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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How about landfilling the Lagoon?

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How about landfilling the Lagoon?

Recently launched by Cidade Viva publishers, the book Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – Uma discussão cententária (Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon – A hundred-year old discussion) brings together already-proposed gaudy solutions to the problem of one of Rio’s main postcards. Among them, the project to completely landfill the lagoon due to the risk represented by the space to public health, and the idea of building wind mills to pump sea water into the geographic accident.

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The Lagoon is one of the prettiest places in Rio. However, its environment originally hostile to occupation inspired extravagant ideas over time – including of completely landfilling the area. This is what is revealed in the book which was launched last month. In the book, engineer and ex-president of the State Foundation of Enviromental Engineering Victor Coelho tackles the characteristics, history and studies involving the area in the Zona Sul.

The proposal to end the Lagoon is from 1905. Its author is doctor Saturnino Nicolau Cardoso. For him, the measure was justified due to the location representing a large risk to public health, due to the immense consentration of mosquitos – among other reasons. “Landfilling is easier and more economic than treating the problem, but it is definitively not a solution”, comments Victor. Another unusual project forsaw the construction of 40 wind mills with the aim of pumping sea water into the Lagoon. Suggested by Baron of Tefé in 1880, the initiative also didn’t leave the planning stage. “There was a great bother with the so-called miasmas, which are gases eminating from the Lagoon”, said Victor.

Behind the ideas that cause a strange feeling today, is the challenge represented by the natural dynamic of the Lagoon. To exist, the body of water depends on constant exchanges with the sea. They guarantee the oxygenation and other factors that interfere in the balance of the ecosystem. Without the salty water, the number of algae in the location is growing quickly. The launch of untreated sewage stimulates even more growth, which has negative consequences. The algae consume oxygen to decompose and end up creating a dead layer at the bottom of the Lagoon. When a strong wind or another phenomenon moves the water, the level of oxygen also falls on the surface, killing fish and generating the so-called fish kill. That’s why it’s important to maintain the Lagoon in contact with the ocean.

From rowing to stand up paddle

With close to 2 km squared, the Lagoon is relatively shallow. It’s deepest points only go down 4 meters. “One of them is around the Calombo curve”, reveals Victor. However, the location brings together close to 6 million cubic meters of water. Today, a population of 160,000 people live around the geographic accident. Inhabited by capybaras, egrets and monkeys, the region is one of the cariocas most preferred areas to practice sports. They go from rowing, which starts at 5:30AM, to stand up paddling. Different from beaches, the Lagoon isn’t (and never was) a place to take baths. “This happens because, when it rains, it receives water contaminated by animal feces and other remains”, explains Victor.

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In the image from Fon-fon magazine in 1922, construction near the Lagoon

As one may know, the Lagoon was not landfilled. But other less drastic works were done with the aim of facilitating the occupation of its surroundings. The biggest of them dates from the start of the 1920s. Taken up by the firm Lafayette, Siqueira & C, the intervention starting in April 1921 used close to 300,000 cubic meters of stone and more than 2 million cubic meters of landfill to give life to avenue Epitácio Pessoa and a system created to guarantee the circulation of salty water in the Lagoon. Through the project of engineer Saturnino de Brito, the sea currents would enter the body of water by means of a channel on avenue Delfim Moreira, from where they would follow a path that crosses the streets General Garzon and Visconde de Albuquerque. “The idea was that the flux re-encounters the ocean in Leblon, around where Vidigal is. But it didn’t work because the system entrance is constantly clogged by sand”, says Victor.

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The channel on avenue Delfim Moreira is already done. It’s all made of reinforced concrete, with powerful steel locks. Vidigal beach is also in full construction, and the respective works are well advanced (…) Thanks to these artificial communications, which man is opening up, the unhealthiness of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon disappears completely, whose waters, no longer being a permanent foci of diseases, will always be renewed by the ocean (Gazeta de Notícias, 07/03/1923)

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Research shows that the first indigenous groupings in the Lagoa region arose in the 6th century. However, the beginning of the colonization of the area only happened in 1575, with the creation of the D’El Rei Mill in place of the current Botanical Garden. The name Rodrigo de Freitas is a tribute to the husband of Petronilha Fagundes, who married the heir of the lands in 1702. Among the illustrious visitors that the Lagoon has received, is the English scientist Charles Darwin. On June 25, 1832, he described in his diary the charm with the “waters stained purple by the last rays of the twilight.” Some decades later, in 1889, the Wool and Corcovado Fabrics Company factory settled in the surroundings of the body of water, beginning its industrialization. “The Lagoon has already concentrated a large number of laboratories, industries and favelas on its banks,” recalls Victor.

Recent times

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Aerial view of the Lagoon from Leblon beach

The current configuration of space begins to emerge in the 1950s, with the closure of factories that existed in the region. In the late 1960s, Praia do Pinto, Ilha das Dragas and other favelas were removed, anticipating the boom in the next decade. In the book, Victor reveals that the construction of the buildings that exist today at the edge of the Lagoon often involved the landfill of sites without the authorization of the city hall. The result was the loss of almost half of the original area of the body of water. “In recent years, pumps and tunnels have been built that have improved water quality,” he says. In addition, the engineer highlights the creation of a control center by Cedae and the daily monitoring of temperature and other indicators by the city as positive measures.

