Samba Roots: What was the historical significance of black women in samba?



Note from BW of Brazil: Studying the history of samba is a key element to understanding the struggle of Afro-Brazilians. From its beginnings, the musical genre that would later become Brazil’s most popular exponent of culture was persecuted and scorned upon by government officials, police and elites of the society. Samba was, as many saw it, “uma coisa do negro”, or a ‘black thing’. In the 1920s and 1930s, musicians of the style were considered low life vagabonds and violently oppressed by police. As Reneé Critcher Lyons (2012) confirms that this music that was first produced and consumed in the favelas (slums on the hills) but in public gatherings these musicians were chased and driven off the streets by police. They would often have their homes raided and guitars confiscated by the police. But this repression was met with strong resistance by Afro-Brazilians who didn’t let themselves be intimidated, battered but unrelenting, as they ignored “the scorn of the bourgeoisie.” (Swanson 2003) This resistance was not only on the part of black men, as black women, referred to as “tias”, or aunts, played significant roles in keeping the genre alive and allowing it grow by permitting these musicians to play extended jam sessions in their homes.

Later in the 1930s, the government saw in the samba a way of promoting the nation’s culture and helped to transform from a ‘black thing’ into a ‘Brazilian thing’. In this way, samba is very representative of the way in which Brazil has always treated its black population. Every year during Carnaval, samba is used to promote Brazil nationally and internationally and is generally the only time of year in which Afro-Brazilians are allowed to shine in the spotlight as after the five day celebration is over, they are basically sent back to the favela and forgotten about for the other 360 days. Afro-Brazilian persecution can also be seen in the 21st century as Brazilian police continue to brutalize Afro-Brazilians, murdering five times more people than police in the United States, with the vast majority being black. We also see memories of samba in the ongoing debate about the cultural appropriation that many see going on today. In many ways, it’s as if facets of black culture have become fashionable but apparently only when its presented in white skin; a discussion we will continue here on the blog as more evidence continues to present itself .

Below, in a continuation of past articles about the samba (see here and here), we take a look at the importance of black women within the world of the most Brazilian rhythm of all. 

The Roots of Samba: What was the historical significance of black women in samba?

By Ana Júlia Gennari


Samba is the enduring symbol of resistance of black culture. And black women were essential for it to continue existing in post-slavery period. If not for them, the samba would not exist today.

The origin of Samba in Brazil is uncertain. But all the possible explanations suggest that the roots of the genre are in Africa and were brought by black slaves in the Brazilian colonial period.

However, shortly after its inception, the rhythm was threatened with extinction. Not long after the abolition of slavery the Lei da Vadiagem (Vagrancy Act) (1941), was sanctioned, which considered idleness to be a crime and allowed the arrest of people who walked the streets without documents.

This directly affected the black men who were unemployed, often homeless and without any possibility of getting hired due to the strong racial prejudice of the time.

“The post-abolitionist period marked the strong persecution of any Afro-Brazilian sounds, accents, dance and religiosity aimed at maintaining traditions that Brazilian society wanted so badly to erase. In this context, the importance of black women was essential, because in addition to economically maintaining their families – as they continued to work as maids in casas grandes (big houses/homes of slave masters) – they were essential for the resistance of the samba. In Rio de Janeiro, Tia (Aunt) Ciata, who today would be what is commonly known as a mãe de santo (holy mother), stands out as a collective memory. In her home the samba that was forbidden would happen, where names like Pixinguinha, Sinhô and many others met and could compose.”

Kelly Adriano de Oliveira, a Ph.D in social sciences from Unicamp, states that the women as well as Afro-Brazilian religion played a major role for the samba to be able to resist, because it was within terreiros of the houses of Bahian aunts – whose symbol was marked in Tia Ciata – in the private and hidden space, that samba could happen.

No wonder the appreciation of the wing of the Bahian samba schools is a way to honor not only Tia Ciata, but the memory of all Bahian aunts of the samba.

