words alone,\ even more so when it is\ the one you see, Severina” (João Cabral de Melo Neto – Death and life Severina).



The 1960s in Brazil represented a unique moment in the relationship between losers and winners, after all, it was still open, at least until 1964, an ignition key that permeated both sectors in the desire for power to remodel this relationship. Not that it was a Cubanization of Brazil, as Caetano Veloso referred to in his controversial “Conference at MAM”.[I] Even though the utopian environment on the left was as strong as ever, it was soon known that it was disconnected from popular ideologizations. The revolution would miss the meeting, in the expression of historian Daniel Aarão Reis Filho, in a study of the armed lefts of the period, which would take the dream of Brazilian-style development to the last stage.[ii] 1964 would thus be the “revenge of the province”, in the expression of Roberto Schwarz.[iii] The mystery of the support and/or silence of the abstract “people” on that April 1964, XNUMX for the coup would reflect what André Singer called “popular conservatism”,[iv] a strong tradition in Brazil. The people betrayed the left. The dream was shipwrecked. But the country was not yet completely defeated.

Roberto Schwarz, in a seminal and already widespread expression, would defend that, between the 1964 coup and the edition of the Institutional Act n.o. 5 (AI-5), in 1968, a cultural hegemony on the left would be constituted, separated from contact with the masses, a fundamental characteristic of the pre-coup engaged culture.[v] However, the utopian environment, detached from the reality that was already imposed on the country with the dictatorship in place, continued to share popular ideals, not closing itself and its practices, although operating in a closed circuit. In this way, the Morro-Zona Sul traffic, in the case of Rio de Janeiro, continued, which explains the wide recording of sambas from the hill by artists from the South Zone – Elizeth Cardoso dedicated, in 1965, an entire album to the theme (Elizeth goes up the hill). This utopian drive would certainly, definitively end with December 13, 1964, the publication date of AI-5, and its death throes.

With AI-5, this engaged culture would be cut in half: now it would be the artists who would be persecuted for their production. (In fact, it is known that since at least the episode of “8 do Glória”, in November 1965, the repression of the intelligentsia and artists had already been thickening; the AI-5 would thus be the last stage of this hardening process ).[vi] With that, the transit of this intellectuality becomes unfeasible, whose apex would have been the spectacle Opinion, with these sambistas from the hills, many of them recovered from ostracism. Now again left to their own devices, what to do? Samba, the greatest form of popular resistance in Brazilian music, would certainly not die. But how to survive then?



It seems to me that the survival of samba at this moment took place in two keys, which I will comment on in the lines that follow. On the one hand, these classic sambistas who traveled from Morro to the South Zone – Zé Keti played a leading role Opinion; Nelson Cavaquinho participated in the phonogram of “Luz Negra”, in partnership with Amâncio Cardoso, in Elizeth goes up the hill – were catapulted into a process that I choose to call “samba museification”.

According to historian José Geraldo Vinci de Moraes, an “institutional network” was created in the 1960s and 1970s for the study of popular music in Brazil supported by institutions and/or products, such as the Museu da Imagem e do Som do Rio de Janeiro. de Janeiro, to whom historic recordings are owed, such as the show produced by Hermínio Bello de Carvalho in which Elizeth Cardoso was alongside Jacob do Bandolim, Conjunto Época de Ouro and the Zimbo Trio, in what was definitely the wake of oxygen national-popular cultural – the burial would certainly be the International Song Festival of that fateful 1968. In addition to MIS-RJ, we can mention Funarte; the History of Brazilian Popular Music collection, by Abril Cultural; and the Association of MPB Researchers.[vii]

In this process, names from the old generation of memoirists, such as Almirante, Jota Efegê, Lúcio Rangel, among others, joined those of the new generation, such as Sérgio Cabral and José Ramos Tinhorão, architecting an intellectual network for the production and discussion of this type of samba. It was an attempt to preserve what was already dying, hence the idea of ​​museifying.[viii] However, this samba did not fail to reflect this process, always with deep humor and irony. Going back a little in time, Ismael Silva, for example, who, according to Carlos Sandroni, reinvented samba in the 1930s, creating what he called “Estácio’s paradigm”,[ix] was successful in this same period with "If you swear" in the voice of... Francisco Alves, "the king of the voice".

Now, exaggerating a little, it is possible to say that his production is expropriated from its origin, its condition of existence, for its own survival (of the work and of Ismael). A first hint of the samba dancers' denunciation of this process came from Ismael himself with his "Antonico" (1950), in which he puts the network of sociability of favors behind the whole process in murky waters.[X]. In “Antonico”, this social web opens wide from the triangle between Nestor, Antonico and a narrator, who asks the second for a favor on behalf of the first, for which in samba “nobody does what he [Nestor] does”. Is Nestor a samba dancer, abandoned to his own fate, dependent on a favor “that only depends on his [Antonico] good will”? I think so and that this process is even more macabre with a verse like “Do it for him as if it were for me”, that is, this will not be the first, nor the last favor asked of Antonico.[xi]

I believe, however, that this museification would be better reflected in two composers equally opposed to each other: Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho. The first, which had provided the Carioca intelligentsia with a great space for reflection and relaxation, the ZiCartola restaurant, was found, years later, by producer João Carlos Botezelli, Pelão, as a car washer. It was necessary to survive. His albums, recorded by the legendary Marcus Pereira label, a label that confirms the museification process of popular traditions in this period, reaffirm an advisory and conciliatory composer, as the plastic artist Nuno Ramos has already said in a seminal essay for this writing.[xii]

Cartola shows himself to be knowledgeable about the comings and goings of the Brazilian scene, and he gives advice to those who want it well, as in “The world is a mill”. In other words, alert for a telos from which there will be no escape. One telos greedy, individual, solitary. The time of the end as a time of retreat, sadness, despair almost. Under a strong Parnassian background in the lyrics, the arrangements in the recordings made for the two records of the Marcus Pereira label, demonstrate great erudition, but also a certain distance from the popular; he is, in a generic expression, a popular erudite.

In Nelson Cavaquinho the operation will be the opposite. Nelson, a singer with a flat voice, gifted with a unique method of playing his guitar, a former police sergeant, would be, even with Nuno Ramos, the extreme opposite of João Gilberto. All that universe that Bossa Nova sought to acclimatize, to soften without ceasing to denounce, would be crudely exposed without the pamphletism of the engaged bossa nova version, which would have its maximum example in Geraldo Vandré (although the classic core of Engaged Bossa is in Nara Leão , Carlos Lyra and Sérgio Ricardo, all artists of undeniable quality).

Nelson Cavaquinho, thus, depresses this cosmic space of Carioca culture, that of the dialectic between order and disorder that leads to a world without guilt, our redeeming hope, in the vision of Antonio Candido[xiii]. In his works, however, there is a certain notion of reckoning: Final Judgment on the hill, without dawn or passing at dawn. Furthermore, the role of the choir in his works, as Nuno Ramos reminds us, gives an impression of a ritual of catharsis, trance, collective and uncontrollable in his work. The time of the end as a time of salvation. The story of good and evil, the judgment of history, the disappointment of love. Nelson does not stop talking about the real, and, from it, he does not stop extracting its nerve, its ululating pulsation.

Anyway, when pointing to this apocalyptic air in Nelson Cavaquinho, we are talking about the popular daily life during the Civil-Military Dictatorship. In other words, to show that this people, which the developmental intelligentsia on the left thought would become autonomous, ending the cycle of infinite exploitation, had returned to its condition of existence (did it ever come out?). The transit from Morro to the South Zone would take place in the wake of the exploitation of labor, not least because the commodity form of the phonogram would not be of interest, except in the case of museification, these representatives of a country that should be overcome. More: it had to be overcome.

A sepulchral example of this process can be found in the already much commented documentary by Leon Hirszman on Nelson Cavaquinho: there we already see evidence of a situation of exclusionary peripheralization, the constitution of an underworld parallel to the official one and, in the midst of all this, Nelson singing the story of “Juízo Final” (partnership with Élcio Soares), by Luz Negra (partnership with Amâncio Cardoso) that makes him sing a dyad between these two songs: “The sun will shine again”, despite “I am reaching the end”, “Always alone”. “Life goes on like this”: “take your smile out of the way, because I want to go through my pain” (“A flor e o thorn”, partnership with Alcides Caminha and Guilherme de Brito). The dream of redemptive samba is finally over.