Since the problem of the internal balance of the Lagoon has not yet been resolved, new proposals continue to emerge. One of them foresees the extension of the Garden of Alá canal to the sea, with the deepening of its outline. Another is the installation of four pipes of more than 3 meters in diameter in the same region. The two projects have an objective in common: to inject salt water into the body of water. “Today, investments in this are stagnant. We have to wait for better times for new experiences,” says Victor. Without doing away with the Lagoon, any solution is valid so that Rio has an even more beautiful postcard in the future. – Source (PT)

(One year ago, I was researching the entire past of the Lagoon for a longform article I hoped to have published in a big newspaper, but I only ended up with lots of research and several paragraphs before something more pressing took priority. I look forward to reading this book.)

Saens Pena Plaza – 1911

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“An emblematic piece of Tijuca celebrated 100 years in 2011. A natural junction of the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood, a place of abundant commerce and, as people say there, “close to everything”, Praça Saens Peña was opened to the public on April 30, 1911, a Sunday, with pomp, circumstance and band in the gazebo. Since then, it has seen its heyday, its decadence and, in recent times, its recovery. One of its best known spots, Casa Granado was replaced by a common pharmacy in the beautiful building on the corner of Rua Conde de Bonfim. Also lost in the past is the glamor of Cine Metro, transformed into a clothing store, and the Olinda, with its 3,500-seat hall, considered the largest in Latin America, was demolished in the 1970s. Battered by subway works for almost two decades , The plaza acquired railing to prevent the homeless from making their permanent abode on the benches. But none of this is a reason to lament among Tijuca residents. Friendly retirees maintain their card games under the shade of the kiosks, a few meters from a Military Police cabin. Mornings are filled with oriental exercises. The handicraft fair stirs up the environment on the weekends and illegal street vendors are shunned by the police. A reflection of the growth, the changes in Praça Saens Peña are faced naturally by the majority of the residents. “It’s part of the dynamics of a big city, as long as growth is done with at least a small amount of planning,” says Marcos Amorim, a history professor in the state education system.

With the same territory as in the era of the Amerindians and the Jesuits, a little more than 1,000 hectares, the neighborhood has much more flexible borders when taking into account the criteria of residents who moved there by choice or the newspapers’ classified section. Some bordering blocks of Rio Comprido are now part of Tijuca – and no one disputes it. Some of Andaraí’s streets and buildings also took sides with the neighboring Tijuca, which is more famous and highly-valued, for reasons of real estate evaluations. And areas like Aldeia Camperista, scenery of Nelson Rodrigues’ plays, simply disappeared from the official map (it still exists). It all became a single entity with the high demand for housing and commercial spots like never before.

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There are those who want to be Tijuca because of the tradition it holds. Others choose it because of the location (it’s right next to downtown). And today many people choose to live in the region in the face of a greater sense of security, a result of the action of the Peacekeeping Police Units (UPPs), implanted in their largest favelas. But hardly anyone would like to call themselves Tijucan based only on what the name of the place means. The word, of indigenous origin, means rotten water. It emerged to designate an area located 20 kilometers from its current core, the marshes of Barra. In the 18th century, the denomination was adopted on the ground where the pulsating center of the neighborhood is located today. The official year of its foundation was 1759, when the priests of the Society of Jesus were expelled from the lands, by determination of the Portuguese crown.

A lot of coffee would be planted there, in the fertile and mild climate. Sugar mills were erected all over the region. Defined as “rural” until the 19th century, it was once famous as a summer resort, mainly on the slopes of the forest park. Rugendas painted his pleasant landscapes there in the 1870s. It was in the midst of his views and farms that Machado de Assis set the honeymoon of Capitu and Bentinho in his book Dom Casmurro and the retreat of the main character of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas after his mother’s death. A pioneer, the neighborhood received the first trams in the country – still pulled by donkeys -, and came to be called the “second Cinelandia”at the end of the first half of the 20th century and was the birthplace of a handful of celebrities who were born within their borders.

Not everything was glorious. With progress, came the swell of people, the chaotic traffic and, from the 60’s, an accelerated process of favela and urban violence. At over 250 years old, Tijuca can take pride in its past, rethink the present and keep an eye on the future.”

– Source (PT)

PS – Here’s a great modern overview of Saens Pena, from the Like Tijuca FB page.

Carnival flirtations – 1840s

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I’m in the middle of reading “O Livro de Ouro do Carnaval Brasileiro” [1] by Felipe Ferreira which covers the way in which Brazilians celebrated Carnival throughout the country, though with a focus (thus far) on Rio de Janeiro. The current chapter, part of which I’ve translated a section of below, deals with an earlier style of Carnival called Entrudo. Scroll further down for the same section in Portuguese.


