top of page
  • Writer's pictureilzeduarte

The Wonderful Poetry of Caetano Veloso

Singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, born in 1942, is one of the greatest poets of Brazilian music—some will say the greatest. Growing up in the state of Bahia, he was interested in literature, film, and music. In a 2002 interview on PBS's Fresh Air, Caetano (as he is known to Brazilians) said João Gilberto, one of the originators of Bossa Nova, was a major influence and remains his “supreme master.”


In his early twenties, Caetano landed a recording contract and just a few years later started the musical movement Tropicália (also known as Tropicalismo) with Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and others. Tropicália combined elements of various styles of Brazilian music and foreign movements such as rock’n’roll and psychedelia. As Caetano relates in the Fresh Air interview, some in the left criticized him for incorporating foreign rhythms into his music, wishing instead for a purely Brazilian style of song writing. Caetano felt this would be short sighted, as he valued music from around the world and chose not to ignore its influence on Brazilian music and culture.



In 1967, his song Alegria, Alegria placed fourth in the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira on TV Record. I recommend looking up online videos from the final show where the winners are announced and perform. People in the audience are extremely vocal in their preferences and alternate boos and shouts of “já ganhou” (“already won” or, as we would say in the U.S., number one!). The audience was mostly favorable to Caetano and his song Alegria, Alegria. I like in particular an interview Caetano gave backstage about what “pop music” was. Caetano said he wasn’t sure what he was creating was “pop music” but explained that “pop,” from English, referred to art forms that appealed to the masses and had the capacity to connect with large segments of society. Alegria, Alegria embraces and exemplifies this openness to pop art and the recognition that Brazilian culture was (and always will be) influenced by trends and movements from abroad.

 

Alegria, Alegria explores the influence of mass media on individuals. The young man in the song says he just wants to "keep on living," with no need for documents or schooling or money. Caetano paints us a picture of this happy-go-lucky guy and invites us to join him on his merry journey. Where? Perhaps a successful career as a musician, singing on TV, much as Caetano is doing, but without having to go back to school. Caetano does not make any comments on his "protagonist." The listener is the judge here. The audience in the Festival de Música judged Alegria, Alegria favorably, as did I when I heard the song many years later.


As usual, I offer a literal translation and then a literary translation of the lyrics. I hope reading the two translations side by side will give you an idea of the process a literary translator goes through and the choices she uses, or may use, to recreate the artistic qualities of the original, as she sees and interprets them. This is apparent right away in my choice of title in my literary translation: I chose Rejoice, Rejoice rather than Joy, Joy because to me the repetition of the word "alegria" only makes sense as an exhortation.


I used several near rhymes, as Caetano does in most of the lyrics here, though not always in the same spots as in the original. That is a choice translators make often: to make up for a literary or poetic device in the original that didn't work well in certain parts of the translation, we may use a literary or poetic device of our own in another part. I also took liberties for the sake of rhythm and rhyme. For example, “em grandes beijos de amor” becomes “lips kiss passionately” and “bomba e Brigitte Bardot” becomes “bombs, the beauty of BB.” "Eu tomo uma Coca-Cola" becomes "I drink a Coke, sweet and cool," which reproduces the rhythm in that line and allows for the rhyme with "school." I feel this strategy is justified if the meaning is preserved.




In the early 1980s, Caetano wrote Luz do Sol and Gal Costa recorded it for the movie Índia: Filha do Sol (Daughter of the Sun). ("Índia" here means an indigenous girl or woman.) In 1985, Caetano included the song in his album Caetanear. Luz do Sol celebrates the beauty of nature and the tension between the presence of humans as part of nature and as agents of its destruction. The melody is very gentle and flows like the river in the lyrics. The full and near rhymes are delightful (traduz, luz, azuis) and the alliteration (repeated initial consonants as in traga e traduz, finda por ferir) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds as in reza a correnteza, roça a beira, doura a areia) heighten our senses and our appreciation of the natural beauty portrayed in the song and in the movie.


Also note that besides alliteration and assonance, in some lines Caetano chooses words that contain more than one letter in common: traga e traduz, reza a correnteza. I don't know if there is a term for this literary device. (If you know, please share this information with me!) This is hard to recreate in translation, but I find it fun and rewarding to try. In my literary translation, with "the waters say a prayer" we have "ay" in "say" and "prayer." It would have been more satisfying to have the "the river says a prayer" so that "ay" would be pronounced the same way in both words, but I chose "the waters say a prayer" because the plural noun "waters" worked better with the rhythm of the line. (I sing the English lyrics as I listen to the song to check whether the lines in English fit the melody. "Brushes the shore" wouldn't have fit.) All through the lyrics, as always, I used approximately the same number of syllables in each line as were used in the lyrics to recreate the rhythm.


