Who’s Your Troubadour? Fifty Years of Chico Buarque

More than fifty years ago, a young singer songwriter burst on to the exciting and boundary breaking music scene in Brazil, a country grappling with the legacy of cruelty, colonization, migration, and above all, enslavement. Burgeoning movements for racial and regional equality, along with student and feminist movements, workers, and small peasantry, found themselves clamouring for both more and just representation in Brazilian social, economic and political life. In response, the ruling oligarchs and their allies and offshoots in the media, banking, land-owning, and other sectors brought in a military junta whose tank-laden shadows lay heavily across the streets of Brazil for twenty long years. Those were years of active repression of progressive social movements and artists and intellectuals. 

The period 1964-85 saw Brazil, Chile, and then Argentina, in the grips of  repulsive comprador elites who could not hurry fast enough into the arms of the U.S. military-industrial complex. During this period, we may have heard of the many Chileans and Argentinian artists and musicians who were persecuted or even assassinated for their political views, such as Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, Quilapayun, Inti-Illimani, Fito Paez, etc. To this list, we must add some of the greatest proponents of the Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) group, loosely comprised of Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque de Holanda, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimiento, Gal Costa, Maria Bethania, and so many others. The fusion of African, Indigenous, U.S. and European influences found in the Tropicalia music scene, was matched by a desire to write lyrics which resonated with the public and youth of the time. 

Censorship, military crackdowns on the left and student organizing, inattention to the needs of the poor and the landless, over-policing and under- provision of social services were the norm under the Generals.  Meanwhile, artists and intellectuals were also challenging ideas about race, racism, and class and respectability, ideas of gender and sexuality; all of these were part of a dynamic and vibrant wave of Brazilian culture in the 1970s. The chanson traditions of France and Europe migrated across the Atlantic ocean as troubadours and folk-singers brought styles of music that melded over time to local sounds and rhythms, producing a musical syncretism that sets Brazilian music with its nasal vocals and complex rhythms into a distinctly recognizable sound of its own. Samba and Bossa Nova are only parts of a vast spectrum of Brazilian music comprised of rock, funk, jazz, forro, rap, and other influences. But they are hugely important because they gave rise to a new understanding of nation-state in the minds of Brazilians themselves– a nation comprised of ethnic plurality in which African elements were inescapably tied up with Brazilian popular expression and identity. This admission of biracial demographic composition or mestizaje in national identity forced a constant confrontation with the past, as Brazil was the last country in the Americas to forbid slavery, as late as 1888. This preoccupation with racialized and national identities characterized many countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, along with the great economic upheavals that reliance on mono-crop agriculture brought with the Great Depression, in the world economy. By the 1960s, racialized and classed stereotypes about afro-descended peoples and aboriginal nations, abounded, along with regionalist stereotypes. The young artists of the era hoped to dismantle and deconstruct the elitest image of Brazil as a land of playboys and trophy girls, drinking caipirinhas and swaying to the sunsets of Rio. Indeed, novelists like Jorge Amado had already begun articulating a new vision of working class and racialized Brazilians as the real heirs to the nation through their blood, sweat, and tears. Musicians were part of this rich contestation of the meaning of the “popular”, as they tried to portray a culture of the “people”, in opposition to the massification and commodification of shallow and superficial cultural values.

In 1971, poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter, Chico Buarque de Holanda (1944) wrote the song “Construction”, a homage to the every day construction workers and working class men of Brazil. This song’s  own amazing construction is beautifully expressed in the original Portuguese and also in Spanish translation. Each line is repeated in the next verse but given a different last word. It’s a marvel of symmetry, compassion, and cadence in the original Portuguese, with a dramatic  musicality that characterizes Chico Buarque’s songwriting. Even Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez pays homage to his fellow musician and poet, in his beautiful song, Quien Fuera? or Who’s the One? The two songwriters share a love for surrealism and social justice that does not lend itself well to translation! I’ve tried to convey some of the meaning of this iconic song, on it’s fiftieth anniversary; when Brazil is again confronted with a choice between popular democracy (Lula) and dictatorship (Bolsonaro). I’ve shared a recent version by Chico and a version in Spanish by Pedro Aznar, that showcases the guitar’s rhythmic capacity.

