It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in Zona Norte (North Zone), Rio de Janeiro. Thushan, Brian and I have just had the fortune of meeting the Velha Guarda da Mangueira, a samba outfit comprised of 10 of the most senior members of Rio’s Mangueira samba school.
I first saw the Velha Guarda perform in 2003 at a free show in Salvador, Brazil and the magical memories of that night – without question the best concert I’ve ever witnessed – have remained vivid in my mind.
This time around, however, our more personal visit to the Velha Guarda has turned out to be less than magical. Perhaps it was the lack of a typical audience participation that made the group appear flat during our brief private set. Or maybe old age has finally taken its toll on this group of master musicians.
Content to have met the group and visit them in their home rehearsal space we begin thanking the musicians and start preparing for our departure.
Then the question comes: “You wanna have a beer down on the corner?” asks Josimar. Not particularly in the mood to drink and anxious to get in some much needed beach time before the sun goes down I debate how I can respectfully decline his offer.
“Come on! Let’s go have one. Just one. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.” Josimar assures us.
“OK, but do you think we’ll make it back in time to catch the sunset on Ipanema?” I ask.
“Sure,” Josimar replies, “The sooner we drink this beer, the sooner you’ll make it to the beach.”
I give in and we head over to a tiny bar on the street. I assume that our party will consist of just Thushan, Brian, Josimar and I, but the bar owner quickly starts lining up plastic tables one after another, setting out chairs for a group of 15.
No more than 10 minutes later the entire Velha Guarda is seated around the long table. I quickly realize that we have only scratched the surface of our visit to Mangueira.Beers are brought out for everyone and after a few brief sips from his cup, the group’s cavaquinho player Siqueira breaks out his small, four-stringed instrument and begins strumming away. Genuíno picks up his tamborim and joins Siqueira beating out a syncopated samba rhythm.
Unable to resist temptation, Mocinho calls out to the bartender asking for an empty bucket. Playing the bucket in lieu of a surdo, Mocinho adds the bass drum line to anchor the jam.And then the singing commences.
At 82 years old, Tia Zélia is the group’s most senior member, and leads the table in a typical Mangueira medley. At last, the true Velha Guarda da Mangueira that I’d been longing to see again has arrived.
November, 2003, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
As a foreign exchange student I quickly learned of the social importance of Friday afternoons at my new school. Friday’s at UCSAL (Universidade Católica do Salvador) are lively affairs, especially when one considers that UCSAL-Federação is a commuter campus.
It is rare for students exiting their final classes of the week to leave campus without spending an hour or more mingling with fellow classmates. Students peruse the open-air used-book market, enjoy the music of resident buskers and share beers at plastic card tables in the tiny bar across the street.
Groups of friends are seen scattered about the small campus trading gossip and deliberating over weekend plans. The word of mouth transmission of weekend to-dos is invaluable here. In a city so heavily saturated with wonderful musicians, concerts and outdoor shows, the newspapers, radio and television can cover only a small fraction of the local happenings.
The only way to make sure you are not missing out on the concert of a lifetime is to keep your ear to the pavement and hope that your friends keep you in the loop.
On this particular Friday I left my history class with plans to go home, fix some dinner and relax. I had perused the local paper’s arts and leisure section for shows of interest that afternoon but had found none that called my name, and besides, I’d had a late night the evening before.
Upon entering the school’s central courtyard I noticed a heightened sense of excitement among the flocks of students hanging out. Word around campus was that the Velha Guarda da Mangueira (The Old Guard of Mangueira) would be playing a free show that evening for the masses.
At this point in time, I did not fully understand the significance of the Velha Guarda da Mangueira. I knew that the Rio-based samba school Mangueira was rich in history and I’d heard a couple samba enredo (carnival samba) recordings of Mangueira from compilation CDs but had never truly immersed myself in their music.
The Velha Guarda da Mangueira, as my classmate Railson explained, is a musical outfit comprised of the samba school’s 10 or so most senior, well-respected members. They are the golden elders of Mangueira, a link to the school’s storied past and a singing jukebox of the Mangueira’s most famous tunes.
Once the importance of this event hit me, I knew that I couldn’t miss it. I arrived at the venue early but the place was packed, so much so that I had to slip through the dense crowd at the door to get a spot squeezed in at the very back of the hall.
Before I could finish settling in, the crowd exploded with applause. From stage left, the members of the Velha Guarda entered into the spotlight, dressed in Mangueira’s classic green and pink.
The outfit of 12 singers (some doubling as instrumentalists) that made up the Velha Guarda were backed by a drum core of nearly 20 drummers, playing an assortment of tamborims, reco-recos, surdos and cuícas.
The group began the set with their signature opening number, “Mangueira Chegou,” a fiery samba enredo anthem that announces the group’s arrival, sung with the fervor of a gospel choir, the drums beating like a freight train entering the station.
Without hesitation, the crowd joined in, singing along with the elders, filling the building with a frenetic energy that, up until then, I had never felt in my lifetime.
Building song by song, the energy of the singers and drummers grew as the night carried on. A quarter way through the set, the crowd dripped with sweat.
Mangueira’s universal appeal to Brazilians from all walks of life showed in the diverse cross-section of fans that filled the hall. The chorus of singers from the crowd, now 2000 strong, carried on into the night, singing samba anthem after anthem along with the Velha Guarda, the syncopated batucada of the tamborims and surdos driving through each number.
