Samba and Brasilidade Notions of National Identity in the Lyrics of Noel Rosa (1910-1937)

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Lisa SHAW, Lusotopie 2002/2 : 81-96

Samba and Brasilidade

Notions of National Identity
in the Lyrics of Noel Rosa (1910-1937)


n the 1930s, Brazil, and particularly the then capital city, Rio de Janeiro, witnessed the onset of industrialisation and continued attempts to integrate former slaves and their descendants together with white European immigrants, into the emerging working masses. As the culture industry took shape, predominantly in the form of the radio, the record industry and the sound cinema, samba was transformed from a preserve of the Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves in Rio’s poorer quarters to become a symbol of national self-definition, created and performed for and by a cross-section of the population, and disseminated via the new media. In the late 1920s, Brazil had seen the advent of electrical recordings, which facilitated the reproduction of vocals on disc and led to a boom in the local record industry. The regime of President Getúlio Vargas (1930-45) harnessed the propaganda potential of radio as part of its nation-building strategy and thus, the number of radio stations, transmitters and radio sets multiplied in the early 1930s, within a wider context of urban and industrial growth1. Radio stations and record companies in Rio de Janeiro soon began to scour the city for up-and-coming talent, and many of the Afro-Brazilian sambistas from the city’s shantytowns and underprivileged neighbourhoods found themselves composing and performing alongside white middle-class artists, like Noel Rosa (1910-37), in the nascent music industry.

Noel Rosa was the finest lyricist that the samba genre has ever known. He was the first to foreground the lyrics of samba and to break with conventional themes and approaches. The samba rhythm had emerged in the city of Rio in the second decade of the twentieth century, and was thus still something of a novelty when Rosa began his musical career. He was born and brought up in the predominantly white lower-middle- and working-class district of Vila Isabel, in the so-called « Northern Zone » of the city of Rio, a neighbourhood where samba was regularly performed in the street-corner bars or botequins. Rosa was perhaps the first popular composer to suggest that the samba genre was an expression of the Brazilian soul, and his lyrics tap into the contemporary fascination in intellectual and political circles with questions of national character. Against a backdrop of the official nationalist rhetoric of Vargas’s brasilidade or Brazilianisation campaign, Rosa’s lyrics display a grass-roots vision of what it meant to be Brazilian in the 1930s. His brasilidade is a kind of anti-identity grounded in the often unflattering commonplaces of Brazilian or more specifically carioca (Rio) life, such as the gambling, womanising and petty crimes of the malandro, a spiv or hustler usually of mixed race. A true champion of popular identity, Rosa was affectionately referred to as « the philosopher of samba » and « the chronicler of everyday life ». He captured the essence of daily existence in Rio’s less glamorous districts with a warts-and-all realism and a liberal dose of humour, but many of his observations display a subtlety which aligns him with the Brazilian Modernist writers and artists, particularly with a group of erudite poets, who, in the same era, were articulating very similar notions of the national spirit. This article will examine a range of Rosa’s lyrics in an attempt to analyse his particular vision of nationhood and how it fitted into wider debates on identity in the 1930s.

The Essence of Brasilidade
In his lyrics Rosa highlights the common currency of everyday life, however unflattering, and gives status to the mundane aspects of lower-class existence with which the vast majority of the population of Rio and beyond could identify. Perhaps the most emblematic of his sambas in this respect is « São coisas nossas » (« They’re Our Things ») of 1932, inspired by one of the first Brazilian talkies, Coisas nossas (Our Things) of the previous year, which featured performances by Rosa and his band, the Bando de Tangarás. The lyrics of this samba give status to such unlikely features of daily life as moral degeneration, poverty and the exploitation of the poor. Alongside the street vendors, tram drivers, malandros, beautiful mulatto girls, and samba itself, the loan shark is a constant presence in Brazil in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. The collapse of Brazil’s principal export market, particularly for coffee, the mainstay of the economy, had widespread repercussions.

« São coisas nossas », 1932, Noel Rosa

Queria ser pandeiro

Pra sentir o dia inteiro

A tua mão na minha pele a batucar

Saudade do violão e da palhoça

Coisa nossa, coisa nossa
O samba, a prontidão e outras bossas

São nossas coisas, são coisas nossas
Malandro que não bebe

Que não come, que não abandona o samba

Pois o samba mata a fome

Morena bem bonita lá da roça

Coisa nossa, coisa nossa
Baleiro, jornaleiro

Motorneiro, condutor e passageiro

Prestamista e vigarista

E o bonde que parece uma carroça

Coisa nossa, muito nossa
Menina que namora

Na esquina e no portão

Rapaz casado com dez filhos, sem tostão

Se o pai descobre o truque dá uma coça

Coisa nossa, muito nossa

« They’re Our Things », 1932, Noel Rosa

I would like to be a tambourine

To feel all day long

Your hand beating on my skin

Longing for the guitar and for the shack

Our things, our things

Samba, pennilessness and other fashions

They are our things, they are our things

The malandro who does not drink

Who does not eat, who does not quit the samba

Since samba kills his hunger

The pretty mulatto girl from the country

They are our things, they are our things
Street traders, newspaper vendors

Tram drivers and passengers

Loan sharks and conmen

And the tram that looks like a cart

Our things, very much ours
The girl courting

On the street corner and in a doorway

A married man with ten children and no money

If her father finds out he’ll use his fists

Our things, very much ours

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