Paul Vernon's series on vintage world music
recording takes him the Lusophone route to Brazil

Covering an area of over three million square miles, Brazil, a colony that reinvented itself as a republic, is the single largest Lusophone country in the world, and greater by far than the rest of the world's Portuguese communities measured together. Viewed by the Portuguese as 'the new world', it was the place to migrate to, the promised land; more so by far than North America, since the cultural and linguistic markers hardly shifted for the newly arrived immigrant. This is perhaps one reason why Portuguese immigration into the United States was so limited. They had their own America to go to.

By the time Emperor Dom Pedro had been replaced by a republican government in 1889, Brazil was an economically vibrant country with a rich mixture of cultures, freely interacting with each other. As the century turned, urban Brazilians were more than ready to greet it.

The two major cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, could boast amenities to rival Paris or New York. In Rio the populace were dancing the maxixe, a local blend of tango, habanera, lundu and polka that would soon have its moment of glory across European dance halls before descending into obscurity.

In many ways the maxixe was emblematic of the syncretic approach that Brazilian music has always displayed. The samba, Brazil's most famous export before the bossa nova, was a heady mixture of African, Bahian and Portuguese influence. From the broth of emerging proletarian culture in the Rio slums, samba had developed into a recognisable sound by 1915. The Praca Onze, a large downtown square, was the cultural sanctuary of AfroBahians. In and around it, the samba was played, danced, shaped, practised, argued over, embellished and nurtured.

Central to these events was the home of Hilaria Batista de Almeida, a confectioner by trade, known as Tia Ciata, and a hostess par excellence. It was here that musicians gathered and added the ingredients of the habanera, polka, marcha and lundu to the samba, creating the samba-carioca, a specifically Rio de Janeirian sound.

The first gramophone records to appear in Brazil came from the American Columbia company, who set up a branch office in Rio in about 1904. Within a five year period they had been followed by Odeon, Victor, and a number of small independent local labels. Because of the technical limitations of acoustic recording, brass band performances, which recorded well, were issued in large quantities. Mostly, they were municipal or military bands who blazed away insensitively at an eclectic selection of material, including marches, polkas and waltzes.

In 1917 an aggregation called Banda Odeon recorded Pelo Telefone, currently believed to be the first recording of a Samba rhythm. It was not, in any way, an authentic performance, but it was a real samba, composed by a committee at Tia Ciata's house with Iyrics by Mauro de Almeida. By the mid-1920s authentic sambas were being recorded routinely, the annual local carnivals producing at least one samba hit every year.

In 1928 an event occurred that was to have a major influence on Brazilian music the establishment of the first 'escola de samba'. In their excellent book The Brazilian Sound, Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha detail the rise and influence of the escolas, noting that the first escola, Deixa Falar, was established in August 1928 by, among others, the legendary Ismael Silva To translate the word 'escola' literally into 'school' is to misunderstand the spirit that fuelled it. It was, as McGowan and Pessanha point out, " more like a club or fraternity, dedicated to music and parading". Although Deixa Falar broke up in 1933, the second escola, Primeira de Mangueira, founded in 1929, survived for decades and produced, in 1935, the off-shoot escola, Portela, perhaps the most influential of all such organisations.

[picture: The young Carmen Miranda and pal]

From these lush roots the samba grew in complexity, popularity and stature, becoming a staple of the annual carnival and helping, in turn, to popularise the event itself. Sub-genres, including the samba-cancao, samba de breque, samba de gafeira, samba de morro and sambe enredo, developed by escola members, all took their place in Rio's cultural mosaic. They were also recorded in quantity.

By 1931 Rio had 83 registered music shops, 34 of which sold gramophone records. In São Paulo, Brazil's second city, the figures were only slightly smaller. Nonexclusive distribution deals meant that, unlike some areas of the world, most record stores stocked every label. The customer could hear not only Columbia records, but the rival Victor or Odeon releases as well as local recordings on ArtFone, Brasilphone, Imperidor and Ouvidor. These operations were wholly owned and operated by Brazilians and although lacking the muscle of the international companies, they provided vibrant competition and recorded much interesting music that would otherwise have been lost to history.

What else could a Brazilian gramophile have bought in the 1920s besides the maxixe or the sambas The answers are the fado, tango, habanera and son, as well as a wide mix of contemporary North American jazz and dance band music.