Hence it is crucial to understand the figure of Bezerra da Silva in this equation. On one occasion, historian Marcos Napolitano made an extremely provocative statement about that character that our objects here represent and that even precede them: the malandro. Asked about the role of this entity in national-popular culture, he was categorical: “The malandro is a potential traitor”, since survival is above ideology[xiv]. Following this interpretation, Bezerra da Silva would be the last malandro, the one for whom banditry is still exercised in the scope of survival.

This “precarious citizen” of samba, to speak with José Miguel Wisnik,[xv] in Bezerra, I would already allude to the collective band of self-defense as a synonym for malandragem – from there to organized crime and the militia, or rather, the capitalization of the equation, would be just one more step. It is not by chance that today there are countless connections between the militias and the cultural power in the periphery of Rio, especially in the phenomena of trance – controlled – that represent the funk dances.

From the covers of Bezerra da Silva's records, to the content of his musical work, one glimpses survival as an essential entity. The fruit of a generation after Nelson Cavaquinho, abandoned to its fate on the hillside, when even the rotten samba schools paid little attention to social dynamics since they were glamorized,[xvi] Bezerra da Silva is the one who best embodies the Brazilian-style farce that is now wide open. Crime and deaths normalized in the name of social peace; justice by one's own hands and the inconsequential culture of weapons; vagrancy converted into criminality (“I'm not a saint”, I put two guns to the cross on the cover of the homonymous album, in 1990, full routinization of neoliberal spoliative barbarism in Brazil). All these elements are gathered in Bezerra da Silva's production. No wonder he was a phenomenon among the masses: he said what was factual; there was no more room for conciliatory illusions, now it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.



Whenever questioned about the fact that she does not have only the samba genre in her repertoire, Alaíde Costa says that she sings a “more sophisticated samba” as much as possible, like Paulinho da Viola and Elton Medeiros. Alaíde also usually talks about the social role of the black singer in the 1960s: it was accepted that only samba was sung, and nothing else.[xvii] In addition to the fact that this is where his genius lies, today recognized by one of our greatest organic-peripheral intellectuals, Emicida, Alaíde's statement shifts the work of Paulinho and Elton to another environment. I believe that in their work there is a re-elaboration of the mourning caused by the evolution of the cultural industry in Brazil and by the gaps opened and doors closed by this process.

It is no coincidence that Elton created a samba like “Avenida Fechada” (a partnership with Antonio Valente and Cristóvão Bastos), in which he dreams of redeeming Carnival as an authentically popular festival – “While the avenue is closed / For those who cannot pay / Not even not even a corner to see / Your school / Passing by, dancing the samba / So much beauty / Parade trapped in my heart”[xviii]. However, it would no longer be possible. The options were clear: it would remain to choose between a visit to the museum of the ideology of samba (even that is threatened today, see the case of Funarte) or surrender to the world of crime, increasingly financialized, the antonym of the entire tradition of samba. There would be no more room for redemption in this far from utopian space, despite the survival of Paulinho and Elton, who enthroned themselves under the banner of Modern Brazilian Popular Music.

Excluding modernity? Well, that resulted in the swallowing of samba in the pagode form, especially in the 1990s and the pasteurization of all this ginga under the genre funk, which, in the same samba spaces, would update the sonority, adding to this controlled trance (since it was monitored, managed), the potential of sample and other features of recent technologies. Threatened like samba, easily criminalized by those who observe its trance, the funk would carioca represent our world without guilt 2.0? Without the disciplinary dimension that the rap, like that of Racionais MC's from São Paulo, would that be our utopian residual background? Only time will tell.[xx] [xx]

*Vitor Morais Graziani is majoring in history at FFLCH-USP.



[I] VELOSO, Caetano. Conference at MAM. Teresa: magazine of Brazilian Literature. [4 | 5]. São Paulo, 2004, p. 324.

[ii] SON, Daniel Aarão Reis. The revolution missed the meeting: the communists in Brazil. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1990.

