José Ramos Tinhorão (1928-2021)

Wassily Kandinsky, Comet, 1900.


Commentary on the intellectual trajectory of the recently deceased historian and music critic

Daughter of not-so-secret adventures, in the vast outskirts of the world, with variants of nationalism and traditionalism, José Ramos Tinhorão's musical criticism, with regard to motherhood, experienced the drama that still presents itself today to certain currents of criticism of the theory social: born to a well-known and increasingly respected (albeit not always loved) father, her enigmatic motherhood led her to more than a few impasses.

Tinhorão, born José Ramos in Santos on February 07, 1928, graduated in law and journalism in Rio de Janeiro in 1953 and began his professional life in the same year, hired in September as an editor / copyeditor for Diário Carioca – where he won the nickname that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He later worked as editor at Jornal do Brasil (1958-63), TV Excelsior (1963 to March 31, 1964), TV Rio, TV Globo (1966-1968), magazine Veja (1968-1973), magazine Nova. He collaborated as a music critic, until the 1990s, with different newspapers and magazines. This activity had already begun in 1961, when, provoked by Reynaldo Jardim, he started to write in Caderno B of Jornal do Brasil, on Sérgio Cabral's page, a column entitled First Samba Lessons. Thus began the activity that would establish him as an unavoidable figure in the field of Brazilian culture in general, and urban music in particular: the writing of critical texts on Brazilian popular music, initially in the form of newspaper articles.[1]

But this is not just about writing. Tinhorão engaged, from then on, in very dedicated research work, even more demanding and important because, at the time he began this work, systematized sources on the subject were extremely scarce and rare. He himself stated that at the time, very few books were available on the subject, as well as scattered testimonies. The most abundant bibliography was that which dealt with popular music as a secondary theme. For this reason, the researcher applied himself to interviewing key figures in the constitution of urban popular music in Brazil, such as Ismael Silva, Bide, Donga, Pixinguinha, Almirante, Sinhô, Heitor dos Prazeres, Ademar Casé.

He also made an effort to collect scattered material, studies published in magazines, literary supplements, phonograms, scores, leaflets, in different locations in Brazil (especially Rio de Janeiro and Salvador) and Portugal, reaching the point of gathering, in his mature collection , more than 6 76 and 78 rpm records recorded between 1902 and 1964; over 4 33 rpm records (LPs) released between 1960 and 1990; over 35 sheet music; in addition to books and other rare documents such as letters, entire collections of disappeared magazines, literary supplements from extinct newspapers, leaflets printed since the XNUMXth century in Brazil, copies of extremely rare books printed, in Brazil and Portugal, over centuries...

No wonder, several legends were built around his figure – some largely based on real facts. It is true, for example, that the researcher lived for many years in a kitchenette of about 30m2 on Rua Maria Antônia, in Consolação, in São Paulo, where the main resident did not seem to be exactly him, but rather the huge collection he had collected throughout his adult life. There, he initially slept in a sleeping bag given to him by one of the children, later replaced by the “comfort” of two stacked mattresses, which was what there was room to put.

It is also true that he self-funded his research throughout his adult life, first with his salary as a journalist, and later with the pension he received from the INSS. He did not join the academy with her until late and marginally, when he completed his master's degree in Social History at USP. By then, he was already a well-known and mature researcher, having defended in 1999, already in his seventies, the dissertation entitled The carnival press in Brazil. Upon receiving a scholarship for this master's degree, he used it to carry out research trips and acquire material.

Apart from this brief interregnum, he never found public funding for his research, despite its enormous importance - increasingly recognized the more the researcher made his results public, in the form of more than twenty books of his authorship edited between Brazil and Portugal over the course of of about five decades. It is also true that he got involved or was involved in fights with several of the best known names in the so-called MPB between the 1960s and 1990s, due to what he wrote. And this last point leads to a subject that I would like to deepen in this obituary.

José Ramos Tinhorão always stated that the theoretical-methodological framework on which not only his work as a researcher/historian was based, but also his critical-essayistic treatment of Brazilian urban popular music, was historical-dialectical materialism. It is, as is known, a slightly more pompous name for good old Marxism (only eclipsing the too direct reference to the individual who founded it). But Marxism is not just a set of ideas printed in ink on paper: it is, above all, the living theoretical expression of practical movements fighting for the emancipation of the working classes in the context of the planetary consolidation of the capitalist way of production and life. Therefore, when such classes suffer inflections, transformations, experience alterations in their ways of being and struggle, Marxism also metamorphoses – even if, like the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, certain essential elements always remain.

