Quando a Polícia Chegar

Lyrics from “Quando a polícia chegar” by João da Baiana (c. 1915), recorded by Cristina Buarque and Clementina de Jesús (1981)

Se é de mim, podem falar / If it’s about me, let them talk
Se é de mim, podem falar / If it’s about me, let them talk
Meu amor não tem dinheiro / My love doesn’t have money
Não vai roubar pra me dar (bis) / He won’t steal to give to me (bis)

Quando a policia vier e souber / When the police come and find out
Quem paga casa pra homem é a mulher (bis) / It’s the woman who bankrolls (that) man [*literally, pays for his home] (bis)

No tempo que ele podia / Back when he was able
Me tratava muito bem / He treated me well
Hoje está desempregado / These days he’s unemployed
Não me dá porque não tem (bis)/ He doesn’t provide because he can’t (bis)

Quando a policia vier e souber / When the police come and find out
Quem paga casa pra homem é a mulher (bis) / It’s the woman who bankrolls (that) man (bis)

Se é de mim, podem falar / If it’s about me, let them talk
Se é de mim, podem falar / If it’s about me, let them talk
Meu amor não tem dinheiro / My love doesn’t have money
Não vai roubar pra me dar (bis) / He won’t steal to give to me

Quando a policia vier e souber / When the police come and find out
Quem paga casa pra homem é a mulher (bis) / It’s the woman who bankrolls (that) man (bis)

Quando eu estava mal de vida / When I was down and out
Ele foi meu camarada / He was there for me
Hoje dou casa e comida / Today I provide room and board
Dinheiro e roupa lavada (bis)/ Money and fresh laundered clothes… (bis)


João da Baiana and Clementina de Jesús, photo by Walter Firmo, late 1960s.

In early twentieth-century Rio, around the time this song was first recorded, working-class women indeed had a great degree of economic independence and autonomy, and situations such as the one depicted here were common — another side of the malandro way of life (described in this post) so central to early samba.

The gender imbalance was nearly 60 men for 40 women in late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Rio. The city’s population exploded after abolition in 1888, with an influx of freedmen from rural areas and young European immigrants, mostly poor Portuguese men, all of whom competed for the same jobs. Women of the working class and working poor were generally able to bring in a stable income through activities linked to their domestic life: they washed clothes, cooked, ironed and starched, sold sweets and snacks. And because of the gender imbalance among Rio’s poorer classes, they also enjoyed a relative degree of freedom in choosing romantic partners. This stirred conflict since men of the working class and working poor couldn’t live up to societal ideals of masculinity. They often couldn’t provide for women, and certainly couldn’t claim them as property. And they fought over the scarce women within their social circles.

Appropriately, the narrator calling the shots in this song is a woman. She appears to deflect the criticism of her busybody neighbors (“When the police come and find out…” is met with “let them talk”) with a generous defense of her companion’s character. He’s not a layabout; the problem presumably is an exclusionary society that’s left him disadvantaged and unemployed.

A version of these verses may have emerged at the famous days-long parties at Tia Ciata’s, or Tia Perciliana’s — João da Baiana’s mother’s home in the Saúde neighborhood of Rio. Indeed the song is emblematic of the history of samba itself. That history is generally told as a celebration of pioneering men like João da Baiana (João Machedo Guedes, 1887-1974), an incredibly talented percussionist known for popularizing the pandeiro and prato e faca, or plate-and-knife, in samba, and Donga (Ernesto dos Santos, 1889-1974). This is in part because those men lived long enough to tell their story when more people began to care about the history of samba, in the 1960s. The testimonials they recorded for the Museu de Imagem e Som, founded in 1965, quickly became the official history. But women were always the ones holding the scene together: they hosted the huge parties, cooked for masses, and, crucially, recalled the old popular verses they’d heard from their often enslaved parents and grandparents in places like rural Bahia and Minas Gerais. (João da Baiana’s parents, the children of slaves, were from Bahia, and he was the only of twelve siblings to be born in Rio.) Those verses supplied ample source material and inspiration for the samba repertoire, where they float around to this day.

In a recent interview with Pedro Paulo Malta for Instituto Moreira Salles, Christina Buarque chose the song as one of ten favorites to celebrate on the occasion of her 70th birthday. She recalled hearing Clementina de Jesús perform the song at TV Record’s Bienal do Samba context in 1968. It stuck in her head, and she recorded the samba with Clementina in 1981.

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