Lyrics from “Ganha-se Pouco, Mas É Divertido” by Wilson Batista and Ciro de Souza, released by Aracy de Almeida (1941)
Ele trabalha de segunda a sábado // He works from Monday to Saturday
Com muito gosto sem reclamar // With great relish without complaining
Mas no domingo ele tira o macacão // But on Sunday he strips off his coveralls
Embandeira o barracão, põe a família pra sambar // Decks out the shack and puts the family to samba
Lá no morro ele pinta o sete // Up on the hillside he cuts loose
Com ele ninguém se mete // No one messes around with him
Ali ninguém é fingido // Up there no one’s phony
Ganha-se pouco, mas é divertido // Money’s short, but it’s fun
Ele nasceu sambista // He’s a born sambista
Tem a tal veia de artista // He has that artist’s vein
Carteira de reservista // Reservist’s Card
Está legal com o senhorio…// In good standing with the authorities
Não pode ouvir pandeiro, não // He can’t hear a pandeiro
Fica cheio de dengo // He swells up with dengo*
É torcida do Flamengo // He’s a fan of Flamengo
Nasceu no Rio de Janeiro // Born in Rio de Janeiro…
— Commentary —
This samba is a typical example of how Batista — a consummate malandro composer best known for his dispute with Noel Rosa over the intricacies of malandragem and samba (on that, see, for example, this post on “Lenço no Pescoço“) — played to the Vargas regime’s (1930-45) demands that samba lyrics promote the sort of upstanding citizen-worker that Vargas projected as the ideal Brazilian.
Indeed, Batista even voiced support for government censorship of his sambas. As Bryan McCann has written in Hello, Hello, Brazil, Batista once commented on the Vargas-era censors within the most fascist government agency, the Department of Press and Propaganda [DIP]: “Sometimes the DIP censors my lyrics. I get upset, but then I realize they are correct. There has to be some control.”
Batista realized that composers did well to play by the regime’s rules. In 1940, Batista’s and Ataulfo Alves’s samba “Oh, Seu Oscar!” — about a hard-working man burdened by a roving wife — won a DIP-sponsored samba contest, propelling the two Afro-Brazilian composers to new heights of popularity with fans and recording artists.
But to anyone familiar with Batista’s life, it’s hard to read such statements as that above as anything but tongue-in-cheek, and the same goes for many of his verses.
In fact, this song almost line by line embodies the tensions between the two lives and lifestyles portrayed in Batista’s sambas: an upstanding worker who’s really a born sambista; a commanding family man — as long as he doesn’t hear a pandeiro.
*The Afro-descended word dengo is tough to translate but means something like doting attachment and caresses; here it can be taken as something a little more like fiery passion. Most importantly, it provides a brilliant rhyme with “torcida do Flamengo,” Rio’s most popular soccer team on the morros, of which Wilson Batista was indeed a devoted fan. (See, for example, his 1955 “Samba Rubro-Negro” — Samba for the Red & Black.)
Aracy de Almeida (1914-1988) was a tremendously popular singer in the 1930s – 50s whose recording career is central to the story of samba’s rise as Brazil’s national sound during the Vargas era. Her singular, nasally singing style was beloved by audiences and critics alike. Mário de Andrade, one of Brazil’s most prominent twentieth-century modernist intellectuals and musicologists, identified the nasal timbre as a key marker of Brazilianness, and commented that Almeida’s was “a hot, sensual nasality, of delicious timbração [timbre], deeply carioca.”
Almeida is widely known in Brazil as the “voice of Noel Rosa,” and her recording of Rosa’s “O X do Problema” became her trademark. Yet as Pedro Paulo Malta and Rodrigo Alzuguir (Batista’s biographer) point out in this excellent documentary series on Aracy de Almeida, Wilson Batista was in fact the composer Aracy recorded the most; indeed, she recorded more of Wilson’s nearly 600 compositions than any other recording artist.
Another favorite composer of Aracy’s was Ciro de Sousa, Batista’s partner on this song. As de Sousa recalled the story of this song, one day he was in the entry of Café Nice — a landmark in the history of samba and carioca culture in the 1930s and 40s — when Batista arrived, excited about a samba he’d begun on the bus. Batista sang the first verse up to “tira o macacão” (he strips off his coveralls) and Ciro added “embandeira o barracão” (decks out — literally with little flags — the shack), and the two went on composing from there. Aracy released the samba in August 1941, with the beautiful backing of Pixinguinha, on flute, and Os Diabos do Céu.
Wilson Batista, for his part, demonstrated such brilliant melodic inventiveness without training or instruments other than a matchbox that the pianist Custódio Mesquita, one of the greatest classically trained popular composers of the 20th century, nicknamed him the “Maestro Caixa de Fósforos,” the Matchbox Maestro. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, in the 1970s, Paulinho da Viola said he regarded Wilson Batista as the greatest sambista of all time. Paulinho has recorded a number of Batista’s compositions, including most famously “Chico Brito” and “Meu Mundo é Hoje.”
Cristina Buarque made “Ganha-se Pouco, Mas É Divertido” the title track of her 2000 Batista tribute album. And in 2017, Hermínio Bello de Carvalho produced an album in honor of Aracy’s centenary (a project he had been working on for years), with Marcos Sacramento on vocals and Luiz Flávio Alcofra on guitar. Here is the beautiful medley from that recent album of “Engomadinho,” by Pedro Caetano and Claudionor Cruz, and “Ganha-se Pouco, Mas É Divertido”: