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

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Rosa’s attitude to life and its trials is very much in keeping with the figure of the pragmatic, devil-may-care malandro. His self-styled obituary « Fita Amarela » (« Yellow Ribbon »), written some five years before his premature death in May 1937, confirms his adoption of the lifestyle of malandragem or idleness and roguery, and his own impecunious state. In it he states :

Não tenho herdeiros

Não possuo um só vintém

Eu vivi devendo a todos

Mas não paguei nada a ninguém

I have no heirs

I don’t possess a single penny

I lived owing everyone

But I didn’t pay anyone

The only solutions to the problems of material scarcity are to be found in the lifestyle of malandragem, namely to gamble and to fail to pay one’s debts, and to lose oneself in casual liaisons with the opposite sex, but more importantly in samba itself. Throughout Rosa’s œuvre, samba is shown to combat hunger by transporting the practitioner far from the banal realities of life. This malandro ethos is epitomised in the opening verse of the following samba :

« Capricho de rapaz solteiro », 1933,

Noel Rosa

Nunca mais esta mulher

Me vê trabalhando

Quem vive sambando

Leva a vida para o lado que quer

De fome não se morre

Neste Rio de Janeiro

Ser malandro é um capricho

De rapaz solteiro

« Whim of a Bachelor Boy », 1933,

Noel Rosa

Never again will that woman

See me working

Those who live for samba

Do what they want with their life

You don’t die of hunger

In this Rio de Janeiro

Being a malandro is a whim

Of a bachelor boy

In the same vein, the samba « Filosofia » (« Philosophy »), written with André Filho in 1933, can be seen as a summing up of Rosa’s whole attitude to life and the society in which he lived, an attitude that owed much to the counter-culture of malandragem. It begins :

O mundo me condena

E ninguém tem pena

Falando sempre mal do meu nome

Deixando de saber

Se eu vou morrer de sede

Ou se vou morrer de fome

The world condemns me

And nobody takes pity on me

(lways speaking ill of me

Failing to enquire

If I’m going to die of thirst

Of if I’m going to die of hunger

Mas a filosofia

Hoje me auxilia

A viver indiferente assim

Nesta prontidão sem fim

Vou fingindo que sou rico

Pra ninguém zombar de mim

But my philosophy

Today helps me

To remain indifferent

In these endless hard times

I pretend to be rich

So that nobody mocks me

Rosa’s depictions of a penniless life are tempered with a liberal helping of comedy, and his use of humour and surreal imagery sets him apart from other sambistas of the day, whose evocations of the life of the poor were overwhelmingly prosaic. In the following samba, Rosa pulls no punches when exposing the penury that he saw all around him, but lightens the mood with the humour of the second and third verses, and the inspired simile of the latter2.

« Sem tostão », circa 1932, Noel Rosa

and Arthur Costa

De que maneira

Eu vou me arranjar

Pro senhorio não me despejar?

Pois eu hoje saí do plantão

Sem tostão! Sem tostão!
perguntei na Prefeitura

Quanto tenho que pagar

Quero ter uma licença

Pra viver sem almoçar

Veio um funcionário

E gritou bem indisposto

Que pra ser assim tão magro

Tenho que pagar imposto!
E quando eu passo pela praça

Quase como o chafariz

Quando a minha fome aperta

Dou dentadas no nariz

Ensinei meu cachorrinho

A passar sem ver comida

Quando estava acostumado

Ele disse adeus à vida!

« Flat Broke », circa 1932, Noel Rosa

and Arthur Costa

What on earth

Am I going to do

So that my landlord doesn’t throw me out?

‘Cos today I came out of work

Flat broke! Flat broke!

I’ve already asked at the Town Hall

How much I have to pay

I want to get a licence

To live without eating lunch

An employee appeared

And shouted in a bad temper

That for being so thin

I have to pay a tax!
And when I go across the square

Almost like the fountain in the middle

When my hunger pangs strike

I bite on my nose

I taught my little dog

To pass by without seeing food

When he’d got used to this

He passed on from this life!

