Cartola - his life is a history book of the samba in Rio de Janeiro

Cartola - Divino SambaWhen the topic of Samba is raised, what normally comes firstly to mind is the high-volume Samba of the Carnival Enredo, and secondly perhaps the Mulatas. The man to whom this album is dedicated loved both forms, but in first place came the Mulatas and then the Carnival. He devoted his life to the Samba and for him Samba was foremostly poetry and feeling, as is revealed in this small anecdote:

In one of the city districts of Rio at the foot of the Morro da Mangueira (Hill of the Water Hose) there sat an old couple in their little garden. Both were black. She pointed out at the roses and said: "What's wrong with the roses, all of a sudden they are blooming so beautifully?" "Who knows," retorted the delicate stature of a man, wearing dark sun glasses and a smile on his face, "The roses can't talk."

This scene goes back almost 25 years and the two characters are no longer alive: Dona Zica and Cartola. Cartola is more than just a legend, for it is around this man's biography that the 20th century musical history of Rio de Janeiro revolves. Cartola was instrumental in writing the the more essential chapters, i.e. the history of rhythm and poetry along the traditional lines handed down from their African ancestors, the history of the struggle for social recognition, and for justice and equality, the history of the Favelas and the Morros, and the competition between them; the history of their rise and fall, joy and sadness, hope and desperation and of the people of the slums of the Rio de Janeiro metropolis.

Whenever Cartolo towards the end of his life appeared in public, he was always announced as "O Divino Cartolo", the divine Cartolo. Authors of following generations have never failed to commemorate him in their verses.

O Samba

In the 1920's the inhabitants of the Morros of Rio agreed on the fact that Samba was a common musical language, which previously was simply known, in the Candomblé-centres and bars of the Lundus, Batuques, Bahianic Ranchos, Polkas, Maxixes and Choros, by musicians like Donga, Sinho and Pixinguinha, as their own new and particular form of Carnival music. In these labourers' quarters of the Cidade Nova, the "new city of Rio", like Catumbí, there lived former black slaves and Caboclos nordestinos who had come to the former capital, Salvador da Bahia, as refugees from the north east of Brazil which was wrought by famine and feudal oppression. The word Favela comes likewise from the north east and was the name of a little "Serra" (mountain) there. Soldiers coming back from the Canudos wars, having fought against the fanatic Antonio Conselheiro, and then settled in the labourers' quarters of the imperial capital city, brought this word with them.

Almost everything in the line of urban Rio music, from Choro to Samba, that can be heard on old shellac and vinyl records originated from the Cidade Nova, with its Praça Onze, the Samba schools and Boates. Even the Bossa Nova, which according to general opinion was the creation of middle-class white youths from the southern zones stretching from Leme to Leblon, would never have come to being without the already existing Samba-Canção basis on which it was built up. Where the Marcha (March) - as the follower-up of the Bahianic Rancho (procession), together with the Samba-Carnavalesco/Enredo -, chiefly dominate the musical scene of the carnival, and the Sambo-do-Partido-Alto - with its archaic elements of African Lundus and Jongos - determine the week-ends in the Sambaos and the bars of the Morros and Favelas, then it is here that one will surely hear the song Samba-Canção in the bar around the corner.

Samba-Canção is regarded as the "Blues" of the Brazilian Sambistas, particularly of the black song writer with his guitar, who during the week makes a living as a labourer, if he has work at all, and in the evenings fulfils his duties in the Samba school or shares with his friends one of his new songs. Here one key word leads to another, one song is responded to and followed on by that of another colleague. The themes are almost always the same: our nerves are in a tether, our hearts bear much sadness, mankind is downtrodden and wounded, disappointed and deprived of love.

The Portuguese language seems to be the ideal form for such emotion-laden content when we hear Cartola, Lupiscinho and Rodriguez, Nelson Cavaquinho or Ismael Silva. But at the same time we know that Cancionés Romanticos in Spanish (perhaps in the Chavela Vargas interpretation), or the Blues of the Mississippi and Lake Erie or the French Chansons always seem to give the ideal forms of individual and personal expression to the songs that embody them.

O Divino Cartola

By right, one should, in view of the words and songs composed, recount the life and times of Angenor de Oliveira, alias Cartola. That isn't always an easy task, because Cartola and his colleagues rarely mention any concrete occasions, events or names of historical interest, but rather give expression to their feelings and thoughts. In this respect, however, their songs can be regarded as a mirror of their souls and spiritual wellbeing at a particular point in time.

