Samba Beyond the Parade: An Interview with Paulinho da Viola
Tamara Courage and Albert Elduque
Abstract: In this interview, singer and songwriter Paulinho da Viola comments on the documentary Partido alto (1976–1982) and his friendship with director Leon Hirszman. He also describes the origins of partido-alto as a variety of samba, the transformations of samba schools in the 1960s and 70s and his relationship with audiovisual media during this time period, including the music documentary Saravah (Pierre Barouh, 1972) and televised music festivals.
A crucial figure in the history of samba, Paulinho da Viola was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942. As a son of a middle-class choro guitar player, he soon became interested in the samba that was played in the slums, most notably Samba School Portela in the Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood of Oswaldo Cruz. Paulinho’s career, which started in the 1960s and continues today, combines a plethora of vital song releases such as “Foi um rio que passou em minha vida” (“A River Broke into My Life”, 1970) and “Dança da solidão” (“The Dance of Loneliness”, 1972) that helped rejuvenate samba, with a political stance that vindicates the roots of this music genre as a popular community practice. In line with his political beliefs, in 1970 Paulinho used his popularity to endorse the first album by Velha Guarda da Portela, a band of senior singer-songwriters who had been marginalised by the music industry.
In the mid-1970s, Paulinho became increasingly critical with the gradual commodification of samba and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, to the point of breaking up with Portela Samba School when traditional composers, such as those from Velha Guarda, were ignored by the directorship. His involvement with Hirszman’s Partido alto was strongly attuned with that moment in his career, because partido-alto contains a variety of archaic, improvised samba that contrasts with commercial, commodified practices. He worked as a consultant, interviewer and narrator for that film, as well as a performer, alongside his admired colleagues from Velha Guarda da Portela.