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

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Lisa SHAW, Lusotopie 2002/2 : 81-96

Samba and Brasilidade

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

In the 1930s, Brazil, and particularly the then capital city, Rio de Janeiro, witnessed the onset of industrialisation and continued attempts to integrate former slaves and their descendants together with white European immigrants, into the emerging working masses. As the culture industry took shape, predominantly in the form of the radio, the record industry and the sound cinema, samba was transformed from a preserve of the Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves in Rio’s poorer quarters to become a symbol of national self-definition, created and performed for and by a cross-section of the population, and disseminated via the new media. In the late 1920s, Brazil had seen the advent of electrical recordings, which facilitated the reproduction of vocals on disc and led to a boom in the local record industry. The regime of President Getúlio Vargas (1930-45) harnessed the propaganda potential of radio as part of its nation-building strategy and thus, the number of radio stations, transmitters and radio sets multiplied in the early 1930s, within a wider context of urban and industrial growth1. Radio stations and record companies in Rio de Janeiro soon began to scour the city for up-and-coming talent, and many of the Afro-Brazilian sambistas from the city’s shantytowns and underprivileged neighbourhoods found themselves composing and performing alongside white middle-class artists, like Noel Rosa (1910-37), in the nascent music industry.

Noel Rosa was the finest lyricist that the samba genre has ever known. He was the first to foreground the lyrics of samba and to break with conventional themes and approaches. The samba rhythm had emerged in the city of Rio in the second decade of the twentieth century, and was thus still something of a novelty when Rosa began his musical career. He was born and brought up in the predominantly white lower-middle- and working-class district of Vila Isabel, in the so-called « Northern Zone » of the city of Rio, a neighbourhood where samba was regularly performed in the street-corner bars or botequins. Rosa was perhaps the first popular composer to suggest that the samba genre was an expression of the Brazilian soul, and his lyrics tap into the contemporary fascination in intellectual and political circles with questions of national character. Against a backdrop of the official nationalist rhetoric of Vargas’s brasilidade or Brazilianisation campaign, Rosa’s lyrics display a grass-roots vision of what it meant to be Brazilian in the 1930s. His brasilidade is a kind of anti-identity grounded in the often unflattering commonplaces of Brazilian or more specifically carioca (Rio) life, such as the gambling, womanising and petty crimes of the malandro, a spiv or hustler usually of mixed race. A true champion of popular identity, Rosa was affectionately referred to as « the philosopher of samba » and « the chronicler of everyday life ». He captured the essence of daily existence in Rio’s less glamorous districts with a warts-and-all realism and a liberal dose of humour, but many of his observations display a subtlety which aligns him with the Brazilian Modernist writers and artists, particularly with a group of erudite poets, who, in the same era, were articulating very similar notions of the national spirit. This article will examine a range of Rosa’s lyrics in an attempt to analyse his particular vision of nationhood and how it fitted into wider debates on identity in the 1930s.

The Essence of Brasilidade

In his lyrics Rosa highlights the common currency of everyday life, however unflattering, and gives status to the mundane aspects of lower-class existence with which the vast majority of the population of Rio and beyond could identify. Perhaps the most emblematic of his sambas in this respect is « São coisas nossas » (« They’re Our Things ») of 1932, inspired by one of the first Brazilian talkies, Coisas nossas (Our Things) of the previous year, which featured performances by Rosa and his band, the Bando de Tangarás. The lyrics of this samba give status to such unlikely features of daily life as moral degeneration, poverty and the exploitation of the poor. Alongside the street vendors, tram drivers, malandros, beautiful mulatto girls, and samba itself, the loan shark is a constant presence in Brazil in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. The collapse of Brazil’s principal export market, particularly for coffee, the mainstay of the economy, had widespread repercussions.