The reception of Marx's thought, as well as that of the classics of Marxism, is not usually moved by theoretical interest detached from political praxis. This is not, in itself, a problem: it is consistent with the very fruitfulness of this thought as a theoretical expression of the movement of the real. Articulated in the reception of Marxism, as well as in its particular reproduction in the concrete thought of each thinker who claims to be linked to this aspect of social theory, a whole set of previously accumulated knowledge, assumed positions, fragments of polemics, struggles, interpretations of the historical process in which such thinking developed, and the one that developed from it.

In the case of Tinhorão's thought, I present here the following hypotheses. First, that the particular form his Marxism assumed was profoundly marked by a conservative assimilation of the notion of tradition (in a word: traditionalism), linked to an uncritical reading of the limits of the nation as an interpretative category and of nationalism as a political project.[2] Second, that, contradictorily, these limits are at the basis of the main strong point of the author's thought: his indefatigable interest in the traditional forms of Brazilian urban popular culture – that is, those that developed and consolidated between, approximately, the end of the XNUMXth century and half of the XNUMXth century, over the period of time in which Brazil historically and concretely processed the constitution of a nation.

This mark is noticeable in the direction of several of the statements he made as a music critic, as well as in the direction given by the thinker to some of the most important controversies in which he was involved. This is the case, for example, of the well-known controversy over bossa nova, which, for him, like the so-called national cars, would be North American music only produced in Brazil – which he also stated, for example, about rock Brazilian. Or even his insistence on the sarcastic and acid treatment given to icons of that musical genre, which cost him many accusations of meanness and disloyalty.

Tinhorão stated verbally and in writing, on different occasions, that Tom Jobim would be an Americanized plagiarist, since he would have taken some of his main songs from pieces of the Brazilian oral tradition, only rearranging them to the taste of the North American jazz aesthetic; Joao Gilberto would be a crooner Americanized playing a stuttering guitar; Johnny Alf would be a Brazilian-American musician incapable of rescuing the true Brazilian tradition, an old magician pulling the same flowers out of his worn hat, etc. Note the recurrence of the accusatory finding: the central problem was that such musicians did not express the culture considered by Tinhorão as truly Brazilian, that of the “people”, when they incorporated elements of a language considered foreign, strange, imposed.

Such accusations refer to the consideration of the historical moment in which José Ramos Tinhorão's Marxism was formed. A well-known essay on culture and politics in Brazil in the 1960s demonstrates that, between the 1950s and 1964, winds of nationalism and developmentalism formed part of a vibrant sociocultural mosaic in which the country would have been unrecognizably intelligent. These were years in which a majority or, at least, hegemonic culture was formed (especially from the second half of the 1950s onwards), in which the incidence of watchwords such as an independent foreign policy, structural reforms, national liberation, the fight against imperialism and the latifundio indicate intense movement in Brazilian political and cultural life.

This movement expressed, on an ideological level, the course that actually took place in concluding the capitalist transition of the Brazilian economic and social formation, through a conservative modernization with characteristics classically marked as a revolution from above, which occurred through the repeated conciliation between progress and backwardness. This resulted in a social form marked by abysmal social inequality, maintained and reproduced by an autocratic and extremely brutal state form.

Tinhorão was an obstinate critic of the illusions that propagated that capitalist development would lead to overcoming this situation and, with it, the country's social ills. He clearly saw that the process took place by accentuating the subordination of the Brazilian working classes, just as it was based on the expansion of their exploitation and even their spoliation – think of the countless removals of populations as part of the spatial and urban reconfiguration of the large Brazilian cities; in the so-called “rural exodus”, a sign of the expropriation of peasants; in the submission of large contingents, previously self-sufficient, to the imperatives of salaried work and the market to maintain subsistence. This had major consequences on the way of life of such populations, which obviously, in itself, already imposed consequences on the cultural level, fueling an ever-increasing pressure for the reconfiguration of traditional forms of expression, to the extent that workers (and indeed , that is what it is about, even when we are talking about music and musicians) saw their living conditions, places of residence, sociability networks, ways of entering the world of work, etc., radically altered.

