Tamara Ferreira is the rattle director at the popular Va-Vai drum set, a traditional school in Bixiga. Photo: Luiza Sigulem

It was just over a month before the 2017 Carnival and Rosemeire Marcondes cut dozens of costumes for the Lavapés parade in her apartment in the Glicério neighborhood. One of the 40 children raised by the founder of the association, she has a trajectory that is confused with that of samba in São Paulo. “Because of my life story, I had to hate samba: my father died because of a golden drumstick in a contest. But I ended up staying, being raised in that world,” she says.

Deolinda Madre, Godmother Eunice, was the one who took care of Rose after the death of her parents. A black woman, owner of four fruit stands in the city, she was responsible for the foundation of the oldest samba school in activity in São Paulo. It was 1937 and the city had cordons but no schools. “What made the difference was the banner,” explains Rose.

Born in the interior of São Paulo, the daughter of enslaved Africans, Madrinha Eunice is a pioneer woman and a notorious figure in samba, although not as well known outside of it. She founded Lavapés after a trip to Rio de Janeiro with her husband, where she was enchanted by the Let Falar parade (now Estácio de Sá). She returned to São Paulo, determined to do something similar.

He spent almost six decades leading the group that won seven Carnivals between 1950 and 1964, parading as a Bahian and cultivating samba among the family, taking his grandchildren, as he called them, to the Bom Jesus de Pirapora party, the base of São Paulo samba. “She talked a lot about her culture, about the black people in the countryside. She talked about the dances, that the best dance in black was in Piracicaba, on the 13th of May. And she talked about religion: she involved samba a lot with this mixture, saying 'I'm apostolic Catholic, but I'm from Quimbanda'”, says Rose.

From 1990 onwards, Madrinha Eunice warned everyone that she was about to die. “In 1995 she said: 'I won't pass this year'.” Death came even that year after complications from diabetes that had her legs amputated. One day, discouraged at not being able to walk, she sang sambas all day, all night. “When she stopped, she slept and never woke up again”, remembers her granddaughter. Her death caused disagreement in the family. “When it was time to bury her, they said: 'Let's bury it with the pavilion.' And I said, 'No! Are you going to bury the school?'

Verônica Borges, 32, is a sociologist, anthropologist and drummer at the school drums in the east side of São Paulo. She plays the box. Photo: Luiza Sigulem

As a child, Rose was appointed by Eunice as her successor, and so it became. The grandmother's strong personality was the key to keep going with the school, with all the difficulties that the school has faced over the years. “She was awesome, where she got to was an iron fist. And when she said 'if you don't give me what I want, I'll tell you what I know', ahhh… Then it was fast!”, laughs Rose. “She was a remarkable figure, as a woman, worker and warrior. Owner of her own self, no one bossed her around. And being black, which at the time was very complicated and still is today, right?”

Rose is today one of the presidents who work in the São Paulo Carnival, for Grupo 3 of Uesp (União das Escolas de Samba de São Paulo). Morro da Casa Verde, from Group 1, is represented by the legendary figure of Dona Guga. In the Special Group, three schools have women in the leadership: Mocidade Alegre, with Solange Cruz; Golden Roses, with Angelina Basílio; and Tom Maior, with Luciana Silva. In Rio, Regina Celi commands Salgueiro.

To maintain the club, Rose follows the tradition taught by her grandmother: she does samba circles with food. “It has to do with the Bahian aunts, with everything I've lived through. The women running the kitchen, and running everything afterward. In Pirapora the same thing: the woman would put her hand on the bass drum, and only then did the samba go away.”

From the roots of this story

Rose's speech highlights the importance of the female figure as the foundation of schools, whether in São Paulo or Rio, although in many posts the presence of women remains rare. Researcher from Rio de Janeiro, Rachel Valença, who was a component, director of the children’s wing, percussionist and – after decades on the court – president of Império Serrano, explains this issue a little through her own experience as a white, middle-class woman, who met the association in the north of Rio in the 1970s.

