About Wilson Batista

One of the most important Brazilian sambistas of the generation that devised the urban samba, Wilson Batista wrote immortal classics of the genre. Always in financial difficulties, as he lived by selling the authorship of his production (though not only the rights), he may very well have composed much more masterpieces than are known. The bicheiro (owner of a number's game) China was one of these buyers, and he used to say that "if he had money in his pockets, he was the best composer in the world." Composing intensely, Batista left an immense repertory written alone or in partnership with distinguished sambistas like Nássara, Roberto Martins, Ataulfo Alves, and many others.

A prolific genius who nevertheless had trouble signing his own name on a piece of paper, Batista was smart enough to understand that his eulogy of the lumpen represented by the Carioca malandro wasn't seen favorably by the powers-that-be, and in a different phase, he wrote songs that chanted the honest work, like "O Bonde de São Januário," recorded many years later by Gilberto Gil. The song says, "The streetcar takes one more worker/It's me who goes to work," but we are free to think that if it depended on Batista to go to work, the streetcar to São Januário would always travel empty.

Batista had broad interests translated in his compositions, not only romantic subjects, usual in samba. As a chronicler of customs ("Nega Luzia," "Mulato Calado") or in socially concerned songs ("Pedreiro Valdemar"), criticizing police violence ("Chico Brito"), or making fun of powerful political figures ("Gregório"), Batista always was capable of exploring exactly what he wanted to convey without losing the elegance of his style.

As a child, Wilson Batista played the triangle in the Lira de Apolo, a band organized by his uncle in Campos (Rio de Janeiro). In his teens, Batista joined the Carnaval bloco Corbeille de Flores, having local success with his compositions and arrangements. Never having worked throughout all his life in a regular job, he moved to Rio de Janeiro at 16, where he went to live in another uncle's home. In that year he had his samba "Na Estrada da Vida" executed by Araci Cortes at the Teatro Recreio, according to some historians, though it seems hard to believe that at such early age he would be able to successfully approach the biggest theater of the period. But, around 1931, Batista had already made contacts and was part of the artistic scene of samba composers of the city. In 1932, Batista sold the rights to his first samba (a habit that he would keep for his entire life, always being in financial need), "Por Favor Vá Embora" (written with Benedito Lacerda and Osvaldo Silva), to Mr. Evans, director of RCA Victor. The samba became his first recorded song in the interpretation of Patrício Teixeira in that same year. In 1933, Batista had songs recorded by Almirante ("Barulho no Beco," written with Osvaldo Silva), Francisco Alves, Castro Barbosa, and Murilo Caldas ("Desacato," written with Paulo Vieira and Murilo Caldas).

In that same period, Batista and Noel Rosa became attracted to the same woman. Though this doesn't explain the famous polemics that involved the two wonderful sambistas, it must be mentioned.

In 1933, Batista had his samba "Lenço no Pescoço" recorded by Sílvio Caldas. It was Batista's first success, though the author credited in the record was a certain Mário Santoro. The song made the apology of the "malandro" of the Lapa. Malandros were the low-lives who lived on gambling, exploring prostitution, or charging club owners for "protection," and they gathered at the Lapa neighborhood downtown Rio, the bohemian sector of the city at that time. Some of them were minor offenders, making small profits through swindles, but other ones were really dangerous, playing the capoeira and always using a sharp razor blade to make their points clear. "Lenço no Pescoço" glorified the latter.

With his typical verve, Noel Rosa responded with "Rapaz Folgado," exhorting Batista to throw out the outfit and "instruments" of the malandro, to put on a suit and tie (the habitual dress for the elegant sambistas of that period), and to stick to samba instead of crime. Despite the fact that "Rapaz Folgado" was only recorded when the polemic was terminated in 1938 (by Araci de Almeida), this didn't prevent Batista from knowing the song, which was informally sung in the bars and cabarets of Lapa.

