Lyrics from “Ministério da Economia” by Geraldo Pereira and Arnaldo Passos (1951)
Mister President, your Excellency has shown that it’s for real
Now everything’s gonna be a steal
Now the poor man can go ahead and eat
Mister President, well that’s just what the people wanted
The Ministry of the Economy seems like it will solve things
Mister President, thank God I’m not gonna eat any more cat
Beef on butchers’ hooks is in abundance
Now I can go ahead and live with my love
I’m going to go get my nega to come live with me
Because I’ve seen there’s no more danger, she’s not going to die of hunger
Life was so tough that I sent my nega so fetchin’
Off to Copacabana, to stick her breasts in the madame’s kitchen
Now I’m going to get my nega, cause I like her so dog-gone much
The cats are the ones that’ll crack up laughing
From joy, up there on the hillside
— Interpretation —
First a few notes on the translation: Nega is a term of endearment in Portuguese, featured in this post; it refers to the singer’s wife. “…To stick her breasts in the madame’s kitchen” literally means to work in the kitchen, and just to clarify, the cats are cracking up laughing from joy because they’re no longer going to get eaten, thanks to the Ministry of the Economy.
In 1950, Getulio Vargas, populist president-dictator of Brazil from 1930 – 1945, ran for and won back the presidency. Shortly after taking office in 1951, he announced the creation of a new government agency for economic advisement and planning. But in spite of Vargas’s populist rhetoric about the boons of this economic planning office, Geraldo Pereira, an Afro-Brazilian sambista who grew on Morro da Mangueira, was highly skeptical of how this new agency would help him, so he wrote this sarcastic song about it.
Expressing his frustrations through sharply critical popular sambas, Pereira was one of the most notable composers who reclaimed samba from the state that had largely co-opted it during Getulio Vargas’s dictatorship.
While in power from 1930 – 1945, Vargas supported and exploited the expanding broadcast industry in Brazil to build his popularity. One of the ways he did this was by heavy-handedly promoting samba-exaltação, patriotic sambas like Ary Barroso‘s seminal “Aquarela do Brasil” that exalted Brazil’s natural beauty, cultural richness and purported racial harmony. These sambas portrayed the idealized image what it meant to be Brazilian that Vargas wanted people to believe in; and for a decade or so, with Vargas’s help, such patriotic sambas dominated the genre.
But Vargas was deposed in 1945, and under Eurico Dutra’s presidency from 1945-1950, the government withdrew from popular culture. By the time Vargas returned to power in 1951, his reign was too tenuous to exercise the same kind of control over music, and the stark contrast between samba-exaltação’s celebration of Brazil’s beauty and harmony and the dire situation of Rio’s hillside favelas made these celebratory sambas more and more laughable.
Throughout the 1940s, as favelas expanded on Rio’s hillsides, the government repeatedly promised and failed to deliver basic services. Residents became increasingly cut off, economically and socially, from the rest of the city below. This situation, combined with reduced state control over popular culture, made space for Afro-Brazilian sambistas from the favelas, like Geraldo Pereira and Wilson Batista, to create hits with popular songs scoffing at the government’s rhetoric and laying bare the tragic realities of life in the hillside slums.
Other such sambas are “Acertei no milhar” (Wilson Batista and Geraldo Pereira, 1940), “Chico Brito” (Wilson Batista, 1950) and “Escurinho” (Geraldo Pereira, 1955). For more on this theme, the best source is Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil by Bryan McCann.
Lyrics in Portuguese
Sua Excelência mostrou que é de fato
Agora tudo vai ficar barato
Agora o pobre já pode comer
Pois era isso que o povo queria
O Ministério da Economia
Parece que vai resolver
Graças a Deus não vou comer mais gato
Carne de vaca no açougue é mato
Com meu amor eu já posso viver
Eu vou buscar
A minha nega pra morar comigo
Porque já vi que não há mais perigo
Ela de fome já não vai morrer
A vida estava tão difícil
Que eu mandei a minha nega bacana
Meter os peitos na cozinha da madame
Agora vou buscar a nega
Porque gosto dela pra cachorro
Os gatos é que vão dar gargalhada
De alegria lá no morro
Main sources for this post: Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Model Brazil by Bryan McCann; A Canção no Tempo: 85 anos de músicas brasileiras by Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello; and Desenvolvimento Econônomico e Reformas Institucionais no Brasil, by Salvador Werneck Vianna.