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



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


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


New English version of “O Meu Pecado”

[In my original post, I attributed authorship of “O Meu Pecado” to Paulinho da Viola, but the actual author of the song is Zé Kéti. Thanks to AD of” for pointing out my error.]

Paulinho da Viola is one of my favorite Brazilian samba and choro artists. He is a comprehensive talent: his singing voice, guitar and cavaquinho playing are all characterized by a clean, smooth and gentle quality, and his original compositions and interpretations encapsulate the core essence of Rio’s samba spirit. His version of Zé Kéti’s song “O Meu Pecado” can be heard on his 1970 album “Foi um rio que passou em minha vida”.

Zé Kéti

Zé Kéti

When I posted this yesterday I must have had one too many margaritas, because I had decided to use “my transgression” as the translation of the first line (“meu pecado” in Portuguese). When I woke up this morning I had to admit to myself that even though “my transgression” has its advantages, it’s just too elevated in register and doesn’t suit the conversational quality of the song. So now I’ve settled on using “my sin”, which is how most people would probably translate the title. It doesn’t have as many syllables as “meu pecado”, but since the melody for that line has only three distinct pitches, I think it’s manageable. You just have to sing the first two pitches on the “my” and not reiterate the last pitch. Sometimes when translating from Portuguese to English you just have to accept such compromises. Here’s what I ended up with:

My Sin [alt.: My Transgression]

(O Meu Pecado)

My sin [alt.: My transgression]
was that I wanted in my youth
to love so many women.
My time has come and gone.
I long for the old days.

My sin
was that I spent all my nights drinking
and singing serenades
down in the city.

But now that I’m broke,
it seems women just don’t want me anymore.
Oh, if only things could go back
to the way they were before.

— English version by Matthew Marth,
based on the original Portuguese version,
entitled “O Meu Pecado” by Zé Kéti

[Since I posted this I’ve received feedback from some people saying they think “My Transgression” works better than “My Sin”. I’m still not sure, so I’m putting up as an alternative version, and you can decide for yourself.]


New English version of "Só danço Samba"
December 1, 2009, 11:23 am
Filed under: lyrics | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I haven’t spent much time lately with the stated project of posting about the Divas, but I have spent a fair amount of time creating English versions of several bossa nova classics. Here’s the latest. I suspect there may already be an English version of “Só danço samba”, but I haven’t been able to locate it, so I did my own. I left the Portuguese “Vai vai vai” in there, because I don’t think “go go go” sounds good with the rest—too guttaral. I figure the “vai vai vai” helps keep the Brazilian flavor in any case. If you like it, use it.

I Only Dance the Samba

I dance the samba, but only samba.
Vai vai vai vai vai
I dance the samba, but only samba.

I’ve already twisted all I can,
so please don’t wear me thin
with calypso and cha cha cha.
[alternative 2nd verse:
I’ve danced the twist so much I’m out of breath.
So please don’t bore me stiff
with calypso and cha cha cha.]

English version by Matthew Marth,
based on the original Portuguese version,
entitled “Só danço samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim and
Vinicius de Moraes


%d bloggers like this: