Bossa Nova Daydreams

“The Question Samba” brought to life

Today is an exciting milestone for Bossa Nova Daydreams and for my project to create English versions of classic bossa nova and samba songs. That’s because one of our bossa companheiros, Eric, has just shared a video he made of himself performing my English version of Samba da Pergunta (a.k.a. Astronauta) by Pingarilho and Marcos Vasconcelos, which I’ve entitled The Question Samba in English. This is the first time that somebody other than me has brought one of my song translations to life–at least it’s the first time I’m aware of. Eric does a beautiful job creating the hushed yet colorful atmosphere the song needs–very true to the bossa nova aesthetic.

Eric sings and plays through the song twice, first in the original Portuguese version, then in my English version. Thanks, Eric, for taking the time to work this up and for sharing it with us! I hope it inspires others to do the same. You can see my English lyrics for this song in my previous post from May 2010: New English version of “Samba da Pergunta”

Here’s Eric performing The Question Samba (Samba da Pergunta or Astronauta in Portuguese):



New English version of “Zelão”

Sérgio Ricardo is a remarkable Brazilian “Renaissance man”. His creative talents have borne delicious fruit in many different art forms, including music, film, painting and literature.  On the occasion of his 80th birthday this year (2012), I thought it would be fitting to honor him with an English version of his well-known song, Zelão.

Ricardo is one of the key figures of classic bossa nova, and he wrote both the lyrics and music for many samba and bossa nova evergreens.

Sergio Ricardo

Sergio Ricardo

You can hear his richly toned, romantic vocal interpretations of them on a number of classic recordings, such as “A Bossa Romântica de Sérgio Ricardo” and “Um Senhor Talento” (both of which, incidentally, were produced by the legendary Aloysio de Oliveira).

In the late 1950s, Ricardo took over from A.C. Jobim as pianist at the Posto Cinco nightclub in Rio and that is where he developed relationships with many now-famous bossa nova musicians, for example, Johnny Alf, João Donato, João Gilberto, Lúcio Alves and Tito Madi. In 1960, he released his second LP, “A Bossa Romântica de Sérgio Ricardo” (sometimes known as “Não Gosto Mais de Mim”). The album featured the song Zelão, which became a smash hit in Brazil. Zelão was a unique departure in the burgeoning bossa nova genre because it was one of the first bossas to address social issues. Up until then, bossa nova themes were mainly concerned with love and romance.  But by 1960, the year Zelão hit the airwaves and record shops, a restless Brazilian middle class, fed up with a failing economy and severe social disparities, was ready for a new kind of protest music—what has been described as “engaged” bossa nova.

Zelão, with its theme of solidarity in the face of poverty and hardship, is emblematic of the new trend, and Ricardo would go on to create and perform many other protest-oriented works. When bossa nova founder João Gilberto was still mostly unknown and more or less itinerant, Sérgio Ricardo housed him in his apartment for several months. According to Ricardo, it was during this stay that Gilberto introduced him to Marxism and other leftist ideas, which heavily influenced the direction Ricardo would take next with his music. (It seems improbable and ironic that João Gilberto, who never really jumped on the protest bandwagon himself, can be sourced as a driver of the Brazilian 1960s protest culture, but appearances can often be deceiving.)

Ricardo was not the only one moving bossa nova towards the political. In the first few years of the 1960s, a rift in the bossa nova community had already appeared, with one camp pushing for a more political role for the music and another saying that bossa nova was about pure feelings and ideas that went beyond politics. Sérgio Ricardo’s music seems to cross the boundary; even when it is political it is at the same time romantic and poetic.

You can find a comprehensive discography and biography of Sérgio Ricardo on his dedicated website, (the site is only available in Portuguese). In addition to his music, the website presents his work as a film-maker, writer and visual artist, which in many ways is just as significant as his music. Make sure also to check out his bold and lively paintings, which you can find on the website by selecting “Pinturas” (Paintings) under the “Obras” (Works) menu. I’ve also embedded a Youtube video of Ricardo’s original recording of Zelão here.

Here’s my interpretation in English of Zelão. As always, I’ve tried to stay as true as I can to the original words and ideas, only taking liberties where necessary. I’m not sure, but I think this may be the only English version of this song that exists. Happy Birthday, Sérgio! Thanks for bringing so much beauty and truth into the world!


They all knew up on the hill
What made Zelão cry out.
No one laughed, no one joked,
And it was Carnaval.   [2x]

The only thing to cook up
Over a shanty-town flame
Are illusions and schemes;
And if you’re lucky, some scraps.

But even so, our Zelão
Always said you should smile,
[that] poor men should help one another
till things are all right.

