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



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The journalist Pedro Bloch summed up the significance of Rosa’s veneration of his home, stating : « Wanting to sing about his home district, Noel managed to sing about the whole city, Brazil, the world. Vila Isabel is the symbolic name of the home district of every human being on the face of the earth. It is the charm of childhood, of the stone on the ground, of the guava-tree or a tree found in gardens of any latitude. By being dyed-in-the-wool Brazilian, he manages to capture everyone’s heart »5.
Reactions to Alien Cultural Trends and Foreigners
Noel Rosa saw the malandro as the guardian of grass-roots identity in the face of the incursions of imported cultural forms and of bourgeois attitudes and lifestyles. He perceived Brazilianness as being under threat, as a result, in particular, of the invasion of foreigners and their fashions. As Bryan McCann says of Rosa (2001 : 3) : « He sought not only to define Brazilian national identity but to achieve it, become worthy of it, and to protect it. He perceived Brazilianness as an endangered quality, threatened by the encroachments of foreigners and squandered by bad Brazilians ». The popularity of Hollywood fashions, such as bottle-blond hair and anglicisms, was a particular source of irritation for Rosa6.In his samba « Não tem tradução » (« There’s No Translation »), he attacks the talking cinema as a promoter of imported trends and a symbol of homogenised modernity, and clearly sees this medium as a vehicle for disseminating a pervasive alien culture. Here new dance and musical forms, such as the foxtrot almost lead even the malandro astray. Sound cinema had a dramatic impact on popular music in Brazil; Portuguese versions of the hit songs from Hollywood musicals were recorded in Brazil, and some Brazilian singers began to record songs in English. Soon English phrases found their way into everyday vernacular, and typically the smooth-talking malandro incorpo­rated « hello » and « byebye » into his linguistic repertoire. Rosa was not the only popular musician to ridicule this trend. The white composer Lamartine Babo, most famous for his carnival marches or marchinhas, wrote a foxtrot called « Canção para inglês ver » (« A Song To Impress the English ») which brought together a nonsensical mix of Portuguese and English words and phrases : « I love you, abacaxi, uísque of chuchu » (« I love you, pineapple, whiskey of chayote », the latter a kind of vegetable common in Brazil, but also a popular nickname for President Vargas, a reflection of his pear-shaped physique). Similarly, Assis Valente wrote another carnival march which went « Não se fala mais boa noite, nem bom dia/ Só se fala good morning, good night » (« We don’t say good evening any more, not even hello/ We only say good morning, good night »).

« Não tem tradução », 1933, Noel Rosa


O cinema falado

É o grande culpado


Da transformação

Dessa gente que sente

Que um barracão

Prende mais que um xadrez

Lá no morro, se eu fizer uma falseta

A Risoleta

Desiste logo do francês e do inglês
A gíria que o nosso morro criou

Bem cedo a cidade aceitou e usou

Mais tarde o malandro deixou de sambar

Dando pinote

E só querendo dançar o fox-trot
Essa gente hoje em dia

Que tem a mania

Da exibição

Não se lembra que o samba

Não tem tradução

No idioma francês

Tudo aquilo que o malandro pronuncia

Com voz macia

É brasileiro, já passou de português
Amor, lá no morro, é amor pra chuchu

As rimas do samba não são « I love you »

E esse negócio de « alô, alô, boy »

« Alô, Johnny »

Só pode ser conversa de telefone

There’s No Translation », 1933, Noel Rosa

The talking cinema

Is the major cause

Of the transformation

Of those who feel

That a shantytown shack

Holds you more than a prison cell

Up on the hill if I play a dirty trick

Risoleta

Gives up on her French and English


The slang that our shantytowns created

Quickly the city accepted and used

Later the malandro stopped dancing samba

Playing his guitar

And only wanted to dance the foxtrot
Those people today

Who are obsessed

With showing off

Don’t remember that samba

Cannot be translated

Into the French language

Everything that the malandro utters

When smooth talking

Is Brazilian, no longer Portuguese
Love, up on the hill, there’s loads of it

The rhymes of samba are not « I love you »

And that stuff about « hello, hello, boy »

« Hello, Johnny »

Can only be telephone talk

In this samba Rosa fiercely defends Brazil’s linguistic independence from the former colonial power, Portugal, as well as criticising the influence of English and French, and it is the unschooled morro or hillside shantytown that has produced inventive slang that distinguishes the two variants of Portuguese. Samba is once again glorified as the essence of national identity. It cannot be translated into other languages as it is intrinsically Brazilian, and must remain untainted by the farcical fashion for singing in English. As he implies in the last line, only the affluent, fickle inhabitants of the middle-class districts of the city (the only ones who could afford to own telephones) would pretentiously pepper their speech with anglicisms.