As was the case with Alegria, Alegria, here I used full and near-rhymes as well as alliteration and assonance sometimes in the same spots where they appear in the lyrics, sometimes in other spots. To preserve the alliteration in "finda por ferir com a mão" I chose "winds up wounding with his hand." It certainly is not the same alliteration (no "f" sounds) but I believe the effect is recreated at least in part. And even though I was unable to reproduce the softness of the "r" sounds (similar to the "h" sound in English) in translating "brook runs to river, river to sea," I feel I was successful in reproducing that softness with the sibilants (the "s" sound) and the fricatives (the "sh" sound) in the next line, "the waters say a prayer, brush the shore, gild the sand." The way I hear it, the brook is whispering to us.


Again, I recommend listening to this song (and the next) as you read my translation of the lyrics. You can find videos online of Caetano and of Gal singing Luz do Sol. Enjoy!


 



Podres Poderes is my favorite song in Caetano’s 1984 album Velô. From the very title we know we are in for some fabulous wordsmithing. (The word) “poderes” (powers) contains (the word) “podres” (rotten), a reference to the military dictatorship, which although weakening was still in place, as were dictatorships in other countries of "Catholic America." It is important to note that to Brazilians, America is the American Continent, not the United States, and that Catholic America, then, refers to all the Catholic-majority countries in the American continent.


In Podres Poderes, which I titled Putrid Powers in my literary translation to preserve the alliteration, Caetano reminds us it is the common people who make Carnaval, and maybe it is our musicians who will save us from the darkness. Caetano's rhymes are often fresh and unexpected: we have "poderes" and "verdes," "retórica" and "católica," "boçais" and "mais." In my literary translation, I used perfect and near rhymes, some mundane, like "ways" and "days," some unusual ones, like "thrall" and "dismal." It was important to use "-al" rhymes as often as possible, as words ending in "-ais" (the plural of words ending in "-al) are used repeatedly in Podres Poderes. The repetition of that rhyme reinforces the contrast between the undesirable and the desirable ("boçais" and "geniais") and the thematic unity of the song.

My favorite example of Caetano's astounding way with words in this song is his use of the names of famous Brazilian musicians as plural nouns. My young mind missed this, and it is only now, after many years of being in the world and working with language, that I understand: “tom” is tone, but also Tom, as in Tom Jobin. “Mil tons” is a thousand tones, but also Milton Nascimento (read more about him in my blog post of October 28, 2022). “Tim” is possibly onomatopoeic (that is, a word meant to represent sound, like “clank” and “boom”), but it is also the late singer/songwriter Tim Maia. “Bem” as a plural noun means “goods,” but it is also singer/songwriter Jorge Ben Jor. And the phrase “hermetismos pascoais” is a reference to Hermeto Pascoal, a composer and multi-instrumentalist. To me, this is pure genius.

 


Other aspects of this song may be even harder to grasp. Why does Caetano mention the Japanese? Perhaps he is referring to the economic boom Japan experienced in the 1980s. Caetano says he "wishes he wanted to sing" (unusual phrasing even in Portuguese) how beautiful the bourgeoisie and the Japanese are, but “everything else is much more/greater," which I take to mean he can’t rejoice in their success while tyrants exercise their rotten powers and the oppressed are dying of hunger, thirst, and anger.

 

Another line that was difficult to interpret was "e dos gerais." “Gerais” as a masculine noun was new to me. I looked up the word and learned that the masculine noun “geral” means a place that is sparsely populated. You may find “vills” to be an odd choice, as it is unusual in American English, but so is “os gerais” in Brazilian Portuguese. In my literary translation I use “vills” as a near-rhyme to “spill.”

 

This very small sampling of Caetano’s music is meant give you a glimpse of the variety, richness, power, and lyricism of his work. I encourage you to look up his songs on the internet and streaming platforms and enjoy the beauty of his music.


If you have comments about this or any of my blog posts, please write to me by using the contact section of this site.

 

57 views0 comments

Kommentare


bottom of page