The researcher wanted to place himself on the side of those who suffered the consequences of capitalist development more directly, and understood, rightly, that a transition process was taking place in urban popular music that expressed the modernization underway in Brazil – and that, therefore, also it should express the enormous inequalities and the mechanisms of domination, exploitation and expropriation posed by it. It is from this position taken that his determined defense of tradition, seen as belonging to the people, against modernization, seen as belonging to the elite and the middle classes, begins. And this is where his passion for popular culture and urban popular music stems from, which spurred him on to build the most important individual work in the field of popular music historiography known in the country.

But therein lies some notable problems. First, the conceptions of tradition and people present in Tinhorão's writings tend to be reifying, that is, they tend to treat as static beings, disconnected from the whole of social life, and, at the limit, dehumanized, those who claim to want to protect, electing some of their objectivations as a matter of protection and relegating the concreteness of the transformations that pushed them to adaptations and assemblages. Turns out the wheel of history doesn't turn backwards. Once the capitalist mode of production and life has been established, it cannot be resisted by proposing a return to the past or the survival, isolated and apart, of forms of life and sociability that claim to be impervious to the overwhelming force of capital.

Such proposals are incompatible with the development logic of capital, which tends to subordinately destroy and/or assimilate them, as amply demonstrated by Marx, Engels, by the best later Marxist thought, and by the development of the capitalist mode of production itself. This is a simple observation: this force saturates every pore of sociability in every social class, including the working classes and the proletariat, and also, as widely demonstrated by progressive currents of psychoanalysis, every interstice of the very configuration of subjectivity and individuality.

Thus, once the capitalist mode of production and life has been established, which today is globalised, encompassing humanity as a whole under its titanic expansive force, it is only possible to effectively oppose it through political praxis committed to its eviction. . This activity, which is necessarily collective, must point to the construction of spaces specific to the working classes in which the articulation between forms of resistance and assimilation takes place, conjuring up certain expressions of alienated and reified life and turning them revolutionaryly against order. Hence a second limit, worthy of attention, of Tinhorão's position: he viewed Marxism as a theory disconnected from practice, never having been linked to spaces of collective organization for confronting the problems that he himself denounced, even though such spaces existed throughout throughout his life and activity. His indignation and his stance were therefore limited to a moral dimension – which helps to understand the recurrence of the moralizing way in which he presented his criticism.

Which forms are likely to be combined in the collective struggle to overcome capitalism, and how to reconfigure and/or invent them, are two of the questions to which Marxism has found different answers since its foundation in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of these answers have already passed the hard test of practical reality, having obtained important successes. The defeats were no less impactful... But what is known, of course, is that without engaging in a collective political bet, and one that seeks to be massive, there is no way out of the way of life whose deleterious consequences Tinhorão, in his own way, is opposed.

There would be many other elements to discuss with the powerful intellectual that was José Ramos Tinhorão in these days following his death, in which I am sunk among his books and arguing with him in front of the computer. To my misfortune and regret, I do not run the risk of facing your harsh verve contradicting me and pointing out the shortcomings of this text. So I'll just end by saying goodbye, for now, to a man who accomplished the feat of becoming a mandatory reference even for those who hated him. Reference that does not cease with his death: Tinhorão will still be in this world for a long time.


I end on a personal note. I live, through this text, my mourning and my great sadness for not having met him personally, nor having done two doctorates instead of just one. My initial thesis proposal was about him, for which he would have been guided by the professor, and, today, fraternal friend, Samuel Araújo. But here came the wheel and dragged me in a different direction – I dedicated myself, in those years, to studying the work of another great figure of Brazilian social thought, Carlos Nelson Coutinho. With this obituary I leave a small and heartfelt tribute, with my respect and admiration, to José Ramos Tinhorão, in the form that he so instigated – that of controversy.

*Victor Neves Professor at the Department of Theory of Art and Music at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES).


[1] For a concise and informed approach to his life and work, cf. Elizabeth Lorenzotti, Tinhorão: the Legendary. São Paulo: Official Press, 2010. Cf. also the rich collection of interviews carried out and made available by Instituto Moreira Salles in the 39 videos of the playlist “Testimonial by José Ramos Tinhorão” on YouTube.

[2] The problem of the relationship between tradition and traditionalism in Brazilian popular music criticism is worked out in detail by Eduardo Coutinho, Old stories, future memories: the meaning of tradition in the work of Paulinho da Viola. Rio de Janeiro: EdUERJ, 2002. There are interesting observations in this work about Tinhorão's treatment of tradition, which are used here.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table