The Portuguese are ridiculed in Rosa’s lyrics, maintaining a tradition of jokes at the expense of this particular immigrant community. In « Vingança de malandro » (« The Malandro’s Revenge ») of 1930, the protagonist of the lyrics has been abandoned by his former lover in favour of a Portuguese, but not surprisingly the latter is soon made to look an utter fool :


Já faz hoje mais de um mês

Que ela me abandonou

Pra morar com um português

Today it is more than a month

Since she abandoned me

To live with a Portuguese





Iludindo com carinho

Explorou aquele anjinho

Pôs a casa no leilão

E depois meteu o braço

Bem na cara do palhaço

Veio me pedir perdão

Deceiving with affection

She exploited that little angel

She put his house up for auction

And then beat him up

Right in the clown’s face

She came to ask me to forgive her


In the samba « Voltaste (pro subúrbio) » (« You Returned [to the Suburb] »), referred to earlier, the malandro protagonist cheats the local butcher, a profession that commonly was associated with Portuguese immigrants, and thus once again this group is made to look naïve and foolish. Throughout Rosa’s work Brazilian identity is created via the exclusion of the « other », whether it be Hollywood-inspired vogues or members of the nation’s ever-expanding immigrant population. Accusations of xenophobia and particularly of anti-Semitism can easily be levelled at Noel Rosa, but his jibes at immigrants must be seen in the wider context of his assertion of national identity in the face of the encroachment of imported trends and cultural products. His personal experience of penury and of family debt also informs his portrayal of the moneylender or voracious entrepreneur. Vila Isabel attracted travelling salesmen and loan sharks, the latter mostly European immigrants, including some Portuguese, but collectively known as judeus (Jews) or turcos (literally Turks, but, in most cases, Syrio-Lebanese Christians who had been subjects of the Ottoman Empire). Rosa sensed the whole community’s dependence on and fear of these immigrants. In the samba « Quem dá mais? » (« Who’ll Give Me More ? »), also known as « Leilão do Brasil » (« The Auction of Brazil ») of 1930, it is no coincidence that one of the lots up for grabs, a guitar which is said to have belonged to Brazil’s emperor Pedro I and to have been pawned by José Bonifácio (1763-1838), the statesman and champion of independence from Portugal, is snapped up by a judeu who will sell it to a museum for double the price .

Immigrants threaten Brazil’s heritage in Rosa’s lyrics, at a time when immigration policy was weighted heavily in favour of white European Christians, and openly discriminated against those who fell outside this group. In the 1930s Brazilians became more self-conscious and questions of identity became highly politicised. The eugenics movement in Brazil reached the height of its influence during the first Vargas years, and as a direct consequence the Constituent Assembly of the mid-1930s passed a number of measures which established immigration quotas on Asians and blacks, and gave the State the power to regulate marriages. The early 1930s thus witnessed a shift in national self-image, as white European immigration was glorified and encouraged as an essential part of the process of branqueamento or whitening. Suddenly the Brazilian State deemed that many of the immigrants who had entered the country prior to 1930 were not now acceptably « white ». Thus Vargas’s policies modified the notion of race to embrace what would now be termed ethnicity and religion. Overnight the term « European » came to mean white, and did not apply to Jews or Arabs, who were neither black nor white. Despite the fact that both groups had freely entered Brazil before 1930, they were now portrayed in the press as a threat to the fabric of the Brazilian nation. Whilst Noel flies in the face of the anti-African racism implicit in this new ideology of nation by venerating the figures of the mixed-race malandro and the mulatto girl, he appears once or twice to fall in line with other ethnic prejudices of the day7

