Straight from the samba grounds to the rest of Brazil, via Tokyo

Three albums by the Old School groups of samba schools Portela and Mangueira finally come out - on CDs produced for the Japanese market

Nana Vaz de Castro
Long before the Old School samba fever was installed, Japanese producer Katsunori Tanaka, a lover of the Brazilian genre, realized the importance of registering and recording some of the most beautiful favela sambas ever written, and made a point about taking both samba groups into recording studios: the Old School groups of Portela (in 1986) and Mangueira (in 1989), two of the eldest and most traditional samba schools in Rio de Janeiro. Until that moment, the only similar move had been made by Paulinho da Viola, who gathred Portela samba masters and produced the historic LP Portela Passado de Glória ouvir 30s (available on CD) in 1971.

The result of Tanaka's initiative are these two essential albums: Portela's Doce Recordação ouvir 30s and the green-and-pink's Mangueira Chegou ouvir 30s. The pack that is now coming out on Nikita Records features one more treat, also produced for the Japanese market: Velhas Companheiras ouvir 30s, recorded last year by the superb trio Nelson Sargento, Guilherme de Brito and Monarco. "Velhas Companheiras" means "Longtime Companions", which is how the old samba schools refer to one another. Today, besides Portela and Mangueira, the old school groups from Salgueiro and Império Serrano have also been performing and making albums.

"Not dead yet"
The story dates back to the 80s and can be blamed on the brothers and musicians Beto and Henrique Cazes, who asked Cristina Buarque to take her Japanese friend to the suburb of Oswaldo Cruz to meet the elder samba musicians. "They were a bit defensive, because so many people had been there and promised to make records that never came out. A long time passed between the day we took Tanaka there and the beginning of the recording sessions", recalls Cristina. According to Tanaka, one of the reasons why he decided to produce the discs - apart from the fact that they hadn't made an album in 16 years - was the lyrics for Hino da Velha Guarda, by Francisco Santana, which says "Estamos velhos/Mas ainda não morremos", or "We are old, now/But not dead, yet". "I thought that they deserved a chance, it was about time that they did it", says the producer in the booklet of Doce Recordação.

"The difference from the album Tudo Azul (2000) to this one is that many of the musicians have died", says Cristina, referring to masters like Manacéa, Chico Santana and Alberto Lonato. "It is very important that these CDs are coming out now", claims the singer who interprets Vaidade de um Sambista (Chico Santana) and Quando o Samba Acabou (Noel Rosa) in Velhas Companheiras.

Monarco, regarded as the guardian of Portela's history, endorses: "In the album that is being re-released now and in all of them, we have always followed the same guidelines, which have been the guidelines of our masters ever since the days of Caetano, Rufino and Paulo da Portela, the three bastions of Portela". Monarco also remembers that as soon as they realized that Tanaka's intentions were true, the Old School group, led by Manacéa, consulted the group's bestman, Paulinho da Vila, who encouraged them.

Both Cristina and Monarco unanimously affirm that Portela has countless unreleased sambas. "The crate is huge, and full of gold", claims Monarco. "To select the repertoire of Tudo Azul, we went through more than 200 songs with Marisa (Monte, who produced the album)". Cristina reinforces: "They play this repertoire, which is usually the same, but there are plenty of gems yet to be discovered".

Learning Portuguese with Cartola
Tanaka's relation with Mangueira is also intense, so much so that he decided to learn Portuguese because of Cartola's first album, from 1974. He was willing to come to Brazil and interview Cartola, but the composer died. He came, anyway, and was introduced into Mangueria through the hands of Portela's Monarco. Tanaka befriended Carlos Cachaça and witnessed the birth of Mangueira's Old School group, around 1987, organized by Aluísio Dias, who died shortly after the end of the recording sessions. In 1989, Tanaka managed to take this group into a studio to record for the first time sambas written by Cartola, Sargento, Cachaça and other historic characters, like Aluísio Dias, Babaú and Padeirinho. The musicians were all from the Mangueira area, with a few guest appearances.

Over ten years later, Velhas Companheiras brings back - via Japan - the roots of the samba made in Rio. With arrangements that include the clarinet, flute and tuba, the songs gain a new life as sang by the ever-younger Nelson Sargento (76 y.o.), Guilherme de Brito (79 y.o.) and Monarco (67 y.o.).

It is also worth mentioning that, besides Tanaka, the guitarist and arranger Paulão 7 Cordas also appears in the three discs, and is responsible for the musical direction of Tudo Azul. Paulão is an unquestionable samba authority, and manages to bring unity and equivalent guidelines to the albums, combining sensitivity, respect and high technical levels, and boasting remarkable experience as a musical director in studios.

The label Nikita seems to be after this niche in the market, and scores some points while printing these albums in Brazil - a distorted country, where, sometimes, one has to go to the other side of the world to bring back the most gutsy cultural manifestations.