Pioneering women in the history of samba

The anthropologist says that only after the 1930s did the samba come to be accepted as popular culture, reinforced by President Getúlio Vargas “with the movement for the appreciation of what was Brazilian, what makes Brazil Brazil, and the attempt to incorporate a false racial democracy, of a country that supposedly accepts its blackness and its roots.”

“In this way it left the private where it maintained itself as resistance and went to the public sphere as a national symbol, women went on to have less participation in this process, because of all sexist trappings of time, where the street was no place for women among other questions … Thus begins a male predominance in samba spaces.”

A female framework within the history of the samba, amid all this immense difficulty is the Madrinha Eunice (Godmother Eunice), a woman whose memory of struggle is immeasurable. “She was the first woman to chair a samba school, Lavapés of São Paulo, which emerged in fact more like a Carnival cord,” contextualizes Kelly.

However, it was really only after the 60’s that women could have some visibility within the musical spectrum of samba and then carioca (native of Rio) names such as names like Clementina de Jesus and Dona Ivone Lara began to emerge – the second which is, in Kelly’s view, the main symbol of this context.

“She was the first woman to participate in the wing of composers of a samba school, Império Serrano, in Rio de Janeiro at the end of 1960. Her importance goes beyond the ‘locals of samba’, and she attains respect as a composer and instrumentalist in the so-called MPB (Brazilian Popular Music).”

The role of interpreters for the dissemination and popularization of the samba, especially Clara Nunes – light-skinned, but of black ancestry – Alcione, Leci Brandão and Beth Carvalho, who sponsored many sambistas (samba musicians), was also essential for Brazilian musical culture.

Current scenario of samba for women

Samba remains today a musical genre in which there is a predominance of men, as much within the industry, as in areas where it is popularly played.

“The opening of the samba to the participation of women, especially black women, remains difficult and, although there are always prominent names like Mariene de Castro, Fabiana Cozza and Teresa Cristina, we still have very few,” laments Kelly.

As a way of continuing resistance – and existing – in this scenario, some independent sambistas have organized themselves into groups and rodas de samba (samba circles) for women only. The São Paulo group Sambadas Sao Paulo is one example.

“It’s not necessary to know everything about samba to know that the shadow of its friendliness hides many conflicts. Prejudice of gender is one of them. Even starring in the history of this popular event, many singers, songwriters, samba school leaders etc. were, and are silent,” said Carolina Nascimento, songwriter and guitarist of the group.

Carol, who lives in Jardim Icaraí in São Paulo, in the Grajaú region, is 25 years old and says that the Sambadas began to organize themselves in March 2015 and since then the eight women who make up the group meet weekly to talk, rehearse and play samba. “We still have no fixed place of presentation, the events and related information are posted on our Facebook page,” she says.

Grupo Sambadas se reúne toda semana

Sambadas group meets every week

When asked about the importance of samba for black women and their representation within the genre, Carolina Nascimento reinforces that sexism and racism is still very much alive in our society.

She affirms having played in several rodas (de samba – samba circles) where the presence of men was the majority, and therefore could witness the contempt with which the woman is treated in these spaces – be it in the lyrics, in the absence of women playing or the treatment given to those who dare to play, sing or compose.

“Raising the issue of race makes this discussion all the more necessary. The same media initiative that sought to put into oblivion black sambistas of São Paulo – Geraldo Filme, Madrinha Eunice, Zeca da Casa Verde, Talismã, Toniquinho Batuqueiro, among others – evidencing figures that matched the São Paulo profile “good”, today sells an idea of ​​woman of samba that doesn’t represent me, my friends and family. Our luck, and also their bad luck, is that when it comes to resistance there is no example of greater strength than the struggle of black people, especially women.”

Another member of the group, Kelly Buarque de Hollanda, 38, a resident of Osasco, who plays cavaquinho (ukulele) and sings in the Sambadas, also said that one of the greatest difficulties as a woman of samba is the sexist prejudice in playing in male samba circles:

“When I would go to samba circles with men, I felt a lot of hostility on their part. They didn’t like my presence and I was not well received, gave me ugly looks and refused to accept my gift. It took a long time for me to be respected in the environment. And only then I realized that this nuisance was the result of pure machismo because I played better than them and because a woman’s place within the samba is not playing, but sambando (dancing samba), right?!”