Race is of course central to the question of identity in Brazil. Whilst the ruling elite sought to foreground the country’s imagined « white » identity and to develop it further via the policy of branqueamento and selective immigration, popular artists like Noel Rosa, and the Modernist poets in erudite literature, attempted to give value to the nation’s black inheritance in their exploration of what it meant to be Brazilian in the 1930s. The inhabitants of Rio’s poorer quarters, predominantly of mixed race, are for Rosa the true Brazilians. If he places the mulatto malandro spiv on a pedestal, it is perhaps no surprise that in his lyrics the epitome of female sensuality and attractiveness is the archetypal mulata. This mixed-race beauty is the essence of Brazilian identity, a notion propounded most famously by Gilberto Freyre in his seminal work on Brazil’s racial legacy and identity, Casa-grande & senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), first published in 1933. Like Freyre, Rosa argues that Brazil’s history of miscegenation and racial mixture should be embraced as a positive aspect of the nation8. As he writes in « Leite com café » (« Milk with Coffee ») of 19359.




A morena lá do morro

Cheia de beleza e graça

Simboliza a nossa grande raça

É cor de leite com café

E a loura da cidade

Nunca foi nem é meu tipo

Perto dela sempre me constipo

De tão gelada que ela é

The dark girl from up there on the hill

Full of beauty and charm

Symbolises our great race

She’s the colour of milk with coffee

And the blonde girl from the city

Was never my type

When I’m near her I catch a cold

Because she’s so icy





Undermining Authority and Debunking Official Rhetoric
As well as creating his own definition of national consciousness, Rosa takes great pleasure in undermining the narrative of nation, described by Stuart Hall (1992 : 293) as « a set of stories, images, landscapes, scenarios, historical events, national symbols and rituals which stand for, or represent, the shared experiences, sorrows, and triumphs and disasters which give meaning to the nation ». In his lyrics, he demolishes the icons and emblems of an official identity with comic irreverence and exposes the rhetoric of nation as a sham. Established cultural representations of civic abstractions, such as the national anthem, the Brazilian flag and the celebrations held on Independence Day, are debunked and replaced by more earthy, bona fide tokens of his imagined community. Since his school days he had been creating musical parodies of Brazil’s national anthem and in 1929 he wrote the samba « Com que roupa? » (« In What Clothes ? »), which copied the melody of the first line of the anthem. Although, to avoid censorship, he was obliged subsequently to change the opening bars before the song was recorded on disc or reproduced on sheet music, the melodies of the two songs are strikingly similar. By setting to this tune lyrics which expose the reality of a poverty-stricken population in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and the impact of the latter on the Brazilian economy, Rosa clearly had a profane irony in mind. (The title of the samba refers to the fact that he has no clothes to wear to a samba party, and he describes himself as being covered in rags). The lyrics obviously struck a chord with the local population, since fifteen thousand copies of the record were sold, a figure rarely attained by Rosa’s contemporaries. Benedict Anderson (1993 : 145) has emphasised the importance of national songs or anthems, stating : « No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity […] Singing the Marseillaise, Waltzing Matilda, and Indonesian Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community ».Ironically, Rosa’s parody of Brazil’s national anthem proved to be a similarly powerful anti-establishment hymn which permitted its audience to form a common bond and fostered a sense of belonging to a shared reality of economic hardship .

The positivist philosophy of the French mathematician Auguste Comte (1798-1857) adopted by the Republican regime in Brazil, provides the basis for the satirical samba « Posivitismo » (« Positivism ») of 1933, written by Rosa and the popular poet Orestes Barbosa. The motto of the philosophy, « ordem e progresso » (« order and progress »), which appears on the Brazilian national flag, is transplanted to the sphere of romantic love :




O amor vem por princípio, a ordem por base

O progresso é que deve vir por fim

Desprezaste esta lei deAugusto Comte

E foste ser feliz longe de mim

Love comes on principle, order as a basis

Progress must come last

You ignored this law of Augusto Comte

And went off to be happy far from me)


The undermining of establishment patriotism is similarly seen in « Cordiais saudações » (« Cordial Greetings ») of 1931, in which Rosa pokes fun at the military celebrations held every year on Brazilian Independence day, 7 September. Written in the form of a letter asking for repayment of a loan, this samba humorously refers to the protagonist’s impecunious state (« Espero que notes bem/ Estou agora sem um vintém » [« I hope that you take note/ That now I’m broke »]) and is signed « Rio, 7 September 1931 ». With this facetious, almost throw-away reference to the « Day of the Fatherland », when the military must symbolically express their allegiance and respect for authority and national emblems like the Brazilian flag and the Republic’s arms, Rosa derides all the pomp and ceremony of the elite’s event of the year.

Rosa equally enjoys poking fun at the inadequacies of Brazil’s institutions and its lumbering, bureaucratic civil service is a constant source of amusement. In the samba « Picilone » (« The Letter Y ») of 1931, for example, he jokes about the spelling changes introduced to the Portuguese language as a result of the controversial orthographical agreement signed in that same year by Brazil and Portugal10 . Rosa picks out one aspect of this accord, namely the substitution of the letter « i » for « y » in the Portuguese alphabet. The lyrics are deliberately farcical and the tone derisory :


Yvone ! Yvone !

Eu ando roxo pra te dizer um picilone !

Já reparei outro dia

Que o teu nome, ó Yvone

Na nova ortografia

Já perdeu o picilone

Yvone ! Yvone !

I’m dying to say a letter « y » to you !

I noticed the other day

That your name, oh Yvone

In the new orthography

Has lost its « y »


The senseless concerns of red tape are drawn in opposition to serious issues like economic hardship, and as Rosa says in the final verse :




Cansei de andar só de tanga

Já perdi a paciência

I’m tired of going aroundin a loin cloth

I’m out of patience


In the same vein, he wrote two sambas about the decision made by the Vargas regime in 1931 to move all the clocks forward in Brazil by one hour, both of which contrast the triviality of the government’s preoccupations with the dire realities of life for the poor. The nonsensical gibberish which characterises both sets of lyrics forms part of Rosa’s insistent mockery and sceptical attitude towards the pompous obscurantism of the ruling elite. « Por causa da hora » (« Because of the Hour ») of 1931 ends on a suitably ironic note :




Como vou pagar agora

Tudo o que comprei a prazo

Se ando com um mês de atraso?

Eu que sempre dormi durante o dia

Ganhei mais uma hora pra descanso

Agradeço ao avanço

De uma hora no ponteiro

Viva o dia brasileiro !

How am I going to pay for now

Everything that I bought on tick

If I’m a month behind?

I’ve always slept during the day

So I’ve gained another hour’s rest

I’m grateful for the putting forward

Of the clock’s hand by one hour

Long live the Brazilian day !


And in « O pulo da hora » (« The Leap of the Hour ») Rosa writes :




O carioca

Perdeu a calma e a paz

A hora pulou pra frente

E a nota pulou pra trás

The inhabitant of Rio

Has lost his cool

The hour leaped forward

And the banknote leaped back


For Rosa the economic crisis of the early 1930s became a source of comedy and an excuse to ridicule authority with the characterisitic wit and disrespect of the malandro. He stated at the end of 1932 : « Antes, a palavra samba tinha um único sinônimo : mulher. Agora já não é assim. Há também o dinheiro, a crise. O nosso pensamento se desvia também para esses gravíssimos temas ». (« Previously, the word samba had only one synonym : woman. It’s not like that any more. There’s also money, the crisis. Our thoughts stray also to those very serious topics »)11

Rosa frequently mimics the empty appeals to patriotism of President Vargas himself, incorporating and comically undermining well-known government campaign slogans such as in « Samba da boa vontade » (« Good-will Samba ») of 1931, written with João de Barro, the title and opening line of which satirise Vargas’s calls for sacrifice and optimism from his people :


Campanha da boa vontade !

Viver alegre hoje é preciso

Conserva sempre o teu sorriso

Mesmo que a vida esteja feia

E que vivas na pinimba

Passando a pirão de areia

The good-will campaign !

It’s necessary to live happily today

Always keep smiling

Even if life is ugly

And you’re living in a right state

Making your porridge with sand


Official rhetoric is always sharply contrasted with the grim realities of life for the majority, albeit in comic fashion. In the samba « No baile da Flor-de-Lis » (« In the Flor-de-Lis Dance ») for example, the trite establishment discourse voiced, perhaps, over the airwaves or by an official in person, forms a humorous contrast with the uncouth behaviour of those at whom it is directed, who simply want to get drunk :




Acabando o que era doce

Uma voz manifestou-se

E a sala fez tremer

« Esperamos por dinheiro



E que cada brasileiro

Cumpra com seu dever ! »

Encontrei muito funil

A chorar junto ao barril

Quando o chope se esgotou

Houve a tal pancadaria

Com a qual se anuncia

Que o baile terminou

Putting an end to the good times

A voice was heard

And the room shook

« We are hoping for money

And that all Brazilians

Will do their duty !»