“When I arrived, I was very surprised at how women participated. In any Afro-descendant culture, women have great importance because it is a matriarchal culture. So, the most influential person in Império was a woman, Dona Eulália. She never held a position, but until she died, she gave a hunch on the drums, sat with a carnival man. I arrived from abroad, with a different culture, and soon I was invited to the women's department, which organized the parties, made the snacks. I found that absurd. Only later did I realize that this was a very important thing, because the preparation of food is a ritual, the person who feeds in black culture has the power. I learned a lot and I think that in all samba schools women have a huge importance”, says Rachel, author, with Suetônio Valença, of the book Serra, Serrinha, Serrano: The Samba Empire.

“Schools could never exist if it weren't for the female hand guiding. It is important for people to know that the aunts from Bahia are the matriarchs, many helped to found the schools”, emphasizes Leci Brandão, a pioneer singer and songwriter in Rio's Carnival.

“The presence of women in these spaces, due to the position of the media, is very focused on the corporality of black women, dancers and drummers, and the samba school is not contextualized as a territory of resistance and political permanence, and the role of women both in preserving this memory and occupying different places”, says researcher Kelly Adriano de Oliveira. Doctor in Social Sciences from Unicamp, Kelly studied São Paulo schools and issues of gender, race and religiosity.

She explains that the post-abolition context is the key to understanding the importance of women in samba. “Women continued domestic work, while men who worked on farms were left without a job. Overnight, everyone was free, but not incorporated as a workforce. Ten, 15 years later, a law was created called the Vagrancy Law. If the men stood on the streets doing nothing, they were arrested. I mean, they were arrested because they couldn't find a job. And the women became heads of families, they who kept the traditions. In this whole movement, samba enters.”

When samba starts to leave the domestic environment, women lose power. “He goes to the street, to become something more of the public space, and women start to be pushed away. Then, little by little, they began to insert themselves into this external space as well”, says Kelly, noting that, in Rio, this change from private to public began earlier.

In the Lavapés warehouse, Rosemeire Marcondes cuts fabrics for the school's costumes in the central region of São Paulo. Photo: Luiza Sigulem

Who leads and who composes

Like Rachel, from Império Serrano, who, in addition to being president, played on drums, Rose also worked in an artistic area, singing the samba of Lavapés for many years. Women interpreters are nothing new – they sang on Avenida Leci, Dona Ivone Lara, Clara Nunes, Tia Surica and Beth Carvalho, just to name well-known names – but they were never standard either.

In São Paulo, Unidos do Peruche paraded in the streets at the end of the 1980s with Eliana de Lima in the first voice, followed by Bernadete dos Santos. At 66 years old, she brings back the memory of being the first singer to enter the Anhembi sambadrome, in 1991, when she led Império Lapeano by Grupo 3 of Uesp. This episode was just the beginning of the singer's career on the avenue. After staying up all night following the parades, she had barely gone to bed when she found out, over the radio, that she could sing again. Only this time for Peruche, in the Special Group.

“Eliana de Lima (at the time the official interpreter of the school, where Bernadete had been performing as a singer of support) gave birth the night before the parade. I thought they wouldn't risk handing me the school, I thought they would bring Jamelão, who had already sung here. But I arrived at school and they told me 'you are the one who will take Peruche on the avenue'”, he says.

Bernadete was also born into samba. “My father was a maloqueiro”, she laughs, as she waits to enter another Sunday rehearsal on the court in the Limão neighborhood. “He played the seven-string guitar, went to samba on Thursday and came back on Monday. He had a group called the Black and White Ensemble, they met at my house. Everyone sang, my mother sang with them, but she never left the house. And I used to sing when I was a kid, and everyone was like, 'she has a good voice,'” she says. Years later, it was this powerful voice that convinced Peruche's board of directors to let her lead the club at Anhembi.

Still in the school's sound car, but today no longer as the first singer, she believes that there are no women in this post because of “machismo”. “For them, no woman sings anymore. In my time we came alone, today there are ten of support. I hit them in the face every day, because when it's time to do an event, I'm the one who goes,” she says.

In addition to singing, Bernadette is president of the school's composers wing. “I have a lot of songwriters, I bring them here, I pay attention to that. I think we have to add it.”

Paulo Sérgio Ferreira, director of Liga SP, which brings together the schools of the Special and Access Group, estimates the percentage of women in the composers' wing at less than 5%. In Rio, in the last two Carnivals, no samba from the Grupo Especial was signed by a woman. Although in the same Rio, at the end of the 1950s, Unidos da Ponte had Carmelita Brasil as president and composer. In 1965, Dona Ivone Lara joined the composers wing of Império Serrano, and in 47 she had composed, together, a samba for Prazer da Serrinha.

Another female reference, Leci Brandão arrived in the composers wing of a school in 1971. Granddaughter, daughter and goddaughter of women from Mangueira, she had been composing for seven years when she was presented by the composer Zé Branco at the Rio club. “The president at the time said the following: 'But why are you bringing her here?' And he: 'Because I think it would be interesting if you gave her this opportunity, she already composes'. The president then asked me to write a letter explaining the reasons why I wanted to join the wing, and I said that it would be very important to participate in that academy – which I consider to be a true samba university. And there it was decided that I would have to do a one-year internship and, if I passed, I would receive a license from the composers wing. And it happened. In 1972 I paraded in Mangueira for the first time”, says Leci.

Bernadete dos Santos was the first singer to enter the Anhembi sambadrome, in 1991, for Império Lapeano. Photo: Luiza Sigulem

Dribbling in the drums

When, in 2008, the percussionist Verônica Borges asked to play the snare drum at Nenê de Vila Matilde, a school in the east side of São Paulo where the agogô played, he heard “no”. “'You know, women can't' was the answer”, says she, who had been playing the instrument for a few years in blocks, “'but if you want to go back to the agogô, you're always welcome'”. Despite the greater requirement of a Special Group battery compared to a block, she felt that there were predetermined spaces. Passionate about batuque, she wanted to be playing wherever she went, and continued on the agogô, an instrument whose wing she managed for a year at Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi.

Sociologist and anthropologist, Verônica arrived at samba via the Alcalina drums at Unicamp, where she studied. She learned there to play all the instruments, starting with the snare and going to the deaf. In 2011, she decided to try the box again at Nenê. For this, she risked a daring strategy before talking to the master: at the drum stop, to the sound of the school choir, she would take a friend's instrument and solo. Directors came from her side, realized she was playing right and were surprised. She asked again and heard a “yes”. In the first rehearsal she went to the sieve (selection of percussionists) and passed.

“Today I feel that I am very respected for the rhythm I do inside, but I still see faces of amazement and admiration. These days I remembered that, as soon as I started, I had a list with the names of the percussionists and I saw that I had been nicknamed 'the box girl'”, she says, the first woman to play a heavy instrument at school. Like Bernadete, Verônica takes part in the documentary Bambas (2017) about women and samba, by Anná Furtado, one of the recent initiatives that addresses the theme, present today in groups (such as Ilú Obá de Min), groups (such as Sambadela, of which Verônica is a part, or Mbeji) and conversation.

Despite the freshness of the score, especially when thinking about drums, records point to a percussionist in the leather of Portela (Dagmar do Surdo) back in 1954, another on the tambourine of Vai-Vai in the 1970s (Terezinha Benedita de Moraes , as reported by the Batucada Feminina blog). Mangueira was the last school to have women in its suits, in 2007.

“We have to think that whoever is going further and whoever arrived first had to break down more doors”, says Verônica. “I think I managed to calm down at Nenê with the first 'no' because I come from a university drums, in which I was able to strengthen myself as a percussionist.”

It was the idea of ​​a cozy atmosphere that made her change her mind about female drummers, who get together in rehearsals. As a project of the Anthropology course, already immersed in batucadas, she decided to study the women's drums of Águia de Ouro. “Before, I didn't really like this idea, today I think it's essential to have a space for women to learn, develop and strengthen, as long as this space changes the general battery. Because what I often see in female drums is women playing everything, and in general drums playing agogô, rattle, but not playing surdo or snare drums”, she ponders, who has already heard the force as a justification for the female absence in certain suits. physical, to which he counters: “Resistance is acquired”.

Director of the popular Vai-Vai drum set, along with Cintia Adelaide (on the agogô) — the first women to hold this position at the school —, Tamara Ferreira conducts the rattle wing there, but plays almost everything. She initially wanted to play tambourine, nowadays she wants to learn timbau. At 28, the percussionist also believes in the importance of female references. “When you see other women playing, you have someone to look up to. And today we have to take a wave. We're women, we're playing and we have to take a wave”, laughs she, who is always full of energy walking among the group that occupies the streets of Bela Vista on rehearsal nights.

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