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Poet, Songwriter, Doctor



Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 20/06/2018

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

José de Souza Dantas Filho, known as Zé Dantas or Zedantas, as he used to sign, was born in the municipality of Carnaíba de Flores, Sertão do Alto Pajeú in Pernambuco on 27 February 1921.

While still a child, he moved to Recife to study and become a doctor, as his parents wished, belonging to the Northeast rural bourgeois. He was a student at the high schools Nóbrega, Americano Batista and Marista

In 1938, at the age of 17, he had already composed ‘baiões’ and ‘toadas’, even publishing some in the Revista Formação, published by Colégio Americano Batista.

According to testimony by folklorist Mário Souto Maior, his classmate at Marista, Zedantas lived shaking a box of matches and creating improvisation songs in the corridors of the Colégio.

During the time he was a Medical student, to the despair of his father, he became a bohemian. He spent nights in bars in the city suburbs, writing poems, singing and developing his musical creativity.

In 1947, when he was still studying Medicine, already having some fame as an “improviser” artist and composer in the Recife university scene, he discovered that the singer and composer Luiz Gonzaga, of whom he was a great admirer, was in Recife staying at the Grande Hotel. He managed to deliver some of his compositions, among which probably included Vem morena (Come Here, Brown Haired Girl) and Forró do Mané Vito, which were recorded by him in 1949; A volta da asa branca (The Return of White Wing) and Acauã, recorded in 1950 and 1952 respectively.

In December 1949 he graduated in Medicine from the Federal University of Pernambuco. The following year he moved to Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of the Republic, to do his medical residency in obstetrics. He worked at the IPASE Hospital, where he came to be Vice-Director of Maternity; attended patients in his practice as a gynaecologist, but continued investing in his career as a composer. He was also the director of the radio show O Rei do Baião (The King of ‘Baião’), at Rádio Nacional and of the Folkloric Department at Rádio Mayrink Veiga.

Zedantas never studied music nor knew how to play any instrument. He composed by keeping the time with a box of matches. He could easily write verses. It is said that he was a researcher and promoter of Northeast Brazilian popular culture. As a composer, poet and folklorist, he was one of the main people responsible for establishing ‘baião’ as a successful musical genre in Brazil through his partnerships with ‘O Rei do Baião’ (Gonzaga) from 1950.

Besides being a composer, one of the most striking characteristics of his personality was his sense of humour. He was admired as a humorist from the time he was a student in Recife and also in Rio de Janeiro. His stories or “tales” were told at ‘forrós’, parties and on radio programmes.

For him the match between the music and the musician was fundamental. So his more sensual music was delivered to Ivon Cury and the more “Northeast” to Luiz Gonzaga, with whom he was a partner. Around 50 of his compositions were registered in partnership with O Rei do Baião, from 1950 to 1957.

For Zedantas, his partnership with Luiz Gonzaga was fundamental to spread the customs, art and social life of the people of the ‘caatingas’ of Northeast Brazil.

His work reflected cultural themes of the Northeast people: their parties, ‘novenas’, ‘vaquejadas’, ‘farinhadas’ (cassava flour factories), ‘forrós’, weddings, June festivals, medicinal and agricultural practices, handicrafts, popular poetry and even, the meeting of the ‘matuto’, or ‘caipira’ (hillbilly) as they say in the south, with the city. As a “sertanejo da cidade” (city man from the country), Zedantas looked to find a connection between the Northeast countryside culture and the popular urban culture of Rio de Janeiro, where he spent most of his life.

In the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s his music were hits in live shows, public places and radio programmes in the Northeast and Rio de Janeiro, reaching the top of the charts and sometime remaining there for several months.

Gradually the composer dominated the doctor. In 1957 his work as a doctor was a weekly shift. He dedicated the rest of his time to music. He composed, rehearsed with singers, guided the production of records and shows, dictating a form of interpretation, gestures, exclamations and making radio shows.

With the success gained by his music, being a composer began to give him more financial reward than practicing Medicine.

