Bezerra da Silva

Sambista dubbed the godfather of gangsta rap

Bezerra da Silva was the unofficial spokesman for the slums of Rio de Janeiro. For 30 years his controversial brand of samba provided the soundtrack for the city's
favelas and enraged the country's politicians, often the victims of his sharp tongue. His music, which made him a household name across Brazil, portrayed the day-to-day life of Rio's working classes. He sang about corrupt politicians, unfaithful women and the brutal codes of the city's shanty towns, dominated by drug traffickers.

José Bezerra da Silva, samba composer: born Recife, Brazil 9 March 1927; married; died Rio de Janeiro 17 January 2005.

Bezerra da Silva was the unofficial spokesman for the slums of Rio de Janeiro. For 30 years his controversial brand of samba provided the soundtrack for the city's favelas and enraged the country's politicians, often the victims of his sharp tongue. His music, which made him a household name across Brazil, portrayed the day-to-day life of Rio's working classes. He sang about corrupt politicians, unfaithful women and the brutal codes of the city's shanty towns, dominated by drug traffickers.

The sambista's focus on these realities guaranteed him mainstream success: he recorded 28 albums, 11 of which went gold, three platinum and one double platinum. Many also consider him the godfather of the gangsta-rap genre, to which his slang-riddled invective was a precursor.

José Bezerra da Silva was born into a poor background in the north- eastern Brazilian city of Recife in 1927. Aged 15 he smuggled himself on to a cargo ship bound for Rio de Janeiro. Initially he worked as a decorator, fearful that samba might not put food on the table. Although he began his musical career in earnest in 1950, working as a percussionist, it was only in 1975 that his first solo album, O Rei do Coco ("King of Coco"; coco is a style of north-eastern Brazilian music), was released.

Bezerra da Silva made his name singing partido alto - an improvised form of samba, in many ways a forerunner of "freestyle" rap. With the explosion of the cocaine trade in the 1980s, he began to document the increasingly harsh realities of favela life in his lyrics. Through his music, he became one of the most outspoken defenders of Rio de Janeiro's impoverished favelados. He blamed the country's problems on its political élite and was often accused of supporting the city's criminals.

"[The crook] is much more human than the villainous politician, who uses the slum residents to win the elections," he sang on " Aos donos da minha nacao" ("To My Nation's 'Bosses' "). "With all respect to my nation's bosses, I'm obliged to praise this crook." True to his word, he went on to compose the samba " Meu bom juiz" ("My Good Judge") as a tribute to the legendary trafficker Escadinha ("Stepladder"), who was murdered last year.

But da Silva's vicious wit was never far away. After corrupt politicians, his mother-in-law - whom he described as an alcoholic, cigar-smoking monster, complete with hairy chest and moustache - was his next favourite target. Da Silva was certainly not known for being politically correct. He frequently sang about infidelity and once suggested that a "woman who tricks a man . . . deserves to have her ears cut off, her head shaved [and be] made to carry a stone around". He was the embodiment of the malandro - the fast-talking, smoothly dressed trickster, native to Rio de Janeiro. He even baptised his 1995 album Os 3 Malandros in Concert ("The Three Malandros in Concert"), a sarcastic nod to the Three Tenors.

In spite of his reputation, da Silva mellowed with age. When he was hospitalised in September, he and his wife Regina were on the verge of launching an album of evangelical music to be called O caminho de luz ("The Path of Light"). His life was the subject of a biography and a documentary and an array of younger musicians have recorded covers of his tracks.

Following his death on Monday, crowds assembled in central Rio to celebrate the extravagant musician's life. The composer Noca da Portela, a colleague of 30 years, remembered a reserved, thoughtful da Silva, with whom he used to perform in Rio's prisons: "What he sang wasn't politics, it was emotion."

Tom Phillips



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