Brazilian songs out of the closet

Pride season is making me think about the importance of Brazilian music in my life and all the songs that left marks in my sentimental education. It is funny how sexuality seems to always have been at the center of Brazilian popular music in a way that I don’t think happens in other cultures.

I do not mean all the Carnival songs about sex, which range from funny to tasteless and outright sexist. Neither am I referring to all the seemingly homophobic songs, some of which — such as Tim Maia’s “Vale Tudo” (“Anything Goes”) — have been reappropriated by gays and lesbians in Brazilian dance clubs. Rather I am talking about all the songs that are more or less ambiguous in terms of gender and sexuality and, as such, created a language — at least for my generation — in which to express alternative sensibilities and sometimes the very experience of the closet.

I remember, for example, going to a Secos & Molhados concert when I still lived in a small town in Minas Gerais in the early 1970s. It is incredible that these androgynous performers, who sang about masculinity and sexuality as they gyrated their hips and crotches wildly, were extremely popular, even (or especially) among children. I will never forget how as early as the group’s first concert, frontman Ney Matogrosso changed clothes on stage, provocatively and playfully showing his butt to uncensored audiences. All this during the hard years of military dictatorship!

Matogrosso soon pursued a solo career and continued to challenge received versions of sexuality in classics such as “Homem com H” (“Man with a Capital M”), or play with stereotypes in songs such as “Calúnias (Telma Eu Não Sou Gay),” a 1983 parody of an old Brazilian ballad sung in English, “Tell Me Once Again,” which was also recorded by the new wave group João Penca e Seus Miquinhos Amestrados; its title translates as “Slander (Telma, I’m Not Gay).” Matogrosso did record at least one song explicitly about same-sex love, “Seu Waldir” (1981) — and although here, as in other cases, it is possible to claim that the poetic voice is a woman, this is not what most gay men want to hear.

It was Gilberto Gil who first made some of us feel that we were not alone in our desires and in the way we imagined masculinity. His “Superhomem — A Canção” (“Superman — The Song,”) released in 1979 (a year after the blockbuster Superman — the Movie) was quite a revelation for the teenagers of my generation. It may sound a bit cheesy today, but at the time, at least for me, it was quite liberating to hear someone say that men did not have to act macho, nor should we be ashamed to respect and admire women. Gil would later write other songs that suggested homosexuality in one way or another, such as “Pai e Mãe,” and the more explicit tribute called “O Veado,” which literally translates as “The Deer,” but is also the popular term used to refer to gay men. Gil also wrote “Corações a Mil” (“Hearts Going Full Tilt”), a celebration of bisexuality that became a hit in the voice of lesbian icon Marina Lima.

Caetano Veloso was equally fundamental in this story, not only because of his songs, but also for his gender presentation: he often wore skirts and kissed all the members of his band on the lips. Tell me if you have ever seen anything sexier and more flirtatious than the encounters between Chico Buarque and Caetano singing “Tatuagem” and “Esse Cara” or “Cotidiano.” Who is the man and who is the woman here?

Veloso also created a masculine, highly homoerotic version of the “girl from Ipanema” in his “Menino do Rio.” His provocative streak would remain intact for years; he recorded another bisexual anthem, Jorge Mautner’s “Vampiro,” and continued to challenge identity categories in songs such as “Ele Me Deu Um Beijo Na Boca” (“He kissed me on the mouth”) and “Eu sou Neguinha?” (“Am I a black girl?”). Too bad Caetano became rather boring and conservative (in my opinion), turning behavioral ambiguities into politically-minded ambivalence; in his autobiography, Vereda Tropical, he even denies ever having had any desire for men, which is really an unfortunate statement for someone who represented so much for Brazilian counterculture.

Chico Buarque is famous for composing and singing in female poetic voices, which may give rise to much ambiguity but is not the same as identifying as gay or loving other men. Yet, he wrote a number of his songs that either address same-sex love (mostly between women) or  mention sexual experimentation (“troca-troca”) between boys, such as “Doze Anos.” There’s also his famously controversial “Geni e o Zepelin,” which tells the story of a transvestite prostitute who faces prejudice and is violently abused by the members of her hometown.

Some composers who didn’t make a habit out of of addressing gender issues but came up with great one-offs; one of my favorite songs is “A Nível de”, where João Bosco tells an anecdote about two heterosexual couples who break up as the males and females start same-sex relationships with each other, only to run into the same marital problems.

Although some Brazilian performers such as Matogrosso and Cauby Peixoto have always been gay icons, few male artists expressed themselves from a gay subject position — at least until the rise of Cazuza and Renato Russo (the former more openly gay than the latter), two of the most important artists of the 1980’s pop and rock scene, both of whom died of complications from AIDS. In his last album, Cazuza recorded “Preconceito” (Prejudice), which was originally sung by its composer, Nora Ney, from a hetero standpoint and had already been given a homoaffective twist in Maria Bethania’s self-titled 1969 album. Russo composed and recorded Stonewall Celebration Concert in 1994.

