Cartola and the Rebirth of Samba

Up until 1974, at Morro da Mangueira, one of the greatest poets of Brazilian music lived in anonymity. Angenor de Oliveira, better known as Cartola, composer with the power to transform the simple and the banal into poetry, lived forgotten by the music industry until his old age. Having felt in his skin the force that the world -or “mill”as he called it,  is capable of exercising, Cartola led his life with a smile and composed songs that became classics of the MPB, or Brazilian Popular Music.

Samba Born Again

Raised in Rio de Janeiro in the neighborhood of Laranjeiras, as a child Cartola listened to his father playing the guitar and “cavaquinho”(similar to a ukelele) on Catete’s samba circles and was enchanted. His musical curiosity was so great that he often ran away from home and went to church just to listen to sacred music. Cartola’s  father was a very strict man and did not let his son play his instruments. The boy observed his father on the guitar and, when he left for work, secrectly reproduced the chords he had memorized.

After going through financial problems, the Oliveira family went on to live on Morro da Mangueira and, at the age of 11, Cartola was forced to work in a printing shop to help with the household expenses. His relationship with his father was always troubled. With the death of his mother, things became more and more difficult between father and son and the arguments got very intense. As the relationship worsened, Cartola’s father left the favela with his sister, saying: “I’m leaving this favela, but I leave an Oliveira to make the family ashamed”.

At 17, Cartola was living alone in favela (slum) da Mangueira. To support himself, Angenor started to work as a construction worker and began to notice the beautiful girls who passed by the street. With the intention of appearing a little more elegant – and also not to have cement in his hair -, he wore a bowler hat, which he cleaned when he left work, on his way to the samba rounds. The nickname was borne out of the bohemian’s habit of always arriving elegant at the samba: Angenor was now known as Cartola da Mangueira.

The path to music was natural. While still young, Cartola met Carlos Cachaça, a man from the favela who loved to party and dance at carnivals, and the two began a friendship and partnership that made sambas like “Alvorada” and “Quem me vê sorrindo”. In 1925 they founded the Bloco dos Arengueiros, which would later become the famous Estação Primeira de Mangueira Samba School. Cartola chose the colours of the school, green and pink, composed “Chega de Demandas”, his first samba-enredo (samba song), and baptised it “Estação Primeira”  because it was the first stop of the train, which left from Central Station towards the suburbs, where samba was happening.

Cartola and Dona Zica

The woman figure has always been a source of great inspiration in Cartola’s music and, perhaps because he lost his mother very early, the women who passed through the composer’s life assumed a central importance for him. Some of these women did him both good and bad, but it was with Dona Zica (real name, Euzébia), his last wife, that Cartola found the perfect combination of love, companionship and samba. Dona Zica had known Cartola since she was a girl. They were neighbors on Morro da Mangueira, but at the time she was engaged and he was married, so the two were just friends. After loosing his first wife, Deolinda, with whom he was very passionate, Cartola went to live in the Cajú community, where he lived for almost 10 years until he met Zica, who had also lost her husband. Zica found him in a difficult phase of his life: he worked as a car washer in the neighborhood of Ipanema, was completely devoted to drinking and his career as a musician was doomed. Despite everything, the two fell in love. The courtship brought Cartola back to Mangueira, and it was not long before he and Zica became an emblematic and captivating couple. After some time together, in 1964, they decided to make the union official and, before getting married, Cartola composed the samba “Nós dois” in honor of his wife and marriage: “Nothing else interests us / let’s be indifferent / just the two of us, just two / forever ”. A small curiosity is that, only on the day of the wedding, at the Registry, did Cartola discover that his name was Angenor… Yes, Angenor, because until then he swore that his name was Agenor, without the letter “n”, having always signed is name with that spelling.

Cartola and Zica

In 1957, journalist Sergio Porto found Cartola working as a car washer at the Ipanema neighborhood, which left him astonished. Sergio then decided to help him, writing an article about the singer, thus makings popularity skyrocket. Cartola started playing on some radio stations and began composing sambas again. The newly gained popularity, added to Dona Zica’s culinary skills, eventually led to the creation of the samba house and restaurant named Zicartola, which became the meeting point for the greatest samba composers and dancers, journalists and intellectuals in Rio de Janeiro. Big names like Pixinguinha, Tom Jobim and many others visited the house. Paulinho da Viola practically started his career there, where he won his first “fee”, which was not an exceptional amount, but was a heartfelt gift by Cartola to the novice: “Here, for your ticket”, as Paulinho told in one of your interviews. Cartola had a great appreciation and admiration for Paulinho, whom he considered almost like the son he could not have, due to his sterility.  Due to poor management, Zicartola closed down. Cartola and Dona Zica, who lived in the same place where the restaurant operated, were evicted and had to move in with Cartola’s father. During this period, the singer’s career went into decline again, but Zica was always at his side, telling him that everything would be fine. The two lived together for 26 years, until Cartola’s death in 1980.

