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

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Rosa is forever at pains to show that Vila Isabel produces samba of the quality of that created in any of its other strongholds in the city, most importantly the Afro-Brazilian neighbourhoods where the rhythm first appeared. As he says in the samba « Palpite Infeliz » (« Unfortunate Suggestion ») of 1935, « a Vila não quer abafar ninguém/ Só quer mostrar que faz samba também » (« Vila doesn’t want to steal the show from anyone/ It only wants to show that it makes samba too »). He stresses that samba from Vila Isabel is a more refined version, which represents Brazil as a whole, not merely the descendants of African slaves. Middle-class sambistas from Vila Isabel, like himself, have elevated the status of samba and transformed it into poetry, a form of high art. He believes that samba is an expression of nationality that needs to be nurtured and renewed. This is clearly revealed in the opening verses of the following samba, in which the associations between the early samba and Afro-Brazilian religious practices are eliminated in Vila’s version, making the music more respectable and a more fitting symbol of the entire population :

« Feitiço da Vila », 1934, Noel Rosa and Vadico

Quem nasce lá na Vila

Nem sequer vacila

Ao abraçar o samba

Que faz dançar os galhos

Do arvoredo

E faz a lua nascer mais cedo

Lá em Vila Isabel

Quem é bacharel

Não tem medo de bamba

São Paulo dá café

Minas dá leite

E a Vila Isabel dá samba
A Vila tem

Um feitiço sem farofa

Sem vela e sem vintém

Que nos faz bem

Tendo nome de princesa

Transformou o samba

Num feitiço decente

Que prende a gente

« Vila’s Magic Spell », 1934, Noel Rosa and Vadico

Those born in Vila

Don’t even hesitate

To embrace samba

Which makes the branches dance

In the grove

And makes the moon come out earlier

There in Vila Isabel

Those with talent

Aren’t afraid of other experts

São Paulo gives us coffee

Minas Gerais gives us milk

And Vila Isabel gives us samba

Vila has

A magic spell without manioc flour

Without candles or coins

That does us good

Having the name of a princess

It transformed samba

Into a decent spell

That enthralls us

Via his use of the term « feitiço » or magic spell and the references to manioc flour, candles and coins, items used in the rituals of candomblé or macumba, Afro-Brazilian religious cults common in all areas of Rio but particularly in the shantytowns, Rosa creates an opposition between the traditional bastions of samba and the newcomers, like Vila Isabel, which do not need to resort to « witchcraft » to enchant their audiences. Shortly after writing this samba, Rosa said in interview that it could just as easily have been entitled « Feitiço da Minha Pátria » (« The Spell of My Homeland »), giving a clear indication that his micro vision of what being a Brazilian was all about was intended to have much wider resonance4.

The bourgeois city centre, with its insincere and pretentious population, is drawn in sharp contrast to the welcoming and authentic but poorer northern neighbourhoods and suburbs, where true Brazilian fashions and cultural products thrive and alien, imported ideas are shunned. As Rosa says in the samba « Voltaste (pro subúrbio) » (« You Returned [to the Suburb »]) of 1934 :

Voltaste pra mostrar ao nosso povo

Que não há nada de novo

Lá no centro da cidade

Voltaste demonstrando claramente

Que o subúrbio é ambiente

De completa liberdade

You returned to show our people

That there’s nothing new

Down there in the city centre

You returned showing clearly

That the suburb is an environment

Of total freedom)

In his samba « O X do problema » (« The Crux of the Problem ») of 1936 the cultural clash between middle- and working-class Rio is again underlined, and the inability of the city’s less wealthy residents to sever ties with their home districts is emphasised. In spite of the lure of wealth and the pull of modernity, the girl in question is incapable of breaking the bond with Estácio de Sá, a down-market neighbourhood in the north of Rio, synonymous with samba and the home of Brazil’s first escola de samba or carnival group :

Já fui convidada

Para ser estrela no nosso cinema

Ser estrela é bem fácil

Sair do Estácio é que é

O X do problema

I’ve been invited

To be a film star

Being a star is really easy

Leaving Estácio is what’s

The crux of the problem

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