In Portuguese Cartola is the word for top-hat. Just as his friend Carlos Cachaça (Carlos Moreira de Castro) didn't earn his name for his abstinence (Cachaça means boozer), Cartola in the same manner earned the nick-name top-hat by the fact that as a construction labourer he always wore a top-hat like coconut hat to protect himself from falling stones. Despite that, however, the great Samba chronicler Sergio Cabral once noted at a later stage that Cartola was one of the most elegant people he ever met: impeccably stylish.

Cartola was born on the 11th of October 1908 in the city district of Catete in a family of eight children. His father was a carpenter who on the side played a bit of guitar. When the family's financial situation grew increasingly worse they moved via Laranjeras to the Mangueira, "buraco quente" (hot hole on the Mangueira hill) where then 50 huts had already been built. Cartola was at that stage 11 years old and attended school for only a few years, much preferring to play Cavaquinho in the parades of the local Rancho group during the holidays. It was twenty years later, when he was 30, that he developed an interest in poetry.

Cartola described, in retrospect, his youth as pretty miserable, for just like his father he constantly had difficulty in finding work. He still worked as a labourer at the age of 50 having then already enjoyed a longstanding reputation as a legend in the Samba world and in the Morros. But being a legend doesn't put food on the table. At the age of 15 Cartola, after his mother died, moved from the hut his family dwelled, in order to lead a life of his own as a young man in 1923: between music and the Malandragem (demimonde). Later Cartola said looking back on his past, he never considered himself a Malandro (crook), was never in jail, but, alright then, grew up on the Morro without a shirt on his back and therefore...

With his boyhood friend Carlos Cachaça Cartola he founded in 1928 the Bloco (of the Carnival) dos Arangueiros in Mangueira. A year later the second Rio Samba school ( after the Portela) emerged through a joint venture formed by this Bloco with others from Morro: the G.R.E.S. (Gremio Recreativo Escola de Samba) Estação Primeira (first train station) de Mangueira, whose colours green and pink were chosen to be the group's colours. Cartola remained 50 years a member of the Mangueira for which he selected the name and the colours. He was its first musical director (Ala da harmonica) and it was primarily his Sambas which helped Mangueira in Rio, and consequently himself, accede to fame and renown.

As much as Mangueira in those days and now was a district that offered its inhabitants shelter from the outside and an intimate structure on the inside (where then the drug scene in todays proportions did not really exist), to the same extent it isolated creative energies like those of Cartola from the rest of the city, where the middle classes of the capital climbed their way to stardom and widespread acclaim. In particular it was Samba singers like Mario Reis or Carmen Miranda - of course with the active participation of arrangers, composers and producers, who prepared the "raw material" of the Morros to suit the tastes of the middle-class listeners.

It was under such circumstances that Mario Reis once asked Cartola if he could buy one of his Sambas, to be then sung by the no less famous Chico Alves. This was something new for Cartola. For him Samba was an elixir of life like water or air which one couldn't just buy or sell. For 300 thousand Reis became the new owner of the Samba, what Cartola, then in his early fifties, considered totally unrealistic. Many of his works in the following years went precisely the same way. Printers and copyrights existed at that time only for the middle and upper class authors and composers.

At the age of 30 Cartola was already famous but still lived from the wages earned as a construction labourer. Villa-Lobos, a supporter of the dictator Getúlio Vargas, had repeatedly invited Cartola to officially inaugurated and celebrated occasions. Cartola was also present when Villa-Lobos in 1940 brought a group of hand-picked chorus musicians and Sambistas on board the ship Uruguai, where Leopold Stokovski with his All American Youth Orchestra had at the same time dropped anchor in Rio. For the first time Cartola sang into a microphone. The recording was later released on an album released by Columbia in the United States.

Naturally enough there was competition between the Mangueira and the other meanwhile multifarious Samba schools. The Morros had not yet developed the Carnaval Carioca similar to a 60's style (where the Carnival of the 90's, it must be said, have taken on completely different characteristics) and the dictatorial rulers of Brazil still did not trust the new organisational forms of the blacks, who at this stage were already making up propaganda and jubilee Sambas - these coming from the Cidade Nova as well. Such events then prompted the founder and so called "prince" of the Portela, Paulo da Portela, out of dissatisfaction with his own school, to try his luck with Cartola, to see whether he might join the Mangueira as director. Cartola retorted with a nasty Samba, however, together with Paulo, he supported in 1941 a number of radio programs in A Voz do Morro (The Voice of the Morro) with a range of new Sambas.

In the 1940's Cartola's rebuff of Paulo's offer had perhaps back-fired on him, for the Mangueiras was continually defeated by its arch enemy Portela in competing for the Campeã title of the Carnival which marked a certain decline in Cartola's esteem in the Mangueira. When his first wife Deolinda died in 1949 he moved away from the Mangueira to Nilopolis and thereafter to the Favela of Cajú and fell sick with meningitis.

