Brazilian Music The Charm of Freedom

Members of a Samba School perform at the Marques de Sapucai Sambadrome during Carnival Parade 2022 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 24th April 2022.
Members of a Samba School perform at the Marques de Sapucai Sambadrome during Carnival Parade 2022 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 24th April 2022. | Photo (detail): Andre Borges © picture alliance / NurPhoto

The ideal of freedom is reflected in hundreds of Brazilian songs and it was a central theme of Brazilian popular music in the first half of the 20th century. Especially because samba originated in the 1910s in the country’s Black communities, for whom freedom was doubtless the most treasured ideal of all.

By Leonardo Lichote

Tava durumindo / Cangoma me chamou / Tava durumindo / Cangoma me chamou / Disse: levanta povo / Cativeiro já acabou” (I was sleeping / Cangoma called out to me / I was sleeping / Cangoma called out to me / Saying: Get up, people / Captivity is over). In 1996, Clementina de Jesus, who was already over sixty at the time, sang these verses on her very first record. And that was the first recording of this Black song, though it wasn’t new by any means: centuries of Brazilian history resonate in it, a history of striving and calling for freedom that finds expression in hundreds of songs. Clementina says she used to hear her mother sing Cangoma me chamou when she was a child. Clementina was born in 1901 in Valença  in the hinterland of  Rio de Janeiro. The city lies in the Paraíba Valley, which is characterised by a large Black presence: These are the descendants of slaves of the 19th century, who were abducted to work on the coffee plantations there – the former economic driver of Brazil. A cangoma is a drum played in jongo, and durumindo, a corruption of the Portuguese dormindo (sleeping), is testimony to the dialogue between offshoots of African Bantu languages and the Portuguese of the oppressors. So a great deal of Brazilian history is encapsulated in just a few lines of song.
When Clementina recorded this song, it was nearly as oldas the dream of freedom itself, which was sung about then, and still is now, in all sorts of different ways in Brazilian popular music. Slavery and its repercussions loom large in that music – and how could it be otherwise, for slavery informed life in Brazil for almost four centuries and remains a blot on social and economic relations there to this day. One of the first songs about slavery that comes to mind is Liberdade, Liberdade! Abre as asas sobre nós! (Freedom, Freedom, Spread Your Wings over Us), a song of the samba-enredo which the Imperatriz Leopoldinense brought to the Sambadrome in 1989.
Although dedicated to the centenary of the 1889 Proclamation of the Brazilian Republic (it even quotes a few lines from the anthem composed for the occasion), this samba piece is actually about the abolition of slavery by the Lei Áurea, the “Golden Law” signed by Princess Isabella in 1888, one year before the Proclamation.

A wide-ranging theme

The call for freedom in the Proclamation anthem was previously quoted in Nei Lopes Wilson Moreira’s 1979 song Senhora liberdade (Lady Liberty): “Abre as asas sobre mim / Oh, Senhora Liberdade” (Spread Your Wings over Me / O, Lady Liberty). Here, however, the lines refer to a failed love that holds the suffering poet captive – which is no less suggestive of how all-embracing the theme of freedom is and how variously it is used by composers. And much earlier, back in 1932, Francisco Alves and Ismael Silva had referenced the melody and lyrics of the anthem as well, albeit parodically, and the other way round: freedom came when the woman left.

Political connotations

In the first half of the 20th century, freedom was addressed differently in Brazilian songs and meant freedom from bondage, mainly because samba originated in the 1910s in the Afro-Brazilian community. Later, starting in the 1960s, freedom took on more political and social connotations in popular music in keeping with the times. In the early 1960s, the tension between left-wing ideas and right-wing forces intensified, reflecting at local level the conflict between the United States and the USSR. In the wake of the 1964 “civil-military” coup that overthrew President João Goulart, Brazilian songs increasingly took up entrenched positions among the ranks of the opponents of oppression, whether composed by songwriters from the nation’s suburbs and favelas or by artists of the so-called “university music” scene.

The sambas-enredo of that era were also about freedom, paving the way for a renewed preoccupation with the issues of slavery and Negritude some years later. Vila Isabel’s 1988 song Kizomba, Festa da Raça (Kizomba, A Feast of Race) was a milestone insofar as it sang the praises not of Princess Isabella, but of Black personalities like Zumbi (“O grito forte dos Palmares / Que correu terras, céus e mares / Influenciando a Abolição” – O, mighty cry of Palmares / That crossed lands, skies and seas / Ultimately leading to abolition) or Anastácia (“Não se deixou escravizar” – Who did not let herself be enslaved) and called for an end to apartheid, which still held sway in South Africa at the time and, on a symbolic level, in Brazilian society as well. That same year, in Cem anos de liberdade: realidade ou ficção? (One Hundred Years of Liberation: Reality or Fiction?), the Mangeira samba school stridently decried race relations in Brazil, where Black people were “free from the whip and the house of bondage”, but “trapped in the misery of the favela”.