The Portuguese fado transplanted well into Brazilian life. Some scholars will argue that Brazil is the fado's original home, citing a birthdate of 1822, coincidentally the year the country first declared independence from Portugal. Others hotly deny this, pointing to Lisbon as the true home and Maria Severa as its spiritual mother. However, despite statements by various patriotic historians claiming this or that specific place as the cradle of the fado, the likelihood, considering how mobile the Portuguese have always been, is that it developed simultaneously from about this period in every Portuguese community. In that sense it belongs, quite correctly, to all Portuguese wherever they live; the local flavour, however, is another matter. In the same way that fado in Portugal differs between Coimbra and Lisbon, the Rio fado has a character of its own.

The principal structure upon which a Rio fado is based is most certainly the Lisbon one rather than the rarified and academic Coimbra tradition. However, the saudade - the soul, the duende - fado's principal ingredient, takes on a subtle hue that belongs only to Rio. From as early as 1907 fados were being recorded in Rio. Early performances are somewhat stiff and distant, much like those cut in Lisbon at about the same time. However, by 1926, when electric recording had supplanted the old acoustic method, allowing a wider range of frequencies to be successfully captured, the Brazilian fado was emerging as a distinct sound.

Brazilian fadistas - often Portuguese expatriates - developed a style that displayed more attack than the classic old-country approach. The playing was brighter - some have said brasher - the singing more declamatory, the recordings themselves often cut louder. As the years passed, however, the style became slicker.

By the 1930s most of the first wave of singers had fallen by the wayside, leaving a handful of oft- recorded artists like Manoel Monteiro, Joaquim Seabra and Isalinda Serramota to satisfy the fado lovers' demands. For the true aficionado, however, a large percentage of the fados recorded and issued in Portugal appeared on Brazilian labels also. Contemporary catalogues list a deep selection of Fados de Lisboa and, surprisingly, of Coimbra also. Evidence survives of a concert tour of Brazil undertaken in 1929 by a group of Coimbra fadistas including Dr. Edmundo de Bettancourt, Paradella D'Oliveira, Dr. Lucas Junot (himself a Brazilian native who had relocated to Coimbra) and Jose Joaquim Cavalheiro, artists whose recorded legacy, which survives, allow us today to hear what a Brazilian audience would have heard during that tour.

In the meantime, the major companies, Columbia and Victor, whose U.S.-based parents were recording a wide range of styles, brought North American jazz and dance bands, Argentinian tangos and Cuban habaneras and sons to the Brazilian ear. Through the continued development of radio, Brazilians were exposed to this broad mix of local and international music cheaply. Once a radio had been purchased, for little more than the cost of a gramophone, there was no further financial outlay. By 1935, when the first South American broadcasting conference was being held in Rio, Brazil had thirteen radio stations. Four years later the figure had grown to 79. Although every station was required by law to broadcast the Hour Of Brazil, a government propaganda programme, every night at 8 p.m., the government interfered no further in
broadcasting matters and a vast choice of music was available daily.

Radio made a star of the one Brazilian singer who most people will have heard of even if their interest is minimal: Carmen Miranda. The popular image of Miranda is as an over-the-top Hollywood star in outrageous fruit-adorned hats. However, a decade before those events began she had appeared on local radio in Rio while still working as a shop assistant. Following quickly with local recordings for Odeon and Victor, her style then was much purer, accompanied by small regional string conjuntos, or in some cases just guitars. Her success both in Brazil and Portugal was immediate. She appeared in the first Brazilian sound movie Alo Alo Brasil. Long before the rest of the world discovered her she was a deeply loved figure in the Lusophone world. When Hollywood commercialised her in 1939 she quickly shed the Luso-centric style that had been her trademark for a decade. Carmen's material gain was Brazilian music's loss, but her early recorded legacy remains and is well worth investigating.

As Brazil's infrastructure developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and communications across this vast land improved, the city of São Paulo, to the south, grew in importance. Strategically and climatically it had several advantages over Rio, something that record companies were quick to realise. An internal memo received in London from the New York office of Columbia records in 1931 is very revealing:

"On account of its elevated location the city of São Paulo is uniformly cool throughout the year including their summer, eliminating heat difficulties with waxes and eliminating the need for a water cooling system for the record presses, whereas Rio is always humid and very hot even during their winter, necessitating the suspension of factory operations during a part of their summer"

"São Paulo has a bountiful supply of artists. In fact Victor and Brunswick, who were to open studios at Rio, have relocated studios in São Paulo. Artists from many large cities in the south could be brought to São Paulo. Years ago the social and diplomatic population made Rio a centre for artists but not today. No large city in the north is connected by rail to Rio. There are only three important cities in the north, from which artists have been brought to Rio by boat. The onward cost to São Paulo is minimal."

