Sound Paparazzo

Barely literate, Adoniran Barbosa, was a genius of MPB (Popular Brazilian Music) proving that São Paulo was not "samba's tomb" as once said by poet-composer Vinicius de Moraes. In fact, he was one of the few good revelations in music during the bolero-filled decade of the 1950s.

Arthur de Faria

Born: Valinhos, São Paulo, August 6, 1910
Died: São Paulo (capital), November 23, 1982

Not even people with nerves of steel, without blood in their veins, or without a heart are capable of not showing emotion when the rough voice, almost resigned, tells the (true!) story of the bride-to-be run over 20 days before the wedding: the driver wasn't at fault. Patience, Iracema. The most brilliant Paulista composer of all time, Adoniran Barbosa —poor and barely literate, he knew how to be deeper than a scholar when he explained: "To write samba lyrics well, you have to be, in the first place, illiterate". Like few people, Adoniran was a genius. Like Lupicínio or Nick Cave, those rare geniuses that extract an almost pathetic simplicity from a mountain of subtle meanings. It's that same old story: you've heard "Saudosa Maloca" 300 times, without paying much attention, then one day, something clicks: "What was that?"

Favorite son of Bexiga, São Paulo's Italian neighborhood, Adoniran was a roving photographer of songs. Each one a small picture of his neighborhood, his city, his humble people. Pictures that could be of any big city that still has, in some corner, a vestige of that sweet poverty that is so different from conclusive misery. The São Paulo of Adoniran is falsely resigned to the affliction of being big—enormous—and covetous of its sons. After all,

The men have reason
We'll find us another place
And don't complain
Because the rain
Destroyed your shack.
Don't complain,
Take it easy, João.
Worse happened to Cebídi
Don't complain
The rain only took your bed.

It was all that John had, but Cebídi had a whole house and it was all taken downhill by the torrent. So, John doesn't really have a reason to complain about his luck.


On the night that his Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) friend Johnny Alf was performing for a noisy crowd in a São Paulo bar, the poet and writer Vinícius de Moraes coined the famous phrase: São Paulo is the tomb of samba. His bad luck, and Sampa's (São Paulo's nickname), is that the phrase stuck. It would be good to explain. If, on one hand, the city never had a large quantity of quality sambistas, on the other, just the names of Adoniran and Paulo Vanzolini (of "Ronda" fame)—were already sufficient to disprove the words of Vinícius—if he had said it seriously.

Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul has a similar situation. The city brought forth only two names to samba: Lupicínio Rodrigues and Túlio Piva. But these two are so good that no more are necessary. As if this wasn't enough, Júlio Medaglia, another Paulista—composer and arranger—is definitive when he reminds us that "Dostoyevksy said the best way to be universal was to describe your village". And no one described his Paulista "village" better than Adoniran.

As if this wasn't enough, Adoniran was one of the very rare good things to come out of MPB (popular Brazilian music) during the disgraceful, bolero-filled decade of the 1950s—the bossa-nova and its predecessors not included, which were at the very end of the decade.

The curious thing is that, well before becoming known as a composer, Adoniran was a famous radio actor—at a time in which radio had absolute control of the national media and TV wasn't even dreamed of being established in Brazil. Well before Chico Anísio, Jô Soares or others of the sort, in 1946 the man already embodied nothing less than 16 characters in his programs on Radio Record. Still earlier, he had been a ringmaster in a circus. And still to come, the TV screen and the big screen of the cinema—as an actor highly commended in Lima Barreto's film, O Cangaceiro (The Backlands Bandit), best film in Cannes in 1953 and one of the best classics of Brazilian cinema.


Obviously the son of Italian immigrants, the radio actor João Rubinato actually wasn't born in São Paulo, the capital, but in Valinhos, in the interior of the state. He went to Sampa to see if in some way he could pursue an acting career, which was, from 1941 to 1951, what gave him that anthropological-tavern-like base which would be developed in his composer years. Many of the characters created by the actor João Rubinato would later become characters in his songs. One of them, Adoniran Barbosa, would end up taking control of the persona of his creator.

On the radio, accentuating the typical language of Bexiga—a kind of official accent of São Paulo—he told with drama the small, daily tragedies of the shanty towns and the suburbs in general. Tiny tragedies, of residents, of big old houses, abandoned by a city that was demolishing them to build more and more skyscrapers. In short, the life of those derogatorily called maloqueiros (shanty town dwellers, actually multiple families living in the old houses)—because they lived in malocas.

Each time less João Rubinato, each time more Adoniran, the actor was appearing in his program justly entitled "Story of the Malocas", and his alter-ego Charutinho (literally, little cigar), being inept in life and carrying on in laughable resignation with sad ascertainments that could—by someone less judicious—be called social accusations.

"Story of the Malocas" was the big success in the many programs made in partnership with the broadcaster and composer Osvaldo Moles: "Escolinha Risonha e Franca" (the Funny and Merry School)—root of countless copies reproduced until today on Brazilian radio and TV—"The Mother-In-Law's House" and many others. Directly from the Morro do Piolho (literally, "hill of the louse"), Charutinho and his gang began to tell their stories in 1955. A few months earlier, the then young Demônios da Garoa had recorded a song by the unknown composer Adoniran Barbosa, called "Saudosa Maloca." An absolute success.

The first success of the two—the composer and the group—a partnership that would last until today, more than a decade after the death of the first. And it was from the inspiration of this hymn, from the anti-vagabondism, from the submission so absolute than it seemed to be subversive, that the idea was created for the program that would stay on the air for more than ten years, being number one in ratings.

The special touch was that bitter, crazy humor—the typical "it would be tragic if it wasn't so funny"—embodied in anti-heroes devoured by the beloved city that was growing. Run over, thrown out, dragged by storms, trying to refind in a corner of the concrete the poetry lost in some turn in life.

Come see,
Come see, Eugênia
How pretty it turned out
the Saint Efigênia Viaduct!

The humor that he knew turning disgrace to advantage.

Because there on the hill
When the electricity of Light goes out
We light a candle
That illuminates too
If there's no candle
It don't hurt
We'll samba in the dark
Which is very better.
After all, the poor don't want
To protest against progress,
They want to be a part of it.
The problem is that it stays down below.
Progress, Progress
I always heard talk about it.

Adoniran was an exception in the so-called Velha Guarda. Like Caymmi, his unbelievable modernness wouldn't let him be totally, nor partially, forgotten as happened with people when they were alive like Lamartine Babo, Assis Valente, or even Braguinha, who is still alive. Adoniran never stopped being heard. Of course, he had moments in which he remembered with saudade

The radio that today plays iê-iê-iê all day long,
Was playing "Saudosa Maloca."

But he didn't have any bitterness. None at all:

I like these kids with the iê-iê-iê,
Because with them sings the voice of the people.
And I,
I already was a coal,
May they blow on me so I can glow again.

From time to time, they did blow a little. Poor, yes: he died poor. Or rather barely making ends meet. But he still sung in shows and recorded sporadically—a miserable three records in his 40 year career, all released between 1973 and 1980. Whenever he wanted, he had the best Brazilian musicians and singers in the studio paying him tribute—many of them young enough to be his grandchildren. Like Elis Regina, considered by many the best Brazilian singer of all time, and who was his assuming fan. Together with her, Adoniran had his biggest hit as a singer: "Tiro ao Álvaro."

His only regret in his old age was to be far away from his public. He sang successfully for university students, he was adored by the intellectuals. But justly Adoniran, who had been "people" like few others, didn't appear in the media nor was played on the popular radio stations. When, in November of 1982, he went to the pagode above thanks to cardiac arrest, he had a modest funeral. Five hundred friends and no authorities. Well, as he would have put it, his funeral only had respectable people.


Adoniran Barbosa—Série Meus Momentos, EMI. The CD combines works from all of Adoniran's records with emphasis on his 1980 Magistral record. All the best moments from that LP are on the CD: the duo of Adoniran with Elis Regina on "Tiro ao Álvaro", with Clara Nunes on "Iracema," the bristling arrangement of "Bom Dia Tristeza"—the existential partnership with the poet Vinícius de Moraes, the trio with Carlinhos Vergueiro and Clementina de Jesus in "Torresmo à Milanesa," with MPB4 in Vila Esperança, and much more. This record from 1980 is a marvel in all aspects—repertoire, arrangements, musical partnerships—and absolutely indispensable. But the CD is a good palliative. And as a bonus, there is also "No Morro da Casa Verde "and "Vide Verso Meu Endereço," both from his 1975 record, which are also very good. The only thing missing are the flawed arrangements from his 1974 LP, full of choruses in perfect Portuguese that sound like aberrations.

Any music by the Demônios da Garoa also is a good bet when dealing with Adoniran. The more music they have on the record, the bigger the chance of scoring a goal.

Translated by Barbara Maglio, who can be reached at 

Arthur de Faria, the author, a journalist, writer, and musician from Rio Grande do Sul, may be contacted at