I found lots of blokes

Crying by the barrel

When the beer ran out

There was a punch-up

Which announced

That the dance was over


In place of the hollow symbols of a sanctioned nationhood, Rosa venerates the anti-hero or malandro, and unofficial, informal institutions, such as the concept of jeito or jeitinho, a way of subverting authority, evading the law, or using one’s contacts for personal advantage, which is an accepted constant in Brazilian life. Although similar mechanisms exist throughout the world, what is unique about the Brazilian case is that it has become a recognised institution and a central element in the social construction of national identity. The jeitinho brasileiro is a way of defining brasilidade, since it eliminates hierarchies of ethnicity, gender or class, and unites all Brazilians on an equalised, homogeneous footing. The malandro is often described as jeitinho incarnate, and his hero status in the lyrics of samba serves to underline the importance of this ethos to the national psyche. As Lívia Neves de H. Barbosa says (1995 : 46), jeitinho is an emphasis of the human and natural aspects of social reality, rather than on political, bureacratic or institutional aspects. Rosa too, therefore, can be seen as jeitinho incarnate. He mocks Brazil’s political leaders, the deficiencies of the civil service and time-wasting petty bureaucracy, whilst glorifying the figures of the mixed-race spiv and the alluring mulatto girl, the cultural products of the lower classes, in particular the samba, and the banalities of everyday existence in the most humble of urban areas. He does not deny the existence of an imagined community, but he redefines it and locates its heart in the local neighbourhood with which people are intimately familiar, rather than in some wider, abstract concept of the nation.

In his samba lyrics Noel Rosa considers notions of community and identity, but looks not to what he perceives as phoney symbols imposed from above, but rather to the self-styled icons and cultural products of the ordinary people, however mundane, such as samba, the counter-culture of malandragem, and everyday life in the shantytown or down-market district. His lyrics mirror changing theoretical perspectives on Brazil’s mixed-race legacy among the intelligentsia in that they celebrate miscegenation and assert Brazil’s cultural independence, yet his criticism of immigrants and alien cultural influences equally reflects the Vargas regime’s use of xenophobia and racism as political tools. Like the Brazilian Modernists, Rosa wanted to elevate the status of popular culture, more specifically samba itself, and was preoccupied with the question of identity in the face of the incursions of modernity. In tune with the politicians and intellectuals of the day, he asked himself what Brazil’s citizens had in common, what bound them together, and what could be defined as truly Brazilian in such a vast and disparate country. As Bryan McCann writes, « Rosa’s formulations were particularly well suited to the early and mid-1930s, when a variety of intellectual and popular cultural producers pursued nationalist inquiries along several different lines. The Vargas government had not yet developed the capability to direct those inquiries, nor to censor critical expressions, leaving the field open for a relatively wide range of formulations of national identity (McCann 2001 : 13).

As Benedict Anderson affirms in Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1993 : 113-114), popular nationalism can differ greatly from the official version, endorsed by the elite, which relies on emblems of national definition. Rosa’s prosaic vision of brasilidade does not just contradict the formal rhetoric of nationhood, but actually mocks and comically calls it into question. The Brazilian cultural historian, Nicolau Sevcenko (1998 : 592) has described the impact of the radio and the cinema on the urban population’s sense of community in the 1930s, explaining how with the disintegration of the extended family as a consequence of urbanisa­tion and migration from rural areas, familial and neighbourhood links were replaced by media icons, whose omnipresence created a sense of familiarity. Thus photographic or celluloid images, and voices on gramophone records or on the radio, were easier for ordinary people to assimilate than their fellow city-dwellers, with their idiosyncrasies and foibles. Throughout the twentieth century popular music has helped to construct and to articulate changes in community and identity in Brazil, but in the 1930s in particular the radio and record industry were instrumental in conjuring up imagined communities for Brazil’s predominantly illiterate lower classes, and the lyrics of popular song articulated and helped to foster a sense of belonging.

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