A hundred years of the lonely dancer

Legendary samba artist, Paulo da Portela would turn 100 years old on June 18th

Julio Moura
"In Oswaldo Cruz, close to Madureira (northern Rio de Janeiro), everybody was talking about Paulo Benjamin de Oliveira". The verses of Passado de Glória, written by Monarco and Chico Santana and immortalized by Paulinho da Viola, demonstrate the importance of Paulo da Portela to many generations of samba artists, from and outside of Madureira (home of Portela samba school). On June 18th, Paulo (who called himself Portela even before the existence of the school) would celebrate his 100th birthday.

"I first met Paulo when he was already a legendary character inside the school. He was a very polite man, but extremely polemical. He wanted samba to be professional, not amateur. I was at his funeral and Madureira stopped on that day", recalls Colombo, 72, one of Portela’s oldest composers.

When Paulo came from Saúde (central Rio de Janeiro) to Oswaldo Cruz (in the northern side of town) with his mother and sister (his father had abandoned the family during his childhood) in the beginning of the 1920’s, the neighborhood was a rural area – there was no electricity or running water or sanitation. At age 20, he was designing furniture and organizing samba parties in the community, but also started to get some recognition as a lyricist and improvisation artist.

According to researchers Marília T. Barboza and Lygia Santos, authors of the book Paulo da Portela – Traço de União Entre Duas, he got together with Antônio Rufino and Antônio Caetano in 1922 to start the carnival bloco (percussion group) Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz. Since he lived near Estrada da Portela, the tall, slim and handsome black man was called Paulo da Portela. A year later, the bloco would turn into the samba school Vai Como Pode until finally becoming Portela, in 1935.

But Paulo didn’t only make his mark in the school that bore his name. His sambas were hits on the radio days, in the 30’s (being recorded by Mário Reis, Carlos Galhardo and Orlando Silva). With his peers Heitor dos Prazeres, Cartola and Monarco, he helped define the samba from Rio de Janeiro. He also stood for the songwriters’ rights.

"Paulo is the greatest master in all of Portela community. His importance to samba is immeasurable", exclaims samba composer Noca da Portela, who, like many others, regards himself as musical and spiritual heir of pioneer Paulo.

To Wilson Moreira, Paulo Benjamim de Oliveira’s main contribution to the world of samba is grace: "I became a Portela aficionado in 1968, introduced by Mestre Natal. As soon as we got to the school, Natal told me to write samba with grace, like Paulo used to do – this is his greatest legacy."

"No other composer was so connected to a samba school like Paulo and Portela. But ironically, he broke up with the school", says Portela devotee Walter Alfaiate, another heir of Paulo’s personal and stylistic grace.

In spite of the references and reverence, Paulo’s sambas remain sparsely remembered. Cidade Mulher, Pam Pam Pam and Cocorocó are his most famous songs. But besides fanatic researchers and veteran Portela fans, nobody hears these songs, nowadays. The album with Velha Guarda da Portela (Portela’s Old-School group) performing Paulo Benjamim de Oliveira’s music, recorded for the Japanese market in the 80’s, is scheduled for release this month in Brazil on Nikita Music, which might help bring his sambas back from oblivion.

Paulo died before making peace with his beloved samba school. In the carnival of 1941, he’d come back from São Paulo with Cartola and Heitor dos Prazeres straight to Portela’s parade. As they were all dressed in black and white (the São Paulo’s show’s attire), Cartola and Heitor were not allowed to parade with Portela. Sympathetic to his friends, Paulo refused to accompany the school.

Years later, Paulo was willing to call a truce with Portela. On the night of January 30th, 1949, he stopped by to see his friends Zé and Zilda and was acclaimed by the public in attendance, who demanded his immediate return to the samba school. On that same night, he died of a heart attack. Madureira cried.