“Quem São Eles (a Bahia é boa terra)” – “Já Te Digo”

Quem São Eles  (“Samba Carnavalesco gravado pelo Bahiano e o corpo de coro para Casa Edison – Rio de Janeiro!”) – 1918

___

A Bahia é boa terra// Bahia is a good land
Ela lá e eu aqui – Iaiá // Her up there and me down here, iaiá
Ai, ai, ai // Ai ai ai
Não era assim que meu bem chorava  (2x) // That’s not how my darling cried
(repeat)

Não precisa pedir, que eu vou dar // You don’t need to ask, I’ll give
Dinheiro não tenho mas vou roubar (sambar) // I don’t have money but I’ll steal it
(repeat)

Carreiro olha a canga do boi //  Driver, look at the ox’s yoke
Carreiro olha a canga do boi // Driver, look at the ox’s yoke
Toma cuidado que o luar já se foi // Be careful, cause the moonlight’s gone
Ai que o luar já se foi // Ai, cause the moonlight’s gone
Ai que o luar já se foi // Ai, cause the moonlight’s gone

__(extra verses added for the recording) __

O castelo é coisa a toa // The castle is nothing
Entretanto isso não tira, Iaiá // But that doesn’t matter(?), iaiá
Ai, ai, ai
É lá que a brisa respira (2x) // It’s up there that the breeze breathes
(repeat)

Não precisa pedir, que eu vou dar // You don’t need to ask, I’ll give
Dinheiro não tenho mas vou roubar (sambar) // I don’t have money but I’ll steal it
(repeat)

Carreiro olha a canga do boi //  Driver, look at the ox’s yoke
Carreiro olha a canga do boi // Driver, look at the ox’s yoke
Toma cuidado que o luar já se foi // Be careful, cause the moonlight’s gone
Ai que o luar já se foi // Ai, cause the moonlight’s gone
Ai que o luar já se foi // Ai, cause the moonlight’s gone

Quem são eles? // Who are they?
Quem são eles? // Who are they?
Diga lá e não se avexe – Iayá // Go ahead and say it, and don’t get flustered, iaiá
Ai, ai, ai
São peixinhos de escabeche (2x)// They’re little pickled fish
(repeat)

Não precisa pedir que eu vou dar //You don’t need to ask, I’ll give
O resto do caso pra que cantar (2x) // The rest of the case – why sing it?
O melhor do luar já se foi // The best of the moonlight’s gone
O melhor do luar já se foi // The best of the moonlight’s gone
Entre menina que aqui estão de horror // Come in girl, cause they’re in a frenzy here (?)
Ai, que aqui estão de horror // Ai, they’re in a frenzy
Ai, que aqui estão de horror // Ai, they’re in a frenzy

— Commentary —

Sinhô rei do samba

In 1920, José Barbosa da Silva — known by his nickname “Sinhô” — was dubbed the “King of Samba” by the newspaper Correio da Manhã. And the title stuck.

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February 1920 – Correio da Manhã crowns Sinhô the “king of carioca samba”. Sinhô had three major Carnival hits that year.

In 1917, Sinhô (José Barbosa da Silva, 8 September 1888 – 4 August 1930) learned a rather bitter lesson about the money that could be made with Carnival songs when he witnessed the unprecedented commercial success of Donga’s “Pelo Telefone.” The song is widely and erroneously cited as being Brazil’s “first recorded samba.” It’s actually a maxixe, and there were at least 23 recorded  “sambas” released prior to 1916; nevertheless, it was the first recorded “samba” to achieve such resounding commercial success, and to demonstrate to composers that composing songs for Carnival could be a lucrative business. The release of “Pelo Telefone” hence opened the era of Carnival compositions.

The success of “Pelo Telefone” didn’t sit well with Sinhô because the song had in fact been a collaborative effort in which he had played a significant role, along with others who frequented the famed home of Tia Ciata, the most legendary of the tias baianas (Bahian aunties) who opened their homes around Praça Onze to this gaggle of pioneering composers. But when Donga registered the song, he listed only himself and Mauro de Almeida as the songwriters.

