A History of Samba Q&A

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“Samba is very similar to Brazil. Samba is a mixture. It’s resistance and conformism. It’s sadness that moves. It’s the father of pleasure and the son of pain.” With these words, Lira Neto (Fortaleza, 1963) sums up what for him is samba, a musical genre that he biographies in his new book, Uma História do Samba (A History of Samba). The first of three volumes was released in February, in order to tell the story of modern urban samba. Thus, leaving aside – although not totally – the roots of the genre, the narrative begins in post-abolitionist Rio de Janeiro of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

A writer and journalist, Neto received a Jabuti award for the biography of José de Alencar and is the author of a successful trilogy about Getúlio Vargas. Now, the biography of the best known Brazilian musical genre appears as a continuation of his work on the former president, since the process of samba’s consolidation happens through a Vargas-era national project, according to this interview with El País. Despite having reused a lot of research material, he says he used Brazil’s National Archive and the National Library to tell the story of the people who contributed to the evolution of the genre.

Question. Many books about samba have already been written. What can your book offer that’s different?

Answer. I don’t intend to write the definitive history of samba, so much so that the indefinite article in the title, “A historia do samba”, points exactly to this. It’s one possible viewpoint. And my view comes exactly from someone who tried to explain the formation process of the genre starting with the profiles and individual biographies of its protagonists. So I guess my view is that of the biographer. Not of a musicologist or musical historian, for example. That is, how these individual trajectories, the stories of these samba musicians, composers, musicians, and instrumentalists as a whole produced the formation of samba.

Q. In the book you also rebuild the history of Rio de Janeiro in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You not only talk about Little Africa [the central part of the city related to the emergence of samba] but also about the transformation of farms in peripheral neighborhoods of the North Zone. And you talk about the sanitizing policies of the time and the attempt to make Carnival a domesticated thing. What do you see of that time that still continues today?

A. Samba, in its journey towards assertion, was the target of several vectors. One was that of growing domestication. There was an entire policy by sanitary authorities and police to try to civilize Rio de Janeiro. The motto of the time was “Rio, civilize yourself”. And within that, samba could not remain immune, since it was in that universe. And those public policies put into action at the beginning of the twentieth century, the removal of the working classes and the removal of tenement housing, the occupation of the hillsides, the subdivision of the suburbs as a result of the decadence of the coffee cycle….all of it is in the inception of samba. Rio de Janeiro’s urban geography is occurring and being established exactly [at a time] when samba is asserting itself. And there was a whole logic around sanitizing these African-natured manifestations. The process of urban sanitation was also cultural. And within this, samba learned to do its prospective business and adapt. This is when another decisive element enters the story, which is the formation of the entertainment industry. Coincidentally or not, these two things happen in the same time space. Samba comes out of the ghetto and the entertainment industry uses samba as great raw material. Samba is a part of this universe, rich in influences, appropriations and co-optations. It was not immune to it.

Q. But how do you relate that time to how things are today? Rio just went through a new “civilizing” process, with the renewal of the port area and a record number of evictions throughout the city. São Paulo now has a new project dubbed “Cidade Linda” by the new mayor.

A. These urban processes that call themselves civilizing, whatever their name may be, be they “Bota Abaixo” from the beginning of the century [in Rio] or today’s “Cidade Linda” are essentially exclusionary. Because they want to regulate the use of public space, removing everything that means dissonance and the cultural mark of certain segments that are not hegemonic. At that moment, those who were not welcome, even undesirable, were pushed out to the peripheries, and that started the process of occupying hillsides. Today, when you prefer gray to color, this is a very definite political choice. From the moment they erase hundreds of meters of grafitti on May 23rd, instituting gray as the standard, this carries a very strong political discourse. It’s an authoritarian discourse. A discourse exactly where the plurality of influences and urban interventions are limited by the desires, interests and determinations of government decrees. Samba at that moment was squeezed by two very strong forces, which tend to homogenize: police repression, from the State, wanting to make everything clean and nice-smelling…and on the other hand, the strength of the consumer market. Samba plays a bargaining game here. While it remained a symbol of resistance to many, on the other hand it was compelled to make certain dealings to assert itself as a product of the market.

