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Cartola (singer and composer)

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Singer, Composer

Cartola (singer and composer)

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Last update: 09/06/2015

By: Júlia Morim - N/I

Cartola, born Angenor de Oliveira, was a singer and composer from Rio de Janeiro who was responsible for major samba hits. His life was not always easy. The third son of Sebastião Joaquim de Oliveira and Aida Gomes de Oliveira until the age of eleven led a comfortable life between the neighbourhoods of Catete, where he was born on 11 October 1908, and Laranjeiras, when he moved with his family to Buraco Quente on Morro (Hill) da Mangueira, which had begun to be settled. This change would forever mark his story and that of Brazilian popular music.

The move to the hill was for economic reasons. The financial difficulties of the family forced him to work. His father demanded all his earnings at the end of the month, and the friction between the two was constant. Cartola often changed jobs. While unemployed, he attended the “bocas” in Mangueira, which were houses where Afro-Brazilian gods were worshiped and where they danced the ‘jongo’ (SILVA, OLIVEIRA FILHO, 1983, p.32).

At age seventeen and with his mother’s death, Cartola was kicked out of home by his father and lived roaming around Mangueira. Alone and neglected in the world, at eighteen was “adopted” by Deolinda, who was seven years older than him and who would become his wife for two decades. Very young, he “was married” and had “gained” a family, as Deolinda had a daughter named Ruth.

At that time, Cartola was one of the best bricklayers on the hill. His nickname, Cartola, was given to him by his construction friends at fifteen because, as was very vain, he was always wearing a hat, which he called a cartola (top hat), so as not to dirty his clothes with cement.

Despite being good at his profession, Cartola preferred to play guitar, dance samba and “have a cold one”. Along with other friends, he founded Bloco dos Arengueiros (Troublemaker Samba Group), which paraded around Morro da Mangueira and caused trouble in neighbouring districts. However, besides enjoying a fight, they were excellent at samba. So on 28 April 1928, at a meeting at Mr Euclides’ home, they founded Estação Primeira de Mangueira Samba School. The name and colours were chosen by Cartola. It was called Estação Primeira da Mangueira because it was the first train station after the Central do Brasil where samba was. The colours were the same as the guild he went to as a child: green and pink.

It is worth mentioning that his love for Carnival began in his childhood when he went with his parents and grandfather to Rancho dos Arrepiados – a kind of Carnival guild – whose colours were green and pink. Music was also part of his education, for his father, besides being a carpenter, played the cavaquinho (Brazilian ukulele) and guitar at parties and during Rancho’s parades. Cartola even learned to play the Brazilian ukulele as child, using his father’s instrument without his knowledge.

At nineteen, he was the samba school’s director of harmony, which paraded for the first time in 1929. The existing carnival groups on the hill began to join Estação Primeira with the intention of showing Mangueira Samba to the city, creating a new type of guild whose musical genre was samba. In the late 1920s, the word ‘samba’ was redefined, starting to be used by descendants of slaves who came together in the samba schools. Samba for them was rhythm, choreography, genre, very similar to the invocations of Afro-Brazilian deities. So much so that many of the first samba players were also saint-fathers or mothers (SILVA; OLIVEIRA FILHO, 1983, p.45).

In the 1930s, Cartola was already a reference in writings on Brazilian music. In 1933 one of his compositions, Que Infeliz Sorte (What Bad Luck), was recorded for the first time by Francisco Alves. However, fame did not bring him financial reward and he had to work, as his family grew with additions and adopted children. What he earned with samba was just enough to maintain his vanity, for he liked to dress well. He worked as a bricklayer, fishmonger and cheese seller. His wife, Deolinda, occasionally worked as a cook.

Cartola’s production increased, solo or with his partner Carlos Cachaça – Estação Primeira de Mangueira’s orator. To improve his lyrics, he read poems by Castro Alves, Gonçalves Dias and Olavo Bilac. In the mid-1930s, samba schools became part of the official Carnival of Rio de Janeiro. By then, Cartola had recorded other compositions and was recognised as a composer. In 1937, he won a competition organised by the city council, whose prize, a gold medal, had to be pawned to support his family.

This period in Cartola’s life was contradictory:
The 1930s was, as we have seen, ‘Cartola’s Time’. The carefree youth of the singer/songwriter who never sought after fame, but rather was sought out by it. He composed so much, but only the hill heard his voice. He knew the taste of being acclaimed, while remaining with empty pockets. He won a gold medal from the hands of the ruling class and transformed it into beans and cachaça. He was a friend of Villa-Lobos, but lived in a wooden shack. A respected and disconnected man. Poor. Owner of only a huge talent. (SILVA, OLIVEIRA FILHO, 1983, p. 66).

In the following years, the 1940s, Cartola was spreading his samba. He participated, along with Paulo da Portela, in a program on Rádio Cruzeiro called A Voz do Morro (the Voice of the Hill). He paraded on a Carnival float after being chosen samba-citizen. With Paulo da Portela and Heitor dos Prazeres, he formed the Conjunto Carioca, spreading Rio samba to São Paulo.

At thirty-eight, he came down with meningitis that weakened him for about a year. He recovered with medicines and Deolinda’s care. Unfortunately, after his improvement, Deolinda passed away from heart problems. One of his greatest hits, sung also by other artists, Sim (Yes), was written after the death of his partner.