Throughout our conversation, it was noticeable how the historic resistance of samba for black culture survives strongly in the power of these women sambistas and blacks.

“Blacks did the samba in a way to tell their stories, question reality, alleviate the pains and celebrate the joys, and did contrary to the interests of a powerful elite. The real samba, that that values ​​tradition and not money, was always resistance,” says Carol.

What is missing – a lot – in the view of both, however, is the representation of black women in the music industry and in the media. To finalize Carol laments: “While our visibility is not a means of enriching the rich, we will continue to encountering Globelezas and other standards which are certainly not ours.”

Tia Ciata

Tia Ciata
Tia Ciata

Hilária Batista de Almeida, better known as Tia (Aunt) Ciata, was born in 1854. She was a cook, mãe de santo and one of the most important Bahian aunts for the samba to exist today.

At the time of persecution against blacks and their culture, she and other Bahian aunts gave space in their backyards and terreiros for the samba to happen.

Clementina de Jesus

Clementina de Jesus in 1963

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1901, she moved to the neighborhood of Oswaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro for eight years and, because of this, closely followed the development of the Portela samba school.

She worked as a maid until the 1920s and in 1963 participated in the show “Rosa de Ouro,” which ran throughout Brazil and later became an album.

She had an unmistakable tone of voice and is considered the queen of partido alto – a specific type of samba that is closest to the source of the Angolan drumming.

Dona Zica

Dona Zica
Dona Zica

Euzébia Silva do Nascimento was born in 1913 in Rio de Janeiro and was a sambista of the velha guarda (old guard) of the Mangueira samba school.

She became a major symbol of Carnival and had a biography written by Odacy Brito Silva.

Dona Zica was also the last wife of samba legend Cartola. They lived together for 26 years until the singer’s death.

Dona Ivone Lara

Dona Ivone Lara

Yvonne Lara da Costa was born in 1921 in Botafogo in Rio de Janeiro. She earned the nickname “Dona” (meaning lady) because of the admiration and respect that MPB musicians had for her.

She was the first woman to join the wing of composers in a samba school – in 1947, in Império Serrano. She was a composer and instrumentalist.

Tia Doca

Tia Doca
Tia Doca

Jilçária Cruz Costa, known as Tia Doca da Portela, was born in 1932 in Rio de Janeiro and was a pastor of the velha guarda of the Portela Samba School.

She was a domestic and fabric weaver and joined Portela in 1970.

In 2008 she participated in the Mistério do Samba documentary, produced by Marisa Monte

Tia Surica

Tia Surica
Tia Surica

Iranette Ferreira Barcello was born in 1940 in Rio de Janeiro and has been, since 1980, one of the most important members of the velha guarda (old guard) of Portela.

She was the puxadora (lead singer of Carnaval progression) of the samba-enredo “Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias” in 1966. And she has an album, Fina Flor, which brings together some famous composers of Portela.

Jovelina Pérola Negra

Jovelina Pérola Negra
Jovelina Pérola Negra

Also from Botafogo, she was born in 1944 and died still young, at only 54 years old.

She worked as a maid until obtaining success in the artistic world – which ended up being late, only in 1985, on the historical album Raça Negra (meaning black race) shortly before her death.

Leci Brandão

Leci Brandão
Leci Brandão

Leci was born the same year as Jovelina in 1944 in Rio de Janeiro and became one of the most important composers and interpreters of samba in Brazil.

In 1970 she was the first woman to join the wing of the composers of the Mangueira samba schol.

Currently, besides her musical career, she is Member of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and is part of the National Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality and the National Council of Women’s Rights.

Source: Brasil Post, Lyons, Reneé Critcher. The Revival of Banned Dances: A Worldwide Study. McFarland, 2012. Swanson, Paul. Domination and Resistance In Afro-Brazilian Music. Honors Thesis. Oberlin College, 2003.

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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