1934: Carmen Miranda
This week I'm thinking about Carmen Miranda's 1934 recording of Ary Barroso's samba song "Na Batucada da Vida."
I call it a "samba song" rather than simply a "samba" for a couple of reasons. One, because it's a literal translation of the notation on the record label: "samba canção." Second, because although it has a definite samba rhythm, it's not a samba in the street-level sense played by underclass musicians during Carnaval on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, but something more orchestrated and refined: Diabos do Céu, the band playing behind Miranda, and who takes the whole last half of the recording, isn't a samba band, but an international-style dance orchestra that would have been just as happy playing North American jazz song. And that's the other reason I call it samba song: by correlation with the common critical distinction made between jazz — virtuoso music made in a specifically African-American cultural tradition — and jazz song: the repertoire of songs that were not necessarily written for jazz acts to play (they were mostly written for the Tin Pan Alley sheet-music business or for the Broadway stage), but were informed and influenced by the cultural ascension of jazz, and which had a long afterlife as jazz standards after the age of Pop took over and transformed the sound and attitude of youth music.
Because samba is to Brazil roughly what jazz is to North America: a music created by the descendants of slaves in urban port cities, with an African attention to rhythm and a European attention to melody, which became immensely popular with the nation's middle and upper classes starting in the mid-1910s and which came to dominate a generation of cultural production, which latter would eventually calcify into a kind of stale state-approved nostalgia industry ready to be overthrown by successive waves of newness. This is vastly oversimplified, naturally; and while Brazil undeniably has racialized castes and inequalities, its specific racial, cultural, and political history is different enough from the United States that no one-to-one correspondence is possible.
Translated into a North American context, the title of "Na Batucada da Vida" might be "In the Rhythm Section of Life," but the batucada is a specifically Brazilian, even a specifically carioca style of rhythmic music, related to samba but produced by an explosive collection of rhythm instruments (not remotely reproduced in this genteel recording), syncopated as all hell and resonating with the haunting whine of the cuica. Within the lyrics of the song (written by theatrical impresario Luiz Peixoto), the batucada is used as an image for the clatter, but also the joy, of life.
Composer Barroso and lyricist Peixoto were not a regular team like Rodgers and Hart or the Gershwins — like the bulk of North American jazz song, the production of Brazil's classic samba-era standards seem to have been catch-as-catch-can collaborations between whoever needed lyrics to their new song and whoever needed a new song for their revue. Barroso had been working professionally as a popular-music composer for four years when he wrote this; he would go on to become an institution in Brazilian popular music, something more like the Rodgers of and Hammerstein than of and Hart.
This song, although successful, was not a notably big hit at the time, but critical reevaluations of Barroso's career would mark it as the turning point in which he began to use dramatic, continuously developing melodies rather than imitating the simple, repetitive melodies popular in street-level samba. Samba star Carmen Miranda, whose voice was naturally low and rather sweet, has a charming bit of difficulty with the trickier high notes here; Elis Regina's 1974 rendition is widely considered canonical among latter-day samba heads.
But I love this record, despite its weird structure (Miranda disappears halfway in), despite its not really being samba, despite the fact that it's neither the best rendition of the song nor a particular high point in Miranda's, Barroso's, or Peixoto's careers. Maybe it's just that it was one of the first samba records I listened to where I felt I understood how to listen to samba. The fact that the band is playing an essentially supper-club version of samba no doubt helped bridge that gap, as well as the fact that Miranda isn't pulling anything like the stereotyped Latin faces she had to when her career took her to Hollywood: she sounds like a grown woman sighing slightly over her life (my favorite style of music, regardless of genre) rather than the caricature of tropical femininity that the Anglosphere always took her as.
There's lots more where it came from: pre-Hollywood Carmen Miranda is one of my favorite recording artists ever, and she was probably not even the greatest samba singer of her generation. But I'll get to that.