Noel de Medeiros Rosa was born in the Vila Isabel neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro on 11th December 1910. It was a traumatic birth and a forceps delivery left him with permanent damage to his lower jaw; yet this did not prevent Rosa from pursuing his dreams and eventually becoming a huge star in his native Brazil. At the age of 13, Rosa went to the Colégio de São Bento where he would stay until 1928, and it was at school that he learnt to play the mandolin and the guitar, excelling at both. In 1930, Rosa won a place to study medicine and planned to become a doctor, but when he discovered Rio’s more bohemian nightclubs, where samba music could be heard until dawn and the drink flowed freely, he found a new ambition. Quitting university, Rosa formed a band, Bando de Tangarás.
Rosa’s first successful recording was Com que roupa? (1930) and the ensuing popularity of his compositions stemmed from the novel and whimsical way in which he merged traditional Brazilian rhythms with urbane and often humorous lyrics. To his fans, he became affectionately known as ‘The Poet of the Village.’ By 1931, Rosa had become one of the biggest names in samba and a host of highly respected musicians were eager to collaborate with him. Further hits followed, such as Coração (1932), Filosofia (1933), Conversa de botequim (1935) and São coisas nossas (1936).
Above: Noel Rosa – Com que roupa? (1930)
Despite his commercial acclaim, Rosa showed no sign of curbing the wild nocturnal behaviour for which he had become legendary. During the early 1930s, he met the alluring cabaret performer, Ceci and the two embarked upon a passionate relationship. Disapproving of Ceci, Rosa’s family encouraged him to marry Lindaura Martins, a 17 year-old girl who came from a wealthy background. They wed in December 1934, however, Rosa’s torrid liaisons with Ceci, as well as numerous other women, persisted.
Just as his professional reputation reached its peak, Rosa noticed that his health was starting to suffer. A few years previously, Rosa had been warned that he was showing symptoms of tuberculosis and his condition had progressively worsened. In early 1935, Rosa was told by doctors that his lungs were severely damaged, which was not helped by his excessive smoking; as publicity shots show, Rosa was frequently pictured with a cigarette in his mouth. More bad news came when, in May that year, Rosa’s father committed suicide. It was recommended that Rosa recuperate at various resorts across the country, but each time he soon left to experience the local nightlife instead.
After a visit to the Ribeirão das Lajes Dam on 1st May 1937, Rosa appeared to be extremely ill and was struck down with a fever. He returned to Rio with his wife in order to seek urgent treatment at one of the city’s best hospitals. It was too late, and, struggling to breathe, Rosa slipped in and out of conciousness until he finally died on 4th May. As he lay dying, a neighbour hosting a birthday party played Rosa’s songs loud enough for their writer to hear.
The funeral of Noel Rosa was attended by many Brazilian celebrities, with composer Ary Barroso giving a deeply moving speech at his graveside. Some of the hundreds of samba tunes penned by Rosa continued to be released posthumously, including Último desejo in 1937. A lilting and mournful melody, the song tells of the end of a love affair, and Ceci later claimed that Vadico, Rosa’s friend and sometime co-writer, had given her a copy of the lyrics, written in Rosa’s hand, as he broke the tragic news of her lover’s loss.
Above: Noel Rosa – Último desejo sung by Aracy de Almeida (1937)
New life was breathed into Rosa’s music and his legacy continued by one of the era’s greatest Brazilian singers, Aracy de Almeida, who provided her own interpretations of his best known recordings. Rosa himself had stated shortly before his death, ‘Aracy de Almeida is, in my opinion, the person who plays exactly what I produce.’ Though his career was brief, Rosa remains one of the most celebrated musicians Brazil has ever produced, and while he paid the ultimate price for his incessant carousing, as one friend remarked, ‘Noel just lived the life he wanted to live.’