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The batuque, the bandoneon, and the saboteurs of work

Study discusses the presence of marginal figures in the lyrics of samba and tango music in the first decades of the 20th century

Wikipedia Carmen MirandaWikipedia

Brazil, in the 1930s. Argentina, in the 1920s. In their search for modernization and a new social agreement, the governments of these two countries institute nationalist programs based on a work ethic and on a common collective identity. On the radios, a samba song praises the grandeur of Brazilian nature; meanwhile, tango music portrays the homeland as a loving companion to a gallant Argentinian. But there are noises: in the voice of Carmen Miranda (1909–1955), a bum complains about having to work. In the voice of Carlos Gardel (1890–1935), a young man accuses another of not being outcast enough.

This scene and its “apparent incongruence” comprise the starting point for the recent release Pandeiros e bandoneones: Vozes disciplinadoras e marginais no samba e no tango (Tambourines and bandoneons: Disciplinary and marginal voices in samba and tango; by UNIFESP), by Andreia dos Santos Menezes, professor with the Department of Languages at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). Based on an analysis of their lyrics, these music genres, which became known during a period of intense nationalism, are investigated for how they responded to conflicts at that time and were molded by them. “Is it not a contradiction that the music viewed as a national symbol features so many vagabonds? That it portrays a way of life that is so different from that of the ideal citizen?”, he asks, summarizing the central theme of the study. The corpus includes more than 80 songs from each genre and covers a period of close to 30 years, with benchmarks including “Mi noche triste” (1916), by Pascual Contursi (1888–1932), viewed as the first tango song, and “Se você jurar” (1930), by Ismael Silva (1905–1978) and Nilton Bastos (1899–1931), considered the beginning of a samba that is modern, urban, and from Rio.

When these musical genres gained strength, Brazil and Argentina were experiencing demographic growth, primarily in cities, immigration policies, and emerging industrialization. In 1912, Argentina enacted the Sáenz Peña Law, introducing obligatory voting for all men above 18 years of age, which, four years later, facilitated the election of Hipólito Yrigoyen (1852–1933), of the Radical Civic Union, for President of the Republic. In Brazil, Getúlio Vargas (1882–1954) took power in 1930 with a plan to reorganize the nation, which would be radicalized between 1937 and 1945 into the New State. In both countries, means of communication played a strategic role in building a feeling of belonging to the country. Tango and samba became national phenomena.

Born in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and also in Montevideo, Uruguay, tango music claimed to be a synthesis of aspects of rural life and cosmopolitan city living. The character of compadrito (man from the lower class) is key in this context: a relative of the gaucho, an Argentinian cultural symbol, the compadrito is characterized by the refusal to subject oneself to discipline—represented by family, school, church, politics, and the Army. Based on real-life personalities who lived when this musical genre became popular, the tango can be sung in different ways, as the researcher shows.

The music of Ary Barroso would become the flagship of the sambas-exaltação, in tune with the ruling ideology

For example, “No aflojés,” composed in 1933 by Pedro Maffia (1899–1967), Sebastián Piana (1903–1994), and Mario Battistella (1893–1968), addresses a compadrito from long ago, praising his courage and what he has accomplished, regretting that he had been mistreated by wicked times. “But what regret, this tango is a plea to the compadrito that he, known for his courage, endure and not disappear,” writes dos Santos Menezes. The author of Pandeiros and bandoneones notes that the disappearance of the character is the result of the modernization of the country—and this ends up being criticized in the song. There are also tangos with the opposite perspective: “Mala entraña,” composed in 1927 by Enrique Maciel (1897–1962) and Celedonio Flores (1896–1947), initially seems to praise the compadrito, but ends by blaming him for the problems he causes. According to the researcher, this negative view of the character represents the “voices that are affiliated with the disciplinary position of the State.” Having earlier served as affirmation for a marginal group, the portrayal of the compadrito weakens the discourse when the tango becomes a phenomenon of the masses.