[iii] SCHWARZ, Robert. Culture and politics, 1964 – 1969 – some sketches. In: The father of the family and other studies. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008, p. 83.

[iv] SINGER, Andrew. Left and right in the Brazilian electorate: the ideological identification in the presidential disputes of 1989 and 1994. São Paulo: Edusp, 2000, p. 145.

[v] SCHWARZ, Robert. Culture and politics, 1964 – 1969 – some sketches. In: The father of the family and other studies. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008, p. 71.

[vi] See NAPOLITANO, Marcos. The cultural issue and the political-ideological lineages of opposition and resistance and The genesis of cultural resistance. Civil heart: Brazilian cultural life under the Military Regime. 1964 to 1985. Historical essay. São Paulo: Intermeios, 2017, pp. 41 – 58 and pp. 59 – 98.

[vii] MORAES, Jose Geraldo Vinci de. Creating a world from nothing: the invention of a historiography of popular music in Brazil. São Paulo: intermediate, 2019, p. 192

[viii] There was, behind all these names (perhaps with the exception of Tinhorão), a notion that popular cultures, among which samba was included, would be like children, who would need protection and care. The adultification process would be its death, on the other hand, hence the need/urgency to register all this material, before capitalist evolution eliminates it from its daily practices. I support this comment, as well as when I talk about “samba museification” in CERTEAU, Michel de. The beauty of the dead. In: Culture in the plural. Campinas: Papirus Editorial, 1995, pp. 55 – 86.

[ix] SANDRONI, Carlos. Decent spell: transformations of samba in Rio de Janeiro (1917 – 1933). Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2001, p. 44 (edit Kindle).

[X] I owe Francisco Alambert the reference to “Antonico”. It is worth remembering that the song was taken up again in the same vein as Morro-Southern relations in the 1960s by the Tropicalistas, adding, however, in the wake of João Gilberto, an invention of Brazilian popular music.

[xi] For a biographical profile of Ismael Silva that comments on this whole process, see TINHORÃO, José Ramos. Small story of a great composer named Ismael Silva. In: Music and popular culture: various writings on a common theme. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2017, pp. 161 – 184.

[xii] RAMOS, Nuno. Wrinkles (about Nelson Cavaquinho). In: check if the same. São Paulo: However, 2019. The entire comment about Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho is a gloss on this essay.

[xiii] I am referring, as the reader must have noticed, to Antonio Candido's study of Memorias de um sargento de milicias in CANDIDO, Antonio. Dialectics of malandragem (Characterization of Memorias de um sargento de milicias). Magazine of the Institute of Brazilian Studies (8), 1970, pp. 67 – 89. It is worth remembering that Roberto Schwarz, in the light of 1964, does not buy the idea of ​​redemption in the world without guilt. On the contrary, this would be precisely the space of the “corner guard” that Pedro Aleixo referred to during the vote on whether or not to publish AI-5. See SCHWARZ, Roberto. Assumptions, unless I am mistaken, of Dialectics of Trickery, In: What time is it? Essay🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2006.

[xiv] Personal communication, 17.11.2020.

[xv] WISNIK, Jose Miguel. The minute and the millennium or please, professor, one decade at a time. In: Without recipe: rehearsals and songs. São Paulo: Publifolha, 2004.

[xvi] To do so, check out the prophetic study by José Ramos Tinhorão in TINHORÃO, José Ramos. Why samba schools die. In: Popular music: a subject under debate. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2012.

[xvii] “I don't have much to complain about in life”, says singer Alaíde Costa. Folha de S. Paul, 09.Jan.2021.

[xviii] I owe the reference to this interpretation to Márcio Modesto, for which I thank him.

[xx] Thanks to Lucas Paolillo for his provocation regarding the funk From Rio.

[xx] Julio D'Ávila read a preliminary version of this paper and motivated me to expand the discussion, for which I am grateful. The ideas contained here, although entirely my responsibility, are the result of the concerns of people with whom I have had contact in recent times. I seek, from provocations and balances that I followed and that are duly credited throughout the text notes, a synthesis for the theme addressed, so that the authorship, mine, is also collective of all who are cited.

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