My Vagabond Heart and the Samba Ethic

May 1, 2008

Some people have ventured to call me lazy. Natasha once replied such an accusation by saying “I’m not lazy, I’m Brazilian.” As a Brazilian, I understand the strategy of this response, I use it to defend my general friskiness. Friskiness, after all, is a biological necessity. These accusations of laziness, however, must be intellectualized. Instead of deconstructing “laziness”, I want to use it as a launching pad for something completely different.

Carnival DancersThe “I’m Brazilian” response works because it reinforces the stereotype of the “lazy tropical darker-skinned  people”, a colonial relic that’s lived on through Mr. Rochester and The Emancipation Proclamation into today. Ask Dave Chapelle. Or Cheech.The “Lazy Brazilian” image is particularly problematic because Brazil has sold itself as an idyllic tropical beach-land where gorgeous tanned women parade naked down the streets once a year, during Carnival. Brazilian pop-culture broke out internationally through  songs such as “Girl from Ipanema” and “Aquarela do Brasil”; and films such as Orfeu Negro.  As lovely as these works are, they found success by fetishizing the “Saudosa Maloca” (Idyllic Slum), its surrounding natural beauty, and all the partying in between. Granted, recent Brazilian pop-culture has been replacing the neocon beach fantasy, with nightmares for the guilty liberal consciousness (in the form of poor black kids killing each other). But since all conduits of pop-culture are essentially bourgeois institutions, these representations are nothing but brand packaging. The “Aquarela do Brasil” was produced during the Nationalist dictatorship of Getulia Vargas. Bossa Nova emerged during a “Golden Age of Industrial Expansion” headed by President Kubitscheck (1956-61). The centerpiece of this economic development was as a spanking-new modernist capital city, built through the labor of emigrating landless peasants. Bossa Nova was basically music for the bourgeois classes, portraying its pastoral aesthetics and romantic notions before urban congestion in the coastal cities by poor peasants became a critical problem. “Girl from Ipanema” became an international sensation during a reformist administration, before the Right-Wing Military coup in 1964. The two-decades long Military dictatorship was essentially a neo-conservative regime with anti-communist rhetoric. Along with the “Economic Miracle” of 1968, the Military Regime exerted strict control over popular culture, as demonstrated by the rise of the media conglomerate named “TV Globo”… But enough academics. (if you are interested, there is a great essay by David Treece called “Guns and Roses: Bossa Nova and Brazil’s Music of Popular Protest 1958-1968” which talks about all of this in more detail. It’s available on JSTOR).

Joe Carioca

 As Joe Carioca, Disney’s token Brazilian, would say, “Brazil is the land of Samba”. Samba, not Bossa Nova. Samba! The basic language of Brazilian musical expression. Samba is the mother. Bossa Nova is its eighth child, who goes to a Liberal-Arts school to study Ecology and Jazz. According to Wikipedia, Samba can be traced back to Angolan and Congolese ritual circle dances, imported to Brazil through the slave trade. Modern Brazilian Samba was resulted from the mix of these African traditions with the Choro, a Petty Bourgeois musical style. But this just explains Samba in in terms of musicology. Samba is a philosophy. Through some of its prophets we can find Samba as an ethic.

Bossa Nova exemplifies an important facet of the Samba Philosophy. BossaNova songs are characterized by counter-point: subtle musical dissonance, lyrics in dialogue, thematic paradoxes. Bossa Nova strives to be “natural”, it seeks out the cyclical, the transient. Samba seeks the integration of the self with the other, with the environment. For Bossa Nova, that environment is the natural world in its indifferent splendor, always changing, always constant.

This concept of integration is religious in origin. Samba’s African Roots are religious. For many practitioners of Candomble, the Samba beat is used to evoke Orixas, or one’s personal deity, in public rituals. Since Candomble is an animalistic religion, the Orixas are represented through animals or through nature. Vinicius de Moraes (who penned “Girl from Ipanema”) and Baden Powell, famously integrated religious language and music into what they called “Afro-Sambas”. The lyrics of “Berimbau” defines love in terms of integration:

Quem de dentro de si não sai / Vai morrer sem amar ninguémWho from himself does not leave / Will die without loving anyone


To love someone, is to sacrifice the self to the other. The act of sacrifice is irrationally painful, it is suffering.

