There was a time when people looked down on samba as low class street music, but now it is recognized as a national Brazilian art form. Sound familiar, my jazz friends? Arguably, samba is even more codified as a Brazilian cultural institution. Tourists traveling to Brazil want to hear the samba, even if they can’t tell the rhythm from a bossa. Martinho da Vila was playing and composing sambas when they were disreputable, but now he is an internationally regarded elder statesman of music. The man born Martinho José Ferreira takes us on a tour of the samba schools and venues in his Vila Isabel neighborhood in Georges Gachot’s O Samba (trailer here), which screens as part of the Music + Film Brazil film series at Symphony Space.
When watching the samba schools rehearse their tunes and craft their carnival costumes, it is hard to avoid comparisons with New Orleans second-liners and Mardi Gras. In both cases, music goes hand-in-hand with good times, but it also reminds revelers of past historical struggles and fortifies them with strength for the future. For years, “Martinho” has written show-stoppers for the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school. Through thick and thin, he stayed true to his school, but also became quite a samba star in his own right. For instance, when Nana Mouskouri decides to record a samba album at the source, it is Martinho she looks up.
Martinho is a likable raconteur and a charismatic performer. When he sticks to music, he is on solid ground. Wisely, Gachot tries to do just that, only allowing politics to creep in with respects some mild Pan-African rhetoric. (Sadly, Sr. Martinho maintains his allegiance to the Communist ideology, apparently willfully blind to its legacy of oppression and mass murder, much like Oscar Niemeyer.)