On April 7th, one of Brazil’s most beloved humorists, Mussum, would have turned 80; musician’s life and career symbolize changing attitudes on race in Brazil

Note from BBT: I can’t say for sure when I became aware of the late, great Mussum as a comic figure. I was familiar with him through his music, well, to be more specific, the music of his group Os Originais do Samba, meaning the originals of samba. If you like Brazilian samba, you have to know at least a few of their songs, as they were one of the genre’s most popular groups from the their beginnings in the 1960s up to the mid-90s.

Mussum with Os Originais do Samba on various album covers

As a group, I didn’t know the names of any of the Originais. I just knew them when I saw them. Six mostly brown to dark-skinned black men singing and playing the percussion instruments most associated with the samba.

As I’ve written in several previous posts, on my trips to Brazil between 2000 and 2012, I would always visit the sebos (used record stores) in whatever city I may have visited. And every time I would flip through the albums in the samba section, I would always come across numerous album covers featuring the group’s members, usually grinning ear to ear.

It’s funny how you can look at music album covers and get somewhat of an idea or feel for how the individual or group featuring is seen or the place they occupy in the public imagination. Look at any American West coast Hip Hop album from the early to mid-1990s and you’ll understand what I mean. Guns, alcohol, baseball caps, oversized clothing. See enough of these images and you’ll get the idea that these were probably some dangerous individuals.

You can come to certain conclusions also from looking at 70s and 80s samba album covers. Solo singer or a group, usually black, percussion instruments, a favela slum background, guns, alcohol, women and usually huge smiles. These images serve perfectly for the way Brazil sees black people. Always singing their samba, in their poor neighborhood, boozing it up, partying, chasing women, and commiting crime. That about sums it up.

It must have been some time in 2012 or 2013 when I started noticing images of Mussum popping up everywhere. There were literally hundreds of memes circulating online with Mussum either smiling or making one of the silly faces he was known for making with his comedy group, Os Trapalhões. At a point, meme makers starting taking their creativity to another level, mixing Mussumisms with various Brazilian and non-Brazilian personalities. Brazilian President Dilma, American President Obama were Mussumized, as were other personalities such as Steve Jobs, 50 Cent, the famous Starbucks logo, Kurt Cobain, James Bond and perhaps hundreds more.

In the past decade, Mussum’s image substituted perhaps hundreds of well-known personalities in online memes

Walking through various neighborhoods of São Paulo, I would always see Mussum’s image on a t-shirt, a poster or even a beer can. ‘Why is this guy so popular?’, I remember wondering. After watching a few clips from the Trapalhões show, I got it. Kinda silly, a little on the bafoonish side, but ok. It’s the kind of humor I probably would have appreciated more when I was a child watching The Three Stooges. But if people like it, I love it.

In fact, I can’t diminish Mussum’s accomplishments. As a poor, dark-skinned black man in Brazil, he managed to make it in music, television and film and become one of the most famous personalities in Brazil’s history. On the other hand, his image and success also makes me wonder what it says about Brazil that a black man reached such levels of fame by playing on the very stereotypes Brazilians had about black men.

Mussum as part of the Trapalhões

Silly, lack of education, alcoholic and always there to entertain/make people laugh. Singing, dancing, laughing, or kicking a soccer ball. It seems that these are only ways black men can be accepted by Brazilians. At the same time, people still react with shock when they are served by a black doctor or a black lawyer.

Even with Mussum’s fame, he was never shielded from the brutal forces of racism that is so deeply imbedded in Brazilian culture. Recently, on an ever popular reality show, we saw yet another example of a joke about the physical characteristics of black people in which the person making the joke “didn’t mean/intend” to hurt anyone.

In Mussum’s time, such jokes were generally accepted by a black population that felt helpness to defend itself, didn’t know how to react, was advised by parents to ignore such behavior or being constantly told that it wasn’t racist or racism didn’t exist in Brazil. With a rising consciousness of racial politics and racism, the type of humor that Mussum and his colleagues were famous for back in the day would probably never fly as today’s black Brazilians simply ain’t havin’ it.

Today, a lot of black Brazilians are more in tune with when audiences are laughing at them rather than laughing with them (as Dave Chappelle once put it) which in turn has led to a whole new genre of comedy. Afro-Brazilians today are changing the norms of Brazilian society by demanding respect as Brazilians and human beings. Which in contrast makes for an intriguing analysis of Mussum’s career in the context of a Brazil then and Brazil now.

