Samba will always be counterculture

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Author of the book Zicartola: politics and samba in the house of Cartola and Dona Zica, and coauthor of the recently released Nos quintais do samba da Grande Madureira: memória, história e imagens de ontem e hoje (In the backyards of the samba of Grande Madureira: memory, history and images of yesterday and today), the researcher, writer, doctor in history from USP and professor of UERJ’s Institute of Arts, Maurício Barros de Castro speaks to Continente about the relationship of the centennial musical genre with the political events of the country and the transformations that samba went through.

Revista Continente: Comparing today’s samba with that of 100 years ago, in what aspects (musically, socially, market-wise) did the genre improve?

Maurício Barros de Castro: Samba has many aspects, such as the samba influenced by Rio de Janeiro’s maxixe, from the beginning of the 20th century, which had Donga’s Pelo Telephone as its hallmark – the reason for celebrating 100 years of the of rhythm. There is also samba de roda from the Recôncavo Baiano, the samba rural of São Paulo, the samba de coco of Pernambuco and Alagoas, but it is certain that the samba that became a symbol of a Brazilian national identity was the so-called “samba de sambar” from Estácio, a district of Rio de Janeiro, formed by a group of important samba musicians such as Ismael Silva, Bide, Heitor dos Prazeres, Baiaco, Rubem Barcelos, Aurélio Gomes, Nilton Bastos, João Mina, Edgar Marcelino, Brancura and Tancredo Silva, founders of what is considered the first samba school: Deixa Falar. This samba that brought about new instruments – such as the surdo de marcação, invented by Bide, and the cuíca, brought in by João Mina – favored percussion instruments and was made to accompany the blocos and samba school processions that were created at that moment, in the late 1920s, in neighborhoods and hills near or bordering the railway line, such as Mangueira and Oswaldo Cruz. So, it is not an evolutionary line, but one of multiple samba-related temporalities. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, in the 1960s we had phenomena such as Zicartola [1]- the samba house of Cartola and Dona Zica, which, among other feats, discovered Paulinho da Viola – and Fundo de Quintal, another revolutionary group. In the 1990s, still in the carioca scene, we had the emergence of Grupo Semente and the revitalization of Lapa, which helped discover names like Teresa Cristina and Pedro Miranda. And certainly there are other interesting contemporary examples, like that of the rapper Emicida singing Cartola.

RC: Did samba lose its critical capacity, its political engagement?

MBC: I do not think so. As African heritage, samba has consolidated as a historically marginalized and potentially contentious rhythm. That is why samba is always going to be a “counterculture of modernity”, as the British researcher Paul Gilroy says, even if at times it adapts to the official discourse of governments and the media.

RC: Sambistas were quite persecuted by the police at the beginning of the genre’s history. Did this happen again at the time of the military dictatorship? How can we place Zicartola in this context?

MBC: Samba was not included in the Penal Code, as happened with capoeira, in 1890, but samba artists used to be framed within the vagrancy law, especially those that were considered “malandros”. In the period of the military dictatorship, this still happened, but there was no persecution of sambistas. Zicartola was a samba house created by Dona Zica and Cartola, which operated at Rua da Carioca, 53, in downtown Rio de Janeiro. To this day there is a plaque in his honor at this address. Although it became famous, Zicartola lasted only two years, between 1963 and 1965. It was a political and cultural space that brought together intellectuals, journalists, artists, samba musicians and university students, especially those who hung out around UNE, which burned down on the day of the coup. Zicartola was important for the resurgence of old forgotten samba players, such as Nelson Cavaquinho, Zé Kéti and Cartola himself, whose songs were recorded by Nara Leão on her first solo album in 1964. He also discovered names such as Elton Medeiros, Nelson Sargento and, mainly, Paulinho da Viola, who received the first paychecks of his career in the samba house. Hermínio Bello de Carvalho, poet and composer, rediscovered Clementina de Jesus in Zicartola, which resulted in the musical Rosa de Ouro. In Zicartola, playwright Oduvaldo Vianna Filho and poet Ferreira Gullar had the idea of creating the spectacle Opinião, which brought together João do Vale, the Northeastern migrant, Zé Kéti, the samba singer, and Nara Leão, the girl from Rio’s zona sul, all regulars of the samba house. Opinião was a great success, raising a strong political question and was inspired by the samba of Zé Kéti, whose verses said: “They can arrest me / They can beat me / They can even leave me without eating / I won’t change my mind / From here on the hill I won’t leave.” (Podem me prender/ Podem me bater/ Podem até deixar-me sem comer/ Que eu não mudo de Opinião/ Daqui do morro eu não saio não).