By the end of the show, two hours later, both the crowd and band had exhausted every last drop of energy.In the months and then years following the concert I did everything possible to hang on to the memory of that night. While recordings of the greater Mangueira samba school are common, there were only a limited number of recordings that exclusively featured the Velha Guarda.
I purchased the few available recordings of the Velha Guarda da Mangueira and read what little material I could find on the group’s members and history.Time passed and I returned to the U.S. to finish my degree, eventually settling in New York City, a town I hoped would give me numerous opportunities to continue to see great live music. Alas, more than four years later, I had yet to witness another live musical act whose passion and energy equaled that of the Velha Guarda.
When it became certain that I would be returning to Brazil and visiting Rio de Janeiro, home of Mangueira, I immediately began searching the Brazilian papers and internet for upcoming Velha Guarda shows.
With nothing listed, I decided to contact the group directly, eventually reaching manager and musical director Josimar Monteiro who cordially invited us to visit the Velha Guarda at Mangueira’s samba school headquarters. I was giddy at the thought of this extraordinary encounter.
February, 2008, Rio de Janeiro
We arrive at the Morro da Mangueira around one, pulling up directly in front of the Quadra, a huge green and pink building, that houses the practice space for the Mangueira samba school.
Ascending up the hill behind the Quadra is the bustling neighborhood of the same name. The neighborhood was aptly named Mangueira (mango tree in Portuguese) due to the abundance of mango trees that covered the hill when squatters originally settled the area in the mid-19th century and Mangueira’s official colors of green and pink also pay homage to the mango.
Upon entering the Quadra, Josimar introduces us to the president of the Mangueira samba school Eli Gonçalves Da Silva. Da Silva is the granddaughter of the school’s first president and is Mangueira’s first female president in its 80-year history. We are led upstairs to the samba school’s offices, passing by a glowing, glass-enclosed trophy room filled with the booty of prizes won in Mangueira’s triumphant history.
The pride that the school’s members take in Mangueira’s success is immediately apparent. Each year, the school practices one original number to perform at the annual carnival competition.
These annual performances at Rio’s Sambadromo (the city’s carnival parade arena) feature the complete samba school drum core, several hundred drummers strong, along with dozens of singers, dancers, flag bearers and an assortment of other miscellaneous performers.
While Mangueira, in recent years, has not experienced the success normally associated with the school’s rich history, there are few members of the Brazilian public that don’t recognize at least one Mangueira samba enredo.
The Velha Guarda is a preservation of this history, a unit of musicians whose repertoire draws on 80 years of school’s carnival samba enredos, as well as, other classic tunes composed by past and present group members.
After a quick tour of premises we are brought downstairs to meet the Velha Guarda. At best, Thushan, Brian and I had hoped to meet a few of the members, conduct a couple brief interviews and be gone.
Instead, as we descend the stairs into the Quadra, we are greeted with the glowing smiles of all 10 of the Velha Guarda’s remaining members. The group is even dressed in their traditional green and pink, with instruments in hand ready to perform.“Could this be real?” I think to myself. “A private concert with the Velha Guarda da Mangueira!” After exchanging pleasantries with everyone, the band sets up around two large tables in the center of the Quadra, the men on one side, women on the other, and the singing begins.
At first, the band of elders appears a bit out of sync. They cordially debate over which key each song should be sung in and argue over the proper lyrics to a classic Mangueira tune, “Alvorada.”The group sings a half a dozen numbers including the classic, “Chega de Demanda,” composed in 1928 for Mangueira’s first ever carnival.
By now they have warmed up a little but still appear flat. The accompanying reco-reco, tamborim and cavaquinho give the songs some life, but the chorus of voices is not singing with the same signature Mangueirense passion.
After one last song, the concert is over. The elders begin to change out of their traditional uniforms. They appear relieved to be through with the rocky, mini-concert.
Back on the street…
Mocinho continues to beat out the bass drum line on the bucket that he holds across his lap. Back outside, with libations greasing the tunes, the Velha Guarda is singing with exponentially more passion than before, the group carries on singing tune after tune around the long table.
Passersby on the street pause to take in the scene, some joining in to sing along with the group. Song after song, the Velha Guarda proudly recounts the history of their home, Estação Primeira de Mangueira (Station Number One-Mangueira), a nickname derived from the old train station that lies at the base of the neighborhood.
Thushan, Brian and I sit back, wide-eyed, smiling ear to ear. The same feeling derived from my first Mangueira concert experience in 2003 returns once again.
During breaks from singing, we listen to Velha Guarda members Tia Zélia, Zenith, Ary and Sapotí as they reminisce about their proudest moments with the group. Tia Zélia recounts the group’s 1999 tour in Europe.
“We may be old, but we are family.” she tells me. “I was born on this hill in 1926 and I’m proud to say that still live on this hill. I’m just glad to have had the opportunity to bring the traditions of Mangueira to people around the world.”
Tia Zé, as her friends and family call her, has performed with the Mangueira samba school for more than 50 years and shows little signs of slowing down.“The Velha Guarda da Mangueira was born inside my house.” she explains.
In 1956, Tia Zélia’s late husband, Aluísio Dias founded the Velha Guarda da Mangueira along with celebrated Mangueira composer Cartola, with the intention of preserving the musical traditions of the community while providing the neighborhood’s talented composers with a more prominent platform from which to spread their music.
Clearly this vision has been realized and lives on through Tia Zélia and her peers.
Two hours pass and the elders are still singing. The energy born out of their music is infectious and we absorb it song by song.
Empty bottles of beer lay about the table as the sun begins to set over the hill. There will be no time for the beach today, only new friends, tales from the old neighborhood and samba.