Sim, (Yes)
Deve haver o perdão (There must be forgiveness)
Para mim (For me)
Senão nem sei qual será (Or I don’t know what will be)
O meu fim (My end)
Para ter uma companheira (To have a companion)
Até promessas fiz (Up to promises I made)
Consegui um grande amor (I had a great love)
Mas eu não fui feliz (But I wasn’t happy)
E com raiva para os céus (And with anger to the skies)
Os braços levantei (I raised my arms)
Blasfemei (I cursed)
Hoje todos são contra mim (Today everyone is against me)
Todos erram neste mundo (Everyone in this world makes mistakes)
Não há exceção (There are no exceptions)
Quando voltam a realidade (When they come back to reality)
Conseguem perdão (They can forgive)
Porque é que eu Senhor (Because it is I, Lord)
Que errei pela vez primeira (Who made a mistake for the first time)
Passo tantos dissabores (I go through so many troubles)
E luto contra a humanidade inteira (And fight against all humanity)

As the samba school parades were becoming increasingly commercial, in 1948 Cartola paraded with a samba of his own in Estação Primeira de Mangueira, one last time. For a while, he stopped playing and composing, and moved with his new wife, Donária, into the slum of Manilha, in Nilópolis. To survive, he worked as a handyman. The course of his life had left him battered, toothless and thin. His nose began to show signs of the disease that made him undergo plastic surgery years later.

In 1952, he met Zica, with whom he fell in love and spent the rest of his life. She urged him back to the music industry and to get a job. While working as a car washer in Ipanema, he was rediscovered by Sergio Porto, who brought him back to the music world. However, samba was not trendy. Friends got jobs for him, and he worked as a messenger and also in various ministries.

The move to the second floor of 81 Rua dos Andradas in the city centre, above the Samba School Association, was a turning point in Cartola and Zica’s lives. There Zica sold food and he was the caretaker. On Fridays, the house was full of friends drinking and playing samba. The development of these meetings was the inauguration of Zicartola (1963-1965), a restaurant that became a samba house frequented by important personalities of the Rio music scene.

After moving to the neighbourhoods of Santo Cristo and Bento Ribeiro, with the help and coordination of friends, Cartola and Zica managed to get a plot on Rua Visconde de Niterói, in Mangueira, where Cartola himself built his house. The land was donated by the Rio de Janeiro State Government to Cartola for his contribution to music and Brazilian culture.

Despite being recognised as a living legend of Brazilian music and having his compositions recorded by famous performers, only in 1974, at over sixty years of age, did Cartola record his first individual LP, for which he received various awards and went on to play shows throughout the country. His second record came in 1976, and with it the great hit As rosas não falam (Roses Do Not Speak):
Bate outra vez (Hit once more)
Com esperanças o meu coração (With the hope in my heart)
Pois já vai terminando o verão enfim (As summer is ending anyway)

Volto ao jardim (I go back to the Garden)
Com a certeza que devo chorar (Sure that I must cry)
Pois bem sei que não queres voltar para mim (Because I know well that you don’t want to come back to me)

Queixo-me às rosas, mas que bobagem (I complain to the roses, but what nonsense)
As rosas não falam (Roses don’t speak)
Simplesmente as rosas exalam (They just exude)
O perfume que roubam de ti, ai... (The perfume they stole from you, there)

Devias vir (You should come)
Para ver os meus olhos tristonhos (To see my sad eyes)
E, quem sabe, sonhar os meus sonhos (And, who knows, dream my dreams)
por fim (at last)

After almost thirty years without participating in the samba school parades he founded, the now ‘poet of the roses’ paraded with the leading commission of Mangueira in 1977. That same year, he recorded the third album. Recognition had come. It was critically acclaimed. But Mangueira was not the same. He needed more peace to compose.

In the year he turned seventy, he bought a house with the money he had earned from music and moved to Jacarepaguá – despite having said years before that he would never leave the hill. Although he had moved physically, his spirit remained in Mangueira. That same year, he had his first individual concert: Acontece (It Happens). His 70th birthday was celebrated with a serenade, masses and praise.

His fourth and final LP came in 1979, when his economic prosperity had grown and his health had worsened. Unlike in his youth, Cartola was always concerned about the future of Zica and his family. A cancer discovered two years earlier which had already been operated on, but not treated, returned. He needed a new operation. He followed the treatment recommended by doctors, but suffered from the side effects. Although sick, he recorded one last time with Alcione in 1980. Cartola died on 30 November 1980, at the age of seventy-two.

His poetry and his samba did not end with his death. His compositions have lived on and continue to be sung and re-recorded. In 2001, the Cartola Cultural Centre was created in Mangueira, which preserves his memory and his legacy and has him as an example to follow because “his story of struggle, of overcoming difficulties and active insertion of the individual in society through cultural production.” (CENTRO CULTURAL CARTOLA).

During his lifetime, Cartola only left Mangueira a few times, always to return. The ‘poet of roses’ was part of Mangueira and Mangueira was part of him. Cartola made his name in samba and at the same time, made samba’s history. The story of his life was told in the 2007 documentary Cartola – Música para os olhos (Cartola – Music for the Eyes), directed by Lírio Ferreira and Hilton Lacerda.
Recife, 26 March 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, May 2015.

sources consulted

CARTOLA. In: Enciclopédia Itaú Cultural. Available at: <>. Accessed: 26 mar. 2014. 

CENTRO CULTURAL CARTOLA. Apresentação. Available at: <>. Accessed: 26 mar. 2014. 

SILVA, Marília T. Barboza da; OLIVEIRA FILHO, Arthur L. de. Cartola: os tempos idos. Rio de Janeiro: FUNARTE/INM/DMP, 1983. 

how to quote this text

Source: MORIM, Júlia. Cartola. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year.