Q. This is the case of Hilário Jovino Ferreira, one of the main characters of your book, when seeking the licenses to be able to start a street carnival.

A. Exactly. He’s the character who synthesizes this initial movement of samba to leave the ghetto and to try for a place in society. He sought not only police authorization for his rancho [Carnival group] to parade on the streets, but also personal social inclusion, looking for protection in the national guard, in more conservative political circles…He synthesizes this search for acceptance. And in this process you lose some things and win others. Samba lost a certain initial creative power that was indomitable and insubmissive, but it gained the possibility of transforming itself into a mass genre by submitting to the rules of the entertainment industry.

Q. Did it lose its essence then? At what point did this happen?

A. We have to be careful with the terms. For example, with the word essence. There is nothing essential. Essences are also built over time, especially in the case of music and culture in general. There is no essential culture that will be lost later. From the first moments this is already happening. Ever since the African-based rhythmic pulsation began to suffer interference and to exert influence over the medium it inhabited. There is no such idea that it was pure and then it became tamed and corrupted. No. Since samba was born, it’s been like that. One cannot have an idea of something static, of wanting popular culture to be something frozen in time, where you say that the original and pure kind was like that. There is no such thing. If you wanted the genuine and authentic to be frozen in time, you would be killing a very great characteristic of culture, which is to be in permanent evolution. You would muse-ify it, make it folklore. That is when cultural tradition is reproduced in a stylized way, frozen in time and free from external and exogenous influences. This is the death of culture. It’s the total impoverishment of culture. That’s what culture is, and with samba it is no different. As such a strong cultural manifestation, it has also been changing throughout this process. It’s discovering new possibilities and discovering new influences and trends, such as samba-canção, bossa nova, samba rock. It’s a constant evolution.

Q. The debate over cultural appropriation has gained momentum in recent weeks since a white girl with cancer reported being criticized for wearing a turban. What do you think about this debate? And how can it be applied in the case of samba? It is argued, for example, that black artists starved or were persecuted by the police, while white artists made money from samba.

A. I think this debate is more complex than it has been. To speak of cultural reservation in a mestizo country does not make sense. The richness of Brazil is exactly its miscegenation. One cannot want one thing to be for whites, one to be for blacks and one for the indigenous. Or that something is for immigrants or Japanese. Brazil is a mix. Wanting to define what is the specific territory of certain racial segments is somewhat limited. If this is the bias, then I, a resident from Ceará in São Paulo, should never be talking about samba. Whites contributed a lot to the evolution of the genre. It just takes mentioning one name: Noel Rosa. The history of samba and Brazil itself makes no sense without this name. What would samba be without the fundamental role of Francisco Alves, the singer who popularized and democratized samba for the middle classes? Then there’s that old act of victimization, saying that he stole them or bought samba songs and recorded them as his own. This was something that came naturally. Cartola himself said that he, Noel and Ismael Silva sold many sambas. It was very important to them. What we cannot do is want to analyze the past from today’s viewpoint, with today’s values. Today it seems like an asshole thing to do to sell ones samba songs. At that moment it was a matter of survival and more than just that. They weren’t poor people who were being exploited by Francisco Alves. It was their own game. They themselves stole sambas among themselves, bought sambas among themselves. The question is always more complicated. And I try to show just that: it doesn’t make sense to understand such a rich cultural manifestation if you want to transform it solely into an Afro genre. Samba at its origin had other influences. The rhythmic base is African, from the Bantus of Angola. But there are other elements, such as the fandango, the rabaneira, the European polka. I am radically against the purist discourse. This is also a type of sanitization. So let’s clean up everything that doesn’t come from African or Brazilian influences? There’s no such thing. If you’re going to relegate any outside influence, remove the guitar from history. Strictly speaking, only Amerindian music will remain authentic. Because everything else is a mixture.

