Bezerra da Silva – Samba and the Malandro


Every man in his area, Every monkey on his branch, Every cockerel in his yard, Every king in his deck


I only became aware of the subject of today’s post recently, when I passed that piece of street art (above) during carnival. It’s a nice piece of work and the guy has a nice looking face – then I saw the lyrics and decided it was time to find out more (starting with what a baralho is – a deck of playing cards).

Born in 1927 in Recife, José Bezerra da Silva grew up singing a North/Northeastern style of music called Coco. In 1942 he moved to Rio and in the 1950s found work as a session musician. His first record was released in 1969 and he went on to record 30 albums over the following 4 decades. He became particularly renowned for a style of samba known as partido alto.


Malandros and Malandragem

It seems impossible to say much about Bezerra without mentioning the term malandro. A malandro is someone who lives by malandragem, a lifestyle of hustling, petty crime and idleness. It wasn’t long after I got to Rio that I first came across this word malandro. Fittingly enough, a colleague was warning me about wandering down the wrong street in Lapa – “Watch out for malandros” she said. I say ‘fitting’ because, in Rio there is a strong association between malandros and Lapa.


This is the archetypal image of the malandro – white suit, red tie, white panama hat (always tipped down over the face) with a red band. He is usually depicted on a street corner in Lapa, often with the arches in the background. Image source.


In the image above, you can see the words Zé Pilintra. This is also  spelled Zé Pelintra and refers to a ‘spiritual entity’ associated with Umbanda and Candomblé (Afro-Brazilian religions). It seems that there are slightly different interpretations of this spirit/deity depending on what region of Brazil you are in, but here in Rio there is a very strong association between Zé Pilantra and Malandros.

Wikipedia has quite a nice description of the Malandro and Malandragem – they’re slightly confusing words as they can be used negatively or positively:

The malandro – a rogue, hustler, rascal, scoundrel – has become significant to Brazilian national identity as a folk hero, or, rather an anti-hero. Malandragem is characterized in the Brazilian popular imagination as a tool for individual justice.

Facing the forces of oppressive institutions, the individual malandro survives by manipulating people, fooling authorities and sidestepping laws in a way which guarantees his well-being. In this way, the malandro is the typical Brazilian hero. 


Anyway, back to Bezerra da Silva. More than almost anyone else, he sang about the Malandros and their plight as well as the drug trade and gang violence, earning his music the nick-name (which he hated) of sambandido – samba + bandido (bandit).

So, do you want to hear the man in action? Here he is singing Malandragem dá um tempo, with it’s main chorus Vou apertar, mas não vou acender agora (I’m going to roll one, but I won’t light it now):



Don’t you just love these songs where everyone sings together like that behind the main singer? The song quoted in that piece of street art come from a song called Acordo de Malandro (Agreement of the Malandro) – a piece essentially about Malandros not treading on each others toes – you can hear it here.

But as it’s Friday I wanted to leave you with this charming dance from the North/Northeast that I stumbled across while researching the music Coco which I mentioned at the start of this post. To be honest, I’m no sure if this is the same Coco that Bezerra used to play, but either way, isn’t it sweet? It makes me think there should be more hat tipping and gentle foot kicking in dance today! Have a great weekend!


3 replies
  1. Lidi Albuquerque
    Lidi Albuquerque says:

    Great post Tom! I really like this song, and you I think you got what it means to be “malandro”. As you mentioned, it could be positive or negative, it depends of the context and the situation. It could be a bit confusing, I have to admit. Some people use “malandro” as a way of saying “esperto”, so like many things in the Portuguese language, there could be many interpretations of a word, and there are also many exceptions to the rule…

    By the way, have you seen this version of Bezzera’s song by Barão Vermelho?

  2. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    The Coco dance is pretty cool, and that song they’re dancing to is lovely. The whole Malandro thing seems to be, at best, just an adolescent celebration of mischief which many a musician and intellectual from UFRJ should have already grown out of by now.


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