Tribute For Tânio Mendonça, Brazilian Carnaval Samba Composer, Dies at 52


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

The refrain of Tânio Mendonça’s final samba song was definitely of the moment. It called on people to maintain distance, wash their hands and be patient.

In stark contrast to the Carnaval marches he normally composed for 80-piece drum batteries and a legion of singers, the song had the spareness of a recording made at home. His soft crooning and the syncopated beat he drummed out evoked the isolation of quarantine brought on by the coronavirus, which would claim his life just weeks later.

Mr. Mendonca died at 52 on May 23 in a Rio de Janeiro hospital. His wife, Karina Oliveira, said the cause was Covid-19. He was one of 23 people from his Carnaval group to die from the disease, which has ravaged the working-class neighborhoods that gave birth to samba.

A composer and director for Mocidade Independente, one of Rio’s top-flight samba schools, Mr. Mendonça lived for Carnaval. The so-called schools are actually thousands-strong parade groups from Rio’s poor neighborhoods, and each year they mount over-the-top spectacles, in the Sambadrome parade area, that have helped give Rio’s Carnaval its fame.

For months leading up to that pre-Lenten bash, composers like Mr. Mendonça compete to have one of their songs selected as the school’s annual theme. It’s not easy. Since he joined Mocidade in 1996, his sambas have made it only as far as the finals.

Still, he worked selflessly to train a new generation of composers while playing percussion in the rhythm section. He was the sole composer for Estica Marimba, one of the dozens of smaller Carnaval groups that crowd Rio’s streets when the main parade is not taking place.

Tânio Perreira de Mendonça was born on March 2, 1968, in São João de Meriti, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to Arnaldo Perreira de Mendonça, a Navy captain, and Paraguassu Henrique, who tended to the couple’s eight children.

Mr. Mendonça was a teenager when his father died, and as the oldest child he assumed his place at the head of the family. He worked in a series of jobs, from street vendor to office administrator, to keep the family afloat amid grinding poverty. But he worked just as tirelessly on samba.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by four sisters and two children, Márcio and Vitoria, from earlier marriages.

Mr. Mendonça’s sister Adriana remembered him as a man who, despite the hardships, never left his family wanting.

“When we were young and I woke up hungry,” she said, “he would go out, and I’d have to wait until he’d sold his first pair of flip-flops so he could buy me a piece of bread for breakfast.”



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