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Through the Telephone (Pelo Telefone)

Updated: May 19, 2020

Through the Telephone

Updated: Mar 15, 2018

This year we celebrate the centennial of the first ever recorded Samba, Pelo Telefone. Registered by legendary sambista Donga (Ernesto dos Santos) at the National Library on December 27, 1916, the song became the hit of the 1917 Carnaval. Its popularity was so great that different Carnaval Clubs, which would become Escolas de Samba, played the song as they paraded through the streets, breaking with the tradition of each performing a different song.  Everything about the history of Pelo Telefone is surrounded by controversy - from the date it was composed, to the authorship, original lyrics, and even whether or not it was truly the first samba. In reality, Samba was born out of a collaborative and largely improvisational tradition. Undisputed is the fact that it was born out of the parties that happened at Tia Ciata’s house where Afro-descendants, many of whom had emigrated from the state of Bahia, gathered to celebrate their culture. The beats and rhythms that created  Samba were developed from religious rituals of the Yoruba people, which in Brazil came to be known as Candomblé. Their practice included music, dance, percussion, and various body movements.  These practices were brought to Rio in the early XIX century, and became popular around the Praça Onze, where Tia Ciata’s and many other terreiros were located, they began to take a new form. A chorus would be sung by the entire crowd, with the men taking turns improvising verses, while the women danced in the middle of the circle or roda

It was in one of these rodas de Samba that Pelo Telefone was born, by some accounts as early as 1912, but it was only late in 1916 that it was recorded by Baiano and the Banda da Casa Edison at Odion Records, and registered at the National Library by Donga. While it is argued that some earlier recordings featured Samba rhythms, this was the first to be classified as a Samba, ultimately establishing it as a genre. Donga would later credit Mauro de Almeida as the lyricist, but it is likely that many others contributed to the final product of the song, such as João da Mata, Germano, Tia Ciata e Hilário, according to an article that appeared in the O Jornal do Brasil on Feb. 4th 1917. It was due to the distribution and popularity of Pelo Telefone, that Samba began to spread from the urban center of Rio de Janeiro, to other parts of the country and gained its place in the national market. Samba is now known as the most authentic and original genre to be born out of Brazil, influencing many other genres that would later arise, such as Bossa Nova and MPB. While many assume that it was influenced by the Jazz and Blues traditions that were gaining popularity in the US at the same time, it is unlikely that those sounds had reached Brazil, as the first Jazz album was recorded in early 1917.  The term "Samba" itself most likely came from the Chokwe people of Central and Southern Africa, where it means to play or to have fun. Others argue that it was derived from semba, which in the Angolan tradition means belly button, or heart. There, the umbigada was a type of mating dance performed by a couple on their wedding celebration, incorporating many of the percussion and musical elements that influenced samba. Despite the contradictory accounts of how Samba came to be the cultural powerhouse that it is today, it is inevitably one of the many gifts that the African tradition has contributed to Brazilian culture. Donga’s foresight to take a practice of the urban streets and reproduce to the masses is his biggest legacy. Today and every day, we celebrate his accomplishments, and his priceless contribution to the Brazilian music catalog. In 1973 Martinho da Vila recorded Pelo Telefone, giving it a modern arrangement, and making new generations familiar with the Original Samba.

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