Bossa Nova Daydreams

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



10 Comments so far
Leave a comment

OK, AD, I haven’t received a reply from Mr. von Schweder-Schreiner, but I did talk to a Brazilian colleague about the Zelão translation question and he explained that the “-ão” suffix in Portuguese is used as a grammatical augmentative, i.e. it lends the meaning “big” to masculine nouns. That is in line with your “bulky Joe” interpretation. However, I would tend to translate it simply as “big Joe”, as “bulky” sounds overly specific and descriptive in this context. Thanks for your input, as always.

Comment by Matthew

First, I have to apologize for not responding earlier. Actually, you confirm what I assumed but missed to make sure from my source. I entirely agree.
Happy New Year!

Comment by AD

Today, Nelson from Brazil send me the following explanantion of Zelão (I quote):

Joe short form of Joseph => Zé (in Portuguese)

Bulky Joe => Zelão (in Portuguese)

Comment by AD

Thanks. But where does the “bulky” come from?

Comment by Matthew

I asked a Portuguese friend but he was not familiar with the word. Maybe it is wether a Brazilian expression or, if Portuguese, an antiquated one, as you suggest. I will try to ask a colleague from Brazil who works in my office.

The German copy of Ruy Castro’s book is translated by Nicolai von Schweder-Schreiner. According to the internet, he is a native Portuguese who lived in Rio de Janeiro and now resides in Hamburg. He studied cultural sciences, and in addition to his work as a musician, composer and writer, he translates from Portuguese and English into German professionally since 1997 and has been awarded for some of his translations.

Well, that sounds quite convincing to me. Maybe you like to get in touch with him via his Facebook account. (I don’t have one.)

Comment by AD

Sounds like someone with good credentials. But I know from working with translators on a regular basis that even they can make mistakes. In any case, I’m not assuming it is a mistake, I’m just not sure. I haven’t sorted out the mystery yet, but when I do, I’ll report what I find. If you learn anything on your end, please share it. Thanks again for the discussion.

Comment by Matthew

In my German copy “Zelão” is mentioned on page 264, in the last paragraph of the first section of chapter 17.
It is the chapter which tells the story about the preparations of the Carnegie Hall concert, and how it is the participations came about. The paragraph tells how Sérgio Ricardo went to the consulate, carrying a book of poems by Dora Vasconcellos under his arm who incidentally was the consulate general.
The sentence includes the note “Sérgio Ricardo, der Komponist von ‘Zelão’ (Eifersucht)”, and ‘Eifersucht’ is German for jealousy/jealousness.
Hopefully, I have not confused you too much with my remark. It is just that I have already tried in vain to find out myself what ‘Zelão’ means since it is one of my favourite songs.
Best regards

Comment by AD

That’s interesting. In my English-language copy of Castro’s book, they do not provide an English translation of the song’s title (in other words, nothing like your version’s “Eifersucht”). I wonder where the German translators got that from. Could it be an error? In my Portuguese dictionaries, “zelão” is not offered as a definition of “jealousy”. As far as I can tell, it seems to be an old name originating in Portugal. I’m going to have to ask some native Portuguese speakers what they think. If anyone else reads this and can illuminate, please do.

Comment by Matthew

A very well written article.

Noting that you did not translate the word “zelão”, I remembered Ruy Castro mentioning the song in his book “Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World”. Interestingly, he translated “zelão” as “jealousy”.

However, none of the common tools on the web offers a translation. Even though I do not speak Brazilian/Portuguese and therefore cannot evaluate the subtleties of the language, the idea of “jealousy” as the main character’s name seems consistent on the subject of the message.

Best regards

Comment by AD

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, AD. I am also unsure about the name Zelão. Could you tell me where to find the passage about it in Ruy Castro’s book? I can’t find any mention of the name’s meaning in my copy. If Sergio Ricardo really did intend for the name to represent the idea of jealousy as you suggest, then that could make quite a difference in my interpretation. All the best to you!

Comment by Matthew

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