In 1959 he organised, at the request of the record company RCA-VICTOR, a collection of his greatest hits with Luiz Gonzaga, with an explanatory text written by him, released in the first edition of the LP (long-play) Luiz Gonzaga canta seus sucessos com Zedantas (Luiz Gonzaga Sings His Hits with Zedantas).

Among the countless compositions, the following stand out: Vem morena and Forró do Mané Vito (1949); A dança da moda (The Fashion Dance), Cintura fina (Tiny Waist), A volta da asa branca, Derramaro o gai, Adeus ao Rio de Janeiro (Goodbye Rio de Janeiro), Rei Bantu (Bantu King), O torrado (The Toasted) (1950); O machucado (The Hurt), Mariá, Sabiá (1951); Imbalança (Unbalanced), Acauã, São João na Roça (St John in the Field), Tudo é baião (Everything is Baião) (1952); O xote das meninas (The Girls’ Xote), 13 de dezembro, Vozes da seca (Voices from the Drought), O casamento de Rosa (Rosa’s Wedding), A letra I (The Letter I), Algodão (Cotton), Meu papagaio (My Parrot), ABC do sertão (ABC of the Sertão) (1953); Feira do gado (Cattle Market), Olha a pisada (Watch Your Step), Vô casá já (I’ll Marry Now), Noites brasileiras (Brazilian Nights), Lascando o cano (Cutting the Pipe), O baião do Verimundo (Verimundo’s Baião), Pronde tu vai Luí? (Where are You Going, Luí), Cartão de Natal (Christmas Card), Minha fulô (My Flower), Januário vai tocá (Januário’s Gonna Play) (1954); Cabra da peste (Tough Guy), Ai amor (Hey Love), Farinhada, Riacho do Navio (Ship Stream) (1955); Na beira do mar (By the Sea), Praia dengosa (Loving Beach), Cangote cheiroso (Sweet-Smelling Neck) (1956); O passo da rancheira (The Ranch-Lady’s Steps), São João antigo (Old St John), O circo (The Circus), Raque, O delegado do côco (The Coconut Sheriff) (1957); Mariquinha, O xen-nhen-nhen (1958).

Zedantas died on 11 March 1962 in Rio de Janeiro. In his honour a bust was erected in his native city. In Recife, his name was given to a street in the Casa Amarela neighbourhood and one of the rooms at the Academy of Composers, of which he was a member and had his chair occupied by Capiba.

In 1963 Luiz Gonzaga recorded the songs Homenagem a Zedantas (Homage to Zedantas) by Antonio Barros and Zedantas by Onildo Almeida.

In 1978, on the occasion of an even to honour him held in Carnaíba de Flores, PE, his native city, another song, never recorded, was sung, written by Laércio:

Todo mundo chorou (Everyone cried)
No Pajeú (In Pajeú)
Todo mundo chorou... (Everyone cried)

Quem não se lembra (Who doesn’t remember)
Do baião da Farinhada (The ‘baião’ ‘Farinhada’)
Do Riacho do Navio (‘Riacho do Navio’)
Falando das vaquejadas (Speaking of the ‘vaquejadas’ [rodeos])
Acauã e Asa branca (‘Acauã’ and ‘Asa Branca’)
A cantar no Cariri (Singing in Cariri)
E aquela casa caiada (And that whitewashed house)
Onde mora A letra I (Where lived ‘A letra I’)

Until today his compositions continue to be sung by famous names in Brazilian popular music, for example Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Alceu Valença, and others.

Recife, 20 February 2008.
Updated on 9 September 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.
Updated on 20 june 2018.

sources consulted

CÂMARA, Renato Phaelante da. MPB, compositores pernambucanos:coletânea bio-músico-fonográfica, 1920-1995. Recife: Fundaj: Ed. Massangana, 1997.

FERRETTI, Mundicarmo Maria Rocha. Baião dos dois: a música de Zedantas e Luiz Gonzaga no seu contexto de produção e sua atualização na década de 70. Recife: Fundaj: Ed. Massangana, 1988.

ZÉ Dantas. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 18 fev. 2008.

ZEDANTAS [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 1º fev. 2012.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Zé Dantas. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.