Wikipedia tells us that 

“ (Chico) wrote and studied literature as a child and found music through the bossa nova compositions of Tom Jobim and João Gilberto. He performed as a singer and guitarist  during the 1960s as well as writing a play that was deemed dangerous by the Brazilian military dictatorship of the time. Buarque, along with several Tropicalist and MPB musicians, was threatened by the Brazilian military government and eventually left Brazil for Italy in 1969. However, he came back to Brazil in 1970, and continued to record, perform, and write, though much of his material was suppressed by government censors. He released several more albums in the 1980s and published three novels in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2019, Buarque was awarded the Camões Prize, the most important prize for literature in the Portuguese language.”

Construcao, Francisco Buarque de Holanda 1971

Amou daquela vez como se fosse a última

Beijou sua mulher como se fosse a última

E cada filho seu como se fosse o único

E atravessou a rua com seu passo tímido

Subiu a construção como se fosse máquina

Ergueu no patamar quatro paredes sólidas

Tijolo com tijolo num desenho mágico

Seus olhos embotados de cimento e lágrima

Sentou pra descansar como se fosse sábado

Comeu feijão com arroz como se fosse um príncipe

Bebeu e soluçou como se fosse um náufrago

Dançou e gargalhou como se ouvisse música

E tropeçou no céu como se fosse um bêbado

E flutuou no ar como se fosse um pássaro

E se acabou no chão feito um pacote flácido

Agonizou no meio do passeio público

Morreu na contramão atrapalhando o tráfego

Amou daquela vez como se fosse o último

Beijou sua mulher como se fosse a única

E cada filho seu como se fosse o pródigo

E atravessou a rua com seu passo bêbado

Subiu a construção como se fosse sólido

Ergueu no patamar quatro paredes mágicas

Tijolo com tijolo num desenho lógico

Seus olhos embotados de cimento e tráfego

Sentou pra descansar como se fosse um príncipe

Comeu feijão com arroz como se fosse o máximo

Bebeu e soluçou como se fosse máquina

Dançou e gargalhou como se fosse o próximo

E tropeçou no céu como se ouvisse música

E flutuou no ar como se fosse sábado

E se acabou no chão feito um pacote tímido

Agonizou no meio do passeio náufrago

Morreu na contramão atrapalhando o público

Amou daquela vez como se fosse máquina

Beijou sua mulher como se fosse lógico

Ergueu no patamar quatro paredes flácidas

Sentou pra descansar como se fosse um pássaro

E flutuou no ar como se fosse um príncipe

E se acabou no chão feito um pacote bêbado

Morreu na contra-mão atrapalhando o sábado

Construction,  Francisco Buarque de Holanda (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021)

He loved, that time, as though it were his last

He kissed his wife as though she were the ultimate

And each child of his, was like his only one.

He crossed the street with his timid gait

Climbed the construction site as if he were a machine

He built four solid walls on the landing

Brick by brick in a magical design

His eyes encrusted with cement and tears.

He sat down to rest like it was Saturday

He ate his beans and rice as if he were a prince

He drank and sobbed like one shipwrecked

He danced and laughed as if he heard music

He stumbled across the sky like a drunk

He floated in the air like a bird

He ended up on the ground like a limp package

He agonized in the middle of the public boulevard

He died against the grain, hindering traffic.

He loved that time as though it were the last time

He kissed his wife as if she were the only one

And each child of his, was a prodigal son. 

He crossed the street with his drunken gait

He climbed the construction scaffolding as if it were solid

He built four magic walls on the landing

Brick by brick in a logical design

His eyes encrusted with cement and traffic.

He sat down like a prince to rest

He ate beans and rice as though it were the best

He drank and sobbed like a machine,

Danced and laughed like he was next

And stumbled across the sky as if he heard music

He floated in the air as if it were Saturday.

He ended up on the ground like a timid package

He agonized in the midst of a shipwrecked ride

He died against the grain, disturbing the public.

He loved, that time, like a machine

He kissed his wife as though it were logical

He built four flaccid walls on the landing

He sat down to rest like a bird,

And he floated in the air like a prince.

And he ended up on the ground like a drunken package

He died against the grain, disturbing Saturday.

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