Mesmo o amor que não compensa é melhor que a solidão / […] Ai de quem não rasga o coração, esse não vai ter perdão / Quem nunca curtiu uma paixão, nunca vai ter nada, não

Even the love that’s unworthy is better than loneliness / […] Who rends the heart not, will not have forgiveness / Who has never savored a passion, never will have anything, ever

– Vinicius de Moraes, “Como Dizia o Poeta

This sacrificial act wouldn’t pass beyond a poor man’s messianism, if the self is considered a simple unit.  But the self is fractured by its own representation within social relations. The self as an independent agent is alienated from the self as a social representation.

O homem que diz “dou” não dá / Porque quem dá mesmo não diz
O homem que diz “vou” não vai / Porque quando foi já não quis

The man who says “i give”, doesn’t give / because who really gives doesn’t say
The man who says “I go”, doesn’t go / because when he went he didn’t want

– Vinicius de Moraes, Baden Powell, “Canto de Ossanha

The sacrificial act is an affirmation of agency, an affirmation of the self through its own destruction.  Religiously, Samba extends beyond its African roots. It reverberates through the avenues during Carnival, a Catholic holiday,  as masses from all corners dance in masquerade balls, and Samba “Schools” parade their fantastic pageants of floats and dancers. The concept of the masquerade affirms themes of integration with the other and the disintegration of the constructed self. Every costumed participant is equal because they are all equally who they are not.

Mas é carnaval / Não me diga mais quem é você / Amanhã, tudo volta ao normal /
Deixe a festa acabar / […] Que hoje eu sou /Da maneira que você me quer / O que você pedir eu lhe dou / Seja você quem for / Seja o que Deus quiser.

But it’s Carnival / Don’t tell me who you are / Tomorrow, everything returns to normal /
Let the party end / […] For today I am / The way you want me to be / What you ask for I will give / Be you whoever you are / Be whatever God wants.

– Chico Buarque, “Noite dos Mascarados

All this amounts to a semi-religious form of escapism. Surely, but it is a conscious escapism. Carnival Samba is colored by the awareness of its own transience. Tomorrow will come and everyone will have to go to work again.

A felicidade do pobre parece / A grande ilusão do carnaval / 
A gente trabalha o ano inteiro / Por um momento de sonho /

Happiness to the poor appears / as the great illusion of Carnival /
We work the whole year / For a moment’s dream /

– Vinicius de Moraes, “A Felicidade

Carnival does not make Samba, but Samba appropriated the Carnival. Samba is aware of the limits of escapism, but it is by no means bound to it. Samba is bound to urban labor, to the quickening steps of emigrating peasants. Samba is an expression of self-affirmation,  rumbling underneath the constant churning crankshafts of urban alienation.

Todo dia eu só penso em poder parar / Meio-dia eu só penso em dizer não
Depois penso na vida prá levar / E me calo com a boca de feijão…
Every day I only think of stopping / By mid-day I only think of saying no
Then I think of my life to carry / and shut myself with a mouthful of beans


– Chico Buarque, “Cotidiano

At this point, self-affirmation must become self-empowerment.  Samba becomes self-empowerment when it appropriates the prevalent conditions for existence.

Tem mais samba no encontro que na espera / Tem mais samba a maldade que a ferida […] /
Tem mais samba no chão do que na lua / Tem mais samba no homem que trabalha […] /
Tem mais samba no pranto de quem vê / Que o bom samba não tem lugar nem hora /
O coração de fora / Samba sem querer /

There’s more Samba in meeting than waiting / There’s more Samba in malice than a wound /
There’s more Samba on the floor than in the moon / There’s more Samba in the worker […] /
There’s more Samba in the tears of who sees / That a good Samba has no time or place /
The heart, turned out / Sambas on its own /

– Chico Buarque, “Tem Mais Samba

Just like any philosophy, Samba is a reflection of social condition. Therefore, just as Samba illuminates leaps of escapism, Samba is protest. Samba can be radicalized, politicized. The starting point is the Samba Ethic: the active negation of normative structures, the complete autonomy of our conscious existence in the present unbound by constructions of past and future. The Samba Ethic is a declaration of freedom, an act of disobedience. It is looking back at the Man with his measuring tape and dollar bills and say to him, “You are worthless to me. You are nothing Mr. Man. Nothing at all.”

The Samba Ethic is more than “living in the moment”, it is the appropriation of the moment… it is to dive into transience and to drink it up dry.

Meu coração vagabundo / Quer guardar o mundo em mim

My vagabond heart / wants to keep the world inside me

– Caetano Veloso, “Coração Vagabundo

– S