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An extraordinary Brazilian song writer: Chico Buarque

Yesterday we learned Annie Ernaux has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, I was reminded that when Bob Dylan won the prize in 2016 I thought, if only the world knew the songs of Chico Buarque! Song writer, composer, playwright, novelist, poet, Francisco Buarque de Hollanda (born 1944), known in Brazil as Chico Buarque, has created a formidable body of work, for which he received the Camões Prize, the highest honor in Portuguese-language literature, in 2019. Chico Buarque's novels have been translated into several languages. Budapeste (Budapest) and Leite Derramado (Spilt Milk) are available in Alison Entrekin's English translations.

I grew up listening to Chico Buarque's music, and it makes up a large part of the soundtrack of my life. From the bossa-nova-inspired songs of his youth to the sharp criticism of the military dictatorship of later years to the most beautiful love songs imaginable, Chico has written powerful lyrics and put them to memorable melodies that fully match their genius. For this post, I have translated the lyrics from three of his songs: Construção (Construction), Cálice (Cup/Shut Up), and Eu Te Amo (I Love You).

In Construção (1971), from the very first lines we are told this is not an ordinary day in the life of the construction worker whose story the song tells. He knows and we know things will be different that day--not better, but different: the end of a life lived in poverty and invisibility. The story is reconstructed as the verses are repeated with words in key phrases switched around in unlikely combinations, which, I believe, echo the absurdity of social inequities.

All the lines in the telling and re-telling of the worker's last day end in words that in Portuguese we call in "proparoxítonas," that is, words in which the stress falls on the next-to-next-to-last syllable. In Portuguese, most words are paroxítonas and oxítonas, that is, the stress falls on the next-to-last or last syllable. The more unusual proparoxítonas tend to pack more of a punch, sound more powerful, sometimes grating. It seems to me that in choosing such words Chico Buarque aimed precisely at that forceful impact, like a hammer hitting us over the head.

The melody is somewhat flat, without a lot of variation, which brings to mind repetition and boredom, a taste of what this worker's life is like. Except that today is not an ordinary day: we hear of the worker's fate, and then the story is told again. Even though the beat is about the same in the retelling, now the wind instruments blast in to punctuate the story with what I hear as mounting sadness and despair. The new word combinations ("erected ... four solid walls" first, "erected ... four floppy walls" later) compel us to look at the tragic story in a new light. We are invited to relive it, this time with hints of the incongruous, dissonant, nonsensical.

The last verse sounds very different, like a bridge but placed at the end. The wind instruments blow harder, louder, and the choral voices (MPB4, a vocal group that has been together for decades) are also now more intense and sharp. The lines in this part of the song end in oxítonas, but not the pleasant kind: they all end in long ee's that sound quite harsh. We are not to feel comforted at the end of this song. It has a haunting quality that mesmerized me when I was a child and mesmerizes me still.

In this song, Chico Buarque uses rhyme only in the last verses, where they abound. I was able to preserve most of the rhymes but was sad to have to skip some, especially the internal ones at the end. I recommend finding the song online and playing it as you read the lyrics.

On to the second song, Cálice. Co-written with Gilberto Gil (not to be confused with João Gilberto), Cálice is one of Chico Buarque's most famous songs and showcases his great talents as wordsmith and composer. Cálice, or chalice, is pronounced the same way as cale-se, or shut up. It expresses Chico's outrage at the oppression faced by outspoken critics of the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985). The song starts with a hymn-like chant--Father, may this cup pass from me--then describes the anger, sorrow, and powerlessness one feels when an oppressive regime crushes opposition by silencing its critics. And of course the regime tried to silence Chico Buarque by banning this and other songs he wrote. Censorship cast its grim shadow in Brazil for many years.

I encourage you to find Cálice online and play it as you read the lyrics. This song too feels haunting to me. You may come upon a video of Chico singing the song with Milton Nascimento, another extremely talented singer and song writer, whom I will write about in a future post. MPB4 provide the chant in the beginning and the interjections of cale-se! throughout.

As a young teenager when the song first came out, I missed certain references in the lyrics that became clear to me later in life. "In the dead of night I am undone" refers to people being whisked away by police in the middle of the night. "The sow's so fat" and "the knife's so overused" refer to the greed and excessive use of force in dictatorship times. The reference I was most shocked to learn about, however, was "I want to breathe in diesel fumes," an allusion to a common form of torture political prisoners were subjected to under the dictatorship.

Please note that in my translation of the lyrics I have taken some liberties in order to preserve rhythm and rhyme, but I have not altered any of the meaning.

And finally, a gorgeous love song: Eu Te Amo (1980), co-written with Tom Jobim, the greatest influence and inspiration in Chico Buarque's songwriting. As in the two songs above, the writing here is sheer poetry. Here's my humble translation, which I hope gives at least a glimpse of the brilliance of Chico Buarque. My comment on taking some liberties in my attempts to preserve rhythm and rhyme applies here to. Some rhymes, alas, I was unable to keep. Listen to the song as you read the lyrics. Enjoy!

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