The first of eight children of Sebastião Joaquim de Oliveira and Aída Gomes de Oliveira, Angenor was born at Rua Ferreira Viana, 74, in the Catete district of Rio de Janeiro. His name given at birth was actually Agenor
, and it was not until the age of 55 that he learned that due to an error in transcription the name on his birth certificate was Angenor
. When he was eight his family moved to the Laranjeiras neighborhood in Rio. Due to financial difficulties, the large family moved to Mangueira hill in 1919, where a small favela was beginning to appear, when he was eleven. At age 15, after the death of his mother, he left school to pursue a bohemian lifestyle.In Mangueira, Cartola soon befriended Carlos Cachaça and other sambistas
, getting started in the world of malandragem and samba. In 1928, they founded the Arengueiros Carnival Bloco (street band), which would later turn into GRES Estação Primeira de Mangueira, one of the most loved samba schools in Brazil. Cartola is considered responsible for the choice of colors of the school, light green and pink, as these were the colors of the "rancho do arrepiados" in Laranjeiras where he participated as a boy playing the cavaquinho (a small guitar, similar to a ukulele) that his father had taught him. (The ranchos were precursors to the samba schools in Rio and were composed primarily of descendents of slaves, and featured a king and queen in their performing lines).Cartola became popular in the 1930s, with many sambas recorded at that time. In the beginning of his career, Creusa, his daughter, adopted when she was five years old, was extremely important in launching him as composer, as she was a singer of extremely persuasive voice, singing his sambas in radio programs of this decade. As much that later, it makes participation special in the first LP of Cartola. He got his nickname because he used a bowler hat while working as a construction worker so the cement would not dirty his hair.Later, in the 1940s, Cartola disappeared from the scene. Little is known about that time in Cartola's life, when he departed from Mangueira after disagreements and became depressed with the death of his wife Deolinda; about that time, rumours of his death were speculated. Cartola was found, in a very popular tale, by journalist Sérgio Porto in 1956, working as a car-washer.Porto took charge of starting to promote Cartola's return, inviting him to radio shows and promoting his work with new partners. Later, in 1963, investing in his struggle to take the favelas' samba to the city streets, Cartola opened together with Eugênio Agostine and his wife Dona Zica the famous Zicartola bar/restaurant in downtown Rio de Janeiro, which became known as the most important samba establishment of that time, providing a link between the traditional sambistas and the incipient Bossa Nova movement. Cartola invited people such as Nélson Cavaquinho, Pixinguinha, Nara Leão, Paulinho da Viola, and Zé Ketti to sing the "low-value" music, as sambistas ironically referred to their work.Cartola's real commercial success started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he became quite popular and a lot of samba classics were released, such as "O Sol Nascerá", "O Mundo é Um Moinho", "Corra e Olhe o Céu", "Quem me vê Sorrindo" and "Senhora Tentação", with support from singers Elizeth Cardoso, Clara Nunes, Paulinho da Viola and especially Beth Carvalho. He released his first record only at the age of 66, in 1974, and even living in financial difficulties, composed and sang until his death at age 72.Cartola was biographed in the book Divino Cartola — Uma Vida em Verde e Rosa
. It was written by Denilson Monteiro and released in January 2013.
Cartola composed melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. His lyrics are notable for their very correct use of Portuguese, especially considering his lack of formal higher education. His poetry binds in an effective manner elegance and emotion, while keeping a relatively low level of complexity, which made his work accessible to larger layers of the population.With regard to tempo, Cartola's music had a strong tendency towards calmer, slower sambas in contrast to the faster, brisker sambas de terreiro
seen in samba schools and to other composers' music. Some say his sambas had a tendency towards samba-canção
. The cavaquinhos in his records had a certain choro
mood which was less percussive than usual, with the exception of his last records where Alceu Maia was the cavaquinist.As a musician, Cartola made use of many modulations, some of which were not common in samba at that time. Some of his modulating tunes are "Quem me vê Sorrindo" and "Sim" (I -> V), "Aconteceu" and "Amor Proibido" (I -> bVI), "Inverno do Meu Tempo" (I -> bIII) and "A Cor da Esperança" (I -> bII). Furthermore, he made use of non-trivial figures such as tritone substitutions and extensive tritone resolutions to the IIIm7, as can be observed, e.g., in "Alvorada", "Senhora Tentação", "Inverno do Meu Tempo" and "Disfarça e Chora".