It rained, it rained.
His shack was knocked down by the raging downpour.
There was no way he could save the guitar.
It tumbled along downhill with the song
About all the things the rain washed away,
Like the piece of his heart that he lost on that day.

They all knew up on the hill
What made Zelão cry out.
No one laughed, no one joked,
And it was Carnaval.   [2x]

— English version by Matthew Marth,
based on the original Portuguese version,
entitled “Zelão” by Sérgio Ricardo


Fishing for contemporary Brazilian music? — Two sites for a good catch

These days there are lots of websites that offer a chance to hear classic bossa nova and samba music, but not so many that focus on the current musical scene in Brazil. If you’re a Portuguese speaker looking for contemporary manifestations of MPB, Brazilian jazz and samba, you’ll have an easier time of it, since most of the web coverage of these styles is to be found on Brazilian websites, presented solely in Portuguese. But if you’re not a Portuguese speaker, don’t let that deter you. A few minutes spent visually scanning and exploring links on those sites is usually all it takes to find new musical gems. You can always use your browser’s page translator when you can’t make sense of the Portuguese text on your own. Sure, it won’t be a perfect translation (maybe in a couple more decades?), but it will be good enough to help you navigate and find videos, mp3s and other resources.

Now that I have encouraged you with that little confidence-inspiring pep talk, here are a couple of exciting Brazilian music websites with great listening opportunities:

SESC Instrumental (
SESC is a nationwide Brazilian social support organization that promotes Brazilian culture by supporting musicians and artists. The organization provides venues throughout Brazil that showcase many of today’s best Brazilian talent. On the SESC Instrumental website you can find a treasure trove of high-quality videos of live instrumental music concerts that have taken place at SESC venues throughout Brazil. Shows by well-known artists such as Hermeto Pascoal and João Donato are presented alongside lesser known, but no less interesting artists like the Maogani quartet and Luis Leite. Besides the videos, there are also interviews, artist pages, a tv broadcast link and other resources (all in Portuguese). For instant gratification, find the box entitled “Todos os Shows” (“All the Shows”) on the homepage, then click on the button “Ver todos” (“See them all”) to see the complete list of videos sorted by date and artist/group. (Note that all these videos are also posted on YouTube.) Thanks to Angelo da Silva for giving me the tip about this site!

Cultura Brasil, Brazilian music portal (
This website is the portal to a wide variety of musical offerings presented by São Paulo-based Radio Cultura Brasil, an organization that has been promoting Brazilian music on the air since 1936. Here you will find an archive with lots of themed radio shows that are great samplers of both current and historical music trends in Brazil. There are also themed playlists, such as “O Fino de Elis”, a “best of” overview of Elis Regina recordings, or “Instrumental cerebral paulistano”, an aural voyage through the “cerebral” instrumental music of 1980s São Paulo. Other resources on the site include special radio programs, podcast support, interviews, photos and a live radio stream. Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, if you can sit patiently through a few seconds of talk here and there, you will be richly rewarded with a huge variety of great Brazilian music of all genres—all gratis! Time to put up the “Gone fishin’ ” sign…

New English version of “Luz Negra”

I suppose by now it should be fairly obvious that I have a penchant for sad songs with descending melodies. The subject of my latest effort at samba song translation, Luz Negra (“Black Light”), may be the saddest, most descending song there is. It was composed by Nelson Cavaquinho and Irani Barros and has been covered by many great artists, including Leny Andrade, Richard Galliano and Baden Powell.

Nelson Cavaquinho (center)

Nelson Cavaquinho (center)

There seems to be a certain type of “natural” musician, who, regardless of circumstances, is intrinsically compelled to make music with whatever is at hand. How else can you explain someone like Nelson Cavaquinho: He grew up poor, building his first makeshift guitar all on his own out of a cigar box and some wire. He then taught himself how to play cavaquinho (a kind of Brazilian ukelele) and consequently developed his own unique two-finger playing style. Perhaps most impressive of all, he composed over 600 compositions over the course of his lifetime. You don’t crank out that much music unless you just can’t help it.

Here is my new English version of the lyrics for Luz Negra. One of the most beautiful arrangements of this song can be heard on Lea Freire’s excellent album, Vento em Madeira.

