Smashed Hits: Aquarela do Brasil

Brazil fan at the 2014 World Cup

ITV's World Cup theme is Thiago Thome's version of the song Brazil. A samba that became a crooners' standard, it was once a weapon in the war for the soul of Brazil, writes Alan Connor.

Samba was the twerking of the 1910s - music for improper dancing at parties in downtown Rio. But by the 1940s, one samba, Aquarela do Brasil, had become Brazil's unofficial national anthem - and not just because it's so much more hummable than the lofty Hino Nacional Brasileiro.

That has much to do with President Getulio Vargas, who seized power in the 1930 revolution and - with Mussolini as his model - dissolved parliament, eliminated his opposition and controlled the media.

Vargas also invented a new national identity, says journalist Misha Glenny: "Football as the national sport, samba as the national dance and carnival for the masses. All the things we think of when we hear the word 'Brazil' - these were Vargas ideas, popularised in order to bind together perhaps the most diverse population on Earth."

But to satisfy the Department of Propaganda and Cultural Diffusion, samba had to change from what you might call the "gangsta samba" of the 30s, with lyrics telling tall tales of roguish anti-heroes.

Together with Rio's municipal bureaucrats, the department encouraged samba schools to develop patriotic songs. "Carnival", says historian Bryan McCann, "became expressly a festival of civic instruction."

Into this atmosphere of fascistically organised fun stepped Ary Barroso, a lawyer turned composer. Famous as a Simon Cowell-like judge on a radio talent show, Barroso wrote sambas that celebrated all things Brazilian.

People in Salvador, north-east Brazil, during Dia do Samba, which celebrates composer Ary Barroso People in Salvador, north-east Brazil, during Dia do Samba, which celebrates Ary Barroso

One rainy night in 1939, he wrote the opening lines of Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolour of Brazil): "Brasil, meu Brasil brasileiro." This translates as "Brazil, my Brazilian Brazil". Never have four words been more Brazilian, before or since.

The censors had issues with some colloquialisms and a folksy reference to tambourines, but Barroso persuaded them that his "samba exaltacao" was modern and patriotic enough to meet their exacting requirements.

So Brazil found itself with a new orchestral samba - a popular, dignified hymn to the homeland. Aquarela do Brasil was first performed at a charity event hosted by the president's wife, and with the backing of the Radio Nacional it became inescapable.

Barroso was himself no zealot - he went on to write Salada Mista, an attack on the Munich Pact, and Aquarela do Brasil itself was a song that simultaneously celebrated the country's ethnic mix while gratifying the despots.

None of his many imitators would have such success and samba exaltacao was itself superseded, but Aquarela developed its own life abroad. Walt Disney, visiting Brazil in 1941, heard the song and decided it would be performed on film by Jose Carioca, a dapper cigar-chomping parrot.

Jose may be a quaint character, but his close friendship with Donald Duck was no act of whimsy on Disney's part - and neither was Disney's subsequent meeting with Barroso at an American consulate party in Rio.

Uncle Walt had been sent by Nelson Rockefeller as part of Franklin D Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, which aimed to make Vargas and other Latin American leaders regard America as a friend. Rockefeller's job involved the propagation of benign imagery of a united North and South America. Donald and Jose embarked on cinematic adventures, underwritten with a $150,000 government guarantee.

So Aquarela do Brasil moved to the US with a new title - Brazil - and began its second political life, performed by Carmen Miranda in a hat of fruit and promoting Brazil as a tropical paradise, in contrast to Hollywood's previous negative portrayal of feckless Latinos.

The Good Neighbor programme gave way to the Cold War. In the meantime, the song acquired English lyrics - less of a watercolour, more of a holiday romance - and joined the repertoires of the Crosbys and the Sinatras. Terry Gilliam made it the sound of freedom in his 1985 dystopian film Brazil, and it remains the only composition to have been recorded by both Arcade Fire and the Vengaboys. Its appeal transcends genre as well as politics - few songs with such political baggage have such a strong melody, or are quite as danceable.

With the World Cup, it's back home in more ways than one. As another Brazilian government hopes that football will unite a divided nation, ITV's choice of samba is somehow very fitting.

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