Music, Religion, and Perceptions of Crime in Early Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro

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Music, Religion, and Perceptions of Crime in Early Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro

In 1908 the well-known senator Pinheiro Machado held a party at his house in Rio de Janeiro. For musical entertainment, he contracted several musicians, among them the young João Guedes, better known as Joaão da Baiana. Guedes did not arrive at the party, and when Pinheiro Machado inquired of his whereabouts, he was informed that days earlier the police had stopped Guedes, harassed him, and confiscated his tambourine. With no musical instrument, Guedes had little reason to show up at the party and thus stayed away. Angered by the story, Machado took matters into his own hands, asking Guedes to meet him at the Senate. When Guedes arrived, he found an order for a new tambourine to be made bearing an inscription of admiration signed by the famous senator. This encounter was probably not the only one between João da Baiana and Machado. In interviews decades later, João da Baiana would recall the presence of Machado and other well-known public figures at the musical gatherings organized by his mother, Tia Perciliana. Rumors about politicians and public figures attending batuques (drum parties), samba circles, and religious gatherings organized by blacks circulated widely in early twentieth-century Rio, but such meetings were also subject to police repression. The story of João da Baiana and Pinheiro Machado, and the larger trends of society elites attending the same gatherings that also suffered police attacks, demonstrate the often contradictory reactions to African-influenced music and religious practices in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro. This entry explores those reactions first with a brief historical overview of racial ideology and police postures toward music and popular celebrations, and then by focusing on the following contexts and figures: dance and Carnival clubs, capoeira, the popular Festa da Penha celebration, and samba music's iconic malandro figures.

Historical Overview

The era in which the João da BaianaPinheiro Machado encounter took place was one of great transition in Brazil. As the nation felt its way through dramatic institutional change, African-descendent Brazilians forged new spaces in society, while also encountering new obstacles. The abolition of slavery (1888) and the transfer from monarchical to republican government (1889) created new opportunities, as well as new challenges. This was the same period in which neighboring Latin American countries were developing racial philosophies that trumpeted unique mestizaje races, those derived through mixture but dominated by purportedly white and European characteristics at the expense of supposedly weaker and dying or extinct indigenous and African elements. But in Brazil, where nonwhite peoples represented approximately 60 percent of the population from the 1870s to the 1890s, forgetting or hiding those peoples was not a viable option. Instead, elites imagined a process of gradual whitening, or embranquecimento, while also recognizing and sometimes embracing African influences.

For musicians, this recognition meant growing acceptance tempered by marginalization and sometimes repression. As the story of João da Baiana and Pinheiro Machado suggests, popular musicians were invited into the homes of elites and also harassed on the street. On the one hand, musicians saw their music celebrated as "pure" and "authentic" representations of their nation and its African heritage. On the other hand, they suffered repression and faced moralists who looked down on their music. There still exists little research about the extent and nature of that repression, and it is possible that some stories about police attacking musicians have been exaggerated over the years. However, there exists enough evidence in oral traditions and in studies about the police to show that musicians did in fact suffer at the hands of authorities.

After gaining independence from Portugal in 1822a process that produced not a republican state but instead a politically autonomous, Brazilian-run monarchyauthorities in Rio retained some of the same characteristics of their predecessors, including a concern for public order and the regulation and registration of public festivals and celebrations. The postindependence police force was intent on transforming Rio into an internationally respected and European-style capital, and as part of that project, the police cast a vigilant eye on slave and free-black gatherings. Police prohibited processions by religious slave brotherhoods and often broke up batuques and other popular musical gatherings frequented by slaves. Viewed by authorities to be as low as crustaceans, those attending batuques suffered cruelly, and police raids came to be known infamously as "shrimp dinners" for the brutal beatings leveled by the police, which often produced flayed pink flesh.