Sinhô’s frustration at being erased from the official history and rights to royalties of “Pelo Telefone” helped spark the inspiration for his first major success, “Quem são eles (a Bahia é boa terra),” first recorded by Bahiano and back-up singers at Casa Edison in Rio de Janeiro.  And this song set off the first major duel in the annals of Brazilian popular music.

carro-alegorico-antigo-fenianos-1923

Fenianos float, Carnival 1923.

Sinhô had initially named the song “A Bahia é Boa Terra,” but the samba ended up taking the name of a Carnival bloco (street parade group) that he was helping to lead that year, Quem são eles, which was associated with one of the city’s three major Carnival societies, Os Fenianos. The provocation “quem são eles” (who are they), then, originally referred to that club’s two principal rivals in Rio,  Democráticos and Tenentes do Diabo. The “castle” mentioned in the song was the name for the Democráticos headquarters, and their members were called carapicus, a kind of fish, hence the “pickled fish” reference. (The Fenianos were called cats, which presumably devour pickled fish.) I assume the observation “it’s up there that the breeze breathes” must be some veiled insult against the rival Carnival club.

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 9.38.53 AM

19 January 1921 – Jornal “O Imparcial” announcing the presence of Rio’s three most popular Carnival clubs at a great “battle of confetti” in Vila Isabel

On its surface, in its references to Bahia, the song lampooned an ongoing political skirmish between Bahian politicians Rui Barbosa and J.J. Seabra.  But Sinhô took advantage of the theme to incorporate what were easily interpreted as digs at Bahia and Bahians in general, honing his storied knack for double entendre. His teasing wasn’t taken lightly: tias baianas like Tia Ciata were essential to the emergence of Rio’s samba. They provided the space for musical creation mixed with Afro-Brazilian religious practices that incubated carioca samba in its earliest manifestations. And many of the composers who hung out there – most notably João da Baiana and Donga – were sons of Bahian migrants. Bahia was deeply woven into their upbringing and musical influences. Sinhô  wasn’t born to Bahians, but he was still a musical progeny of this group, having spent a good chunk of his early days as a musician at the homes of tias baianas. So when he released this samba that started out “Bahia is a good land/ her up there, me down here,” that clan not only took offense, but also considered it something of a betrayal by a composer who’d suddenly gotten a bit too big for his britches.

Pixinguinha_João da Baiana_DongaThey were affronted by “I don’t have money/ but I’ll steal it,” interpreting it as a message that Bahians couldn’t be trusted. (Sinhô’s biographer Edgar de Alencar published “sambar” in the place of “roubar,” steal, as the original lyrics. I’m not sure about that.) And they were likely extra galled by the smashing success of the song, which drowned out their 1918 release “O Malhador,” (registered to Donga and Pixinguinha, and also recorded by Bahiano), which had been Donga’s attempt to repeat the success of the prior year’s “Pelo Telefone.”

Funnily enough, in spite of its light mockery, the samba ultimately fit nicely into the style of sambas written by the “Bahian wing” of composers, with its syncopation; the “ai ai ai” that recalls the second part of “Pelo Telefone” (ai, ai, ai, deixa as mágoas para trás, o rapaz), and its evocation of rural scenes like the reference to the ox-cart driver.  Iaiá and ioiô were terms with origins among slaves referring to masters’ sons (ioiô) and daughters (iaiá); the terms eventually evolved into terms of endearment used among slaves or freed slaves, or their offspring. As noted above, the original lyrics ended after the first “o luar já se foi.”  But as was common practice those days, someone — maybe Sinhô, maybe Bahiano, maybe both  — added the extra verses for the recording.

Sensitive to issues of rights and royalties after the case of “Pelo Telefone,” Sinhô ordered a custom stamp made to mark the authorized scores, thereby also marking the start of an era when royalties began to be taken more seriously – the advent of the professionalization of the popular composer.

