Women Move From Samba’s Sidelines to the Center of the Circle
Step up to a traditional samba circle in Brazil and you’ll find this: a group of 5 to 15 men, each playing an instrument — a tambourine, a cavaquinho, a drum. Then you’ll typically see women, not playing music, but rather shimmying in the front row of the crowd, dancing to the pounding syncopations.
The samba circle, or roda de samba, is a Unesco-recognized part of Brazil’s cultural heritage. These communal releases of weekday worries crop up across the city regularly. The samba circles are free, they’re rowdy and, increasingly, they’re changing.
With astonishing speed, female musicians in Brazil have begun breaking into the male realm of samba circles, taking a seat at the table both literally and figuratively. Just a few years ago, the musicians playing in a samba circle jam session used to be almost all male. In 2018, though, a clutch of all-female samba groups have set out to change that, and in doing so, they have generated what could be a sea change for this beloved Brazilian musical genre.
“A lot of times when you’re the only woman playing in a samba circle, you are also subject to a lot of harassing language from the guys around the samba,” said Silvia Duffrayer, a member of the all-female band Samba Que Elas Querem. “So by forming a group made up just of women, we kind of stop that vibe from starting,”
Another part of the movement is spurred by a newfound sense of revolt among female musicians against the lyrics of some of the traditional samba circle anthems, which make light of serious crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault.
Samba Que Elas Querem, a samba group made up of 10 women, is one of the most popular samba circles in Rio today. Its nighttime shows in Rio’s public plazas draw crowds that fill the square and then jam the side streets as well. The group’s popularity grew overnight, said Cecilia Cruz, who plays cavaco, the stringed instrument present in most samba circles. “I think people were ready and waiting to see women break into the samba circle,” she said.
But they aren’t the only group of women who saw a moment to seize. Moça Prosa is another popular all-female group in Rio, whose samba circles generate crowds that spill out of the corner bars and block traffic. The trend spreads beyond the traditional cradle of samba — Rio de Janeiro — and into other cities as well. In São Paulo, all-female groups like Samba da Elis and Sambadas are creating similar waves, as are Samba Delas in Porto Alegre, and Samba de Saia in Curitiba, to name just a few. All-female groups are growing, though their numbers are minuscule compared to the hundreds of mostly-male samba groups around the country.
But as Brazilian women and female musicians in particular have called out the traditional samba circle's culture of machismo, the blowback has been very real. In WhatsApp conversations made available to The New York Times, a female musician suggested to a group of primarily male samba musicians that they consider refraining from playing the most offensively sexist songs at the next samba circle. She was excoriated by the group and, shortly thereafter, pushed out of her regular gig leading a Friday night samba circle in Copacabana.
What has changed today is that social media plays a meaningful role in empowering female samba musicians. Women join together in secret Facebook groups or in private WhatsApp message groups to share news: A singer is releasing her first album, a guitarist was pushed out of a samba circle by a man, a new feminist politician is running for office.
The lead singer of Moça Prosa, Fabiola Machado, says the situation boils down to a question of visibility and musical talent. “All we want is for people to hear our music and think, ‘Hey, that sounds good, what’s their name?’” she said.
The visibility of women throughout the history of Brazilian samba is a complex tale. Kelly Adriano de Oliveira, a top scholar on the history of women in samba, points out that samba was always rooted in resistance: the resistance of poor black communities against Brazil’s post-colonial culture. In 2018, that resistance has taken a different form, with women leading the change, pushing against sexist strictures. “This is a big moment in the history of samba,” she says.
But samba circles weren’t always male dominated. In 1930s post-slavery Brazil, Ms. de Oliveira notes, women were the orchestrators of what are now known as samba circles.
Afro-Brazilian religions like Umbanda and Candomblé, which have been historically persecuted for their perceived connection to “black magic,” burnished the cultural role of the powerful female “auntie” — nicknamed a Baiana in reference to the state of Bahia, the geographical center of Afro-Brazilian religions in Brazil. The women inhabiting these leadership roles, which are somewhere between a mother figure and a wise queen, became the de facto hostesses of the very first samba circles.
Early in the 20th century, Brazilian laws aimed ostensibly at “vagrancy," but drenched in racial antipathy resulted in a crackdown on Afro-Brazilian religious practices. Musicians — especially black men — could be arrested for simply walking around town with a tambourine in their hand. In response, Baianas opened up their backyards for clandestine religious gatherings that included music — the first iteration of the modern samba circle. These women — Tia Ciata, Madrinha Eunice and Clementina de Jesus, to name a few — formed the first generation of women in samba, initiating an art form that over time gave rise to the crowded Samba Que Elas Querem shows. Female musicians today credit that generation for putting women in the center of samba, and the groups exalt them by including the sambas those women composed in their regular repertoires.
But that first generation did not lead to easy entry for women in samba circles. Rather, women were pushed back out of Brazilian samba starting in the 1940s and ’50s as vagrancy rules relaxed and sambas started popping up in public spaces. Women were suddenly deemed too fragile to be out and about in the streets playing music. Before long, women had almost entirely disappeared from the samba circles, being cast back into accessory roles: the muse or the dancer.