Black Light
(Luz Negra)

All alone
Forever searching for someone
Who suffers just as I have done
But there is no one to be found

Still alone
And life just keeps on passing by
I’ve got no one to care for me
The end is all I see

The black light of a fate so cruel
Shines upon a pallid stage from above
On that stage you’ll find me playing the role
Of the silly fool for love

— English version by Matthew Marth,
based on the original Portuguese version,
entitled “Luz Negra” by Nelson Cavaquinho and Irani Barros


Maritaca—contemporary Brazilian instrumental music at its finest

In my never-ending search for recordings of Brazilian music that satisfy my musical tastes, I have recently come across an excellent record label called “Maritaca“. On the English-language web pages for Maritaca, the label is described as “… a Brazilian Instrumental Music Label renowned for casting only the best Brazilian musicians and recording their contemporary Brazilian music. It is a company made by musicians, and dedicated to music.”

The label is under the creative direction of Léa Freire, an outstanding Brazilian flautist, who also performs on many of the label’s recordings. Maritaca, being based in São Paulo, showcases many “Paulistas” (natives of São Paulo)— who happen to be some of today’s most accomplished musicians working in the Brazilian jazz and what I’ll call jazz-choro-samba-classical crossover genres.

Léa Freire. Photo by Marcilio Godoi.

Léa Freire. Photo by Marcilio Godoi.

Besides Freire’s luscious low-pitched flute playing, there are many other top artists featured, such as percussionist Edu Ribeiro, Paulo Paulelli (whose beautiful bass playing I first encountered on Rosa Passos’ cd “Amorosa”), pianist Fabio Torres, singer-composer-guitarist Filó Machado, the big band “Banda Mantiqueira” and many others. The Maritaca website offers a lot of musical samples from the albums. One of the first that comes up on the website is “Vento em Madeira“. As soon as I heard the sample tunes I was ready to buy. Maritaca’s albums are available for purchase from a number of sources, including and

Incidentally, Trio Corrente, (Edu Ribeiro, Paulo Paulelli and Fabio Torres), which is one of the groups represented by the label, has a very good album that you can listen to in full on Grooveshark before you buy—just do a search for “Paulelli”.

The music on the Maritaca label varies in style and approach, but there are many common features, such as sophisticated, crystal-clear playing, super-tight ensemble work and excellent sound engineering. Stylistically, the albums on the label tend to offer a pleasantly angular, modern direction, while remaining anchored in Brazilian musical traditions of choro, samba, bossa nova and the classically-rooted legacy of Villa-Lobos. Highly recommended!

New English version of “O Grande Amor”

“O Grande Amor” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful fruits of the famous collaboration between A.C. Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. The lyrics convey a cognitive dissonance between the ideal of monogamous love and the painful reality of romantic indiscretion. This tension is supported and amplified musically on at least two levels.

Vinicius de Moraes (l.) and Tom Jobim (r.) arm wrestling

Vinicius de Moraes (l.) and Tom Jobim (r.) arm wrestling

There is the tension created by alternating between minor and major modalities in the melody and there is the tension created by setting the descending modal trajectory of the melody against the descending chromatic trajectory of the harmony. The end result is a mixed message about romantic love that mirrors the reality of life in a captivating way.

For those who have never heard this song, I recommend the recording by Stan Getz and João Gilberto found on the classic album “Getz/Gilberto”.
I’ve been holding on to this one for some time now. It’s just such a great song that I wanted to be sure to get it right. If I end up tweaking it and making further changes in the future, please don’t be surprised.

Love’s Greatness
(O Grande Amor)

Come what may, my friends, there’s always a man for every woman.
There will always be a false love you must forget,
because it makes you feel like dying.
Be that as it may,
love’s greatness will surely prevail,
and when it wins over the heart
the one who cried will then forgive.

— English version by Matthew Marth,
based on the original Portuguese version,
entitled “O Grande Amor” by A.C. Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes


New English version of “Moça flor”
Photo by Sebastian Anthony. CC: Some rights reserved.

Photo by Sebastian Anthony. CC: Some rights reserved.

I’ve been home sick with a cold–not pretty. So instead of being bored and miserable, I decided to bring a little beauty into my world by translating one of my favorite bossa nova standards.

“Moça flor”, by Durval Ferreira and Lula Freire, is a bittersweet song that uses a flower metaphor to express the poetic quality of a girl’s first experience of love.

It’s has a gentle, beautiful melody and lush chromatic harmony.  My personal favorite recording of the song is by Tamba 4, on their album “We and the Sea”.

Little Flower
(Moça flor)

Little flower, sweetest flower of them all.

Little flower, you’re the color of love
and your look, though it shines, gives off an air of sadness
brought out by the tear welling up in your eye.

Little flower, that pure tear in your eye
is the dew of a flower that cries
and feels pain.

Give it time, little flower, you’ll cry, little flower, that’s love.

— English version by Matthew Marth,
based on the original Portuguese version,
entitled “Moça flor” by Durval Ferreira and Lula Freire


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