The police mission was a general attempt to maintain order and prevent the noise, consumption of alcohol, general disorder, and danger that officials considered part and parcel of public gatherings. That mission also had clear designs on maintaining both race- and class-based hierarchies. While the control of public celebrations and the often harsh treatment of batuques and other musical gatherings can be understood as parts of larger projects to maintain order and control the general population, those larger projects cannot be divorced from the desire and intention to whiten, "civilize," and Europeanize Brazil. Targeting black gatherings continued after slavery ended. Fears of paganism, disorder, and social and racial "degeneration" often marked public discussions of African-Brazilian religions and popular music, even as both also became part of movements to recognize and valorize black Brazil. The 1890 Penal Code made no explicit reference to music, but that did not stop police from harassing musicians, nor did it prevent certain sectors of society from associating popular music with criminal behavior. The code was more explicit about religion, criminalizing spirit possession, magic, and herbal healing. Among other things, those laws resulted in debates about which kind of African-influenced religious practices were acceptable. While the Penal Code left unanswered questions about the legality of certain practices, society's perceptions could be just as ambiguous, as popular gatherings and African-Brazilian music and religion were seen by some as representations of a deep and unique past and by others as examples of savagery.

Clubs, Capoeiristas, and the Festa da Penha

The tension between repressing and valorizing African-Brazilian culture is evident in the policing of dance and Carnival clubs during the early twentieth century. These clubs and societieswhich varied in size as well as in the social composition of their membershipoffered members a place to dance and socialize, as well as the opportunity to parade and party during Carnival. They also often served as a lightning rod for critiques about the immorality and even danger of popular dancing and music. Required to register with the police both to parade during Carnival and to function during the year, the clubs provided an opportunity for the police to control, or at least keep an eye on, popular gatherings. The press often replicated the police's association of music and dancing with disorder. Stories about fights and trouble at the clubs frequently appeared in newspapers. But neither the police nor journalists viewed all associations as the same. While clubs existed throughout the city and included members of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, it was Rio's suburbios and morros ("outskirts" and "hills," respectively, both known as homes to poor, predominately black communities) that were most often associated with crime and disorder.

Music, crime, and religion converged in capoeira, a practice that was part martial art, part dance, developed in Africa as well as by slaves in Brazil. Fixtures at public celebrations throughout the nineteenth century, groups and gangs of capoeiristas were remembered by end-of-the-century writers both for the fear they inspired with knives and aggressive behavior and for the music and noise they created with drums, tambourines, and song. While often associated with violence, disorder, and music, capoeiristas shared a somewhat paradoxical relationship with city authorities. Though they often clashed with police, on other occasions capoeiristas were hired by politicians to intimidate and control voters. Capoeiristas also found spaces for demonstrating their abilities in public, performing at religious celebrations or parading at the front of military processions to the delight and fascination of onlookers.

While capoeira inspired curiosity as well as fear, it was the latter that dominated most interactions with the police. The 1890 Penal Code outlawed the practice, though most crackdowns took place before a law was on the books. During the nineteenth century, those crackdowns often occurred during Rio de Janeiro's most popular festivals, especially those around Christmas and Carnival. The high incidence of capoeira arrests during such festivals; the popular association made between capoeiristas, disorder, and music; and capoeira 's African and slavery roots indicate how crime, religion, and music often intersected in popular perceptions of Rio de Janeiro's African-descendant residents. That capoeiristas were also hired by politicians and found acceptable spaces in public celebrations indicates the tension that marked many of those perceptions.

Like capoeira, popular religious festivals themselves were subject to repression while also providing unique spaces of acceptance for otherwise stigmatized practices. One such festival was the Festa da Penha, an annual celebration held at the famous Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Penha, which sits atop a well-known elevated rock point in Rio de Janeiro. While diverse groups frequented Penha, the African-Brazilian presence was especially influential. Capoeiristas circulated and performed, and visitors enjoyed African-influenced foods, prepared by tias, female African-Brazilian community and spiritual leaders who exercised important roles in the festival's organization and execution. (Such tias as João da Baiana's mother Perciliana also hosted private get-togethers like those that Pinheiro Machado attended and that proved crucial to the development of Brazilian popular music.)