In spite of his veneration of the malandro anti-hero, Rosa’s portrayal of the figure is strikingly out of line with that of his contemporaries for its realistic and human touch. He blows the whistle on the impoverished life that the bohemian spiv really led, and peels away the confident swagger and eternal bravado of this icon of mixed-race sub-culture. In the tellingly entitled samba « Malandro medroso » (« Fearful malandro ») of 1930, for example, the malandro candidly admits to being frightened of a love rival. Rosa writes :

A consciência agora que me doeu

Eu evito a concorrência

Quem gosta de mim sou eu

Neste momento, eu saudoso me retiro

Pois teu velho é ciumento

E pode me dar um tiro

My conscience hurt me

I avoid competition

I look after myself

Now I miss you but I’ll get out of the way

‘Cos your old man is the jealous type

And might take a shot at me

Rosa shuns the rhetoric of nationalism, but nevertheless articulates his own, « popular » version of patriotism, which resides in the coinage of everyday thought and particularly in that most Brazilian of cultural products, the samba. In his lyrics samba is an antidote to poverty and it has the power the transform everyday existence (and nature itself in the samba « Feitiço da Vila » examined in detail later). Those who create samba, as well as their art form itself, become the focus of patriotic pride. For Rosa samba represents the essence of brasilidade and of the national psyche, and it is an innate gift of the Brazilian people. As he writes in the samba « Coração » (« Heart »), of 1931 :

Coração de sambista brasileiro

Quando bate no pulmão

Faz a batida do pandeiro

The heart of the Brazilian sambista

When it beats against the lung

Beats the rhythm on a tambourine)

Rosa appeals to the man in the street’s shared perception of and familiarity with banal aspects of life and the incursions of modernity by incorporating into his lyrics contemporary references, such as brand names, and snippets of local knowledge. In the samba « De Babado »  (« With Frills ») of 1936, written with João Mina, he writes, for example, « Vamos comprar o Mossoró! » (« Let’s buy Mossoró ! »), in an allusion to the winning horse of the first « Grande Prêmio Brasil » race of 1933. With the advent of both radio and consumerism, the creators of samba and other forms of popular song began to include indirect allusions to products and trade names in exchange for cash payment. Ever with his finger on the pulse, Rosa copied this trend even when there was no commercial interest, and it is said that one night in 1935, in a cabaret bar in the city of Vitória in the state of Espírito Santo, the sambista improvised the following lines, in which he pays homage to a young lady, but also to a famous make of cigarattes of the same name made by the Souza Cruz tobacco company :

É você a que comanda

E o meu coração conduz

Salve a dona Yolanda

Rainha da Souza Cruz

You are the one that is in control

And leads my heart

Three cheers for lady Yolanda

Queen of Souza Cruz

Similarly, the name of a popular brand of cigarettes appears in the second verse of the samba « João Ninguém » (« Joe Nobody »), of 1935, which paints a picture of an everyman figure, a would-be malandro who is destitute and down on his luck :

João Ninguém

Não trabalha e é dos tais

Que joga sem ter vintém

E fuma Liberty Ovais

Esse João nunca se expôs ao perigo

Nunca teve um inimigo

Nunca teve opinião

Joe Nobody

Doesn’t work and is one of those

Who gambles without a penny to his name

And smokes Liberty Ovals

This Joe never exposed himself to danger

He never had an enemy

He never had an opinion

The Veneration of the Local Neighbourhood or Bairro
Rosa’s imagined community was that of the down-market districts or bairros of the city of Rio, a microcosm of working-class life throughout urban Brazil. He homed in on the trivial minutiae of everyday existence rather than more grandiose visions of what it meant to be Brazilian in the 1930s. In was not uncommon for sambistas to write eulogies for the areas of the city that they knew as home, but Rosa held his home district of Vila Isabel in particular affection, and wrote many songs in praise of this lower-middle-class area of Rio’s less attractive « Northern Zone »3. In « Eu vou pra Vila » (« I’m off to Vila ») of 1930 he writes :

Na Pavuna tem turuna

Na Gamboa gente boa

Eu vou pra Vila

Aonde o samba é da coroa

Já saí da Piedade

Já mudei de Cascadura

Eu vou pra Vila

Pois quem é bom não se mistura

In Pavuna there are big guys

In Gamboa good people

I’m off to Vila

To where the samba is top-class

I left Piedade

I moved away from Cascadura

I’m off to Vila

‘Cos good guys stay faithful3

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