Samba will always be counterculture


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.

Ernesto Varela in Rio – 1985

Days before the first Rock in Rio, Ernesto Varela (a character created by Marcelo Tas) goes to Rio to try to understand what makes someone an authentic Carioca. The star of the video is debatable – not sure if it’s Tas himself or the kid on the beach. Each video seems to have both Portuguese and English subtitles in the settings section.

The cameraman, called Valdeci, is none other than Fernando Meirelles, the City of God director. You can see this video and more on Tas’ official site.

Is Pagode different from Samba?


While reading Geografia Carioca do Samba on Google Books, I started to wonder what makes pagode different from samba. Below are two slightly different views.

View 1

Previously seen as a sub-genre of samba, pagode can be considered a sub-product, with essentially commercial interests. Pagode can even be considered a ramification of samba, but not exactly a style of making samba.

Getting directly to the point, pagode isn’t – or shouldn’t be, in my humble opinion – a designation of a musical (sub-)genre. Pagode is a word that comes from centuries ago designating, generally, animated parties by common folk, with music, drinks and food. If you did “hi-fi” when you were young, you were basically promoting a pagode – even if there was no samba, do you see the difference? And it’s with this theme that pagode became popular as a common folk party. A genuine component of popular culture. By the people, for the people.

Samba is another word that has definitions related to happiness, parties, and – of course – music. To have an idea, throughout the country, samba has different names, compliments, basic instruments and musical characteristics, just like pagode. But, even with all the regional differences, samba is still one thing and pagode is another. Samba is something musical and pagode is a type of party. You wouldn’t say you’re going to a funk or a rock. To frequent a place doesn’t mean its name becomes a musical genre. Perhaps, a musical style, but then it becomes completely different because the commercial part comes into play.

In Rio de Janeiro, with the popularization of partido alto groups from the 1970s to the 80s, everything that was done and said in respect to samba was projected nationally – and even internationally. Being so, it was logical that the financial return would awaken commercial interests. Rarely does something popular not become profitable. But, the popularization of the term pagode started to confuse anyone not paying attention but not to the point of not being able to be maneuvered in order to attract capital. Soon, whether samba or pagode, it started to sell well and if the term being spread to designate animated samba parties were “pararatimbum”, today you would call various people “pararatimbunzeiros”. Would that be cool? Funny, surely. The strange thing was to hear that for a bunch of people – through enthusiasm or lack of knowledge – were calling samba and pagode the same thing. And music collections are still being launched with the title “samba & pagode” in the style of “throw everything into the same package and sell it to a bunch of people”.

So, the basic idea – while not trying to define a vast culture in just a few words – is this:

Samba: It’s a musical genre that, even with all the transformations that it’s gone through, still exists and is admired. The difference is just a question of taste. There are older people who don’t see any problem in adding new elements (for example, the notorious cliché of putting a rapper in the middle of the song to give it an air of “garotada papo firme“) without losing the direction of the basic elements that made samba into a culture, and not just a jumble of songs to listen to at parties.

Pagode: This term is where the confusion starts, because initially it was the name for parties, animated get-togethers with drinks, food and samba, or other popular genres, mostly in rural areas. There is also a version that says pagode was this type of party, but made by blacks in the slave quarters. It also designates a song – as a commercial product (since the picturesque 1990s, when the romantic style proliferated). We still have the term “pagode” which points towards a song that is individually sung, ie “I’m going to do a pagode”. It’s a way of speaking, referring to a song that one sings and plays at this type of party. Pagode was already being incorporated as a type of song, which only needed a little push to become industrialized.

The curious thing is that with one meaning or another, it’s always used in a pejorative sense, due to referencing the attitude of common folk. And, incredible as it may seem, a lot of people end up distancing themselves so they don’t look bad. – Source (PT)


View 2

Pagode and samba are sub-genres of Brazilian music in constant conflict. Is pagode a branch of samba? There are those that would say one has nothing to do with the other. To understand the relationship between them, Samba em Rede selected publications in which two music researchers talk about the origin of pagode and its transformations.

According to Brazilian music historian José Tinhorão, in an interview conceded to Roda Viva, says that he discovered the word pagode in a play by Portuguese playwright and writer Jorge Ferreira de Vasconcelos (1515 – 1585), with the meaning of a place where one goes to play around and make music.

He explains that the term “pagode” reappears in Brazil in the 1960s, nominated as a rhythm made on the guitar in a slightly accelerated manner. Simultaneously, in Rio de Janeiro, pagode groups arise who intended to make a type of samba de partido alto, with a  chorus of two verses. Pagode nowadays, however, transformed into a diluted samba, without substance, made to sell by a cultural industry in the area of popular music

Researcher Euclides Amaral says in his book “Alguns aspectos da MPB” that pagode appears in Rio at the end of the 1970s and the start of the following decade, as a type of spontaneous manifestation of samba players in several places throughout the suburbs. As an example of this, he cites the famous Carnival group Cacique de Ramos.

“At the front lines of this movement, even if some people don’t recognize the importance, are Almir Guineto, Zeca Pagodinho, Fundo de Quintal, Jovelina Pérola Negra, Jorge Aragão, Mauro Diniz, Luiz Carlos da Vila and Nei Lopes (…). Pagode is more a form under which samba ‘reappears’ (…) and basically has two branches: one more connected to partido alto and the other, more well-known as ‘commercial pagode’.

Commercial pagode, a mix of jovem guarde with tambourine in the background, was a phenomenon in Brazil that sold millions of discs by certain groups and artists, principally from Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Rio. The compositions – perhaps those that generated controversy when the debate is the difference between samba and pagode; is that they are “of a low melodic quality with watered-down, primarily poetic lyrics.” – Source (PT)

The Story of Samba’s Praça XI


Note: The following is almost entirely translated (by myself) from Wikipedia, partly due to Brazil’s National Library online archives being temporarily unavailable.


Praça Onze (Plaza Eleven) is a sub-region of downtown Rio, whose name was inherited from the old plaza that once existed there. The original Praça 11 de Junho (the date of the Battle of Riachuelo) existed for more than 150 years prior to its destruction in the 1940s. Initially called Largo do Rocio Pequeno (Little Rocio Square), it became in the first decades of the 19th century one of the most cosmopolitan places of the then Federal Capital, upon housing families of recently arrived immigrants. The most popular ethnicities around Praça Onze were blacks (mostly from Bahia), followed by Jews from several origins. Portuguese, Spanish and Italians were also numerous.

Preceding Events

The region where Praça 11 de Junho would later exist was uninhabited by the end of the 18th century, being that the land was inadequate for farming and building due to marshes. It was only after the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Rio and their installation at the São Cristóvão Palace that the first access roads towards that area were built. In 1810, by order of King Dom João VI, Cidade Nova was created, which went from Campo de Santana to São Cristóvão. With rectilinear streets and extensive lots, it looked very different from downtown, overflowing with houses and narrow lots. At the same moment, the king created a plaza where the Mangue de São Diogo started: Largo do Rocio Pequeno.

Why Pequeno? Largo do Rocio Grande was already taken. Today, it’s Praça Tiradentes

Despite being the only commercial plaza in Cidade Nova, Rocio Pequeno continued almost deserted. It was only in 1842, during the second reign that the location began to receive attention from the city authorities. A cobblestone fountain, in neoclassical style, designed by Grandjean de Montigny, was installed in the middle of the square, serving as water supply for the surrounding homes and establishments .

In 1854, with the construction and inauguration of the Fábrica de Gás (Gas Factory), the Viscount of Mauá saw the need for canalizing the mangrove, sanitizing the road towards the Guanabara Bay, as well as allowing for a waterway connecting the suburb to downtown. In 1858, Mauá inaugurated the Estrada de Ferro Dom Pedro II (Railway), which cut through Cidade Nova, connecting it to several suburbs and to the provincial inland area.

With the emergence of the Paraguayan War, a wave of nationalism took hold of the empire. With the Brazilian victory at the Riachuelo Battle, the Largo do Rocio Pequeno was rebaptized with the date of the confrontation. It was also at this time, with the decline of the slave system, that Praça 11 de Junho started to be a good destination for immigrants, due to the proximity with the port and the varied types of commerce.