RC: Why was there so much interest for samba in the Getúlio Vargas government (1930-1945)?

MBC: One of Getúlio Vargas’ concerns was formulating a national identity for Brazil based on popular cultures. Samba became the main musical genre of radio stations, which were only allowed by the government to broadcast commercials in 1932, and achieved great success with the voice of names like Francisco Alves, Mario Reis and Dalva de Oliveira. In the same year, the first samba schools contest, created by journalist Mario Filho’s Mundo Sportivo newspaper,  was organized. The organization of sambistas around schools and the contemporaneity of their compositions were fundamental to the popularity of samba, an important factor for their consecration as national music.

RC: Samba is considered the greatest national symbol with regard to music. Why does this still happen, if sertanejo, for example, is the most listened to genre in the country?

MBC: I think this happens because, as I said, this is not a recent issue, it has to do with the processes of national-identity building that took place between the end of the 1920s and 1930s.

RC: What would be the biggest obstacles to samba today?

MBC: I could mention the market aspects, since few samba players have access to the mainstream media, which certainly harms the trajectories of many young musicians. But this also happens with other musical genres. I think it is important to remember that samba is still part of family traditions and continues to be important as a living ritual for Afro-descendant populations living in the peripheries and favelas. The extermination and ethnocide suffered by these populations is certainly the greatest obstacle not only to samba, but also to funk and rap, for example.

RC: If genres such as frevo or forró had emerged in Rio de Janeiro in that same context, would they have a chance to occupy this symbolic place that samba has occupied?

MBC: I don’t know, but the story of Luiz Gonzaga is a curious one. When samba was already consolidated on the radios in the 1940s, he created the baião and reinvented the forró based on the needs that arose in Rio de Janeiro. It was with the vindication of medical students from Ceará, who frequented Mangue – a red-light district where he played his accordion, next to Morro de São Carlos, in Estácio, his home in the city – that he rediscovered the songs sung by his father Januário . The students told Gonzaga that they wouldn’t give him any more money for his performances if he didn’t sing songs from the Northeast. Thus began a process that made him the King of Baião and one of the most important voices in Brazil.

RC: To what extent has samba been losing space, in the hills, to funk? Is the style less popular today than it was in the 1970s, for example?

MBC: I don’t have statistics on this, but I don’t think that contemporary Rio funk is a problem for samba, at least I don’t see a reaction from traditional sambistas like there was to Black Rio soul music in the 1970s, for example. I also don’t believe that samba has lost space to soul, just think back to the Clube Renascença, which houses a traditional samba group and is a place remembered for Rio’s Black dances.

RC: Is it possible that in the future we’ll have a generation as bright as that of Noel Rosa, Wilson Batista, Geraldo Pereira, Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho and Paulinho da Viola?

MBC: The generations get renewed, full of important talents, without evolutionary lines and scales.

RC: When do you consider the height of samba in terms of musical quality and space in the market?

MBC: I don’t know about the height of samba, but it’s certain that the first black samba singer, who was also a composer and became a success with critics and sales, was Martinho da Vila, between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s.

RC: How do you rate the quality of samba-enredo today?

MBC: I rate samba-enredo as still being outside of the evolutionary line, marked by historical moments of ruptures with the previous models, and thus the target of criticisms from traditional sectors, founders of samba schools, in constant negotiations with agents both inside and outside the samba schools. On this frontier is where the good samba-enredos keep happening.

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