Women who interpret Brazil

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Event Horizon, digital painting, 2011


Newly Released Book Chapter

Clementina de Jesus – “Memory that is either sung or lost”[I]

Clementina de Jesus da Silva was born on February 7, 1901, in Valença, a municipality located in the Vale do Paraíba region, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. However, both the name and date of birth are uncertain: her baptismal certificate states that Clementina was baptized in 1901, but she once said in an interview that she was born in 1903, while her marriage certificate states that she was born in 1907.

In the certificates, Clementina's name also varies: in 1943 it was "Clementina de Jesus da Silva", in 1950 her full name was "Clementina de Jesus dos Santos", while in 1974 it was spelled as "Clementina Laura de Jesus".[ii] But none of that mattered much to her: “Hey my son, do the math, my son! Leave it…",[iii] she once said when trying to remember her age.

In any case, when Clementina was born, just over a decade after the abolition of slavery (1888), Valença had a large number of Afro-descendants and Africans, the latter brought clandestinely to work in the coffee plantations. With the growth in the demand for coffee and the consequent intensification of the exploitation of labor of African origin, it did not take long for a culture of resistance to emerge in the region, with jongo being one of its main cultural expressions. For historian Robert Slenes, this combination of music, dance and verse is testimony to the presence and articulation of communities of different Bantu origins, coming from Central Africa in the XNUMXth century.

A resident of the Carambita neighborhood, far from the city center but relatively close to the surrounding quilombola communities, Clementina was born into a family of African origin, whose musicality was part of everyday life. Clementina's mother, midwife and prayer worker Amélia de Jesus, carried out household chores by singing songs learned from her parents, who had been enslaved, and from the Afro-descendant community in the region.

Amélia escaped slavery because, according to her daughter, she was born after the proclamation of the Free Womb Law (1871). According to Clementina herself, the jongo “Cercar paca”, which is part of the album Clementina, where are you? (1970), he had learned from his mother who, while washing clothes at the back of the house, sang the verses “I want/about paca, my brother/ in the tria here passes cotia/ dog here I swallowed bone/ well, look at this/ it’s because he knows that trusts”.[iv] Clementina's father, Paulo Baptista, a carpenter and bricklayer, was a well-known guitar player and capoeirista in Valença. The vivid memories of the songs she had known in her childhood attest to how much music was already something important for her, since childhood.

At the turn of the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXth century, coffee production in the Paraíba Valley entered a crisis caused, above all, by the drop in soil productivity. Clementina's family was directly affected by this context and found no other solution than to emigrate. For this reason, while still a girl, Clementina moved with her family to an uncle's house in Jacarepaguá, in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Clementina moved house, city, circle of sociability and affection. But her passion for music was conserved. Perhaps because it has prevailed as permanence amid so many changes, music has gained more and more ground in the scale of its journey. Shortly after her arrival in the capital of Rio de Janeiro, Clementina became the main voice of the group of shepherdesses in the neighborhood, part of the Folia de Reis festival that seeks to represent the three wise men on their journey to visit Christ.

Pastoral master João Cartolinha was enchanted by Clementina's voice and made her the “little fish”, a character at the party that symbolizes food. At the same time, Clementina started singing in the choir of the Santo Antônio orphanage, the Catholic school where she studied. In her interviews, Clementina always insisted on reinforcing the importance of her faith: “I am Catholic, a misseira… I am, I really am”. However, her beliefs never prevented her from attending spaces of African-based religious practices. She said she found it beautiful, admired the party. In the very brief attempt to understand the religious transits around Clementina, it is worth reflecting on the nickname that accompanied her all her life: Quelé. Given by João Cartolinha, there are those who say that “Quelé” alludes to her name, “Clementina”. However, it is worth remembering that “quelé” or “quelê” is the name given to an ornament, a kind of necklace of beads, used in candomblé to signal submission to an orixá. Clementina, from the ambivalence of the nickname, carried her belongings.

Shortly after the family moved to Rio de Janeiro, Clementina's father died. In those days, even having to move out of her uncle's house with her mother, her relationship with João Cartolinha became closer. At her invitation, she met and performed at the club Moreninha de Campinas, in the Oswaldo Cruz neighborhood. At the beginning of the century, the neighborhood was already a stronghold of big names in samba, with whom Clementina had a very close relationship, such as composers Paulo da Portela, Donga and Pixinguinha. At the same time, she met Hilária Batista de Almeida, known as Tia Ciata, a central figure in the history of the creation of carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and also met Dona Esther, a carnival artist and founder of several carnival blocks. In 1923, Clementina de Jesus, now a young woman, saw these blocks give rise to the Portela samba school.