Some may read this argument as relating to a broader cultural scenery, where intellectual/political forces (sociologist Gilberto Freyre, President Getúlio Vargas, and many others) were articulating a Brazilian national identity through the samba, in which that menacing profile of the violent malandro didn't fit. Rosa would be an unconscious mediator between these alleged inventors of Brazil and the people itself, in this articulation.

The fact is that the polemic developed, and Batista responding with "Mocinho da Vila," by its turn rebutted by the masterpiece "Feitiço da Vila" (Noel Rosa/Vadico). "Conversa Fiada" (Batista) followed, presented on the radio by Luís Barbosa, Mário Morais, and Leo Vilar. This caused the response "Palpite Infeliz," written by Rosa in 1935. Batista still wrote "Terra de Cego" and "Frankenstein da Vila," minor sambas that never happened, and the argument was extinct with the two sambistas becoming friends. Rosa even rewrote the lyrics of "Terra de Cego," by request of Batista. The songs of this polemic were put together in a LP in 1956 recorded by Roberto Paiva and Francisco Egídio, Polêmica.

In 1936, Batista formed, with Erasmo Silva, the Dupla Verde e Amarelo duo, performing with the Argentinean orchestra Almirante Jonas in Rio and following with a three-month season in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Returning to Brazil, the duo performed on radio stations in Santos (São Paulo) and in the capital of that state. They had success in 1938, having been hired by Rádio Mayrink Veiga (Rio), but, as Batista never wanted work commitments, preferring to remain a composer, in 1939 he departed to Buenos Aires and the duo was dissolved.

In 1939, a governmental decree prohibited formally the praising of malandragem through music. Coincidentally, the '40s witnessed the best of Batista's production. In that year's Carnaval, he had a big hit, the samba "Oh! Seu Oscar" (written with Ataulfo Alves). The samba won the official contest of Carnaval music of the Press and Propaganda Department of the federal government, having been recorded by Ciro Monteiro, one of the main interpreters of his sambas. Extraordinarily prolific and consistently creative, in that period he had many hits like "Acertei no Milhar" (written with Geraldo Pereira, 1940), which became a classic samba-de-breque in Moreira da Silva's recording; and "O Bonde de São Januário" (written with Ataulfo Alves), a big smash in the Carnaval of 1941. "Emília" (written with Haroldo Lobo), recorded by Vassourinha, was a success in the Carnaval of 1942; also from that period are "Preconceito," "A Mulher que eu Gosto" (1941), and "Meus Vinte Anos" (1942). "Rosalina" (written with Haroldo Lobo) and "No Boteco do José" (written with Augusto Garcez) were also Carnaval hits, in the years of 1945 and 1946. In 1949, "Pedreiro Valdemar" (written with Roberto Martins) appeared as an isolated case of politically concerned lyrics in his production, having been recorded by Black-Out. In the next year, Batista had enormous success with "Balzaquiana" (written with Nássara), which, recorded by Jorge Goulart, remained as an all-time classic. In 1951 and 1952, he had success with "Sereia de Copacabana" and "Mundo de Zinco" (both written with Nássara).

Batista would have some success with other compositions like the Carnaval marches "Todo Vedete," "Vagabundo," and "Marcha da Fofoca" (all written with Jorge de Castro), having participated in the Carnaval until 1962, with "Cara Boa" (written with Jorge de Castro and Alberto Jesus), recorded by César de Alencar. But in the late '50s, Batista's production started to decline, both in quantity and quality, while his health deteriorated. Also in the '60s, the popularity of the marchinhas (a genre made to be danced to in closed clubs) was transferred to the sambas-enredo of the samba schools, which contributed to the radical decrease in the amount paid to him in authorship rights, which was his main way of living.

Living melancholically in poverty his last years, the great Wilson Batista expired alone in a hospital bed. At least he had his two last wishes fulfilled by his daughter Marilza: he was buried in a tuxedo, and under the light of the moon. ~ Alvaro Neder