“Quem são eles” quickly inspired four new compositions in retort: “Não és tão falado assim” (You’re not so widely spoken of), by Hilário Jovino Ferreira, a native of Pernambuco who had grown up and made his name in Bahia and moved at the end of the 19th century to Rio de Janeiro (more on him, an important Carnival booster, here); “Fica calmo que aparece,” by Donga; “Já te digo,” by Pixinguinha and his brother China; and “Entregue o samba aos seus donos,” also by Hilário Jovino, who asserted in the lyrics that Bahians were the true owners of sambas, while Sinhô was just a lame sell-out. What’s more, this song also decried Sinhô’s plagiarism, in this case specifically regarding Sinhô’s latest hit, another rib aimed at Bahian politician Rui Barbosa, “Fala meu louro” (aka “Papagaio louro”). Hilário published the lyrics together with a note denouncing Sinhô for “the most brazen plagiarism in the history of sambistas” and calling on all “sambistas” (with sambistas still published in quotation marks in 1920) to write sambas on this theme:

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 10.42.38 AM.pngEntregue o samba a seus donos // Turn samba over to its owners
É chegada a ocasião // The time has come
Lá no Norte não fizemos // Up north we didn’t make
Do pandeiro profissão // A profession of the pandeiro
Falsos filhos da Bahia // Phony sons of Bahia
Que nunca passaram lá // Who’ve never even been there
Que não comeram pimenta // Never eaten chili sauce
Na moqueca e vatapá // In moqueca and vatapá
Mandioca mais se presta //Manioc is the good stuff
Muito mais que a tapioca //Much more than tapioca
Na Bahia não tem mais coco? //There’s no more coconut in Bahia?
É plágio de um carioca //That’s plagiarism by a carioca

Neither of Hilário Jovino’s responses were recorded, and today there’s unfortunately no record of “Não és tão falado assim” – lyrics or melody. Pixinguinha recorded an instrumental version of Donga’s “Fica calmo que aparece,” and the banal lyrics on the score make no apparent reference to the spat (“Keep calm, love will appear/ Passion is something that’s never forgotten”), suggesting these were merely the “official” lyrics, and that the song likely had an alternative set of spicier lyrics that have since been lost.

The most beautiful (by my judgment) and enduring of these four responses — “Já te digo” (also recorded by the fixture Bahiano for Casa Edison) — was also the most pointed roast of Sinhô, taking aim at his looks (“he’s tall/skinny/ugly, missing teeth”); his extravagant manner of dressing (“he suffered to use a stiff standing collar”); his short-lived flute-playing days (“When he used to play flute/ What agony!”), and his general  dandy persona (“today he’s all dapper / on the dime of the suckers of Rio de Janeiro”):

“Já te digo” by Pixinguinha and China (1919)

__

Um sou eu, e o outro não sei quem é // One is me, I don’t know who the other one is
Um sou eu, e o outro não sei quem é // One is me, I don’t know who the other one is
Ele sofreu pra usar colarinho em pé // He suffered to use a stiff standing collar (?)
Ele sofreu pra usar colarinho em pé// He suffered to use a stiff standing collar

Vocês não sabem quem é ele, pois eu vos digo // You all don’t know who he is, well I’ll tell you
Vocês não sabem quem é ele, pois eu vos digo // You all don’t know who he is, well I’ll tell you
Ele é um cabra muito feio, que fala sem receio // He’s a real ugly guy, who says whatever he wants
Não tem medo de perigo // Has no fear of danger
Ele é um cabra muito feio, que fala sem receio // He’s a real ugly guy who says whatever he wants
Não tem medo de perigo // Has no fear of danger

Um sou eu, e o outro não sei quem é //One is me, I don’t know who the other one is
Um sou eu, e o outro não sei quem é //One is me, I don’t know who the other one is
Ele sofreu pra usar colarinho em pé // He suffered to use a stiff standing collar
Ele sofreu pra usar colarinho em pé// He suffered to use a stiff standing collar

Ele é alto, magro e feio // He’s tall, skinny and ugly
É desdentado // He’s missing teeth
Ele é alto, magro e feio // He’s tall, skinny and ugly
É desdentado // He’s missing teeth
Ele fala do mundo inteiro // He bad-mouths everyone
E já está avacalhado no Rio de Janeiro // And is already scorned around Rio
Ele fala do mundo inteiro // He bad-mouths everyone
E já está avacalhado no Rio de Janeiro // And is already scorned around Rio

To the dismay of Sinhô’s detractors, the public really didn’t care about the feud or the accusations of plagiarism; they loved Sinhô’s songs, and he quickly established his place as Brazil’s most successful popular music composer of the 1920s,”teaching Brazil to like samba,” as Jairo Severiano has put it.