The sociability in the spaces of sambas and parties went far beyond entertainment, weaving ties of solidarity and compadrio, sometimes marked by ritual dimensions. Both Tia Ciata and Maria de Neném, godmother of Laís, Clementina's eldest, were mothers of saints, followers of candomblé. Clementina says she took part in some ceremonies at her comadre's terreiro. Even declaring herself Catholic, the experiences and sociability in these spaces would be present in her clothing, aesthetics and interpretations. Depending on the context and scale of the XNUMXth century, these spaces established themselves as important territories of black culture and resistance in the capital of a Brazil deeply marked by whitening policies and by the various forms of oppression at the service of racism.

In 1940, Clementina de Jesus married docker Albino Correia Bastos da Silva, known as Pé Grande, who stayed with her until the end of her days. From this union Olga was born, Clementina's youngest daughter. Married, she left Oswaldo Cruz and went to live in Mangueira, where she started to parade for the Estação Primeira de Mangueira school, founded, among others, by Cartola, with whom she became a friend.

Throughout her life, Clementina worked as a caterer, cook, washerwoman and maid. Once, Clementina sang while washing clothes in the back of the house where she worked, just like her mother did. Disturbed by Clementina's voice, the mistress asked, refractory: "Are you singing or meowing?"[v]. The speech deeply marked by racism reveals how social and, above all, racial markers unfolded in the relationships between women in everyday life in private spaces. Despite her self-confessed fondness for singing, Clementina had no intention of becoming a professional singer. She sang with her friends at festivals, at dances, at parties, at carnivals, in bars, all with great enthusiasm, but without greater aspirations.

However, his luck would change in 1963, when he met the poet, producer and composer Hermínio Bello de Carvalho. There are many versions about this meeting, but it is certain that he and Clementina spoke for the first time at the opening of the Zicartola restaurant, whose owners were Cartola and Dona Zica, his wife. Shortly afterwards, Hermínio recorded Clementina de Jesus singing. According to Clementina, they recorded a few songs, including samba All blue, from Portola.[vi]

Enthusiastic with what seemed to him a trait of originality and with Clementina's voice, Hermínio put on a show for the movement Minstrel, a project that was being organized by the producer with the theme “guitar and banzo”. The first part of the show consisted of classical music and the second part featured popular music. The first show in this series brought guitarist Turíbio Santos and Clementina de Jesus in 1963, at Teatro Jovem. Clementina's performance left the audience impressed.

According to Turíbio Santos, “people were literally speechless with Clementina (…) she not only played the music, she actually interpreted the music”[vii]. Contrasting with the intimate bossa nova aesthetics so in vogue at the time, Clementina's high and engaging tone, in addition to bringing a different way of singing to the eyes of the public and urban and carioca critics, was the bearer of a repertoire of themes from memories of former slaves, hitherto marginalized in music. Using her voice, Clementina very naturally articulated songs, rhythms, sayings and words that told another story of the black diaspora in Brazil.

Excited about the success of Minstrel, Hermínio Bello de Carvalho mounted the show rose of gold, also presented at Teatro Jovem. In this new performance, Clementina de Jesus was joined by the singer Aracy Cortes, well remembered for having been the first interpreter of Brazilian watercolor, by Ary Barroso. In addition to these two women, the show was composed by Jair do Cavaquinho, a sambista from Portela, the young Paulinho da Viola and the composers and percussionists Nescarzinho do Salgueiro and Elton Medeiros, who coined the theme Clementina, where are you?.

Herminio conceived the rose of gold to remember the importance of the great carioca sambistas, which made it have a certain appeal of returning to the origins of Brazilian popular music, bringing jongos, high parties and sambas. From a scenic perspective, the show was also original: it showed projections with testimonials from big names in MPB, such as Cartola, Donga, Pixinguinha (author of the jongo that started the show, Benguelê), Elizeth Cardoso, among others.

blockbuster, rose of gold was also critically acclaimed, as exemplified by Hélio Fernandes' comment on Press Tribune: “In terms of samba music [Rosa de Ouro] is incomparable”.[viii] The repercussion caused the artists involved to travel to several Brazilian capitals presenting their repertoire. The show inspired the recording of the LP rose of gold (1965), the first by Clementina de Jesus. For Lena Frias, this album sets the tone for her discography. If not rare, when recognition comes, it comes late in the women's journey. In the case of those belonging to socially and racially subjugated groups in the historical process, it takes even longer.