National symbols
Both the tango and the samba were originally expressions of a marginalized population. In Argentina, the tango became a national symbol after the elite, having heard about its success in Europe, began to appreciate it in a process that was initially established in France and was strongly supported by Carlos Gardel. On the other hand, the samba had the support of the State in order to become a national symbol. Historian Alessander Kerber, professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), highlights the case of Carmen Miranda of Portugal: “One of her first records, from 1930, in which she recorded the song “Ta-hí,” sold more than 30,000 copies, at a time when a big Carnival hit sold 5,000 copies.” As the author of Carlos Gardel e Carmen Miranda: Representações da Argentina e do Brasil (Carlos Gardel and Carmen Miranda: Expressions of Argentina and Brazil), he even remembers that, on one of the artist’s excursions to the United States, the government of Getúlio Vargas funded the trip of her band, Bando da Lua. The purpose was to ensure, with monitoring of the group, that the musical performances were not being Americanized—thus avoiding what happened in Serenata tropical (Down Argentine Way, in the original), a film directed by Irving Cummings, who, without any contextualization, presented an artist, considered a Brazilian symbol, in an Argentinian plot and scene. “Interpretations such as this upset an elite who would have liked to see Brazil portrayed in a more nationalistic way,” explains Kerber.

The Department of Press and Publicity (DIP) fulfilled a fundamental role in building a national identity based on samba. Established by the New State in 1939, the DIP did not take long to pressure composers to leave aside elements that would be undesirable for country development, censuring lyrics with content averse to work and primarily associated with troublemaking. When talking about the composition in which Wilson Batista sings “I am proud to be such a bum,” Adalberto Paranhos, professor at the Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU) and author of Os desafinados: Sambas e bambas no “Estado Novo” (Out of tune: Sambas and bambas in the “New State”), confirms: “Samba should deal with other things and not, as in the case of “Lenço no pescoço” [1933], with the glorification of the mischievous figure. It should address another kind of Brazil, such as in “Aquarela do Brasil” [1939], which listed one by one the litany of our characteristic places of grandeur and natural beauty.” The samba by Ary Barroso (1903–1964) became the flagship of the sambas-exaltação (sambas that glorify Brazil), fine-tuned with the ruling ideology, observes the historian.

Y la lámpara del cuarto también tu ausencia ha sentido porque su luz no ha querido mi noche triste alumbrar

“Mi noche triste,” Pascual Contursi

Like dos Santos Menezes, Paranhos dedicates himself to the study of the persisting mischievous figure in samba music until 1945. “We have a considerable number of compositions that break the apparent choir of unanimity around the devotion to work that was supposedly heard during the time of the Vargas dictatorship,” he confirms, justifying that the presence of discourse discordant from the State’s demonstrates that no dictatorial regime is able to completely silence dissonant voices. She also remembers that songs, such as “Sete e meia da manhã,” composed in 1945 by Pedro Caetano (1901–1992) and Claudionor Cruz (1910–1995), “Não admito,” composed by Ciro de Souza (1911–1995) and Augusto Garcez in 1940, and, two years later, “Vai trabalhar,” by Ciro de Souza, show work as a sacrifice. Each of these songs features voices of women complaining about their companions who don’t work. In the latter song, for example, Aracy de Almeida (1914–1988) sings: “This doesn’t work for me/ And it’s not good/ Me in the daily grind/ At the edge of the wash basin/To earn income/And you doing the samba all day long.”

Paranhos emphasizes the ambiguity of songs such as these that illustrate both the criticism of the bum and his survival, as the enemy of work. In the opinion of the historian, beyond this, the woman, by accusing her colleague of only being dedicated to the samba, is not vindicating the value of work. “Rather the opposite,” he asserts, “they plead for their colleagues to also dedicate themselves to their work to at least share the load of sacrifice and bodily death represented by work. It is something very distinct from the State’s speech which praises work as a form of personal fulfilment.”

For dos Santos Menezes, who dedicates a section of her Pandeiros and bandoneones to this kind of song, a woman’s voice complaining about her lazy husband coincides with the “disciplinarian perspective” of the State. In her opinion, this is because their laziness is condemned right at the moment when “the deadbeat and the bum were seen as figures that embody the stance that the Brazilian should avoid.”

A famous composition, with various options for reading, is “Recenseamento.” Composed in 1940 by Assis Valente (1911–1958), it describes a poor woman who lives in a slum and talks about a census agent arriving at her home. Noting the censuring look of the visitor who asks her if “her husband” is of the “working type” or of the “partyers,” she sings: “My husband is Brazilian, he’s a rifleman,/ he carries the flag for his battalion!” And she continues, chanting examples of joy, despite the hardship. According to dos Santos Menezes, the interpretation by Carmen Miranda, one of the most popular, suggests there was irony in the female voice, which simulates praise for the Armed Forces while subtly complaining about poverty. For Paranhos, on the other hand, the “husband” is the master of ceremonies for the samba school, and the image that everything is lacking in the tent would contrast with the alleged national strength. And Kerber even sees, especially in the last verses of the song, connection with the State discourse praising a supposed national harmony.

It appears this bum they talk about still has a lot to contribute to debates about national history.