Just in 1920 he had three major hits, which all hid digs at his rivals: “Vou me benzer” (I’m going to get blessed/ to rid myself / of those evil eyes / they cast on me”);  the marchinha “Pé de Anjo,” a blatant copy of the French waltz “C’est pas difficile,” which took aim at Pixinguinha’s brother China, who was known for having huge feet (and which also launched Francisco Alves‘s career as a recording artist); and “Fala meu louro,” mentioned above, about Bahian Rui Barbosa’s loss in the 1919 presidential elections.

Likewise, the success of “Já te digo” propelled Pixinguinha’s career, which of course was so paramount and prolific that historian and musicologist Ary Vasconcellos famously wrote in his classic Panorama da Música Popular Brasileira, “If you have 15 volumes to talk about all Brazilian popular music, you can be sure that it’s too little.  But if you have only enough space for one word, not everything is lost; write quickly: Pixinguinha.”
_____

Main sources for this post: Uma História do Samba, vol. I, by Lira Neto; Nosso Sinhô do Samba by Edgar de Alencar; Feitiço Decente by Carlos Sandroni; and conversations with Jairo Severiano

 

 

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“Viena fica na 28 de Setembro” & “Tempos do onça e da fera (Quarador)”

Lyrics from “Viena fica na 28 de Setembro” by Aldir Blanc and João Bosco (1982)


Morre a luz da noite // The evening’s light dies
O porre acende pra me iluminar // The liquor lights up to illuminate me
Numa outra cena…// In another scene…
Zune o vento e valsam os oitis // The wind howls and the oiti trees waltz
No velho boulevard // On the old boulevard
Bosques de viena! // The Vienna Woods!
Escrevo carta a uma desconhecida // I write a letter to some unknown woman
Com quem tive um flerte, um anjo azul…// With whom I had a little dalliance, a blue angel
Pobres balconistas de paquete // Poor saleswomen on the rag
de ar infeliz // with an air of discontentment
São novas Bovarys…// Are new Bovarys
Já perdi o expresso do oriente // I’ve missed the Orient Express
Onde sempre sou // Where I’m always
Vítima e assassino… // Victim and assassin
Tomo a carruagem e o cocheiro // I take a coach and the coachman
De tabela dois // On Table 2 (late-night fare)
Diz que é vascaíno… // Says he’s vascaíno
Ah, triste figura, don quixote // Ah, sorry character, Don Quixote
Quer mais um traçado // After another quest
– cadê o sancho? // — Where’s Sancho?
Dá pro santo, bebe, e o passado // He gives a little to the saint, drinks, and the past
Volta a desfilar // comes marching back
Pierrô de marcha-rancho: // Pierrot of a marcha-rancho:
Com as bronca do Ary Barroso, sem elas… // With Ary Barroso’s rebukes, without them
Com a bossa do Ciro Monteiro, sem ela… // With Ciro Monteiro’s bossa , without it
Com o copo cheio de Vinícius, sem ele…// With Vinicius’s full glass, without it
Com nervos de aço Lupicinio, sem eles…// With Lupicínio’s “nervos de aço,” without them
Com as mãos do Antonio Maria, sem elas…// With Antonio Maria’s hands, without them
Com a voz do Lamartine Babo, sem ela… // With Lamartine Babo’s voice, without it
Com a rosa Dolores Duran, sem ela…// With the rose Dolores Duran, without her
Com a majestade da Elis, sem ela…// With the majesty of Elis, without her


Lyrics from “Tempos do Onça e da Fera (Quarador)” by Aldir Blanc and João Bosco (1977)