« São coisas nossas », 1932, Noel Rosa

Queria ser pandeiro

Pra sentir o dia inteiro

A tua mão na minha pele a batucar

Saudade do violão e da palhoça

Coisa nossa, coisa nossa

O samba, a prontidão e outras bossas

São nossas coisas, são coisas nossas

Malandro que não bebe

Que não come, que não abandona o samba

Pois o samba mata a fome

Morena bem bonita lá da roça

Coisa nossa, coisa nossa

Baleiro, jornaleiro

Motorneiro, condutor e passageiro

Prestamista e vigarista

E o bonde que parece uma carroça

Coisa nossa, muito nossa

Menina que namora

Na esquina e no portão

Rapaz casado com dez filhos, sem tostão

Se o pai descobre o truque dá uma coça

Coisa nossa, muito nossa

« They’re Our Things », 1932, Noel Rosa

I would like to be a tambourine

To feel all day long

Your hand beating on my skin

Longing for the guitar and for the shack

Our things, our things

Samba, pennilessness and other fashions

They are our things, they are our things

The malandro who does not drink

Who does not eat, who does not quit the samba

Since samba kills his hunger

The pretty mulatto girl from the country

They are our things, they are our things

Street traders, newspaper vendors

Tram drivers and passengers

Loan sharks and conmen

And the tram that looks like a cart

Our things, very much ours

The girl courting

On the street corner and in a doorway

A married man with ten children and no money

If her father finds out he’ll use his fists

Our things, very much ours

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 ninguémI 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 fomeThe 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 mimBut 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!

Já 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 tiroMy 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 pandeiroThe 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 CruzYou 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 opiniãoJoe 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 misturaIn 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

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 liberdadeYou 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 problemaI’ve been invited

To be a film star

Being a star is really easy

Leaving Estácio is what’s

The crux of the problem

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


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 portuguêsToday 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 perdãoDeceiving 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 price7.

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 day8

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 nation9. As he writes in « Leite com café » (« Milk with Coffee ») of 193510.

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 éThe 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 hardship11.

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 mimLove 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 Portugal12 . 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 piciloneYvone ! 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 paciênciaI’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 trásThe 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 »)13

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 areiaThe 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 terminouPutting 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.


University of Leeds

United Kingdom


Anderson, B. 1993, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London—New York, Verso.

Antonio, J. 1982, Noel Rosa, São Paulo, Abril Educação.

Barbosa, L. Neves de H. 1995, « The Brazilian Jeitinho : An Exercise in National Identity » in The Brazilian Puzzle : Culture on the Borderlands of the Western World, D .J. Hess & R.A. Da Matta, eds, New York, Columbia University Press  : 35-48.

Cendrars, B. 1987, Hollywood, la Mecque du cinéma, Paris, Grasset.

Chediak, A., ed. 1991, Noel Rosa : Songbook, III, Rio de Janeiro, Lumiar.

Freyre, G. 1933, Casa-grande e senzala, Rio de Janeiro, José Olympio.

Hall, S. 1992, « The Question of Cultural Identity », in Modernity and its Futures, S. Hall, D. Held & T. McGrew, eds, Cambridge, Polity Press  : 273-316.

Lesser, J. 1994, « Immigration and Shifting Concepts of National Identity in Brazil during the Vargas Era », Luso-Brazilian Review, XXXI (2) : 23-44.

––– 1995, Welcoming the Undesirables : Brazil and the Jewish Question, Berkeley, University of California Press.

––– 1999, Negotiating National Identity : Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil, Durham, NY—London, Duke University Press.

Maximo, J. & DIDIER, C. 1990, Noel Rosa : uma biografia, Brasília, Linha Gráfica.

McCann, B. 2001, « Noel Rosa’s Nationalist Logic », Luso-Brazilian Review, XXXVIII (1), Summer 2001 : 1-16.

Sevcenko, N., ed. 1998, História da vida privada : República : da Belle Époque à era do rádio, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras.

Williams, D. 1994, « Ad perpetuam rei memoriam : the Vargas Regime and Brazil’s National Historical Patrimony, 1930-1945 », Luso-Brazilian Review, 31 : 45-75.

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