Traditional Carnival songs & PC culture


“Your hair doesn’t deny it, mulata / Because you’re mulata by color / But since color doesn’t rub off, mulata / Mulata, I want all of your love”. Those are the lyrics of one of Brazil’s most popular marchinhas, a popular musical genre in the country’s world-famous Carnival.

The song “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega” (your hair doesn’t deny it), composed in 1929, is among the carnival traditions that have been heatedly debated in recent years in Brazil. This year, with the party set to take place in the final days of February, is no different. At least three Carnival groups, which are called blocos, have said they would remove such songs from their playlists this year. Meanwhile, others object to such a movement, stating that Carnival is a festive time when things should be put out in the open.

The marchinha (little march) is a genre of music that satirizes the seriousness of military marches, played by brass bands and followed by a snare drum. They were popularized in the 1930s and are still a hallmark of Carnival in some Brazilian cities, particularly Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The lyrics are often comical and satirical, with double-meaning that some might deem “politically incorrect”.

Musician Thiago França, the creator of Charanga do França, a popular bloco from São Paulo, expressed in an interview to website UOL why he is against songs like “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega”:

“It’s a racist affirmation. Leaving this song out doesn’t make the party less fun and we manage to have a gathering where everyone can really enjoy themselves. I’m responsible for 50 musicians, 20 people in production and close to 10,000 people who will join us on the street. I have this concern about not offending who’s there. Satire should be about those who are oppressors, not those who are oppressed. On the other hand, I don’t want to insinuate that those who play it are racist. Every person knows what’s best for themselves. This decision makes sense to me.”

Renata Rodrigues, one of the organizers of Mulheres Rodadas, another bloco from Rio, had the following to say in an interview with Brazilian news radio network CBN (via O Globo):

“If we’re a feminist bloco, there’s no way to keep our distance from these things. If this is being considered offensive, I think we shouldn’t go along with it.”

Regarding the marchinhas, other songs on the chopping block include solidified classics whose lyrics are very well-known among Brazilians, such as “Maria Sapatão” (1981) and “Cabeleira do Zezé” (1964), both by João Roberto Kelly. Let’s briefly take a look at some of the lyrics from these two songs:

Maria Sapatão / Maria Big Shoe
Sapatão, Sapatão / Big Shoe, Big Shoe
De dia é Maria / By day she’s Maria
De noite é João / By night she’s João

O sapatão está na moda / The big shoe is in style
O mundo aplaudiu / The world applauded
É um barato, é um sucesso / She’s cool, she’s a success
Dentro e fora do Brasil / In and outside of Brazil

Sapatão, which means “big shoe”, is generally derogatory slang in Brazil for a butch lesbian, both pre-existing this song but also popularized by it. Some lesbians in the 1970s were said to enjoy wearing men’s shoes but couldn’t find sizes that fit well, thus the shoes they wore were too big for them.

Olha a cabeleira do Zezé / Look at Zezé’s head of hair
Será que ele é? / Is it possible that he is?
Será que ele é? / Is it possible that he is?
Corta o cabelo dele! / Cut his hair!
Corta o cabelo dele! / Cut his hair!

According to an article on Carnival marchinha innuendo from online mental health awareness portal (En)Cena, Kelly, who’s now 78, has always alleged “Cabeleira do Zezé” refers to the 1960s counterculture when men had long hair. There’s also a double meaning, however, that Zezé is either secretly gay or just womanly.

When talking about the marchinhas he composed, João Roberto Kelly told newspaper O Globo the following regarding the controversy:

“I think it’s a bit exaggerated. I respect everyone, all opinions, but I think Carnival is such a happy, pure party, it’s one joke on top of another. Someone is going to censor Carnival lyrics? During Carnival, men dress up as women, women dress up as men, we play around with bald men, with fat men, we play with everyone. We go out dressed up as indigenous people, we go out as one thing or another.”

And when asked if he considered it a form of patrulha, which is a derogatory word that refers to activist pressure groups, he said:

“It is patrulha, but there’s no need for it. That’s Carnival, it’s everyone letting loose, everyone looking to make some kind of costume. And now the politically correct come, [saying] what it is, what it isn’t…These songs have been around for about 50 years, and people are devoted to them, people like singing them.”

Blocos not involved in removing the songs in question share Kelly’s opinion. Pedro Ernesto Marinho, the president of one such Carnival group, Cordão da Bola Preta, said:

“We don’t consider these Carnival songs to be offensive. The composers certainly didn’t have this intention. Carnival is a big game. This scandal won’t get anyone anywhere and it’s even unworthy of Carnival. Prejudice is more in our heads than in the Carnival songs.”

In one of the many opinion pieces that came out in the lead-up to this year’s Carnival celebration, the author of an article from Brazilian news website G1, titled “Banning incorrect Carnival songs is useless, but reflecting on lyrics is necessary”, took both sides into account:

“Perhaps the best, in both cases, is to reflect on the content of these songs and to sing them in a suitable context — such as in a dance or in a Carnival bloco, in the case of marchinhas — with the awareness that there is no way to defend such lyrics and, above all, that it’s necessary to fight racism and violence against women in any time or place, including in a dance or a bloco that plays “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega” and that, by chance, invokes racism or violence against women. To boycott such songs is ineffective, just as putting in the crosshairs any other song with the word mulata in the lyrics is excessively laughable. Having common sense is also being politically correct.”

A debate is now certainly taking place, with ideas being challenged. The blocos against the lyrics mentioned above are not calling for a Carnival-wide ban on the songs — they are merely deciding to challenge the ideas within them. Revelers that disagree with making any changes are free to go elsewhere, and they literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of other options available. In the end, any alterations will only make Carnival more of what it already is — an event where there’s something for everyone.

The article I wrote above was originally published at Global Voices


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