Saindo pro trabalho de manhã // Leaving for work in the morning
o avô vestia o sol do quarador // The grandfather wore the sun of the quarador (bleaching ground)
tecido em goiabeiras, sabiás // woven in guava trees, song-thrushes
cigarras, vira-latas e um amor // cicadas, mutts, and a love
E o amor ia ao portão pra dar adeus // And the love would go to the gate to say goodbye
de pano na cabeça, espanador… // With a headscarf on, a feather duster…
Os netos.. o quintal… Vila Isabel // The grandchildren… the yard.. Vila Isabel
Todo o Brasil era sol, quarador // All of Brazil was sun, quarador
Hoje, acordei depois do meio-dia // Today I woke up after noon
chovia, passei mal no elevador // It was raining; I felt sick in the elevator
ouvi na rua as garras do Metrô // I heard the metro’s talons on the street below
O avô morreu // The grandfather died
Mudou Vila Isabel ou mudei eu? // Did Vila Isabel change or did I?
Brasil
Tá em falta o honesto sol do quarador // We’re missing that honest sun of the quarador 

— Commentary —

Todo mundo é carioca. Mas Aldir Blanc é carioca mesmo.
Dorival Caymmi

1aldir-aos-7-anos-no-quintal-da-casa-dos-avos-maternos-em-vila-isabel

Aldir Blanc at age seven in Vila Isabel.

rua-dos-artistas-e-arredores-de-aldir-blanc-557101-mlb20271391652_032015-fAldir Blanc was born in Estácio — one of Rio de Janeiro’s neighborhoods known as the “cradle of samba” — in 1946. When he was six*, his family moved to Vila Isabel (another “cradle of samba”) to a house on Rua dos Artistas. The yard of the new home provided a perfect natural playground for a young child, with its guava, orange and banana trees. These trees, and the sounds associated with them – like cicadas and song-thrushes (sabiás, the Brazilian national bird) – became an indelible part of the imagery of mid-19th-century Vila Isabel that Aldir passes on through his songs, poetry, and stories (crônicas).  Aldir weaves together the scenery, sounds, and slang from the era, elegantly recreating Rio’s Zona Norte of his childhood.

Vila Isabel was one of Rio de Janeiro’s first planned neighborhoods, laid out by the abolitionist Barão de Drummond in the early 1870s. (Drummond is better known for having created Brazil’s widely popular, albeit illegal, animal-based gambling game, Jogo do Bicho, to promote his new zoo in Vila Isabel.) The thoroughfare, named for the date in 1871 that Princesa Isabel decreed the Law of Free Birth,  earned the distinguished designation of “boulevard” because it was most painstakingly modeled after Parisian boulevards. In the song, the store clerks on the boulevard, like their French forebear Madame Bovary,  exude disappointment with their monotonous lives; nearby, oiti trees waltz, as if to Strauss’s famous “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” While Boulevard 28 de Setembro was lined with pau-ferro (“iron wood trees”) in 1910, oiti is another favorite native tree for urban arborization that was planted around Vila Isabel and surrounding Zona Norte neighborhoods in the beginning of the 20th century.

aldir_blanc_vasco

Aldir Blanc in a Vasco jersey.

Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express was first released in 1934, and the “victim and assassin” line makes reference to this mystery. I imagine that with Orient Express, Aldir is referring to the tram that ran in Vila Isabel until the mid-1960s, or the bus line.  Blanc, like the late-night coachman of the song, is vascaíno – a die-hard fan of Rio’s Vasco da Gama football team. To “give some to the saint” is a practice of pouring a little bit of alcohol on the ground before drinking. In this line, though in the translation it sounds as though he’s still talking about the coachman, here he actually seems (to me) to be back to talking about himself.

Closely associated with the melancholy pierrotthe marcha-rancho is a slower, more richly melodious style of Carnaval marcha that was most popular from the 1930s – 1950s. Aldir’s mention of the pierrot of a marcha-rancho sets the stage for the reminiscence that follows,  a wistful tribute to a series of beloved masters of Brazilian popular music of the 20th century who had passed away over the preceding 25 years, and who were known for the characteristics he mentions: Lupicínio’s famous song “Nervos de aço,” for instance, Vinicius’s full glass of spirits, and ultimately, Elis’s overwhelming majesty. The song was composed shortly after Elis Regina’s untimely death in January 1982, which had left Aldir stunned. The two had been devoted musical partners, but they’d recently had a falling out, of sorts. Aldir laments that he hadn’t properly gotten the chance to reconcile.

“Tempos do Onça e da Fera”

lugar-onde-a-ma%cc%83e-velha-ia-1965-quarar-a-rou-pa-pq

Example of a “quarador”, or bleaching ground. Sometimes clothes were laid on wire drying racks.

