João Valentão

Lyrics from “João Valentão” by Dorival Caymmi (1945)

Listen: João Gilberto, recording in Chico Pereira’s house, 1958

João Valentão is a bully, he throws blows
He doesn’t pay attention and he doesn’t even contemplate life
He intimidates every João, he does things that even God can’t believe
But he has his moment in life…

It’s when the sun goes breaking over the end of the world, for night to arrive
It’s when the roar of the waves can be heard more loudly, at the edge of the sea
It’s when the weariness of the struggle – of life –  obliges João to sit down
It’s when the morena curls up, comes to his side, wishing to please
If the night is moonlit, the urge is to tell fibs, to stretch out
Lie down on the sand on the beach that ends where no one can see
And that’s how this man falls asleep, who never needs to sleep to dream
Because there is no dream more beautiful than his land (there’s none)

(Spoken in João Gilberto version linked above:  That land is Bahia...)

— Interpretation —

Dorival Caymmi on the beach, via tomjobin.org.
Dorival Caymmi on the beach, via tomjobin.org.

Dorival Caymmi was born in Salvador da Bahia on April 30, 1914.  He composed over a hundred songs — almost all about life and death at sea, fishing, and Bahia — before his death in 2008 at the age of ninety-four.  At first listen, his songs may sound simple or even simplistic: most are short and have few lyrics.  But Caymmi was known for spending years laboring over every word and note in each of his songs (he started “João Valentão in 1936 and finished and released the song in 1945), and this perfectionism is clear in his compositions, which stand alone in their exquisite portrayal of life in Bahia and Brazil in the 20th century. As Caetano Veloso put it, he has few songs “compared to other composers, but each of his songs is a perfect jewel, and his tone is one of a sort of very deep wiseness, that he seems to have always had.” João Gilberto, a fellow Bahian  considered the “father of bossa nova” in Brazil, said that he fine-tuned the bossa nova style while playing around with Caymmi’s song “Rosa Morena,” which he recorded in 1959 on his first LP, Chega de Saudade.

In the book Dorival Caymmi: O Mar e o Tempo, Dorival tells the story behind the song “João Valentão.”  It began as a song about a beloved fisherman in Salvador, whose name he did not know, but whose nickname was Carapeba – a type of fish. Originally, Caymmi wrote the song as “João Carapeba.” Carapeba was a muscular fisherman, the father of Caymmi’s friend Aurelino, and Caymmi says he was an idol of sorts. Fom there, he came up with “João Valentão” – i.e. “big tough João” or João the Bully.

The rest of the story is a mixture of Caymmi’s interpretation – and fabrication – of aspects of Carapeba’s/João’s personality and the Bahian surroundings.  For instance, Caymmi recounts a day when Carapeba invited him to go fishing at 5 a.m., but he decided to spend the day with his friends, instead. When Carapeba returned from fishing, he scolded Caymmi, startling him and all of his friends who exclaimed, “What a foul-mouthed man!” This tale added to the depiction of João as a tough guy in the song. What follows (beginning with “It’s when the sun goes breaking…”), Caymmi says, is purely a product of the atmosphere in which he was writing — starlit nights, beach and sand, fresh sea breezes, lovely ladies, etc.

When he got to the point of describing João Valentão lying on the sand, Caymmi reasoned, “Lying down on the sand is really comfortable, isn’t it? So I stopped there.”

* A couple of notes about the translation: I translate “mentira” in Portuguese as “fibs” rather than “lies,” because the word was meant in a more lighthearted sense in the song.  I’ve left “morena” in Portuguese because the English translation to “brunette” isn’t the same; a morena implies someone with not only brown hair but darker skin and eyes, as well.

Main Sources for this Post: Dorival Caymmi: O Mar e o Tempo, by Stella Caymmi

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