African Culture


With Abolition, large masses of ex-slaves settled in the precarious “casas de cômodos” (single-room shacks) that abounded on streets adjecent to the Praça 11 de Junho. Soon, with space running out, these same blacks began to inhabit improvised huts on the sides of hills. One of these headlands near Praça 11 de Junho was baptized as Morro da Favela by soldiers returning from the Canudos War and resulted in contemporary international denomination of miserable urban clusters.

At the start of the 20th century, Praça 11 de Junho was the quintissential meeting point of Rio’s black residents. From batucadas brought by black Bahians, mixed with Rio’s lundu, samba was born. Scholars and contemporaries of those times are unanimous in pointing out the importance of the mythic “Casa da Tia Ciata” (119 Rua Visconde de Itaúna, pictured above before being demolished) for this cultural synthesis. Tia Ciata was a Bahian woman that moved to Rio and who undertook the profession of confectioner. Thus her house was famous in the plaza, and was transformed into a meeting place for musicians and residents. There, the rhythm of samba began to take shape.

Tia Ciata’s home was the main place where the community played music and african rhythms, from which historical sambas and talented composers came. In 1926, due to police persecution, some local composers founded a “samba school”, a euphemistic name for a recreational association that, in truth, was not educational in nature. The first was “Deixa Falar“, whose divisions, years later, would result in several other schools, such as Estácio de Sá, Mangueira and Portela. In 1933, mayor Pedro Ernesto organized the first offical samba school parade in Praça 11 de Junho, which Mangueira would win. The parades became an annual occurrence, with a huge public influx.

Jewish Neighborhood

Praça 11 de Junho also brang together the largest Jewish concentration in the city’s history. Jewish immigrants choose Praça 11 since the configuration of houses in the region, with space for stores and residences above them, was perfect for commerce. Hundreds of Jewish establishments, as well as clubs, political societies and sinagogues settled in the area, giving Praça 11 the appearance of a European village. [book]

The Shrinking of Praça 11


In the 1930s, the government of the Federal District planned modernization works in the region, which included the construction of a new public transportation artery to improve access to the North Zone from downtown (and plans were drawn up, but thankfully never acted upon, to further modernize the area). With it, Praça 11 was notably reduced. Through the project, the blocks between Senador Eusébio and Visconde de Itaúna streets would be demolished to make way for the new Presidente Vargas Avenue (see before & after above). In 1941, the demolitions began, which dislodged hundreds of families and destroyed 525 buildings, among them some historic ones, such as the São Pedro dos Clérgios and São Joaquim churches.

Below is an image from late 1945 of an almost unrecognizable Praça Onze at the bottom and a view of the Canal do Mangue.


Cultural References

Herivelton Martins & Grande Otelo – Praça 11

Chico Anysio & João Roberto Kelly – Rancho da Praça XI

Quatro Ases e Um Curinga – O Samba não morre (can’t find a link)

I also recommend reading through Daniella Thompson’s archives on Praça XI, focusing on music related to the location, which I sadly only discovered after completion of this post.

Present Day

Swallowed up by President Vargas Avenue, Praça 11 shrank in size, becoming a place for regular presentations for circus shows. In the 1970s, the Praça Onze metro station was inaugurated. Between 1983 and 1986, the State government of Leonel Brizola tried to transform the location into a legal spot for street vendors, but the project didn’t happen due to the distance in relation to downtown. The Zumbi dos Palmares monument currently there is located on a piece of land that was part of the old Praça 11. Nowadays, the plaza houses a space for popular music shows, called Terreirão do Samba. The Jewish presence remains near the plaza, in the traditional commercial region called SAARA.

Documentary Series – Rio Por Eles

The documentary series Rio Por Eles is a different kind of historical and sentimental revival of the city of Rio. In it, viewers will discover how foreign documentarists, reporters and TV broadcasting station saw the city throughout the 20th century. It’s a mostly black & white record of Rio through the eyes of foreigners in different languages.

Directed and scripted by Ernesto Rodrigues, the series is the result of a two year research project through hundreds of foreign sources, in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. Nine reporters from O Globo will take the viewer through 43 characteristic locations which contextualize more than 200 excerpts from 127 films and televised reports.

The series consists of five 30-minute episodes, which I’ve put in order below: the transformation of the landscape, the political happenings, the interpretation of Brazilian culture, the style & behavior, and finally the tragedies & disasters shown abroad.