“Nos tempos do Onça” (in the days of the Jaguar) is an old-fashioned carioca way of saying a long, long time ago. The saying derived from references to the Portuguese administrator of Rio de Janeiro from 1725 – 1732, Luís Vaia Monteiro. Monteiro’s harsh, irascible nature earned him the nickname of the “onça,” or jaguar.

The quarador — also known as quaradouro or cuarador — was an especially sunny plot in the yard or courtyard where clothes were laid out to dry, and is usually referred to as a drying ground or bleaching ground in English.  Here Aldir recalls the quarador in his childhood home, where his dear grandfather’s shirts soaked up the “honest sun” of the olden days together with elements of the natural surroundings.

Aldir has said that by and large his lyrics and writings are built of the recollections of the little boy who lived in Vila Isabel, where he could hear Benedito Lacerda’s flute floating in from nearby, and where he was likely first enchanted by the sambas of his predecessor in the Vila, the “poet of the Vila” Noel Rosa. To this day, when asked to choose “the most beautiful song,” he gives a few responses – all by Noel Rosa.

These two songs clearly express Aldir’s love and pining for the neighborhood as it was in his early childhood, or even before. Aldir’s grandparents helped raise him — in part because his mother suffered from debilitating depression — and his close relationship with them may have helped him develop his rich repertoire of old-time sayings and manners of speaking, along with his robust sense of nostalgia.

For more on the Aldir Blanc – João Bosco partnership, see these posts.

* The ages that he lived in Vila Isabel change slightly in different accounts. In this recent interview with O Globo, he recalls that it was from ages 3 – 11. In A poesia de Aldir Blanc, Melodias e Letras Cifradas… he recalls that it was from ages 6 – 13.

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A Rasteira do Presidente

Lyrics from “A Rasteira do Presidente” by Bicalho/Silvio Modesto, released by Bezerra da Silva (1986)

___
Alô, alô Dona de Casa // Hello, hello, Housewife
Fiscais do Presidente, se liga // President’s Inspectors, at attention
Tabela de preços na mão // Table of Prices in hand
E vamos lutar contra a inflação // And let’s fight inflation!

E não é mole não  // And it’s not easy, no
Vivendo dessa maneira // Living this way
Eles inventaram essa tal de inflação // They invented that thing called inflation
E o Presidente deu aquela rasteira // And the president turned the tables (“made that tackle”)
Não é mole não (tuburão) // It’s not easy, no, shark (predatory businessmen who profited from inflation)

(refrain)

O meu salário é o mínimo // My salary is the minimum
porém é o máximo que eu consigo vencer // And yet it’s the maximum I’m able to pull in
Desconto pro INPS// Withholdings for Social Security
e o maldito Leão// And that daggone Lion (income tax)
ainda quer me morder // Is still trying to bite me
ORTN e INPC // ORTN (national treasury bonds) and INPC (inflation index)
Eu escuto dizer, mas eu não sei o que é // I keep hearing talk – but I don’t know what it is
Eu só sei que recebi meu pagamento // I just know I received my payment
Que não deu pra comprar meu alimento // And it wasn’t enough to buy my aliment
Remarcaram os preços eu fiquei a pé // They marked up the prices and I was left behind!

(refrain)

O que não consigo entender // And what I just can’t understand
o meu nome é sujo no SPC // My name’s “dirty” in the SPC (credit protection service)
Meu crédito é cortado na praça // My credit’s cut off on the streets
não me vendem fiado nem o que comer //  They won’t even sell me food on the cuff
O banco não me empresta dinheiro // The bank won’t lend me money
porque não tenho bens para me garantir // Because I don’t have any assets as guarantees
Veja bem, não pedi nada emprestado // But look here, I didn’t ask for anything on loan
Dizem que devo dolar adoidado // Yet they say I owe mad dollars
Ao famigerado, FMI // To that infamous IMF

(refrain)