Festivals and resistance

The festivals of the 1960s became a big showcase for songs by middle-class college-educated artists celebrating liberty, such as Caetano Veloso’s É proibido proibir (Forbidden to Forbid) or Geraldo Vandré’s Pra não dizer que não falei das flores (So They Can’t Say I Didn’t Sing About Flowers). Veloso’s song, anarchic in form and content, was vehemently rejected in 1968 by a swath of the nation’s left-wing youth, who could not identify with the lyrics and their underlying ethos. Geraldo Vandré’s song, on the other hand, which also came out in 1968 (at the end of that year, and this was no coincidence, the military regime cracked down on civil liberties by enacting its AI-5 decree), was hailed as an anthem of resistance for lines like “quem sabe faz a hora, não espera acontecer” (Those who know choose the time, they don’t wait for it to happen). Freedom was writ large in Música popular brasileira (MPB), including at least two songs that make use of carnival metaphors (or moods): Eu quero é botar meu bloco na rua (I Want to Put My  [carnival] Block on the Street) by Sérgio Sampaio and Tô me guardando para quando o carnaval chegar (I’m Saving Myself for When Carnival Arrives) by Chico Buarque.

In Tributo a Martin Luther King, Wilson Simonal’s voice evoked the leader of the US civil rights movement to bring the Black cause back into the present day and age. At about the same time, Marcos Valle and Paulo César Valle wrote a song called Viola enluarada (Moonlit guitar) that poignantly channels the spirit of the age: “A mão que toca o violão / Se for preciso faz a guerra” (The hand that plays the guitar / Goes to war if need be), concluding loud and clear: “Porta-bandeira, capoeira / Desfilando vão cantando / Liberdade” (Flag bearers, capoeira / Marching past, singing / Freedom). In the years that followed, samba continued to wave its freedom flag high with songs like Sorriso negro (Black Smile), a hit by Dona Ivone Lara (“Negro é a raiz da Liberdade” – Black Is the Root of Freedom), and Meu homem (Carta a Nelson Mandela) (My Man, A Letter to Nelson Mandela) by Martinho da Vila.

Free social conventions

On another front, sexual liberation came to figure prominently in Brazilian popular songs beginning in the “freaked-out” 1970s, for example in the song Cidadão-cidadã (Male Citizen-Female Citizen) by Jorge Mautner and Nelson Jacobina. In a duet with Caetano Veloso, Mautner sings: “Tanto faz gostar de coelho ou de coelha” (Makes no difference whether you’re into male or female rabbits). Caetano wrote another hymn to the bliss of unfettered liberty, the carnival-like Chuva, suor e cerveja (Rain, Sweat and Beer): “Venha, veja, deixa, beija, seja o que Deus quiser” (Come, see, allow, kiss, be whatever God wants).
Beginning in the 1980s, the Afro blocos in the city of Salvador became hotspots for the emergence and development of Black liberty. In one of their classics, O mais belo dos belos (O, Most Beautiful of the Beautiful), the Ilê Aiyê bloco refer to themselves as the “charm of freedom”. Years later, in the 1990s and 2000s, as political tensions in Brazil eased in the wake of increasing political and economic stability, freedom took on a different sense in Brazilian songs, finding expression more in romantic or existential lyrics.

Black and feminist issues

In recent years, however, the social upheavals that have rocked the nation since the early 2010s have once again spurred diverse forms of activism (Black, feminist, LGBTQIA+) and given rise to songs about new liberties. 100% feminista with MC Carlo and Karol Conká invokes the age-old roots of struggle: “Represento Aqualtune, represento Carolina / Represento Dandara e Xica da Silva” (I stand for Aqualtune, I stand for Carolina / I stand for Dandara and Xica da Silva). One singer played a pivotal role in this period and made MPB history: Elza Soares lent the authority of her voice to forceful statements of Black and feminist issues, for example in the song A carne mais barata do mercado é a carne negra (The cheapest meat in the market is Black meat).
Ever since Clementina de Jesus (and the centuries-old traditions she carried on), songs of freedom have continued to resound in Brazilian popular music. O sol que tudo sente (O Sun That Feels Everything), a song released in late 2021 by César Lacerda and Ronaldo Bastos affirms: “Nossa liberdade vale tudo / Não dá pra esperar” (Our freedom is everything / There’s no point in waiting). And the Cangoma keeps clamouring insistently, “People, get up!”

This article was published first in Humboldt Magazine.