img_5265 - Marcela Cure et Vitoria Monteiro Sodré

We don’t have the right to make mistakes”: the struggle of Brazil’s female musicians

Sam­ba, forró… In Bra­zi­lian music, women have often been rele­ga­ted to the role of sin­gers and dan­cers. But all-women groups have for­med in recent years and been for­ced to contend with Brazil’s cultu­ral machismo.

We are women of all colours, all ages and many loves (…) All Bra­zi­lian women grow up oppres­sed by the patriar­chy. But times have chan­ged. Now it’s my body, my rules”.

The audience picks up the cho­rus from the eight female musi­cians and sin­gers in the sam­ba group. Most of them are women ; their right hands on their hearts, left fists in the air and a broad smile on their lips. The Sam­ba Que Elas Que­rem (in English “The Sam­ba Women Want”) group’s cover of the song by Mar­tin­ho da Vila is now as popu­lar as the original.

Des­pite for­ming just two years ago, the group from Rio has alrea­dy tou­red in Por­tu­gal and relea­sed a single.


Sam­ba Que Elas Que­rem – Nos somos mulheres :


The stage needs to be conquered 

Seven years ago, the group Moça Pro­sa, for­med by six black women, was one of the first groups of female musi­cians to break through in Rio.

We were always being tes­ted”, remem­bers Lua­na Rodrigues, a per­cus­sio­nist in the group. “Some­times men in the audience would come and tap us on the shoul­der to ask us to get up so they could take our place. Like they wan­ted to show us how to play”. They admit to having got up at the start. “We didn’t real­ly get it”, reco­gnises Ana Pris­ci­la da Sil­va, ano­ther per­cus­sio­nist in the group. “We didn’t unders­tand that it was dis­cri­mi­na­tion, machis­mo”.

A machis­mo that takes many forms : at the begin­ning, when they were asked to play, orga­ni­sers would check that they were up to playing non-stop for four hours. Their atti­tude is scru­ti­ni­sed whe­ne­ver they play. They have alrea­dy been cri­ti­ci­sed for not smi­ling enough during their concerts. “Would people ever say that about an all-male group?” won­ders Ana Pris­ci­la. “We’re often cri­ti­ci­sed for details… We don’t have the right to make mistakes”.


Moça Pro­sa – Somos Todas Marias :


Simi­lar accounts are heard in other types of Bra­zi­lian music. The group Forró­zi­nas is made up of five musi­cians who play forró, a popu­lar style of music from Brazil’s north east.

As women, they feel that they are some­times not taken serious­ly : “The mixing deck was some­thing we had to win over”, explains Mar­ce­la Coel­ho, a musi­cian in the group. She has noti­ced that sound tech­ni­cians often fail to take their com­ments into account. “They won’t let us touch it”, she says with indi­gna­tion. “Some­times, they come over when I’m making adjust­ments and com­ple­te­ly take over. They think that because I’m a woman I don’t have the tech­ni­cal skills to adjust my own sound”.


Long-stan­ding machismo

As in forró, women in sam­ba have more often than not played a secon­da­ry role. But des­pite being under­va­lued, they were cru­cial to the birth of this musi­cal genre. Star­ting with Tia Cia­ta, one of samba’s many “tatas”. A cook, she ope­ned up her home to host sam­ba par­ties at a time when the musi­cal genre was ban­ned. Machis­mo was such that women could not put their own names to their com­po­si­tions. This was a case of Dona Ivone, for example, who would put male pseu­do­nyms to her music.

For this new gene­ra­tion of female musi­cians, chan­ging mind­sets begins with chan­ging lyrics. A long tra­di­tion of chau­vi­nis­tic and miso­gy­nis­tic lyrics that some­times incite vio­lence. “There are songs we don’t sing”, says Ceci­lia Cruz, who plays the cava­co in the group Sam­ba Que Elas Que­rem. She quotes a pas­sage from Faixa Ama­re­la” by Zeca Pago­din­ho : “If she fal­ters / I’ll punish her / Give her a good slap / Break five teeth and four ribs”. But awa­re­ness of this culture of machis­mo, present in the lyrics des­pite joy­ful melo­dies, isn’t always clear. “We grow up lis­te­ning to this music,” stresses Mar­ce­la. “Often, we sing it, but then when we stop for a few seconds to think about it we rea­lise”.

When they are on the stage, they feel that they have an impor­tant poli­ti­cal role. “We become mes­sen­gers”, Mar­ce­la hopes. “We can’t repro­duce this type of vio­lence that isn’t just machis­mo but also often homo­pho­bic or racist!” The Forró­zi­nas admit to fee­ling free in their music : “We’ve even done a swim­suit video, but it was abso­lu­te­ly not sexual”, laughs Mile­na Pas­to­rel­li, the group’s accordionist.


For­ro­zi­nas – Chi­clete Com Banana :



Female musi­cians talk about their hopes for their careers as if there was a bat­tle to be won. And for good rea­son ; as yet very few of them are able to make a living from their art. This tough start has moti­va­ted them to stick toge­ther. “Whe­ne­ver we hear that stand-in musi­cians are nee­ded, we always sug­gest women first,” explains Lua­na Rodrigues.

In the big cities of south-east Bra­zil (Rio, São Pau­lo, Belo Hori­zonte), groups of female musi­cians are beco­ming more and more nume­rous. Júlia Ribei­ro, a per­cus­sio­nist with Sam­ba Que Elas Que­rem, recalls the impor­tance of trans­mis­sion during concerts : “We want to reach as many women as pos­sible who will hear our mes­sage and say ‘Why not us?’ and start taking up more space”. Proud of having alrea­dy ins­pi­red seve­ral groups in just a year since they for­med, the Forró­zi­nas are kee­ping all their options open. We alrea­dy see our­selves on tour in Europe and the north-east of Bra­zil”, says Mile­na Pastorelli.

Sarah Cozzolino

© Mathilde Delauney


Sarah Cozzolino is a free-lance journalist, based in Rio de Janeiro since September 2018. She regularly works with different french-speaking radios such as RFI, RTL, Médi1 or Radio Canada. She have also written stories for Les Inrocks website and National Geographic Brazil. In 2020, she did a radio documentary of 20 minutes about Funk's criminalization in  favelas.

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