E agora é que eu quero ver // And now I want to see
Os ladrões de gravata o que vão fazer // What the crooks in ties are gonna do
O bicho vai pegar adoidado // The beast is gonna go crazy (things are gonna get ugly)
Em cima daquele que não obedecer // On anyone who doesn’t obey
O trabalhador já pode com a sua família // The worker can go ahead with his family
Fazer sua ceia // and make his supper
se os federais chegarem em um supermercado // if the feds get to a supermarket
Encontrem os preços remarcados // And find the prices marked up
Dão bolacha no gato e mete na cadeia // They’ll box the cat’s ears and throw him in jail
(refrain)

___
bezerra-da-silva
Bezerra da Silva said he didn’t sing about love because he could only sing about things he knew: “People talk about making love – where is love made, some factory in Bangu?”
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Cover of Bezerra’s 1988 album “Violência Gera Violência“, with headlines including: “Military police shoot into crowd and kill woman in Realengo”;  “Fraud of billions in INAMPS” (National Institute of Medical Aid and Social Security)

Bezerra became famous in the 1970s and ’80s for his hard-core but humorous sambas about the hustling malandro lifestyle and life on the morro (favela). He was revered for his deft denouncement of government corruption, most notably the crooked and brutal police force.

Bezerra’s acquaintances from the morro composed many of his best-love songs. They were bricklayers, carpenters, repairmen, and “22s” (crazies) who had by and large chosen to steer clear of crime, but respected and wrote about malandro precepts like the  “Lei de Murici” (Lei de Murici: Cada um cuida de si — Murici’s law: every man for himself; mind your own business) and especially excelled at writing witty smack about snitches and sogras (mothers-in-law) in thick slang.

“A rasteira do presidente” was composed and released in early 1986, during the fleeting moments of optimism that followed the launch of a new economic plan, the Plano Cruzado.

At the time, Brazil was in the midst of a bumpy transition from military dictatorship to democracy, and was meanwhile suffering the consequences of the military government’s brash fiscal and monetary policies (which were not much improved upon in the first years of the democracy). Hyperinflation topped 235% in 1985 and was on track to hit 500% in 1986. José Sarney had taken office as transitional president on March 15, 1985, and after a dismal first nine months, promised in January 1986 that he would not allow inflation to continue shooting up. In an ill-fated attempt to keep this promise, on February 28, 1986, Sarney declared a bank holiday and announced his Plano Cruzado –  “shock treatment” for the Brazilian economy, which was also meant to serve as a symbolic rupture from the legacy of the military dictatorship.

This “heterodox plan”replaced Brazil’s currency the Cruzeiro with the Cruzado (worth 1,000 cruzeiros), fixed at 13.84 to the dollar. Salaries were adjusted up by 8% (public servants) and 15% (minimum wage), and an “inflation insurance” mechanism was put in place to increase salaries automatically if inflation hit 20%.

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A “fiscal do presidente” checks her price table.

The plan also froze prices for food, gasoline, hygiene and cleaning products, and services. These fixed prices were published on a table (mentioned in the song) as a means of holding business-owners to account. In announcing the plan, Sarney called upon every Brazilian citizen to be “um fiscal do president” – a president’s inspector – making sure that shops were sticking strictly to the price table. And indeed, as the song makes reference to, the government shut down businesses that were caught cheating.

Not surprisingly, the plan led to basic supply-and-demand mismatches, empty shelves, dissatisfied producers and consumers… which as usual nurtured a flourishing black market. In November 1986, Sarney’s government was forced to abandon the plan and launch Plano Cruzado II. Cruzado II unfroze prices and signaled the return of staggering inflation, which would plague Brazil and Bezerra’s friends on the morro until 1994, when the Plano Real finally pulled the country out of this financial quagmire.

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21 March 1986: a supermarket in Salvador, Bahia, that was closed for “practicing prices above those that are authorized.” 

Another element of this quagmire that comes up in the song: In the 1980s, Brazil was drowning in billions of dollars of external debt, a dubious legacy of the military government’s over-borrowing to finance ill-advised national development projects. Over the course of the ’80s, Brazil signed eleven bail-out agreements with the “infamous IMF.”

Bezerrra, who was born in 1927 in Recife, Pernambuco, and arrived in Rio as a stowaway in the 1940s, died in January 2005 at the age of 77.

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Busy supermarket El Dorado in São Paulo in March 1986. The Cruzado plan led to a rush on supermarkets.

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