Chiquinha & the First Carnival Song

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(by Ralfe Braga)

After my last post citing a lost, or rather unsourceable, marchinha (Carnival song) from 1954, I thought I’d go back further to Rio’s first ever such song: Ó Abre Alas by musician Chiquinha Gonzaga in 1899.

Ó abre alas
Que eu quero passar
Eu sou da Lira
Não posso negar
Rosa de Ouro
É que vai ganhar


Ó Abre Alas is considered a marcha-rancho, but to define rancho, we should define a few additional terms, as well.

“We can look at Carnival as being large and small. In the large sense (Grande Carnaval), there are ‘societies’ and their parades – which usually gather hundreds of spectators.

In the small sense (Pequeno Carnaval), there are groups made up of the more humble layers of the population, forming what are known as Cordões, Ranchos and Blocos (the former two have given way to the latter over the past century, in terms of popularity, though until 1910, the terms cordão and bloco were synonymous).

The Cordões were groups of masked revelers, led by the sound of a master’s whistle, who danced on the streets to the sound of a drum group. The first cordão, Os Invisíveis, was founded at the end of the 19th century but, in no time, others were created, including the famous Rosas de Ouro, for which Chiquinha Gonzaga composed the song we’re talking about today.

The Rancho was a more organized kind of cordão, which included the presence of women and a more complex instrumentation, with guitars, cavaquinhos, clarinets and flutes. This includes an element that would later be present in the samba schools: the flag carrier (aka porta-estandarte or porta-bandeira). All these groups, each one with their own characteristics, would be the seeds from which the most famous Brazilian cultural creation would sprout: the Samba School.

The Blocos, on the other hand, had a more improvised manner, without choreography or a unique defined song: just a group of friends that wanted to go singing and dancing on the streets.” [1, translated]

Further info on the different terms (here, PT)


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(85 years old, above)

At the time of the Abre Alas release, Chiquinha was a 52-year old grandmother (involved with a 16-year old Portuguese boy, whom she stayed with until she died), living in Andaraí, behind Rio’s Tijuca neighborhood. The song, a great success at Rio’s Carnival between 1901 and 1910, is still known today by many Brazilians.

Abre Alas was far from her only success. In fact, she made a name for herself long before that.
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“To sustain her children, she became a piano teacher, also playing in private parties. Around this time, her first songs were becoming popular. At this moment, during the day, slaves, either employed or the authors themselves would walk through the streets, going from door to door, selling the latest waltzes, polkas or quadrilles.

This was how Chiquinha Gonzaga’s name became well-known. But she wasn’t after glory – she just wanted to earn enough to take care of her children. The business of selling music was uncertain, however, and thus why she joined, as a pianist, a choro group hired to brighten up family parties. Ten mil reis was how much she earned to play an entire night! The sacrifice cost her heavily. It wasn’t possible for a woman, at that time, to reject or moke social conventions, with impunity. She had to be punished. And she was.

Aside from already being talked about – from when she left her husband – other things were said…how was it possible for a woman to live like that, among men, dragging herself from party to party, with a bohemian life that society condemned?

Indifferent to the slander of which she was the target, Chiquinha Gonzaga didn’t distance herself from the path she had taken. On the contrary, she became even more active.” (Revista da Semana)

Chiquinha Gonzaga had her work recognized during her lifetime, being celebrated by the public and critics. An exhuberant personality, she was one of the Brazilian composers who worked most intensely during a transition from foreign to Brazilian music. With this, she opened the way and helped to define the course of a very Brazilian style of music, which consolidated itself in the first decades of the 20th century. She spent her final years beside Joãozinho (her Portuguese companion), who posterity can thank for the preservation of her compositions.

She passed away in Rio de Janeiro, on February 28th, 1935, at 87 years old. (Official site)


Additional Photos & Timeline (here, PT)
Further two videos on Chiquinha (here and here, PT)

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