Antônio Carlos Bernardes Gomes, Mussum

Antônio Carlos Bernardes Gomes, the multi-artist Mussum, would turn 80

With information courtesy of Notícia Preta, Correio do Cidadão and Época

Yesterday, Wednesday, April 7, the multi-artist Antônio Carlos Bernardes Gomes, popularly known as Mussum, would have turned 80 years old. The singer, composer, percussionist, actor and humorista was born in 1941 in Morro da Cachoeirinha, in Rio de Janeiro’s north zone, the son of a domestic worker. He entered the popular imagination thanks to his participation in the comedy TV program Os Trapalhões. Gomes died on July 29, 1994, when he was just 53 years old.

Memes, beer, album title, car advertising, music, cinema, TV, t-shirts, samba, his “is” language, affective memory … the eternal trapalhão (bumbler) Mussum is still present in our lives. For the general happiness of the people.

From early on, Mussum was very dedicated to his studies, and taught his mother to read. Contrary to popular belief, Mussum was very responsible, had two jobs and drank only socially. He was married twice and had five children. According to testimonies for his biography, his children never saw him drunk. I was fully aware of its representativeness and importance for TV. He was one of the few blacks working on television between the 70s and 80s.

Mussum became one of the most beloved comedians in Brazil. His caricatured performance, his own vocabulary still today yields good jokes and laughter. In 2013, the clothing brand Reserva bought the image rights of the trapalhão (bumbler), stamping an entire collection of T-shirts with their catchphrases and characters.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of his death, a documentary about his life was released, the film ventures, at the same time, for the timeless myth of Mussum and for the mundane existence of the actor and musician. In an interview given by the director, at the time of the release of the documentary, Susanna Lira states that “Mussum’s success is so present, even so long after his death due to his burlesque way of circumventing suffering, difficulties and poverty, it was a guy who took everything he did seriously and at the same time made you laugh.”

Mussum played the reco-reco as part of the Originais

Carlinhos Reco-reco

Mussun began his artistic career with the group os 7 morenos, which would become, in the 1960s, Os Originais do Samba. At that time he was still known as Carlinhos Reco-reco. It was the great actor Grande Otelo that nicknamed him Mussun, in reference to the peixe-cobra, or marbled swamp eel, typical of the rivers of South America, in reference to his way of avoiding delicate situations. The group performed in several countries and one of their great successes, the song “Saudosa Maloca” is sung by samba dancers from all over Brazil.

Os Originais was a very successful group, having accompanied famed singer Elis Regina and recorded hits such as “Tá Chegando Fevereiro”,  “Do Lado Direito da Rua Direita”, “A Dona do Primeiro Andar”, “O Aniversário do Tarzan”, “Tragédia no Fundo do Mar “(Assassinato do Camarão) etc.

The singer and percussionist was invited by Chico Anysio to participate in the Escolinha do Professor Raimundo, the sketch  comedy TV program, and there he was encouraged to improve his humorous brand, and his way of speaking ending words with “is ou evis”. To the public that’s its forties, this is the most vivid memory of Mussum.

“The Best of the Trapalhões” video featured on Daily Motion

Os Trapalhões

He was invited by Dedé Santana to join the Os Trapalhões comedy group and television series in 1973. The quartet formed by Didi Santana, Mussum, Dedé and Zacarias was on television for almost thirty years, amusing children and adults of the 80s and 90s.

Between the end of the 1970s and the mid-90s, the program “Os Trapalhões” dominated Globo TV’s Sunday nights. The attraction was formed by Dedé (Manfried Sant’Anna), Didi (Renato Aragão), Mussum and Zacarias (Mauro Faccio Gonçalves). Usually, they made jokes in humor skits, airing parodies, jokes and everyday situations.

Even those who weren’t in their childhood at that time enjoyed the jokes of Mumu da Mangeira. The main characteristic of the character was the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially cachaça (sugar cane rum), the famous “mé”, which is very ingrained in the collective imagination.

Os Trapalhões recorded 43 films, currently the quartet’s jokes and dialogues wouldn’t pass as they are considered racist, but at the time nobody saw it like that. It was all a big joke. In addition to television, Trapalhões also ventured into music and cinema, with films that broke box office records for decades.

Eita, Cacildis! (Wow, son of a gun!)

Of the comedy quartet, Mussum was the member with the most swinging, ethylic inclination and always used the “is” at the end of almost every word. Because of this, he created catchwords like “cacildis” and “forévis” (forever).

In spite of the stereotype built around Mussum, Antônio Carlos – Mussum was a corporal in the Air Force and served the Armed Forces for about eight years. At the end of last year, he was included in the list of black personalities honored by the Fundação Palmares (Palmares Foundation), a governmental agency representing the preservation of Afro-Brazilian history and culture. This is noteworthy considering the purge of numerous important Afro-Brazilian personalities from the list by its current president.

‘Mussum Forevis’ – Biography released in 2014

Juliano Barreto’s book, which was published by Leya, is a well-written material with important information. It’s worth reading to know more about Mussum’s trajectory.

