The Drunk Who Cracked the Fortress of Brazil’s Dictatorship

Brazilian Herbert Souza, the Henfil's brother

I discovered the political relevance of popular music many years ago,
listening to Arlo Guthrie’s classic protest song of the Vietnam Era, “Alice’s
Restaurant”. But it was only a couple of years later, when I first came to
Brazil in 1978 to spend a year as an exchange student, that I really began to
understand the relation between music and politics. The highpoint of this
relation in Brazil was during the years of the military dictatorship

A few blocks from where I used to live in Higienópolis is an abandoned building that served as the local DOPS headquarters during the worst years of the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985.

The Delegacia de Ordem Política e Social was created by one dictatorship – the Vargas regime established it as an organ of social control in the 1930s – but it became infamous as the tool of another.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, thousands of Brazilians were tortured, many to death, in the cells and basement chambers of DOPS facilities throughout the country. DOPS still exists in some states as an organ of the Military Police, though torture, outlawed in the 1988 Constitution, is of course no longer its specialty.

None of the torturers of that period have ever been called to justice. None of the victims have been compensated. Many of the archival records documenting police actions during the dictatorship have been destroyed.

Occasional books cast light on the evils of the time (Elio Gaspari’s A Ditadura Escancarada, the second of his four-volume series on the dictatorship, is an excellent introduction).

The web has some good resources, as always: Lembrar É Resistir –, Terrorismo Nunca Mais –, Centro de Documentação Eremias Delizoicov –, Resgate Histórico –

One exceptional event of reclaiming the truth in the face of silence and lies was a theatrical piece, “Lembrar É Resistir” (To Remember is to Resist), staged in what had been the downtown DOPS headquarters in São Paulo.

Designed to run for a month in September 1999, in honor of the founding of Amnesty International, Lembrar É Resistir ran for over a year, with a cast including former torture victims. The building was later demolished.

The silence lingers.

The worst of the oppression had abated when I first came here in 1978. I met people who had been arrested, people who had lost family members, people whose lives were changed by DOPS. But almost no one spoke of it.

Silence was a tool of fear. The street in front of the DOPS building in Higienópolis was closed off during the worse periods of torture, supposedly to prevent passers by from hearing the screams of the victims. But everyone knew. The closed street was a potent reminder of what went on behind the barriers. And no one spoke. Silence was like a dank wall where fear clung – growing, spreading its spores.

It may seem surprising to start off an article on pop music with a discussion of torture, but when I walk past the DOPS building, with its neglected air and decaying sidewalks, I hear music. Brazilian musicians, despite censorship, exile, and torture, were among the most important voices during the dictatorship in calling attention to the evils of the time.

In 1972, Elis Regina sang during a show organized by the military government. This led to her being included in the cartoonist Henfil’s gallery of the dictatorship’s sympathizers in the important opposition magazine O Pasquim, a section he called “The Cemetery of the Living Dead.”

(A generous selection of the first two years of O Pasquim is currently on sale in Brazilian bookstores. It is a valuable window into this slice of modern Latin American history. Click here to access a video documentary in Portuguese:

The two later became friends, and Elis joined him in supporting a popular movement calling for the amnesty of political prisoners and exiled artists, activists and academics. Her contribution was her classic performance of the 1979 song “O Bêbado e a Equilibrista” (The Drunk and the Tightrope Walker). The original lyrics and my translation are below.

The most famous line in the song refers to “the return of Henfil’s brother.” Betinho (Herbert de Souza, 1936-1997) was the cartoonist’s older brother, an important sociologist, then living in exile. He was a vocal supporter of land reform but, ironically, far from an unambiguous supporter of the left.

Even more ironically, he feared that the PT (the scandal-plagued – though certainly not the only such Brazilian government – populist, formerly socialist, party that is now in power) had totalitarian tendencies.

The campaign was an important factor leading to the Amnesty Law, which freed political prisoners and allowed those living in exile to return. Almost 5000 Brazilians were given amnesty. The exiles began arriving home on November 1, 1979.


The Drunk and the Tightrope Walker (1979)

Lyrics: Carla Cristina
Music: Aldir Blanc/João Bosco
Definitive version: Elis Regina
Translation: Steven Engler

Evening fell like a bridge
A drunk in a funeral suit reminded me of Chaplin’s tramp
The moon, like some brothel madam
Begged a rented shine from each cold star
And clouds, up there in the blotting paper sky
Sucked at tortured stains
What insane pressure
The drunk with the bowler hat made a thousand bows
For Brazil, my Brazil’s night
Is dreaming of the return of Henfil’s brother
Of so many people who left, in a dangerous situation
Our country is crying, gentle mother
Marias and Clarices are crying on Brazilian soil
But I know that pain this sharp can’t be pointless
Hope dances on the tightrope with an umbrella
With each step on that rope you can hurt yourself
Bad luck, the balancing hope
Knows that each artist’s show must go on

O Bêbado e a Equilibrista (1979)

Letra: Carla Cristina
Composição: Aldir Blanc/João Bosco
Versão definitiva: Elis Regina

Caía a tarde feito um viaduto
E um bêbado trajando luto me lembrou Carlitos
A lua, tal qual a dona de um bordel
Pedia a cada estrela fria um brilho de aluguel
E nuvens, lá no mata-borrão do céu
Chupavam manchas torturadas
Que sufoco louco
O bêbado com chapéu-coco fazia irreverências mil
Pra noite do Brasil, meu Brasil

Que sonha com a volta do irmão do Henfil
Com tanta gente que partiu num rabo de foguete
Chora a nossa pátria, mãe gentil
Choram Marias e Clarices no solo do Brasil
Mas sei que uma dor assim pungente não há de ser inutilmente
A esperança dança na corda bamba de sombrinha
E em cada passo dessa linha pode se machucar
Azar, a esperança equilibrista
Sabe que o show de todo artista tem que continuar

Steven Engler is Visiting Research Professor in the Graduate Program of Religious Studies at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (Bolsista CAPES). You can contact Steven at


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