Oswaldo Cruz is a town situated about 40 minutes by train northwest of Rio, on the opposite side to the wealthy residential areas of Copacabana and Ipanema. This quieter, lower part of Rio clustered with simple shacks is one of the hotbeds of samba. The aged members of Velha Guarda da Portela, were all sambistas based in Oswaldo Cruz; the town’s respected celebrities. The group name Velha Guarda da Portela, “the old guard of the Portela tradition”, indicates all its members are from Portela, a historical escola de samba in the Oswaldo Cruz district.. Escolas de samba, which literally means samba schools, are not training facilities but roughly local communities of samba. Each escola’s final aim is to take part in the parade and win the contest at the carnaval. The members of Velha Guarda da Portela are the elders who have inherited the tradition of Portela which can boast one of the longest histories among all the escolas de samba.
Another important escola is called Mangueira and together with Portela have always been the two best matched teams at the carnival parade since the 1930s and still today they are invariably the two most important escolas in Rio. The samba styles between the two are slightly different.. Mangueira’s samba has a refined lyricism, compared to Portela’s rather wild version characterized by a communal feel. The Portela sambistas always write songs on the premise that the local populace in Oswaldo Cruz are able to sing along with them, and therefore lay emphasis on the chorus parts. At a Portela samba party, a songwriter sings solo the first half of his work, which is repeated in chorus by the others. Then the writer sings the last half and the others repeat it in chorus as before. This is Portela’s samba which never waivers.
This original style of samba unique to Portela, was created by the old masters of Velha Guarda da Portela who sing on this album. Samba, which was commercially successful during the 1930s, had started to decline by around 1950 and there were no new significant samba developments. On the other hand, communal bonds were reinforced in escolas de samba and more traditionally sounding styles of samba were quietly born including the Portela style. This apparently declining period of commercial samba was conversely the heyday of escolas de samba.
In 1986, Japanese producer Katsunori Tanaka traveled to Oswaldo Cruz to stay with the group over several months to rehearse and record this album. He tried to ensure the Portela masters could display the merits unique to their style to the full. To reproduce the intimate atmosphere of samba parties, every song was accompanied for the most part by the Velha Guarda members and recorded in a live situation as much as possible. In the intervening years, many of these masters have passed away. Their music, warmth and pure sense of enjoyment lives on, an atmosphere hopefully conveyed on this album, a treasure of Brazilian samba.