Episode 109: The Tango and Samba

Host: Marcelo Domingos, Department of History
Guest: Andreia Menezes, Department of Linguistics, Literature and Humanities, Federal University of São Paulo

Bandoneon-curved.jpgThe first notes of the samba and the tango instantly capture ones attention, transporting the listener to Bahia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and the River Plate in Argentina. Seen as national symbols for their respective countries, the samba and the tango are more than just popular musical and dance genres. A deeper dive into the development of these musical genres reveals a conflict between African slaves, indigenous people, and European migrants over musical identity and Latin American state formation.

Andreia Menezes, a linguistics and literature professor at the Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil, joins us to explain how the samba and the tango transformed from the music of the socially marginalized to an important issue for national intellectuals.

Professor Menezes, could you tell us a little about the origins of the samba and the tango?

Samba and tango are two musical genres that appeared more or less at the same time in Brazil and Argentina and are closely related to the idea of a national symbol. About their origins it is not a very easy answer because it is possible to find different versions about their origins.

In the case of samba, scholars usually point out that it came from other musical genres such as the Portuguese fandango, or the Cuban habanera, but we can say that the most important contributions came from the cultural backgrounds of Brazilian populations of African origin. We can say that samba began in early twentieth century in the city of Rio de Janeiro, which was then the capital of Brazil.

Cover of the samba score By Phone, from Donga.

“Pelo telefone” was the first musical composition recorded with the classification “samba” in 1917.

The abolition of slavery in Brazil was in 1888 and many ex-slaves migrated from different parts of the country to the capital. The ones who came from the region of the Recôncavo Baiano, located in the Brazilian Northeast, were especially important to the genesis of samba. One of the most recognized hypothesis is that the samba appeared in the houses of the “tias baianas” which means “aunts from Bahia”. That was the name used to call the matriarchs of these Bahian families. These migrants lived in old houses in the neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro named Saúde where they organized parties that used to gather people of different social classes, geographical origins and cultural backgrounds. Samba probably was the result of this mixture. The first composition recorded with the classification of “samba” is “Pelo telefone” in 1917 and its composer, Donga, was a regular attendant of these events.

Although the samba is associated with socially marginalized populations, Brazilian intellectuals and even politicians were involved in the process of stabilization of this musical genre, especially in its association to the symbol of “Brazilianess”

Pelo telefone – 17′ to 48′

And what about tango?

Curiously, the process of stabilization of tango as a musical genre has many similarities to samba one. It also emerged between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, on the outskirts of Argentina’s federal capital, by marginalized populations and is commonly related to the image of national symbol.

In that moment, Buenos Aires was receiving a great wave of European immigrants, especially Spaniards and Italians, as well as migrants from the interior of the country. This poor population lived in the slums located in the peripheries of the capital where they spoke their different languages and mixed their different cultural backgrounds. There is also much discussion about the probable influence of the Afro argentine population on the tango. Musically, there are also contributions from rural Argentine musical genres, as well as from the habanera, the same that was related to the samba.

About the contents of the lyrics, it is interesting to observe another similarity to the samba: it is common to find in its lyrics, especially in the older compositions, characters who committed socially reproachable acts – such as pimping, fights, murder, violence against women – described in a proud way. Another important point of convergence with samba is that tango, although in its beginning it was socially barely seen because of its relation with socially marginalized environments, ended up being adopted by the intelligentsia of its country and being associated with the image of national symbol.

La Morocha – 1″22′ to 1″44′

If we think of the beginning of these two genres, especially from a foreign view, the first characters that come to mind are Carmen Miranda and Carlos Gardel. What is their role in this process?

Samba and tango arose when the radio and the cinema were been establishing as mass media in Brazil and in Argentina. The radio in Brazil was officially installed in 1922 and in the following decade it had already 30 radio stations. In Argentina, the first radio station appeared in 1920, and by 1928 the country already had 36 radio stations.

In the beginning, in these two countries, radio was a state organization and its programmation had an educational aspect, as well as was used as an instrument of state propaganda. However, the radio stations gradually gained commercial outlines, beginning to emit mainly musical programs building up the music market and promoting the appearance of pop stars. By the 1930s, tango and samba were no longer considered marginal music and had become the most popular genre in their countries. This popularity was reflected in how often they played on radio shows.

