Sentinels of Tradition

Paulo Pasta (Journal of Reviews)


book review by Dmitri Cerboncini Fernandes

Have you ever stopped to think that Ernesto Nazareth, one of the patriarchs of choro, never composed a choro? In its catalog there are Brazilian tangos, tanguinhos, schotisch, sambas, square dances, children's march, foxtrot, cançoneta, maxixe, mazurca and many waltzes and polkas, among other denominations. No crying.

Well, you might think that this is a matter of period nomenclature, because a classic like I caught you Cavaquinho it can only be a cry! Only it was registered as a polka… This also happens with the work of founding masters such as Joaquim Calado, Anacleto de Medeiros and Chiquinha Gonzaga. When the word “choro” appears naming a composition, be suspicious: it may have been placed posthumously.

What made the word “choro” dominant, as a Brazilian musical genre par excellence? Or rather, what turned the word “choro” into a concept, into a national identity? And samba, this carioca genre, coming from the hills, the city or the heart, which made it become the national genre, even if in the sertões, forests, remote beaches, caatingas, coffee plantations, cerrados and frontiers, the genres musicals heard and practiced by Brazilians were other?

Sentinels of Tradition is the appropriate title of the essay by Dmitri Cerboncini Fernandes, released in 2018 by Edusp. Adaptation of the doctoral thesis “The intelligence of Popular Music: Authenticity in Samba and Choro”, the study intends to investigate how choro and samba became Brazilian models of popular culture, to the detriment of other musical forms.

The author's great insight is to examine the history of samba and choro not through its composers and interpreters, as is usual, but through its historians and matrix formulators. In summary, Cerboncini Fernandes wants to demonstrate that the fetishization of “authentic” samba and choro is the result of the commitment of a group of journalists, researchers and folklorists who in successive generations have adopted popular music as the main element of Brazilian identity, opting for a classification doctrinal.

Awarded Best Doctoral Thesis in 2010, the published version has 532 pages, and is fertile material to feed discussions on the concepts of national, popular, authentic, commercial, MPB, samba, pagode and other frills. Based on solid research, and fueled by prestigious theoretical references (Bordieu, Elias, Adorno), Fernandes highlights the seminal role of scholars such as Mario de Andrade, and reporter-participants such as Vagalume, Animal and Orestes Barbosa.

Vagalume is the pseudonym of the first historian of samba, the mulatto Francisco Guimarães (1904-1933). Your book On the samba wheel, from 1933, is considered the first document, the attestation of credibility of an eyewitness and auditory witness of Tia Ciata's samba circles. Orestes Barbosa, the first intellectual-composer to risk a history of popular music, places Vagalume as a reference.

Animal, the pseudonym of a black postman frequenting several choro circles at the beginning of the century (Alexandre Gonçalves Pinto, date and death uncertain, but between 1870 and 1940), was the guy who put on paper in 1936, for posterity, Chorões: reminiscences of ancient chorões. Reissued by Funarte in 1978, it is a reference of the genre, compiling 285 musicians from the genre that came to be called choro. “Animal's work, therefore, was massively used for the creation and legitimation of the truths that demarcated the formation of the musical genre in question” (p. 162).

Cerboncini Fernandes recounts this pioneering phase in detail and moves on to the Vargas period, where the construction of a national identity gained strength. Mário de Andrade and Villa-Lobos are evoked as external “ethical” intellectuals, who endorse the authenticity of sambas and choros. The beginning of the radio era and the formation of a circuit for buying and selling songs creates a division. “Pure” samba is not commercial, to be authentic it cannot have been composed to be played on the radio. It is made to be played in yards, backyards, hills, in communities. This is how the “emic” or endogenous intellectuals think, those formed in the popular music milieu.

At least that is how the members of the generation gathered around Lúcio Rangel, editor of the Popular Music Magazine, which lasted only from 1954 to 1956, but played a fundamental role in the consolidation of the concepts of samba and choro. Names such as Manuel Bandeira, Sérgio Porto, Jota Efegê, Almirante, Nestor de Holanda, Rubem Braga, Marisa Lira, Haroldo Barbosa and others passed through there, consolidating the consecrated forms of the genres while at the same time scorning the “impure” forms. Samba Canção was seen with suspicion, while Pixinguinha was beatified as the great master of choro.

The recording industry grew, radio expanded its reach, and the two things fed back. The normative discussion about popular good x popular bad enters the 1950s, influencing the third generation of critics: Ary Vasconcelos, Tinhorão, Sérgio Cabral, Hermínio Bello de Carvalho. The baton is being passed to the new “radicals”, who also take on the role of rediscovering “pure” talent and show promoters (Cabral and Hermínio), or building solid research work outside the academic walls (Tinhorão).

All of this gained complexity with the arrival of television, in the late 1950s, and the diversification of genres that occurred after the advent of Bossa Nova. Festivals, Jovem Guarda, Tropicália, protest music, none of this competed directly with “authentic” samba, which allowed two lines of thought, in the fourth generation of critics: the purists, more orthodox, and the universalists, who speak as much about rock as baião, but recognize samba as a consecrated form of nationality. Here we have names like Tárik de Souza, Ana Maria Bahiana, Mauro Ferreira, Hermano Vianna, Pedro Alexandre Sanches and others, being scrutinized under the premise of “sentinels of tradition”.

Still in the 1960s, a problem came to complicate the gender-carioca-national-authentic scheme constructed by these critics. The problem had a first and last name, and was born in São Paulo: Adoniran Barbosa. An entire chapter is dedicated to analyzing the noise caused by an Italian who spoke wrong, composed crookedly and played no instrument. For samba Shiites, it was a distortion. Lúcio Rangel even teased Isaurinha Garcia's São Paulo accent, for example. To be good, I had to sing in “carioquês”. But how could one not call a proletariat, the son of immigrants, deeply connected to the people (to the “national”) a “popular” in the ideological clash of the 1960s? To make matters worse, the guy won the Rio Carnival marching contest, in 1965, with Trem das Onze…

The Adoniran problem was assimilated, against the will of some. Samba could also be from São Paulo, not just from Rio. National in another sense, a little beyond the centripetal field of the federal capital. (And here, I confess, I felt the lack of reference to samba from other sources, such as Bahia. Unfortunately Cerboncini Fernandes makes no reference to Batatinha, Riachão, Rufino, Gordurinha or Roque Ferreira. His essay polarizes the Rio-São Paulo axis, perhaps for market issues, which are part of his analysis, illustrated by graphs).

And it is these questions that crown the thesis, when a much scarier character than Adoniran enters the scene: the pagoda. The last chapters recall the appearance of Fundo de Quintal, and the commercial avalanche of the pagode groups of the 1980s and 1990s. Again, the discussion between pure x impure reverberates and divides public opinion. Apocalyptic x integrated, purist x commercial, authentic x diluted. What is samba anyway?

Choro, outside the commercial schemes of radio broadcasting, far from big sales, is once again contemplated with a chapter dedicated to the “new chorões”. The internet comes under the magnifying glass of the meticulous researcher, comparing websites and virtual pages with magazines and newspapers, increasingly stingy in their culture sections.

It can be tiring for some to tackle a volume of over 500 pages. But for those who are really interested in popular music as an element of national identity, reading this essay is very rich. He may not have answers for everything, but he knows how to provoke a good debate with deeply grounded opinions. It should become a classic of field studies.

*Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

Originally published in the magazine Brazilian music, with minor changes.


Dmitri Cerboncini Fernandes. Sentinels of tradition: the constitution of authenticity in samba and choro. São Paulo, Edusp, 2018 (

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