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.