The Festa da Penha also served as a place for musicians to play and publicize their work, and friends and families gathered in samba and batuque circles to enjoy early forms of music that would rise to national prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, just before samba became a unified and widely popular genre, and before the music market exploded in Brazil, the Festa da Penha served as an informal but crucial launching pad for musicians. Falling four to five months before the start of pre-Lenten festivities, Penha served as an unofficial commencement to the lucrative Carnival season. Musicians would often debut their songs at Penha, seizing the opportunity to make their work known and to position themselves for popularity and success during Carnival.

At Penha celebrations, the lines between sacred and profane, black and white, rich and poor, and order and disorder often blurred. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, crowds often included black, white, and mixed-race revelers, coming from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Well-to-do families, along with those from Rio de Janeiro's lower class suburbios, enjoyed picnics, food and drink stands, and the music that marked the festivities.

Heterogeneity and mixture, however, did not mean an absence of attempts to isolate and reprimand unwanted groups and behaviors. On various occasions tambourines and guitars were prohibited from the festival, robbing musicians of their valuable stage and denying partygoers a main attraction. Indeed, João da Baiana was purportedly on his way to a Penha celebration when the police grabbed his instrument. Local newspapers often commented on the police's ability to control the festivities, sometimes critiquing authorities for not doing enough, other times applauding forceful police actions.


Crime and music merged in the malandro, flashy street hustlers, similar in appearance to early twentieth-century zoot-suiters in the United States. As in the cases of dance and Carnival clubs, capoeiristas, and Festa da Penha revelers, society both shunned and embraced malandros. Though research tracing the origins of the malandro is scarce, most observers agree that the figure became a popular icon in the 1920s and 1930s, largely as a result of Brazil's increasing interest in samba music. Glorified for their success with women, for resisting authority, and for their ability to make money without working, malandros walked the thin lines between the acceptable flaunting of legal and moral codes and the ire of authorities and social commentators who guarded those lines. As such, Brazilian society and its burgeoning music market offered both lucrative opportunities and restrictive limits to musicians who presented themselves as malandros or otherwise celebrated malandragem (the many malandro traits and activities, such as womanizing and trickery). Censorship of malandro images and references during the early 1940s was sandwiched between periods in which such musicians as Wilson Batista, Moreira da Silva, and Geraldo Pereira gained fame and money as malandro sambistas. Some musicians were arrested for petty crime or involvement with illegal gambling, or under vaguely defined antivagrancy codes. Descriptions of run-ins with the authorities often made their way into song lyrics, and malandragem became synonymous not just with womanizing, cleverness, and irreverence but also criminality. The malandro also found a religious manifestation in the divine being Zé Pelintra, an exu responsible for communications between humans and orixás (African-Brazilian deities). Visual depictions of Zé Pelintra represent a composite image of snappily dressed malandros from the early twentieth century, complete with white linen suit, white shoes, red tie, matching handkerchief, and Panama hat. To this day, one can find cigarettes, roses, liquor, and even cooked steaks on street corners in Rio, left by those asking Zé Pelintra for help and protection.


African-influenced cultural practices met with contradictory responses in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro. On the one hand, African-Brazilian music and religion found new spaces and new levels of acceptance in society. On the other hand, police maintained vigilant watch over those who danced at clubs or in the streets during Carnival or who gathered at religious festivals like the Festa da Penha. Capoeiristas drew the ire of authorities, but also led processions and influenced elections. Malandros alternately cashed in on and were reprimanded for extolling the virtues of womanizing, resisting authority, and avoiding work. In each case, it is possible to glimpse the larger tensions felt in Brazil during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between embracing and rejecting African influences.

See also Capoeira; Madame Satã (dos Santos, João Francisco); Music; Samba; Tia Ciata


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marc adam hertzman (2005)

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Music, Religion, and Perceptions of Crime in Early Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro

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