Donga was a central figure in the samba tradition. The person who first recorded a composition with the denomination samba ("Pelo Telefone" in 1916 [not 1917 as usually documented]), Donga was also an accomplished musician with a noted international career in Pixinguinha's Os Oito Batutas and several other groups. Also a keeper of the tradition, his testimonies about the folklore of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are extremely important and elucidative as important sources for researchers; among other things, he made it known that the samba was born in the city, not in the hills.
Donga, who also signed as Ernesto dos Santos, was the son of Pedro Joaquim Maria, a baritone horn player and mason by profession who used to play in a ternos (a typically early choro trio composed of saxophone, trumpet, and baritone horn) with the important Candinho do Trombone and Amélia Silvana de Araújo, who was Tia Amélia, the famous baiana (woman from Bahia) who promoted parties (sambas) in Rio and also used to sing modinhas. The sambas were held in each tia's (aunt's) house, and these reunions were central in the development of the samba and the transformation of the samba from a folkloric expression to a commercial genre.
Being an active participant of the sambas held at his childhood home, which sometimes were extended for eight uninterrupted days, Donga became an expert in the different styles of samba, each one having its own peculiar choreography. When he was about four or five, he went to a samba at Tia Sadata's home, where pioneers decided to bring their Bahian tradition of ranchos (Carnival-esque groups). There already was at the time another group with rancho characteristics, the Sereia, whose members were of Northeast origin (Bahia, Sergipe, and Alagoas). But the Dois de Ouro -- the ranch formed by Tia Amélia, Tia Sadata, Hilário Jovino Ferreira, João Câncio, Quarenta, and others -- became the first true rancho of Rio, founded in 1893. Still a child, Donga mastered the different choreography used in the sambas and in the Carnaval. He learned these through his close contact with former slaves and Bahian blacks, performing the roles of porta-machado, palhaço, rei do diabo, velho, mestre-sala, and learning the dance and music of macumba, candombé, afoxê, jongo, and others.
At 14, Donga took up the cavaquinho, learning informally with renowned master Mário do Cavaquinho, who invented the five-string cavaquinho and his 14-string zebróide. In 1907, Donga switched to the violão (Brazilian acoustic guitar), studying with Quincas Laranjeiras and becoming a serious player in the popular style, having developed quite competent baixarias. The modinhas "Olhar de Santa," later recorded by Carlos Vasques, and "Teus Olhos Dizem Tudo," which later received lyrics by David Nasser, were Donga's first compositions. A frequenter of the houses of the tias, including Tia Ciata's (or Aciata, as Donga used to call her), where he used to meet fundamental musicians like Pixinguinha, João da Baiana, Caninha, Sinhô, Didi, Gracinda, Buci Moreira, and others, Donga had the opportunity of participating in the rodas, which were songs written through collective improvisation. On one of these occasions at Tia Ciata's house on August 6, 1916, with the participation of Donga, Germano Lopes da Silva, Hilário Jovino Ferreira, João da Mata, Sinhô, and Tia Ciata herself, came a samba de terreiro with strong maxixe influences talking about the gambling persecution by the police. The samba's refrain had been written by João da Mata on Santo Antônio's hill, and other parts were later added, including folkloric phrases. The samba had great success in Tia Ciata's house, and was sung for several consecutive nights. It is possible that Donga, with his commercial talent and above-average intelligence, offered the song to the first recording company of Brazil, Fred Figner's Casa Edison. The song was recorded in December 1916, simultaneously by Baiano and by the Banda da Casa Edison through Odeon records. The record's label described the song title, "Pelo Telefone"; its genre, samba; and its authorship, Donga and Mauro de Almeida. The sheet music was registered, as all songs were, in the National Library on November 27, 1916, as samba Carnavalesco. Immediately, other participants in the historic night claimed their participation in the song, which would be the center of several different diatribes regarding not only its authorship, but also its genre (samba or maxixe), the history behind its lyrics, and even the affirmation that "Pelo Telefone" would be the first recorded samba (since it is not clear that the tune is a samba). But what is incontestable is that until "Pelo Telefone," the Carnaval had no specific music. The recording of "Pelo Telefone" incited composers to write songs for Carnaval, contributing to the solidification of the samba as a genre in subsequent years.
In 1919, Donga became the violonista (acoustic guitar player) for the Oito Batutas, a group organized around Pixinguinha, one of the geniuses of Brazilian popular music. Donga, who had been playing with Pixinguinha since childhood, also became a central figure in the group due to his commercial skills, being regarded as the boss by other members. Donga was indeed fundamental in the Parisian stint by the Oito Batutas, because the sponsor of the expedition, millionaire Arnaldo Guinle, had previously encumbered Donga, Pixinguinha, and João Pernambuco with the mission of collecting Northeastern folklore in that region, but financial discussions had torn apart the relationship between the tycoon and the musicians. Donga was responsible for the reconciliation between Pixinguinha and Guinle. The Oito Batutas began their career playing in the attending room of the sophisticated Cinema Palais (Rio), and, in 1922, departed for a six-month season in Paris, France (where all members adopted jazz instruments, with Donga choosing the banjo). Upon their arrival back home, they participated in the historic independence centennial, when the radio was inaugurated in Brazil. This was followed by an Argentinean tour, a country where the group recorded several albums for RCA-Victor and dissolved. Donga then joined the Carlito Jazz and the band began to accompany the French revue company Bataclan, later becoming incorporated in that company and travelling with them to France. Returning to Rio in 1928, he formed the Orquestra Típica Pixinguinha-Donga with Pixinguinha, a dance music orchestra who made several albums through Parlophon (Odeon). In 1932, playing cavaquinho, banjo, and violão, he performed in the groups Guarda Velha and Diabos do Céu, both formed by Pixinguinha and both recording for Victor. In the same year he married singer Zaira de Oliveira, who would die in 1952. Donga married again the next year. In 1940, he participated in the historic recording supervised by Leopold Stokowski in Brazil, having nine of his compositions registered on the two Columbia albums titled Native Brazilian Music. In 1954, Almirante propelled the formation of the Grupo da Velha Guarda, and Donga played and recorded with that group until 1958, having also performed in solo shows like O Samba Nasce no Coração in the Casablanca nightclub (Rio). A retired bailiff, his sole individual LP came out in 1974 through Marcus Pereira.