Another recommendation is the documentary Mussum: Um filme do Cacildis (2018), available in the Amazon Prime Video catalog. Under the direction of Susanna Lira and co-production of Globo Filmes, Globo News and Canal Brasil, it reveals the most serious aspects of the figure that has been immortalized in the popular Brazilian imagination by his participation in the program Os Trapalhões.

Mussum, racismo and a changing Brazil

The fact that he was black made Antônio Carlos the target of racist jokes. In the biography Mussum Forévis: Samba, mé e Trapalhões (2014), Juliano Barreto argues that Mussum wasn’t passive and reacted whenever he was called “azulão” (blue), for example. But, of course, this doesn’t free Os Trapalhões from the racism, homophobia, sexism and other problems. Obviously, this needs to be contextualized and problematized.

“Crioulo (negro/nigger), negão (big black), fumê (smoked), grande pássaros, morcegão (big bat), fuscão preto (black VW beetle), azulão (very blue), cromado (chrome), fumaça (smoke), Kunta Kintê, urubu sem asa (vulture with no wings), Tia Anastácia, and Veio Zuza.” Calling a black person any of these terms today is not only offensive – it can land the perpetrator in jail for the crime of racial slurs. A little more than two decades ago, millions of Brazilians laughed every time the entertainers Didi, Dedé or Zacarias used these same names to mock Mussum, one of the most remembered characters of Brazilian humor. Undeterred, Mussum would reply, with his characteristic language: “É a sua mãezis!” (“It’s your motherzis!”, or “Yo mamma!”)

Mussum was also known to don a wig and dress from time to time

In the book, Barreto brings passages that show how popular humor and society at that time were more tolerant to racism. In the movie O incrível monstro trapalhão, from 1980, Dedé, Mussum and Zacarias are in a workshop. Dedé crouches under the car and asks: “Is the monkey here? Mussum answers: “Yes! But a monkey is your mother! On the Sunday show, Didi abused nicknames, calling Mussum “ó grande pássaros” (big bird) or simply “negão” (big black guy). “Negão is your passadis” (A big black man was your past), replied Mussum.

Outside TV, Gomes also suffered from racism. Once a fan approached him on the street, put her daughter in his lap and said: “Don’t worry. You can hug him, he won’t spill ink on you. Men used to treat him like the character in Os Trapalhões. He was called “negão” (big, black guy) and was slapped on the head and back in the street: “The jokes of “Trapalhões” portrayed the daily life of the actors themselves at that time”, says Barreto. But Mussum didn’t stay quiet when he heard the insults. “He would respond, cursing in the same tone. Whenever Didi offended him with a racist nickname, Mumu da Mangueira, as he liked to be called, would retort with “cabecinha”, “paraíba” or “estrogonofe de carne-seca” (offensive terms for northeasterners, like Aragão).

In the 1981 documentary O mundo mágico dos Trapalhões (The Magic World of Trapalhões), Renato Aragão, aka Didi, is questioned about the accusations by groups who considered the humor of Os Trapalhões to be racist. Aragão defends himself and says it was an innocent joke. “Everyone has a friend who calls them a negão, a crioulo,” he says. “Os Trapalhões is the only show on Brazilian TV that has a black person as a protagonist.”

It is hard to find a humor show in the world that has been as successful as Os Trapalhões. It lasted 30 years on broadcast TV, from the 1970s to the 1990s. At the peak of its success, the group dominated 80% of the Sunday afternoon audience. One of the most accepted theories for the popularity of the program is that its protagonists represented with good humor and lightness the ethical and aesthetic chaos Brazil was in in the 1970s and 1980s. There was the Northeasterner, the unemployed rascal, the black guy and the effeminate. They self-sabotaged themselves in everyday situations: in the bar, in the market, in the mechanic workshop, etc. Two decades later, Brazilian society no longer tolerates the kind of humor that Os Trapalhões used to make. Even so, people of all ages, even young people who were born after Gomes’ death, continue to revere him. Videos on YouTube with shows and movies of Os Trapalhões add up to millions of views and likes.

In a historical context, Os Trapalhões are far from being the precursors of humor that plays with prejudice. In the book, Barreto recalls that portraying the black as ignorant, with difficulties in speaking correctly, was a tradition of humor before television. In the beginning of the 19th century, one of the most popular entertainments in theaters and circuses in the United States were the presentations by white comical actors who painted their faces with black paint to imitate the slaves’ mannerisms, known as blackface.