The cinema was also a great diffuser of these genres, since in the first commercial sound films made in Brazil and Argentina they used to follow the model spread by the United States where the stories revolved around the songs. In this situation, samba and tango were the privileged genres in those cinematographic beginnings. The first sound film made in Brazil was the musical “Coisas nossas”, that means “Our Things”, in 1931. It presents aspects of the Brazil from the 1920s and early 1930s.

In Argentina, the first film was released in 1932 and it was called guess what: “Tango”. The film tells a classic story of tango lyrics: a poor and beautiful girl who falls in love with a bad guy who abandons her at the end. It had the participation of some of the greatest tango singers of the time, such as Libertad Lamarque and Tita Merello. This association between the samba and the tango with the cinematographic industry was so strong that appeared in Brazil and in Argentina some cinematographic genres known as tango film or tango opera and the carnival film.

Carmen Miranda helped popularize Samba internationally in the 1930s, as a singer and an actress.

Therefore, the most important actors at the beginning of the cinema were exactly the most famous singers of the music industry. It was in this context that the figures of Carlos Gardel and Carmen Miranda appeared. They were not only excellent singers, but also beautiful and charming actors. Carlos Gardel unfortunately had a short life because he died in a airplane accident in 1935 when he was 45 years old. He participated in 11 films in total: two recorded in Argentina, four in Paramount studios in France, and five in Paramount studios in New York.

Rubias de New York – 3′ to 29′

The first film that Carmen Miranda participated in was called “Alô, Alô Carnaval” and was premiered in 1936. In 1940 she made her debut in the United States with the film “Tropical Serenade”. She made a total six films in Brazil and of 14 films in the US where she lived for many years in the city Los Angeles. In these films, music, especially samba and tango, was a central element and definitely the success they had abroad helped to associate the image of Brazil as the country of the samba and Argentina as the land of tango.

You have mentioned that the samba and the tango were associated to the idea of national symbols. How did it occurred?

The end of nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century were the scene of intense nationalist discussions all over the world. One of the main focus of these discussions was the definition of a homogeneous national population both racially and culturally.

However, Brazil was a multiethnic country, especially because of the numerous presence of the population of African ancestry resulted of almost four centuries of African enslaved. Also Argentina was a multiethnic country, in this case because of the migratory flood that this country received during the second half of the nineteenth century. The exit found against racial diversity was the adoption of the image of the melting pot. As I said before, people of different social classes, geographic and even ethnic backgrounds participated in the stabilization of the samba and the tango. Therefore, despite the marginal origins of these genres, they were adopted by the intelligentsia of these countries as an incarnation of the melting pot. In the Brazilian case there was even some state participation in this association.

Actually it is interesting to note that the marginal characters of the lyrics of samba and tango, who were hardly seen before, had their characteristics changed in a positive way: anarchy became independence, murder and brutality in courage and cheating in intelligence.

Mi Buenos Aires Querido – 4′ to 26′

But are the samba and the tango really seen as national symbols in Brazil and Argentina, especially nowadays?

It is especially interesting to note that although the association of samba and tango to the idea of national symbols occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century and many other musical genres have emerged since then, it remains in many different ways to this day.

A tango show in Buenos Aires.

However, in the case of Argentina, tango is more associated specifically to the city of Buenos Aires, something that we find strongly expressed in its lyrics. The genres related to the Argentine folklore, my current object of study, are more associated by the Argentinean to the imaginary of nation. But I could say that in the case of Brazil this association is still very strong. For example, I watched the first game of Brazil in the World Cup, an event seen in Brazil as a very patriotic moment, here in Austin. I went to a Brazilian restaurant that announced that during the broadcast they would serve feijoada, caipirinha and samba.

Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat – 7′ to 31′

About the songs:
O samba e o tango (1937) – composer: Amado Régis – singer: Carmen Miranda
Pelo Telefone (1917) – composer: Donga – singer: Donga (1974)
La Morocha (1905) – composer: Ángel Villoldo – singer: Libertad Lamarque (1939)
Rubias en New York (1934) – composers: Alfredo Le Pera/ Carlos Gardel; singer: Carlos Gardel
Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat (1943) – singer: Carmen Miranda

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