One of the artists who, in 1939, went to São Paulo to record was Luiz Gonzaga. At the age of 27, leaving the army after a ten-year period, Gonzaga wound up in Rio, far from his native north-eastern rural home, playing the accordeon in brothels and bars. In time he began to appear on live radio shows and, the story goes, that on the Ary Barroso show one evening in 1939 he played Vira e Mexe, a traditional north-eastern tune. Cheered by an enthusiastic audience to play an encore, he came to the attention of an RCA talent scout and landed a recording contract. In 1946 a recording called Baiao, his reading of a traditional north-eastern syncopated rhythm, was an instant success.

More than one critic has compared the Baiao to Zydeco music. It certainly does have similarities. Accordeon dominated, with a rocking rhythm and complex percussion, it is excitingly syncopated in the same way as good Zydeco. It took Brazil by storm, established Gonzaga as a major figure and spawned dozens of imitators, some excellent, some less so. Gonzaga remained a popular and well loved figure until his death in 1989.

Brazil stood in neutrality from the European conflict in 1939 but joined it in 1942, declaring war on Germany and Italy, followed in 1943 by a declaration against Japan. Until 1945, when hostilities ceased, the country focussed upon the war effort and record production was seriously curtailed. In 1945 the semi-dictatorship of Dr Getulio Vargas was ousted by a military coup and eventually replaced by a more liberal government under Gaspar Dutra. During this time the Brazilian music industry appears to have undergone something of a shake-out. In a scenario not unlike that of the United States at the same time, a sudden burst of activity spawned small independent labels devoting themselves to the new sound that a postwar Brazil seemed to demand.

In the decade from 1945 labels like Continental, Caboclo, Copacabana, Elite, Mocombo, Sinter, Star and Todamerica all commenced operations issuing a broad mix of new, popular sambas, fados and toadas. Amalia Rodrigues, unquestionably the biggest fado star Portugal ever produced, cut her first records in Rio in 1945 while on tour. Artistically they are triumphs; a high point in fado history. Quickly imported into Portugal as original pressings on the Continental label and then issued there locally on Melodia, they created a sensation and sent Portuguese record companies scurrying after her. Eventually Valentim de Carvalho, backed by the might of the EMI organisation signed her, but it was the Brazilian recordings that had launched her career.

Brazilian music of the 1950s was quite often a bland affair. Like most countries open to Western cultural influence, the emergence of rock 'n' roll brought with it a crop of local rockers, covering hits like Heartbreak Hotel, At The Hop and Lucille in Portuguese. One of the most bizarre recordings I have ever encountered is the Brazilian version of Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

The event that turned the tide, of course, was the emergence of the Bossa Nova and a re-assertion of Brazilian national spirit that accompanied it. Like all good Brazilian music, however, Bossa Nova itself was a blend of the cultural and musical influences that had preceded it.

Further Reading

Chris McGowan & Ricardo Pessanha: The Brazilian Sound (Billboard) - largely contemporary but with a nice sense of early history plotted in to allow the reader to see the music within the correct context.

The Rough Guide to World Music (Rough Guides) contains a useful and well written chapter about Brazil, as does Peter Manuel's classic work Popular Musics Of The Non Western World which should be on everyone's bookshelf anyway.


There's plenty of contemporary material, and McGowan & Pessanha do a good job of picking some of the best. For early recordings, try and find the two volumes of Carnival In Brasil on Ubataqui Records which features recordings from 1904-1952.

On Heritage records you will find Portuguese String Music 1908-31 (HTCD05) which features six very early Brazilian instrumental folk pieces. Harlequin HQCD33 features early Brazilian recordings by Carmen Miranda. Rounder 5045, Brazil-Roots-Samba is a bit of an oddity, including stuff by Bing Crosby but contains a few useful cuts. The Coimbra Fado styles of De Bettancourt, D'Oliveira, Junot & Cavalheiro can be found on Fado de Coimnbra, Heritage HTCD15.

Beyond that there's not much yet, but there probably will be.
With thanks to Bruce Bastin, British Library, Radca Effenburger and Maria Moreira-Silva.

This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997