Late recognition

The eyes and ears of the music industry, more interested in what may become a profitable and easy to sell, are nowadays just as closed to talented musicians and composers as they were at the time to Cartola, the Poet of Roses. In the 70s, Cartola still lived very excluded from radio play, and remained poor, performing on very few shows. His career went through fluctuating periods of success and failure, and his importance for Brazilian music was belatedly recognized.

Only in 1974, at the age of 65, did Cartola have the opportunity to record his first album. Producer Pelão was responsible for embracing the singer’s art and chasing record labels until he got someone willing to invest in a record production. Pelão tells about the process: “One night, after doing my regular  visits to my favorite bars, Alemão, on Avenida Antártica, and Bar do Zé, on Maria Antônia street, I went to Jogral, which was already at its third and last address, at Rua Maceió. I entered Jogral and came face to face with Aluízio Falcão, who was just as drunk as I was. So I knelt before him and begged: “Aluízio, let me produce a record with Cartola!” But Aluízio said: “We are both absolutely drunk, you can’t talk about work like this. Tomorrow, at Marcus Pereira, we’ll talk. ” Unfortunately, Marcus Pereira, owner of the namesake label, was not interested in Cartola: “This type of record does not sell”.

Two months after the failed attempt, Pelão met Journalist Maurício Kubrusly, who worked for Jornal da Tarde, and he told him about his latest projects and about Cartola’s album which was getting very little media before release. The next day, Maurício published an article saying “Here comes the best album of the year: Cartola’s first record”. When he read the article in the newspaper, Marcus Pereira authorized its prompt release and the record was elected by the Brazilian critics as the best album of 1974.

Cartola in the world of the mill

With the success, Cartola managed to buy his own house, on the favela da Mangueira, and painted it green and pink. That is where his most famous photo was taken, next to Dona Zica, who also appeared on the cover of his second album. The roses in his backyard were the great inspiration for the song “As Rosas Não Falam” ( The Roses Don’t Speak), which would give the singer the nickname “Poeta das Rosas” (Poet of the Roses).

The house was very busy with friends, musicians and artists, at a time when the singer’s schedule of shows was full, and Cartola began to feel the weight of age. He discovered a serious illness that was kept secret, and in 1978, the couple left Mangueira to live in the neighborhood of Jacarépaguá, looking for more peace of mind and with the intention that Cartola would continue composing his songs with more tranquility.

The singer’s career would soon be over. Hiding the cancer from everyone for some time, but already knowing it would be terminal, Cartola composed his samba “Autonomia” (Autonomy ) that expressed his crying desire to continue to live.  “It’s impossible this spring, I know Impossible, because I will be far But thinking of our love, sincere love There! if I had autonomy If I could scream I won’t, I don’t want So they enslaved a poor heart A new abolition is needed To bring back my freedom If I could scream, baby If I could fight, love I’m not going, I don’t want to. ” Three days before his death, Cartola received a last tribute from Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The poet wrote the chronicle “Cartola in the world of the mill”, perhaps one of his last joys in life. The singer pasted the chronicle on the wall of his room.  “Cartola talking with modesty and wisdom about the things of life. ‘The world is a mill …’ The miller is not him, Angenor, nor me, nor any of us, equally ground in the eternal spin of the wheel, the wheat or corn that is allowed to be sprayed about. Some, like Cartola, are wheat of special quality. They serve as constant food. We always feel and think about the taste of this food. The noble, the simple, I will not say the divine, but the human Cartola, who fell in love with samba and made samba the messenger of his delicate soul (…) Cartola’s way of describing his life, his loves, his feelings for the world, that windmill, and his poetry, that illumination. ” (Excerpt from Cartola in the world of the mill – Carlos Drummond de Andrade)

Cartola and Paulinho da Viola

Tradução Luise W Mello Franco

 

 

 

 

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