Anna Furtado, the director of a documentary film on the history of women in samba called “Bambas,” notes that rather than being welcomed into samba circles to play music, “women were soon designated to cook or dance in short shorts.” The machismo of the time brought with it sexist lyrics, and soon samba circles turned into roughneck, guy’s club-type scenes of men around a table, laugh-singing about domestic violence, while the women danced behind and the crowd sang along.
Although the lyrics of many samba songs focus on universal feelings of heartbreak or good times, and many of those composed by women like Dona Ivone Lara are embraced by the all-female groups, some of the older, most egregiously sexist lyrics of samba can be shocking to modern ears. One classic song laughingly describes a man’s partner as an ugly “little monkey” whom he “punches” and “throws in the sink.” Another portrays a man chastising another man for beating the first man’s wife, lecturing that doing so is “wrong” because he is the only one who can beat his woman. Yet another describes “a real woman” as someone who is willing to starve for a man. The songs became so embedded in the increasingly revered institution of the samba circle that few thought to challenge them.
Nevertheless, with the place of women in samba shrinking in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, a few women managed to break through, usually thanks to an undeniably captivating singing voice. The names of this second generation of female sambistas are known by all Brazilians — Dona Ivone Lara, Beth Carvalho, Clara Nunes, Alcione — and their pioneering efforts over the past generation are widely regarded as paving the way for the all-female samba circles of today.
Dona Ivone Lara in particular is now credited with composing and singing some of the most iconic samba masterpieces of all time, including “Sonho Meu” (“My Dream”), an aching love song about “the purity of samba,” lacking any of the old, sexist lyrics. Female samba musicians today voice their fears that the door these women pushed open for women in samba will close unless a new, third generation of female sambistas are rigorous in holding it open.
Underlining that sense of urgency, Ms. Lara died at age 97 in April.
But on a recent rainy night in Rio, Beth Carvalho, 71, said she hoped her impact would last. Ms. Carvalho is a Grammy Award-winning singer, and is considered to be the “godmother of samba,” thanks to both her iconic compositions and her generosity in bringing young, now-famous samba musicians like Zeca Pagodinho under her wing in the 1980s, helping to start their careers.
Her voice, at once husky and effervescent, accompanies some of the most beloved and popular songs in the samba songbook. For years, she pushed her way into being the girl in the boys’ circle, spending her nights wedging herself into folding chairs at loud tables littered with ashtrays and beer cans, fighting for a chance to sing. “The scene was very full of machismo,” she said of the 1960s, when she got her start. She learned to play the cavaquinho, and she thinks that differentiated her. “Since I could already play, I was armed, and I wasn’t intimidated,” she says with a smile. “In any case, I have samba in my veins. What else could I do?”
Even though she was the only woman, she held her own. Her first album cover features a photo of her with her cavaquinho among male musicians, a design she says was intentional. “I grabbed it as a symbol of ‘let’s end this story of being a muse.’ Let’s be musicians instead.” She smiles sweetly, “It’s my feminist side.”
Today Ms. Carvalho is not necessarily optimistic about women’s permanence in the samba circle. “Samba is still a circle of men,” she says. “And I am sad to know that women still don’t feel comfortable sitting down in a samba circle. This is terrible. I hope my contribution helped.”
As Brazil’s power structure has turned more conservative recently, with many female politicians being replaced by male lawmakers who have pushed for legislation to limit women’s access to abortion, the country’s feminist movement has gained new strength. Emboldened by this new wave, female musicians have set the macho samba circle in their musical cross hairs. They gather to pay tribute to Dona Ivone Lara and Beth Carvalho, and they have even composed their own versions of samba songs, versions that reimagine samba as a feminist anthem. They’ve also tried to encourage male samba musicians to leave those sexist songs out of their repertoires. “There are so many amazing samba songs,” Ms. Duffrayer said. “Why do we have to sing these that are outdated, offensive, and reflect machismo?”
The Brazilian musician Zeh Gustavo is one of the men leading a push against what he deems the intrusion of political correctness into samba. A fixture of the samba scene in Rio’s port area, Mr. Gustavo says that even though he is empathetic to these women’s point of view, he thinks “these works of music deserve respect,” and shouldn’t be excluded or tampered with. He says it is patently wrong for musicians to either prohibit some samba songs from being sung, or to change the lyrics to something more palatable. “You’re intervening in a process that started before you,” he says with passion over beers one afternoon. “You’re interrupting history.”
Ms. Furtado, the documentarian, believes the opposite: “In reality, samba is a living culture, and it must adapt to new realities,” she said.
Mr. Gustavo recently sat in as a guest at one of the new samba circles made up mostly of women. When he started playing one of the more offensive old songs — about beating women (without thinking twice, he claims) — the female musicians one by one stopped playing.
He recalls the scene with a sense of surprise: “I looked around and I was the only one playing it by the end.”
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