They danced in a jerky way and spoke “the language of the negroes. Even Mussum’s language, with expressions like “cacildis” and “só no forévis”, dates back to comical plays from the beginning of the 20th century in Brazil. If Os Trapalhões didn’t invent it, they were perhaps one of the last humor troupes that could openly explore society’s prejudices. Later on, sketches that flirted with racial prejudice were still aired in the humorous Casseta & Planeta comedy program, but in a more subtle way. One of the most remembered episodes is “Chocolate cumprimenta” (“Chocolate greets you”), a parody of the novela (soap opera) of the time Chocolate com pimenta, (chocolate with pepper) aired by TV Globo in 2003. In it, comedian Hélio de la Peña appeared dressed in clothing of the era and greeted passers-by with the slogan “Pleasure to meet you, Chocolate.”

It would be difficult for a skits like “Chocolate cumprimenta” to go unscathed by protests from today’s activists. The kind of politically incorrect humor of Os Trapalhões today finds a place only in Internet communities. “The political correctness has taken ridiculous proportions,” says Andre Carrico, a researcher of popular humor and author of the doctoral thesis Os Trapalhões no reino da academia: revista, rádio e circo na poética trapalhônica. “The new generation of comedians wants to be great in the text, but forgets the acting. Mussum was a comic figure by himself. People were not offended because he was authentic”, he says.

Comedian Marcelo Marrom

Many contemporary comedians don’t hide their admiration for Mussum and usually complain that the “political correctness patrol” has done harm to the artistic production. The comedian Marcelo Marrom, who performs in the theater piece Comédia em preto e branco (Comedy in Black and White) and in the late night Saturday even variety/talk show Altas Horas, on TV Globo, says that Mussum had a fundamental role in his formation. “I had no black references on television at that time. They were always janitors or children of maids on TV,” he says. Marrom says that the nicknames Didi used to refer to Mussum on Sunday afternoon would become a motive of jokes from his white friends on Monday morning. He says he always knew how to joke about it. “I would do as Mussum did: I would curse back. Today, in his shows, Marrom jokes about black people. “I am one of the few who take the risk of doing this,” he says.

Another comedian who was inspired by Mussum was Márvio Lúcio, aka Carioca, from the TV show Pânico na Band. Carioca, one of the greatest imitators of Brazilian television, says that he noticed Gomes’s mannerisms and interpretation to compose the character Mussum. “Humor is like that. Someone always has to lose to be funny”, he says. Carioca complains about the “patrol” and says that prejudice is embedded in people’s heads. “Soon we will be worse than in the dictatorship times. I didn’t become an alcoholic watching Mussum drink. The role of a comedian is to make people laugh, not to serve as an example.”

The change in values that made Mussum’s humor age also affects other sectors of artistic production. A few years ago, a commercial featuring the singer Compadre Washington saying “Ordinary” to a woman was taken off the air, after receiving complaints from feminist groups that pointed out the offensive way of addressing women. “Ordinary” is an expression that was a success in the 1990s, with the music group É o Tchan! One can imagine the difficulty that bands like Raimundos or Mamonas Assassinas would have nowadays to make fun of women or Northeasterners in their songs.

In an ideal world, humor, as art, should not suffer any kind of censorship. That’s why vigilance over offensive terms bothers humorists. But groups that advocate for equal rights for women, blacks, and gays say that society wins when it stops finding jokes that attack social groups funny. “People don’t see racism or homophobia as an attack on people’s dignity,” says Adilson José Moreira, a law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. In 2013, he presented a doctoral thesis at Harvard University claiming that a “recreational racism” exists in Brazil.  “They think it’s funny, that I can come up to anyone and call them a monkey, that that would have no intention of violence.”

The feminist organization Think Olga, which led the “Chega de Fiu Fiu” campaign, was accused of exaggeration when it condemned the Brazilian habit of blowing a whistle to get a woman’s attention. It generated a discussion about the origins and consequences of aggression against women. “Society came out more aware,” says sociologist Bárbara Castro, one of the founders of the campaign. We also can’t fall into the trap of analyzing a historical period under the magnifying glass of current thinking. Mussum is the fruit of the society in which the actor and musician Gomes grew up. As he himself used to say in one of his catchphrases: “Negão é teu passadis” (Black is your past).

Mussum lives

With the growth of the internet, the skits starring Mussum returned to the Brazilian imagination. His short videos are spread across social networks. Deriving from his language, memes using his have gone viral.

Not to mention a beer brand that carries the image of the comedian on the label, the virtual participation in an advertisement for the new Beetle in 2013 and even christening the album Só no Forevis by the Brazilian Rock band Raimundos, in 1999.

Mussum left a legacy for Brazilian television and music. He is considered by many to be the best trapalhão. He died of complications from a heart transplant in June 1994.

Kid Mumu is alive. Cacildis!

Source: Notícia Preta, Correio do Cidadão, Época

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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