Having somewhat convalesced, he worked as a bricklayer again, but he went off the beaten track and drank up to 2 bottles of Cachaça per day. After returning to the Morro, he found 1952 in Zica (Eusebia Silva do Nascimento) his saviour and a new companion in life and started to compose again. He earned a living by working as a car-washer in a garage. By the end of the 50's Bossa Nova arrived in the Zona Sul (south zone), where black musicians played practically no part - although one of the pieces central to the Bossa Nova, the Orfeu da Conceção by Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes tried to tell the story of a people in the Morros living between love and violence.

For the film version of Camus (Orfeu Negro) Cartola and Zica acted in short scenes before a camera. Cartola looked after the costumes and Zica cooked for the crew. Perhaps it was here that the idea arose to open their own small restaurant, the Zicartola, where in the Rua Carioca, one of the most important cultural meeting places in the city was brought to life. If one had previously at Zica's and Cartola's home met for discussions and sessions - after Cartola was "rediscovered" with a car-wash brush in his hand -, then the music world moved into the Zicartola, to listen and to be listened to, to see and be seen. The abrupt end of the Bossa Nova compelled students to enquire into its origins, into the people who had paved the way for them, the Sambistas.

In the Zicartola Zica cooked and Cartola was the centre of all that happened there. Sambistas of all Samba schools were amongst their most loyal customers. Young composers of the post-Bossa-Nova generation frequented the restaurant as well. The Zicartola was an ideal place for meetings that took place between Zorra Sul and Zona Norte, between black and white, between Samba of the Morros and the modern Musica Popular. Due to administrative problems, however, it lasted only a few years. Afterwards the people continued to meet in the house that Cartola built himself at the foot of the Morros do Mangueira, where especially beautiful roses grew in the garden.

In 1974 Cartola, at the age of 66, was allowed to record his very first long-play record. The not so well known record label, Marcus Perreira, which had previously made somewhat of a name for itself with recordings made of country foklore, had come up with the idea, and in 1976 made a second Cartola-recording putting it then out on release. Although Parreira for the two recordings might have had only the minimum of recording equipment at his disposal, it definitely had the cream of Rio's instrumentalists. From Baden Powells former guitar teacher Meira to the legendary Samba percussionist Marcal all the best ingredients were available to put together a really good compilation of Samba and Choro Rios.

Up until his death Cartola released altogether 4 albums. He can also be heard on a Mangueira sampler released by EMI and posthumously on a Hommage-album released at the state Funarte. Our collection is the product of both Marcus Perreira albums/CD's and the two LP's released by what was then called RCA, which until now has not been re-released as a CD.

Cartola didn't earn much money after his late comeback either. "The real Sambatistas are those who earn little: Nelson Cavaquinho, Ismael Silva and I." He said once in a J.B. interview, "whoever produces good things will never be rich. But, on the other hand, that's probably a good thing. Sometimes when people are blessed with a success that they don't really recognise, they get carried away and end up only becoming pompous."

In the 70's Cartola appeared regularly in the Noitada do Samba (the Samba all-night) in a theatre in the Zona Sul, where on Mondays along with Passitsas (female dancers) one could hear the best musicians of the Samba schools, the Partideiros and Sambitsas. And if the announcement into the loud Sambão atmosphere came: E agora... O Divino Cartola, and now...the divine Cartola, it would after a spontaneous round of applause become really quiet, and the small delicately framed man with the sunglasses would climb with some effort onto the stage and sing what his listeners were in the mood to hear.

Cartola lived his last years far down the Mangueira in Jocarepagua, although the Guanabaran state had given him a parcel of land on the Morro, where he built himself a little house painted in green and pink. His children live there now, for: "all that with the Mangueira is over for me," he said then. He didn't want to know about the "Escola" anymore, whose Sambas seemed to be somewhat distanced from that of what he did before. He lived there then, but his heart still beat in the Mangueira until 30th of November 1980. "I am nobody," he once said, "but I am, I am Cartola. If I sing with a voice like burst sugar cane, the whole world claps. Ah, oh, Cartola! For that reason I feel content with myself. I am!"

Linernotes C P 1999 by Claus Schreiner / All rights reserved


Ala: a department of a Samba school.
Batuque: African basic rhythm and dance.
Morro: hill, quarry
Mangueira: (water) hose
Canção: song
Estação: Station
Buraco: hole
Quente: warm; hot; firy, lively.
Voz: voice; language; word; tone; scream.
Cachaça: Spirits, booze

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