In truth, what one starts to understand from all of this is what we call “Entrudo Familiar” which, in the 19th century, was a private party whose most important actors were young people, mainly women. They had become, already at the start of the 19th century, the ones responsible for the management of the home and of all of its cerimonies, including the Entrudistic games. In this way, from the production of limões-de-cheiro (“smelly lemons”) to their use as battle weapons, the actions related to a good part of colonial Brazil’s revelry was relegated to the feminine sex. It was the young daughters of Brazilian families, for example, who most times would take the initiative of throwing the little lemons on some boy that interested them, taking advantage of this rare opportunity to exercise some control over their own destiny. Of course, those boys, mostly flattered with being chosen, took advantage of the atmosphere of subtle permissiveness to risk touching, via the throwing of lemons, some forbidden part of the young women’s bodies, like the shoulders or, in surpreme audacity, the lap.

Machado de Assis, in his tale “Um dia de Entrudo“, taking place in 1848, describes the strong connections of the drenchings with romantic relations among the young members of Brazilian families. The mother of one character declares to her cousin Angelica: “I was about to go inside, when guess what I found in the corner of the dining room? I found your son Benjamin breaking lemons on my daughter’s shoulders! What insolence! I didn’t know what to do…” Another character, upon arriving at Angelica’s house, is immediately played tricks on by the sons of the host, which ends up incentivizing his romance with one of the boy’s sisters, in other words, aside from serving as a factor in social togetherness, allowing contact and good business between members of the elite, the apparently innocent game of the Entrudo Familiar also facilitated the meeting of young people from “good families” and incentivized their coming together.


Na verdade, o que se depreende disso tudo é o que chamamos de “Entrudo Familiar” era, no século XIX, uma festa privada cujos atores mais importantes seriam os jovens e, principalmente, as mulheres. Estas tinham se tornado, já no início do século XIX, as responsáveis pela gerência do lar e de todas as suas cerimônias, inclusive das brincadeiras entrudísticas. Desse modo, desde a produção dos limões-de-cheiro até sua utilização como arma da batalha, cabia ao sexo feminino o comando da ação relacionada a boa parte da folia do Brasil colonial. Eram as jovens filhas das famílias brasileiras, por exemplo, que muitas vezes tomavam a iniciativa de lançar os limõezinhos sobre algum rapaz que lhes interessasse, aproveitando-se dessa rara oprotunidade de exercer algum controle sobre seu próprio destino. É claro que os rapazes, muitas vezes lisonjeados com a escolha, tiravam proveito da atmosfera de sutil licenciosidade para arriscar tocar, através do lançamento de um limãozinho-de-cheiro, alguma das partes proibidas do corpo das jovens, como os ombros ou, suprema audácia, o colo.

Machado de Assis, em seu conto “Um dia de Entrudo”, passado em 1848, descreve a forte vinculação das molhaças com as relações românticas entre os jovens das famílias brasileiras. A mãe de uma personagem declara à prima Angélica: “Ia eu agora lá dentro, quando encontrei na sala de jantar a um canto, adivinhem o quê? Encontrei seu filho Benjamin quebrando limões no ombro de minha filha! Que desaforo! Fiquei sem saber de mim..” Outro personagem, ao chegar à casa de Angélica, é imediatamente entrudado pelos filhos da anfitriã, o que acaba incentivando seu romance com a irmã dos rapazes, ou seja, além de servir como fator de agregação social, possibilitando contatos e bons negócios entre os membros das elites, a aparentemente inocente brincadeira do Entrudo Familiar também facilitava o encontro dos jovens das “boas famílias” e incentivava a aproximação entre eles.

Memories of a Hotel Rat

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Dr. Antonio was a famous criminal due to his sophisticated robberies in several of Rio’s hotels, where he stayed under different identities. Dr. Antonio’s real name was Arthur Antunes Maciel, a man from a respectable family in Southern Brazil who fell into a life of crime because he couldn’t resist an easy living nor the love of women.

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In 1912, the same year that Dr. Antônio would die in jail, author João do Rio, famous for writing about an everchanging Rio de Janeiro, visits him and writes a newspaper serial in Rio’s Gazeta de Notícias describing a man who operates from two perspectives: that of a criminal and that of a respectable member of the upper-class.

The novel “Memórias de um rato de hotel” is the stage of a series of accounts from one of the most famous thieves of the early twentieth century. João do Rio, in a mix of reportage, fiction and memory penned, through the recollections of a well-dressed thief, a novel that stands out for its excess of historical details, characters and society of the time. However, between the very well written lines a few questions loom: until what point is the Memories of a Hotel Rat true or entirely of the author’s own making? How should one perceive the threads that interweave history, memory and fiction in the novel? The imaginative writing of João do Rio and the parodic memories of Artur Antunes Maciel showcase each in their own way, in a provocative dialogue with Brazilian history. [1]

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(Announcement of his death in 1912, Careta magazine)

The tale became a 2014 film titled Muitos Homens Num Só, within which the Hotel dos Estrangeiros is featured.