Lenço no Pescoço

Lyrics from “Lenço no Pescoço” by Wilson Batista
Recorded by Silvio Caldas in 1933

Good audio version(Grooveshark)

My hat tilted to the side
Wood-soled shoe dragging
Kerchief around my neck
Razor in my pocket
I swagger around
I provoke and challenge
I am proud
To be such a vagabond
(Repeat)

I know they talk
About this conduct of mine
I see those who work
Living in misery
I’m a vagabond
Because I had the inclination
I remember, as a child I wrote samba songs

(Don’t mess with me, I want to see who’s right… )

My hat tilted to the side
Wood-soled shoe dragging
Kerchief around my neck
Razor in my pocket
I swagger around
I provoke and challenge
I am proud
To be such a vagabond

And they play
And you sing
And I don’t  give in

— Interpretation —

This is perhaps the most characteristic example of “samba malandro” — samba songs celebrating malandragem,  a rough, vagrant life initially associated with the poor black communities that formed in Rio de Janeiro after slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888.  A life of malandragem was a rejection of the societal norms being imposed at the time by the country’s white elite.  A malandro (sometimes translated as a rogue), facing intense racial discrimination and socioeconomic oppression, responded with his own, individual form of justice, achieved through cheating, fooling and foiling the authorities, and generally getting ahead through manipulation, cunning and shrewdness.

The malandro life involved days spent singing and dancing in samba circles, drinking, womanizing, and gambling in games like  Jogo do Bicho – a popular nationwide lottery allowing bets as low as 1 cent.  (The game was officially outlawed in 1946, but it remains widespread and incredibly popular in Brazil even today.)

Malandros dressed rebelliously and spurned “salaried jobs” and the capitalist system in general.  However, in part because of increasing repression from Getulio Vargas’s regime (1930 – 1945, described in this post) and in part in response to broader popular trends, there were only a few songs — including “Lenço no pescoço” — dedicated explicitly to the benefits of such a life versus the life of a working man. Most of these songs were produced during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the celebration of malandragem peaked to such an extent that even Vinicius de Moraes – a student of law and future poet and diplomat –  wrote one of his first songs, in partnership with the Irmãos Tapajós, saying “I’m going to go crazy/I don’t want to work/I was born a malandro/Everyone can see I’m a malandro/ I’ll die a malandro.” Along with “Lenço no pescoço,” other well-known songs dedicated to the malandro life are “Malandragem,” from 1928, and “O que será de mim?” (“What will become of me?”), from 1931.

Under increasing censorship and pressure from the Vargas regime for sambistas to clean up their act (authorities demanded sambistas wear impeccable white suits, for instance) and produce sambas de “exaltação” — exaltations of Brazil’s natural beauty and economic opportunities — and in response to changing tastes among listeners and a broadening national audience for Rio de Janeiro’s sambas, with the proliferation of the radio,  the main themes of samba malandro songs softened around the mid-1930s.  Sambistas began to focus more on malandros’ artfulness, rather than expressly defying the capitalist salaried jobs that Vargas so heartily promoted. (Laws establishing workers’ rights were defined and formalized under Vargas, including many labor institutions – such as the minimum wage and 8-hour workday – that are still in force today. Of course, Vargas had his own interests in mind: tellingly, the system was modeled after the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini’s Carta del Lavoro.) Also, by the mid-1930s, more and more white sambistas from middle class backgrounds were  becoming popular, diluting the samba-malandro message.

Wilson Batista (1913 – 1968) was born in Campos, in the northern interior region of Rio de Janeiro state. In 1930 his family moved to Rio de Janeiro, and Wilson composed his first samba at age 16 – “Na estrada da vida” (“On the road of life”).  As a poor Afro-Brazilian, and an outsider to Rio’s samba circles, Batista truly had to prove his toughness and guile to make it in Rio. Beginning in the early 1930s, he composed a number of sambas with other famous sambistas of the time that became Carnaval hits throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He produced nearly 600 sambas before dying at 55. While in recent years Batista has been largely overlooked by the media and samba critics,  in the 1970s, Paulinho da Viola declared that he regarded Wilson Batisa as the greatest sambista of all time.

“Lenço no pescoço” stoked a notorious rivalry between Wilson Batista and Noel Rosa, a rather scrawny white sambista from a middle class background who had relatively little in common with Batista — Rosa was “not a streetwise tough but a Bohemian poet“; still, his eloquent sambas challenged the samba-malandro link, bridging the favelas and morros, cities and nation of Brazil.  Rosa responded to “Lenço no pescoço” in 1933 with the song “Rapaz Folgado,” a sharp criticism of Batista’s association of samba with a life of malandragem.  The rivalry continued for a few years, with a back-and-forth of sambas disputing the malandro identity and the essence of samba.

Sources for this post include Roberto DaMatta‘s Carnavais, Malandros e Heróis;  Bryan McCann’s Hello, Hello Brazil; Instituto Moreira Salles Radio Batuta interview with Batisa biographer Rodrigo Alguzuir; and “Gente do samba: malandragem e identidade nacional no final da Primeira República” por Tiago de Melo Gomes.

Post by Victoria Broadus (About)

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