While male performers tended to resort to ambiguity while depicting same-sex desire or challenging gender representation, Brazilian female performers were more consistent and straightforward in representing same-sex romance and lesbian identities. Everybody in Brazil knew, or at least assumed, that some of the country’s greatest singers — such as Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, Simone, Angela Rô Rô, Cassia Eller, Adriana Calcanhoto, Ana Carolina and many others — were lesbians. Many of their song were interpreted indeed as love songs addressed to other women; my lesbian friends had their whole discography, and the cult of their music was a powerful community catalyst.

If some of the songs I described here were important in my own formative years, it wasn’t until much later that I learned about other songs with gay messages (sometimes explicitly about same-sex desire) which to my surprise were not written or performed by artists of the 1960’s counterculture, nor by those from the post-1980’s new wave and pop rock generation. Rodrigo Faour, in his História Sexual da MPB, has documented some such singers and composers:thus I learned that as early as 1931, for example, Noel Rosa already sang songs such as “Mulato Bamba,” which was allegedly inspired by the famous gay outlaw known as Madame Satã.

And what a surprise I had the first time I listened to “Cordas e Correntes,” by Martinho da Vila, a traditional samba composer whose heterosexuality seems to be beyond any suspicion. Like Gilberto Gil’s “Pai e Mãe,” released about the same time, the poetic voice created by Martinho da Vila in this song simulates a young man addressing his parents, but in this case reclaiming his homosexuality in a very explicitly gesture of coming out of the closet. Other unexpected cases (at least for me) include an Agnaldo Timóteo song about Galeria Alaska, a famous cruising site in Rio de Janeiro; Nelson Ned’s “Meu jeito de Amar” (“My way of loving”); Odair José’s “Forma de Sentir” (A way of feeling); and according to some, even “Emoções” by loverman Wando, depending on whether or not you include a comma in: “A lua iluminou teu corpo/ moreno (,) bonito, pra me provocar” (this one is untranslatable).

To be sure, a lot of Brazilian gay performers and composers remain silent about their sexuality; rumor has it that the list of closeted performers includes romantic singers such as Emílio Santiago and Brazilian country music singer Luciano. Only recently have artists such as Paulo Azeviche started composing and singing homoaffective songs, making clear statements about homosexuality in popular music — including the graphic, outrageous songs and performances by Textículos de Mary.

Others might not be gay, but have not been afraid to play with gender presentation and same-sex desire. At any rate, a lot has changed since I first heard Gilberto Gil’s “Superhomem”: gay rights have been conquered, and today São Paulo has the largest gay pride parade in the world, while every other major city in Brazil has its own version of it. Brazilians express homosexuality and claim same-sex rights in their own ways, which are only partially inspired by U.S. civil rights struggles and often involve music in one way or another.

So here is my personal selection of the best pride and same-sex songs from Brazil, in chronological order and with free-form translations of key lines (click on the title for the entire lyrics):

  1. “Mulato Bamba” (1931) — Noel Rosa: “This mulatto wants no business with women”
  2. “Preconceito” (1969) — Maria Bethania: “If there’s a strong prejudice/Keeping you and me apart/Why this kiss now?”
  3.  “O Vira” (1973) — Secos e Molhados: “Become a man or become a werewolf”
  4. “Pai e Mãe” — Gilberto Gil (1974): “It took me so long to learn how to kiss other men the way I kiss my father “
  5. “Cordas e Correntes” (1975) — Martinho da Vila – “Mom, dad, why can’t I come out and declare my going astray? […] You only think of marriage and engagement, what a torment!!”
  6. “A Galeria do Amor” (1975 ) — Agnaldo Timóteo: “The gallery of love is like this/A place of different emotions, where ‘those who know’ can love freely”
  7. “Super Homem — A Canção” (1978) — Gilberto Gil” “I once thought that to be a man would be enough”
  8. “Menino do Rio “ (1979) — Caetano Veloso: “Take this song as kiss”
  9. “Vampiro” (1979) — Jorge Mautner: “I suck the blood of all the boys and girls who cross my way”
  10. “Bastidores” (1980) by Chico Buarque, with Cauby Peixoto: “Lots of glitter and make up … and I sang, I cried, I sang, and all the men asking for an encore”
  11. “Homem com H” (1981) — Ney Matogrosso: “I am even almost dating now/Because I am a man, I am a Man”
  12. A Nível de …” (1982 ) — João Bosco: “Vanderei and Odilon opened a restaurant where one can eat whatever s/he likes”
  13. “Calúnias” (1983) — João Penca e seus miquinhos amestrados: “Telma, I am not gay, what they say about be is pure defamation/Oh my dear, I’ve stopped doing that”
  14. “O Tempo não para” (1988) — Cazuza: “They call me a thief, a fag, a drug addict and then turn the nation into a big whorehouse”

Originally published on our first website, Chicagoano.

Written by César Braga Pinto

I am an Associate Professor of Brazilian and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. I previously taught at Rutgers University and was a visiting professor at Columbia University and at the Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique) as a Fulbright Scholar. I was also a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Brazil Institute at King's College in London (2013) and a post-doctoral fellow at University of São Paulo (2006-2007).

I am the author of As Promessas da História: Discursos Proféticos e Assimilação no Brasil Colonial (2003) and the editor of Ligeiros Traços: escritos de juventude de José Lins do Rego (2007). I am currently working on a book-project that deals with representations of male friendship and interracial sociability in fiction and essays written in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in Brazil (roughly from 1888 to the early 1930’s).



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