In Brasil Brasileiro, director Claudio Segovia wanted to tell the story of Brazilian popular music through the music itself – and as he admits, with such a rich and varied culture, many different stories could be told.
But all the stories agree on where to start. In the beginning, Brazil’s popular song and dance emerged – like its language and its racial mix – from encounters between indigenous people, European colonisers and African slaves. And it was in the rapidly expanding cities of the nineteenth century – especially Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, populated mainly by white settlers and black slaves – that the music began take the shape of popular styles that are still recognised today.
At that time, colonisers used the generic term batuque for any black musical gathering (the word samba originally had the same loose meaning). Styles of song and dance included jongo, capoeira and lundu, all originating from Africa. Capoeira was a martial art that evolved into an acrobatic dance style, performed within a circle. Jongo was a circle dance with tambourine accompaniment, with solo singers taking turns to improvise between refrains. The lundu also had a characteristically African verse/chorus form, and became hugely popular in theatres and circuses. The very first record made in Brazil, Isto é bom by Xisto Bahia (1902), was a lundu. As a dance, the lundu was considered lewd for its umbigada – when the man and woman touch their navels together. It nevertheless became popular in colonial society – but lost its umbigada along the way.
Rio de Janeiro was then Brazil’s captial city, and after the abolition of slavery in 1888, its already large Afro-Brazilian population was swelled with migrants from the northeast, particularly Bahia. When downtown Rio was modernised in the early twentieth century, many of the poorer black residents were displaced northwards to Cidade Nova (dubbed ‘Little Africa’). From here would emerge the maxixe. With influences from the lundu and the tango, this was one of Brazil’s first musical exports: there were brief crazes for the maxixce in Paris and London. The maxixe was the precursor of samba de gafieira (‘ballroom samba’), a couple-dance that’s still popular in ballrooms today.
Cidade Nova was also the birthplace of choro, which took European salon music such as the waltz and polka, and gave it an Afro-Brazilian makeover. The musician Pixinguinha described Carinhoso, his best-known choro, as ‘originally a polka’. Characteristically played with flute, guitar and cavaquinho (a kind of bandolin), choro is renowned for the virtuosity and improvisation of its players.
Pixinguinha was a frequent visitor to the house of ‘Aunt Ciata’, one of the famous ‘Bahian Aunts’ who would hold lavish musical parties in Cidade Nova. It was here that the song Pelo Telefone was composed, with music and words by Donga and Mauro de Almeida. Recorded in 1917, it was similar to a maxixe, but will be remembered forever as Brazil’s first recorded samba.
Radio and the recording industry helped to make samba popular. Having once been suppressed as lower-class and dangerous (you could be arrested for carrying a guitar or tambourine in the street), samba underwent a remarkable about-turn. It began to attract bohemian artists from the middle classes, lured by its growing professionalisation, status and profitability, and by its seductive images of demi-monde mulatas (beautiful, mixed-race women, up for a party) and malandros (sharp-suited tricksters, living on their wits). And after 1930, the nationalist, authoritarian government of Getúlio Vargas, began actively to promote Rio samba as the national style, the authentic popular voice of Brazil.
Vargas also promoted a different kind of samba that was also emerging – carnival samba – as part of his populist national image. Carnival had long been a tradition in Brazil. But it was changing. Migrants from the northeast had begun to form improvised settlements on Rio’s steep hillsides – the emerging favelas – and in 1928 their first ‘samba school’ was formed. It had a more percussive, less orchestrated musical style than the choros, maxixes and sambas of Cidade Nova; in short, more African. The first parade of samba schools during carnival was in 1932. And it has been the main feature of Rio carnival ever since.
If the samba-exultação – extolling the virtues of Brazil and its people – was one of the distinctive styles of the 1930s, the post-war decade saw the ascendance of the samba-canção – such as Se acaso você chegasse by Lucipínio Rodrigues – with lyrics full of emotional drama, heartache and betrayal.
In complete counterpoint, and breaking the absolute dominance of Rio samba as the popular national style, 1940s and 50s also witnessed an explosion of baião – upbeat accordion music from the dry backlands of the northeast. Its most famous exponent was Luiz Gonzaga, who, in partnership with Humberto Teixeira, produced a string of successes such as Baião, a party song, and Asa Branca, which became almost an anthem for the northeast.
Bossa nova was a sophisticated, modern inflection of samba, slowing down and complicating its rhythms and harmonies.
Another complete contrast emerged at the end of the 1950s, a Brazilian music that conquered the world: bossa nova. Inaugurated with João Gilberto’s Chega de saudade, bossa nova will forever be associated with lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, composer Tom Jobim, and Gilberto as singer and guitarist. Bossa nova was a sophisticated, modern inflection of samba, slowing down and complicating its rhythms and harmonies. Gilberto plucked strange, offbeat chords from his guitar, and he sang as if murmuring intimacies to his microphone.
The late 1960s saw a brief but potent movement called Tropicália, with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil as its foremost figures. Tropicália trawled Brazilian music, international pop and hippie counterculture to invent a new, composite sound. But it was not to last: the military dictatorship that came to power in 1964 intensified its repression at the end of the decade, and Veloso and Gil were imprisoned, and then went into exile.
Another young singer who went into exile was Chico Buarque, considered one of the greatest musical poets of the last decades. On his return in the 1970s, he composed a number of veiled protest songs, such as Apesar de você and Calice.
Buarque, Veloso and Gil are still performing and creating in Brazil today. Times have changed. Gil is now minister of culture, and Brazil’s music has grown, diversified and internationalised. There have been revivals of samba and choro alongside new movements in rock, electronica, hip-hop and funk. Some consider these un-Brazilian, overseas imports – but incorporating different influences and creating something distinctive is the very much the Brazilian way.