Na estrada da vida

Lyrics from “Na estrada da vida” by Wilson Batista (1929), recorded by Luis Barbosa (1933)

Todo homem carrega sua cruz // Every man bears his cross
Na estrada da vida // On the road of life
Que é longa e sem luz // That’s long and dark
Sou mais infeliz que outro qualquer // I’m unhappier than the next guy
Tenho um contrapeso, é de uma mulher // I have an extra weight, it’s a woman’s
(o destino assim quer) //(That’s how fate wants it)
Com desdém vive pra me criticar // With disdain, she lives to criticize me
Teu orgulho algum dia há de acabar // Some day her pride will run out
Eu sei que de mim tu não tens dó // I know that you don’t pity me
A culpa é minha, eu podia viver só // It’s my fault, I could live alone
(Mas é que todo, todo, todo…)// (But it’s just that every, every, every)
Deus é justo, e eu não te rogo praga // God is just, and I don’t wish a plague on you
O que se faz aqui, aqui mesmo se paga // What’s done here is paid for right here
Caminho pela estrada sem ter luz // I walk along the road without any light
Vou pagando os meus pecados // I just go along paying for my sins
Carregando a minha cruz // Bearing my cross

–Commentary —

Luis Barbosa, middle, with brothers Paulo Barbosa on piano and Barbosa Jr  (right) singing.

As Jairo Severiano points out  in Uma história da música popular brasileira, all of the greatest voices from Brazil’s Época de Ouro (1930s, ’40s and ’50s), with the exception of Vicente Celestino, recorded sambas. These singers included Orlando Silva, Francisco Alves, and Silvio Caldas. But several radio crooners specialized particularly in sambas, offering beautiful renditions that exemplified how the blossoming genre ought to be sung. These singers included Mario Reis, Ciro Monteiro, Vassourinha, Araci de Almeida – and Luis Barbosa.

Mario Reis was the first to achieve resounding success in the early ’30s with sambas recorded in a colloquial style, rather than the over-dramatized formality of romantic songs of the period.  Shortly afterward, when Reis was at his peak, Luis Barbosa appeared on the scene. Barbosa adopted a similar style to Reis’s, while incorporating perfectly timed breaks and beating the rhythm on a straw hat, which, on top of being charming, proved easier to handle than a heavier pandeiro. These trappings made Barbosa an immediate crowd pleaser, beginning with his appearance at age 21 on the variety shows Esplêndido Programa and Programa Casé. Renowned Brazilian music critic Lúcio Rangel said of Luis Barbosa: “He was the most extraordinary of all samba singers. He possessed disconcerting rhythm, rare musicality, and he transformed the sambas he sang, adding his extra special touch.” Mario Lago, another of Barbosa’s illustrious fervent admirers, thought Luis Barbosa was at his best on stage, accompanied by a good pianist; Lago felt Barbosa stiffened up in the recording studio.

Barbosa died of tuberculosis at age 28, and while it’s tough to come by records of his performances, he left behind nearly 40 recordings, including “Seja breve” (by Noel Rosa, 1933); “No tabuleiro da baiana” in a duet with Carmen Miranda (by Ary Barroso, 1936), and “Lalá e Lelé” (by Jaime Brito and Manezinho Araújo, 1937), along with this 1933 recording.

Barbosa was so admired by the early ’30s that when he surprised Wilson Batista on 28 April 1933, telling him that he had recorded this song, Wilson, elated, proceeded to go out and get totally plastered. He was arrested, but upon explaining why he was celebrating, he made friends with the officer who had arrested him, who even went on to give Wilson a little money.

This song was special for Wilson Batista because it was his first samba performed for the public in Rio. (His first to be recorded was “Por favor vá embora,” recorded in 1932.) Batista moved from his hometown of Campos dos Goytacazes to Rio de Janeiro in 1929, and began to hang out and get odd jobs around the Teatro de Revista (like Vaudeville theaters), where he dreamed of becoming a tap dancer. At the theater he had the chance to show this composition to Araci Cortes, who performed the song in 1929.

Main sources for this post: Uma história da música popular brasileira by Jairo Severiano, and Wilson Baptista: O samba foi sua glória by Rodrigo Alzuguir.

Recording: Victor – 28 April 1933, released in December 1933; Piano: Mário Travassos de Araújo, with Luis Barbosa on the straw hat for percussion.



Meus vinte anos

Lyrics from “Meus vinte anos” by Wilson Batista and Silvio Caldas (1942)

Good Audio Version (Silvio Caldas)

In women’s eyes, in the mirror in my room
Is where I see my age
The portrait in the living room makes me remember achingly my youth
Life for me has been so wretched, only bitter disenchantment
Ay, I’d give everything to be able to go back to being twenty (repeat)

You left in my life the vivid shadow of tremendous yearning
Leaving me, you ended up showing me the counterpoint, killing my faith
And today disillusioned – I’ve suffered a lot –
Full of bitter disenchantment
Ay, I’d give everything to be able to go back to being twenty

— Interpretation —

Wilson Batista, looking dapper c. 1933.

In this samba, Wilson Batista aches over getting older, lamenting that his appearance continues to diverge from that of the portrait in the living room, and that women’s eyes perhaps don’t shine as brightly when they see him.

Batista was a malandrostyle samba composer — an unapologetic scoundrel sort, known for his impassioned defense of waywardness in a battle he fought in samba songs with the more refined bohemian Noel Rosa. (Rosa contended that malandro sambistas should  toss out their razor blades, stop dragging their wood-soled shoes, and basically get over themselves. You can read about the feud here.)

Batista wrote this song when he was twenty-nine — an age when most would scoff at someone for pining for their youthful days of yore. But maybe he knew his lifestyle did not promote longevity; he died at 58.

The theme of fleeting youth is a universal one, and the song was one of Wilson Batista’s greatest successes as a lyricist. Silvio Caldas wrote the melody and recorded the samba in 1942, and the song was a hit throughout the following year.

Lyrics in Portuguese

Nos olhos das mulheres
No espelho do meu quarto
É que eu vejo a minha idade
O retrato na sala
Faz lembrar com saudade
A minha mocidade

A vida para mim tem sido tão ruim
Só desenganos
Ai, eu daria tudo
Para poder voltar
Aos meus vinte anos.

Deixaste em minha vida
A sombra colorida
De uma saudade imensa
Deixando-me ficaste
Mostrando-me o contraste
Matando a minha crença
E hoje desiludido
Muito tenho sofrido
Cheio de desenganos
Ai, eu daria tudo
Para poder voltar
Aos meus vinte anos.

Main source for this post: A Canção no Tempo: 85 Anos de Músicas Brasileiras, vol 1, by Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello

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

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 wage work 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 work 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 dispute between Wilson Batista and Noel Rosa, a feeble and brilliant 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 critique of Batista.  The rivalry continued for a few years, with a back-and-forth of sambas disputing the malandro identity and the essence of samba. (2019 update: As João Máximo, Noel Rosa’s biographer, points out in this fantastic 2012 show, a common misconception is that Noel Rosa was denouncing malandragem in general, when in fact he was really just interested in taking jabs at Wilson Batista.)

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)