At the time of her first recording, Clementina was in her sixties. After this debut, Clementina recorded a total of 12 albums. In Miracle of the Pisces (1973) by Milton Nascimento, the forces of nature (1977) by Clara Nunes and Party Alto note 10 (1984) by Aniceto do Império, made special appearances. Of the other nine albums recorded by her, eight were produced by Hermínio Bello de Carvalho, whom Clementina affectionately called “son”.

If in 1965, the Valencian Clementina de Jesus left the state of Rio de Janeiro to travel to Brazil, in 1966 she conquered the world. She was nominated by the national government to represent Brazil at the XNUMXst World Festival of Black Arts, in Dakar (Senegal). Considered a defining moment in the affirmation of African cultural identity, the event was organized with the support of the President of Senegal, Léopold Senghor, and brought together generations of African artists and the black diaspora in a context in which liberation struggles against the colonial yoke multiplied. if in Africa.

Clementina crossed the Atlantic in the company of Elizeth Cardoso, Elton Medeiros, Paulinho da Viola and Haroldo Costa, responsible for the Brazilian delegation. Once again, she was revered by the public, and she returned the affection by saying in Portuguese: “May Our Lady of Conceição watch over you!”. Years later, Clementina recalled, with her usual ease, having danced with the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, at a dinner at the home of the Brazilian ambassador in Senegal.[ix]. That same year, Clementina represented Brazil at the Cannes Film Festival, in France. Later, the French government awarded her the Commendation of the Order of Arts and Letters. Even with so many new things in her universe, Clementina continued to live in the same house, carrying out her daily chores, maintaining her routine. She loved to spend her hours in the kitchen preparing sweets, her confessed temptation.

The 1970s were particularly hard for the sambista: in 1974, her daughter Laís died and, after three years, it was her husband's turn to pass away. Add to that her health condition, which already inspired care at the time. Even so, it was a decade of important work: in 1970 she recorded her first solo album, Clementina, where are you?.

One of Clementina's last jobs was the recording of the album Song of slaves, a project in which sambistas Tia Doca and Geraldo Filme also participated. The aim of the project was to record 14 of the 65 work songs collected by the philologist and linguist Aires da Mata Machado Filho in São João da Chapada, in the municipality of Diamantina (Minas Gerais), between the 1920s and 1930s. the songs were sung in “languela language” (and not “benguela”) or “language of Angola”, as taught by the Afro-descendants of the region. However, the scholar also identified Nagô particles and sounds. Possibly this inheritance comes from enslaved people brought from the northeast region of the country to work in the mines in the interior.

The presence of Bantu languages ​​pulsates in the vissungos. Let's take as an example the TAKE II, played by Clementina de Jesus. In addition to a large number of Bantu terms such as “cacunda” (from Kimbundu, “kakunda” means “corcovado”),[X] the addition of vowels in words in Portuguese, as can be seen in the verse “purugunta where are you going” is something recurrent in the speech of descendants of Bantu spaces. In addition, the marks of verses repeated several times by a choir, which respond to or encourage the soloist are also present in this vissungo: the verses “Ê, chora, chora gong, ê devera, chora gong cries,/ Ê, chora, chora gong , it’s a bunch, cry gong cry”.[xi]

However, as observed by Sônia Queiróz, in the album Song of Slaves a rhythmic interpretation of the Nagô-Yoruba matrix of the chants is made, evidenced by the binary pattern[1]. This characteristic denotes how much this album was able to cross transits and meanings of the African presence in Brazil when interpreting the production of a specific location. In other words, Clementina brings in the vissungos from the north of Minas Gerais fragments of many of the Africas that Brazil comprises. This was not the last time that Clementina entered the studio, but it was a crucial point in her trajectory, since in Song of Slaves she uses her voice to talk about memories that are not hers or those of her ancestors, but that go back to the trajectories of other Clementinas.

Clementina died on July 19, 1987 as a result of a stroke, the fifth she had suffered. Her story is an inseparable part of the history of Brazilian popular music and its transformations in the XNUMXth century. As the singer Leny Andrade once said, “Clementina is MPB’s horizon and also its limit”[xii].

*Helena Wakim Moreno holds a PhD in social history from USP.


Lincoln Secco, Marcos Silva and Olga Brites (eds.). Women who interpret Brazil. São Paulo, Contracurrent Publisher, 2023, 700 pages.


- golden rose (1965) – Odeon.

- Golden rose – vol. II (1967) – Odeon.

- changing conversation (1968) - Imperial/Odeon record label.

- Speak Hose (1968) – Odeon.

- old people (1968) – Odeon.

- Clementina, where are you? (1970) – Museum of Image and Sound record label.

- fish miracle (1973) – Odeon.(Special appearance on Milton Nascimento's album)

- sailor alone (1973) – EMI.

- Clementine de Jesus (1976) – Odeon.

- the forces of nature (1977) – EMI-Odeon. (Special appearance on Clara Nunes' album)

- clementine and guests (1979) – EMI.

- The Song of the Slaves (1982) – Eldorado.

- Party high note 10 (1984) – CID. (Special appearance on Aniceto do Império's album)

- sailor alone (1989) – EMI-Odeon.

- old people (1989) – EMI-Odeon.

- Clementine de Jesus (1989) – EMI.

- golden rose (1993) – Volumes I and II – EMI-Odeon.

- Roots of Samba – Clementina de Jesus (1999) – Copacabana.

- Clementine of Jesus: 100 years (2000) – (Box with complete discography) – EMI.

– I am the samba – Clementina de Jesus (2009) – EMI.

- Queen Quelé (2011) – Universal.


ABREU, Martha; MATTOS, Hebe. “'Remnants of Quilombo Communities': memory of captivity, cultural heritage and right to reparation”. In: Anais do XXVI National History Symposium. São Paulo: ANPUH, 2011.

ALBIN, Ricardo Cravo. "Clementine of Jesus". In: Houaiss Illustrated Dictionary: Brazilian Popular Music. Rio de Janeiro: Paracatu Editora, 2006, pp. 368-369.

COELHO, Heron (org.). Queen Quelé – Clementina de Jesus. Valença: Editora Valença, 2001.

PAVAN, Alexander. Helmsman – Biographical profile of Hermínio Bello de Carvalho. Rio de Janeiro: House of the Word, 2006.

SLENES, Robert. “'I come from far away, I've been digging': jongueiros cumba in the Central African slave quarters”. In: LARA, Silvia H; PACHECO, Gustavo (org): Memory of Jongo: the historical recordings of Stanley Stein – Vassouras, 1949. Rio de Janeiro: Folha Seca/Campinas: Cecult, 2007, pp. 109-165.


Interview by Clementina de Jesus at the Museu da Imagem e Som (MIS) in 1967. Available in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2CvGIRSVZY.

“Clementina de Jesus” – Program from there to here. Aired by TV Brasil on 26/06/2011. Available in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUwgqyc7CJ0.



[I] The title is a reference to the profile of the singer Atahualpa Yupanqui, drawn by Eduardo Galeano: “To continue the path sing, singing what Atahualpa Yupanqui walked. And to continue the story: because the story of the poor is sung or lost, and he knows that (…)”. See: GALEANO, Eduardo. the century of the wind. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2005, vol. 3, pp. 180.

[ii] References to the certificates are by Lena Frias, while the interviews in question are the interviews that Clementina granted to the Museu da Imagem e Som in 1967. See: FRIAS, Lena. "Biography". COELHO, Heron (org.). Queen Quelé – Clementina de Jesus. Valença: Editora Valença, 2001, 26-27; Interview by Clementina de Jesus at the Museu da Imagem e Som (MIS) in 1967. Available in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2CvGIRSVZY.

[iii] Interview by Clementina de Jesus at the Museu da Imagem e Som (MIS) in 1967. Op. Cit.

[iv] FRIAS, Lena. "Biography". COELHO, Heron (org.). Queen Quelé … Op. Cit. p. 28.

[v] PAVAN, Alexander. Helmsman – Biographical profile of Hermínio Bello de Carvalho. Rio de Janeiro: Casa da Palavra, 2006, pp. 72.

[vi] Interview by Clementina de Jesus at the Museu da Imagem e Som (MIS) in 1967. Op. Cit.

[vii] “Clementina de Jesus” – Program from there to here. Aired by TV Brasil on 26/06/2011. Available in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUwgqyc7CJ0.

[viii] FERNANDES, Hélio. Apud: “ 'Golden Rose' in the workshop theater”. In. The state of Sao Paulo. 05/09/1965, p. 19.

[ix] FRIAS, Lena. "Biography". COELHO, Heron (org.). Queen Quelé… Op Cit. p. 25.

[X] The translation was made from ASSIS JÚNIOR, Antonio de. Kimbundu-Portuguese dictionary. Luanda: Edited by Argente Santos & Cia. Ltd., 1941.

[xi] On this subject see LOPES, Nei. “Study” In: COELHO, Heron (org.). Queen Quelé – Clementina de Jesus. Valença: Editora Valença, 2001, pp. 55-62.

[xii] “Testimonials” In: COELHO, Heron (org.). Queen Quelé – Clementina de Jesus. Valença: Editora Valença, 2001, pp. 70-80.

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