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



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