Q. An excerpt from your book draws attention to itself because you speak about cultural appropriation, but regarding the blacks of that era. It says: “The process of exclusion, however, was accompanied by a simultaneous movement, rich in confluences and assimilations. Under the nauseated gaze of the elites, festivities originating in white and Portuguese tradition were gradually being appropriated by the black community.”

A. Before the phonographic market, how was samba shared? At the Festa da Penha, of Our Lady of Penha. It was a party for whites and Portuguese, with Portuguese sweets. The blacks arrived and took over of the space. And they became ‘owners’ of that piece of land. And the party became the main center for the diffusion Rio samba of the era. This smuggling between meanings is what’s beautiful. This anarchic confluence of disparate, seemingly irreconcilable elements. Brazilian culture is syncretic. And to close our eyes to this is straight nonsense.

Q. And how did the market influence samba’s development?

A. This was a process full of beautiful contradictions. The more samba was white-washed, the more it was accepted by the middle class and the elites. It lost some things and gained others. To want to demonize everything that comes from industry is harmful, it is an anachronistic thought. Samba knew how to use the cultural industry and it was winning, as it lost some of its impurity (or initial purity). It was being perfected. We have to look at this dialectically. If this hadn’t happened, it would have continued in the ghetto and wouldn’t have contributed to Brazilian culture as it has. It’s always a two-way street. A confrontation. I’m not here to judge whether it was better or not. But it occurred. It happened. And the beautiful thing is to see the strategies that samba used within this process to benefit itself. This happened with jazz, blues, and rock. If not you’ll want it to always stay in the backyard [?].

Q. With legendary characters, such as Tia Ciata and the composer Donga, you provide the first and last names, put it in the context of the era and talk about their peculiarities. They stop being samba heroes and become normal people. Many were even involved in unlawful acts.

A. All characters [in the book] have their faults, qualities, and vices. Do you know any human beings without faults? When I’m going to write someone’s biography, I always look for what makes them human. This permanent clash between these spheres that we didactically separate: good and evil, right and wrong. There’s no such thing. These people are contradictory. Many were in a condition of social vulnerability, so it was a way for them to react. The figure of the malandro [trickster] is also something we idealized. That guy with the brimmed hat, a friendly guy, who gets all the girls. This is cinematic. Life was hard for these guys, who died early because of tuberculosis, syphilis, stabbing or shooting. And afterwards we glamorize them. These people were exposed to very extreme situations, with hardships that dealt with finances, health, and housing…And from it [we see] the way they reacted to this hostility.

Q. We just celebrated 100 years of samba at the end of last year. Writer Paulo Lins [author of the book Desde que o samba é samba] explained to El País that the importance of the date was the fact that the song “Pelo Telefone” was recorded as a “samba” in the National Library. It was the moment, he says, that a word of African origin was imposed as national culture. What do you think about this?

A. This date has no meaning for me. Before Pelo Telefone had been recorded, there were already another 20 recordings that called themselves “samba”. The importance of Pelo Telefone is that Donga was able to discover the formula for making a hit. But a record in the National Library does not mean the birth of a genre. We need a date to supply the news market. And the problem with this is personifying and personalizing…We’re always looking for our founding myths. And then you have a creator of samba. This is bullshit. Samba, like all genres, is a collective production. How silly it is to say that Bide was the inventor of the first surdo. Nonsense. He wasn’t an enlightened guy who invented an instrument. He was the expression of an ancestral culture that brought these drums from Africa. It was our people who created the instrument. It’s also impoverishing to say that samba was born in Tia Ciata’s backyard. How then did it spread so quickly through the city? There was not just one Tia Ciata or just a Little Africa, but several. It’s much more beautiful. All these characters were simple people. I always point to this matter in the book: it’s the collective that produces. – Source (PT)

Note: I put [?] at the end of one of the last responses for the use of the phrase ‘fundo do quintal’ which is generally used in the sense of something unofficial or someone without experience. Literally, it means ‘backyard’. 

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