Saudade you have taken a hold over me. Forget that my month long retrospective of Brazilian music draws to an end, no, its the feeling invoked by Cartola’s music that draws the most pining for me. Cartola and his wife Dona Zica, will never win any awards for creating the most avant garde music out there, some may even call them antiquated and old fashioned (I pity these people), myself I will never understand this dire need to segregate a feeling one might enjoy by doing so. Cartola’s brilliance is that his music, which invokes for me the beauty and pain of the people in the favelas, was made without a care given to the petty pretentiousness a critic would impose on it. His only care was laying to tape the songs and feelings he had been holding for nearly all of his life.
Born in 1908, Angenor de Oliveira was a child raised in the poorest Rio slums. He left these slums at the age of 15 when his mother passed away. Living the itinerant life, he was introduced to both the life of the malandragem (rude boy) and samba. With equal measure, he would spend his young life hustling any way he could to survive and work as diligently to build up one of the original sambista schools, Arengueiros Carnival Bloco. During his younger age in the 1930s was when he first started to gain some modicum of fame. Somehow a lot of his samba songs became popular, and he himself gained notoriety for appearing in shows using the only hat he had…a cartola (top hat) that he would use both for performing and as a way to cover his head when he worked as a construction worker.
Sometime, in the ’40s, the death of his wife Deolinda triggered a self-imposed exile. He wasn’t ready to continue on singing the songs of love he made her. Rescinding the fame he had, he could be found working as a car washer in the ’50s. However, sometime in the ’60s as bossa nova artists were going back into their past looking for further inspiration, they were rediscovering the forgotten music of Cartola. Popular neo-sambistas like Nara Leao, Jorge Ben, Nelson Cavaquinho and many more were now covering the songs of Cartola. It was during this re-awakening, especially in the late ’60s, that Cartola was able to weather and enjoy this new found renaissance by meeting and eventually marrying the great Dona Zica.
Dona Zica had already known Cartola from a very young age. She didn’t date him then because Cartola was already taken. At the age of 19, she married her first husband and had 5 kids with him. Eventually, after 20 years of marriage, her husband died and left her a widow. Cartola, never had children, but he himself around the same time was a widower. Somehow, Cartola reintroduced himself to her and as time transpired they rekindled that love they once felt they had to hide. This deep love got them both out of a massive low they were in. Eventually they married and stayed together until she passed away in 1980. During all the time she spent with Cartola, he helped integrate her own unique voice into his sound. His love of her was that great, that he fully recognized the beauty of her singing.
In the ’70s, Cartola finally saw fit to put his songs to tape. His first try at it, 1974’s Cartola, was a dip in the water. However, after fully feeling confidence in his recording prowess, he created 1976’s imaginatively titled Cartola II a masterpiece of an album. Finally, he was able to integrate that sound he had been holding off for such a long time. Zica’s and Cartola’s voice just trade off with equal measure some of the most quotidian and frankly gorgeous sambas you’ll ever hear. As you play this album, think of all the places and situations it invokes.
Myself, it reminds me of walking around in Ciudad Juarez, MX as a young kid from the El Paso, TX projects. When I was in this larger metropolis, with even poorer slums, I couldn’t but feel a bit more grateful for my lot in life. Regardless, I was learning to appreciate the sometimes small victories that they were able to afford. The vibrancy and gunning for true survival will always be what I never forget. Their houses painted in many colors, the welcoming saludos of every person you would pass, and the care taken to show hospitality (sometimes to unnecessary levels) was something I never forgot. Going back, to the US, you lose that brightness and verve for life that comes with tempered safety.
When I play this album, and most Brazilian music, it serves to remind me that you gotta live life with a certain amount of risk, urge, and reflection. I mean, some of the brightest colors: yellow, white, and green were joined with a tempered blue to create the flag of one of the most vibrant nations on earth. Anyway, I’ll just play “Ensaboa” off this album again, I need a good reminder today…
– 1974: Cartola
– 1976: Cartola II
– 1977: Verde Que Te Quero Rosa
– 1978: Cartola 70 Anos
Watch Cartola sing to Dona Zica below and stick around for the full concert, if you can. I know I had dust in my eyes after viewing it: