“O Bêbado e a Equilibrista”

Lyrics from “O Bebâdo e a Equilibrista” by Aldir Blanc and João Bosco (1979)

Caía a tarde feito um viaduto // Night was falling like a viaduct
E um bêbado trajando luto // And a drunkard wearing mourning
Me lembrou Carlitos// Reminded me of Carlitos [Charlie Chaplin]
A lua tal qual a dona do bordel// The moon, just like a madam
Pedia a cada estrela fria // Asked each cold star for
Um brilho de aluguel // A shine for rent

E nuvens lá no mata-borrão do céu // And clouds up in the blotter of the sky
Chupavam manchas torturadas // Sucked up tortured stains
Que sufoco! // How stifling!
Louco // Crazy
O bêbado com chapéu-coco // The drunkard in a bowler hat
Fazia irreverências mil // Was making a thousand irreverent gestures
Pra noite do Brasil // For the Brazilian night
Meu Brasil!// My Brazil

Que sonha com a volta do irmão do Henfil // That dreams of Henfil’s brother’s return
Com tanta gente que partiu // Of so many who left
Num rabo de foguete // On a rocket’s tail
A nossa Pátria mãe gentil // Our dear mother country cries
Choram Marias e Clarices // Marias and Clarices cry
No solo do Brasil // On this Brazilian soil

Mas sei que uma dor assim pungente // But I know such a pungent pain
Não há de ser inutilmente / Will not have been in vain
A esperança // Hope
Dança na corda bamba de sombrinha // Dances on the tightrope clutching a parasol
E em cada passo dessa linha // And every step of the way
Pode se machucar // Could get hurt

Azar // Chance
A esperança equilibrista // That balancing act of hope
Sabe que o show de todo artista // Knows that every artist’s show
Tem que continuar// Must go on

— Commentary —

Aldir Blanc at his home in 2016. Photo via Agência O Globo.

Aldir Blanc and Noel Rosa are the two samba lyricists who best captured the spirit of Rio de Janeiro in their brilliant poetry. Both also happened to die on May 4th: Noel in 1937, at 26, of tuberculosis; Aldir, in 2020, at 73, of Covid-19. My next few posts will be a series of Aldir’s songs.

Aldir’s death is harder to take because it seems to represent the demise of a Brazil beloved by so many — the Brazil whose revival is celebrated in “O Bêbado e a Equilibrista” [The Drunkard and the Tightrope Walker]. In 1979, this song became the anthem of the political amnesty that signaled the impending breakdown of the military government and a brighter future for the country.  Yet now, forty years later, Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his followers — “Bolsominions,” as they’re called — have brought the country to comparably dismal depths.

The day-to-day tragedies wrought by the current administration have gone mostly unnoticed by the global news media. But Bolsonaro has recently managed to earn worldwide attention for his reckless response to the coronavirus crisis. It began with the fact that he almost certainly contracted the virus but refused to reveal his test results, scoffing that it was nothing but a “little cold” anyway, as he took to the streets and encouraged the rest of the country to do the same. When he heard in late April that the country had registered a record nearly 500 deaths in 24 hours, he responded “E daí?” – so what?

Aldir Blanc c. 1997. Photo courtesy of Henrique Sodré.

Blanc, whose poetry indelibly captured the grit and understated glamour that have long defined Rio’s charm, can now perhaps be counted among the casualties of these dire political circumstances, laid bare to the world through the administration’s contemptuous dismissal of the pandemic.

Yet this song can also serve as a reminder that the old Rio — Aldir’s Rio — will re-emerge, just as Rio emerged from the worst years of the military dictatorship. The city will find its rhythm again, and Aldir’s penetrating and poignant interpretations of the meaning of life as a carioca and a Brazilian will continue to resonate.

As I mentioned above, “O Bêbado e a Equilibrista,” in the consummate interpretation of Elis Regina, became the anthem for the political amnesty law passed on August 28, 1979,  which allowed for the return of a wave of political exiles, as discussed in this previous post. Such anthems to specific moments rarely began with that end in mind, and this song was no different: It was born, in fact, as a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, who died in 1977.

In a 2004 interview, João Bosco recounted that in late 1977, saddened by Chaplin’s death, he composed the music for “O Bêbado e a Equilibrista” over the melody for “Smile,” Chaplin’s instrumental theme from his classic Modern Times (1936). That film’s opening title card says it’s a story of “humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness,” the singularly Chaplinesque spirit that Bosco said made Chaplin’s death so painful, and that he wanted to capture in song.

In Modern Times, Chaplin, a hapless steel-mill worker, suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of oppressive conditions in the factory; in turn, a series of irreverent gestures — such as squirting oil in his boss’s face — get him fired. The Chaplin character of the song is also going a little crazy in Brazil’s oppressive conditions. Yet an irrepressible spirit of hope prevails in the song, just like in Chaplin’s movies, as Bosco pointed out: “[At] the end of the films there was always a horizon where you could imagine living someday in a different world. Not as unequal as this one.”

Bosco composed the music and showed it to Aldir, thinking it could be a Carnaval tribute to Chaplin. Aldir took it further: In this 2007 interview, he recalled that one day in 1978 he met up with Henfil of the song (the political cartoonist Henrique de Souza Filho, a friend of Aldir’s from the satirical weekly O Pasquim, where Aldir was a contributor) and Henfil’s brother, Chico Mário; the two “couldn’t stop talking about their brother in exile,” Aldir said — “their mano, their mano.” (Their brother was the leading leftist sociologist Herbert de Souza, known as Betinho, who had left for exile after the 1964 military coup, but Aldir has said he didn’t know that at the time — hence the reference to “Henfil’s brother.”) The conversation gave Aldir an idea: when he got home, he called Bosco and suggested they create a Chaplin-like character driven crazy by that context of drawn-out forced exile.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 9.01.17 AM
The Paulo de Frontin viaduct collapsed on Nov. 20, 1971. Image via Acervo Globo.

As in “Smile,” and in Chaplin’s films more broadly, adversity and hope teeter in a delicate balance in “O Bêbado e a Equilibrista.” The “viaduct” mentioned in the opening line was the Viaduto Paulo de Frontin, which collapsed in Rio de Janeiro in 1971, killing twenty-nine people and seriously injuring eighteen more. The viaduct foundered at the corner of Rua Haddock Lobo and Av. Paulo de Frontin, in the heart of Aldir’s beloved neighborhood of Estácio. Such collapses, then as now (infrastructural failures continue to be all too frequent in Rio and across Brazil), tragically expose Brazilian leaders’ disregard for human lives, much as the coronavirus crisis has done.

Vlado Herzog_Henfil_Anistia
Vlado was Vladimir Herzog’s nickname. Here, Henfil’s character runs joyfully to tell Vlado the Amnesty has been issued; too late for many.

“Marias and Clarices” refers to the widows of political prisoners who were tortured to death by the military regime: Maria, the widow of metallurgical worker Manuel Fiel Filho, and Clarice, the widow of the journalist Vladimir Herzog.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 8.48.49 AM
Betinho, on the right, upon his return from exile in September 1979. From the Globo archives, 15 September 1979.

To give an idea of Aldir’s eminence in his native Rio, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, chants began to break out at rodas de samba around Rio, “Nobel Prize for Aldir!”

For previous posts on Aldir Blanc, go here.

*Thank you to Charles Perrone, whose English version of the song in his 1989 book Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song helped get me out of some tight spots with the translation. I’m reproducing that more poetic English version here:

Night was falling like a freeway warning
and a drunk dressed in mourning
reminded me of Charlie Chaplin.

The moon just like a madame in ascent
was asking each cold star
to pay a sparkling rent.
And clouds up there in the blotter of the sky
were sucking tortured stains awry.
Oh, how stifling!
Crazy and drunk in his bowler hat
he was behaving like an irreverent brat
at nighttime in Brazil, my Brazil.

That dreams about Henfil’s brother returning
and so many people who took off burning
from this sizzling hornet’s nest.
Our genteel mother cries.
Marys and Clarissas crying still
on the soil of Brazil.
Yet, I know that this pungent pain
will not have been in vain.
Hope/ performs on the tightrope clutching a parasol
and every step of the way
might mean a nasty fall.
Bad luck!/ The balancing acts of hope know
that every artist’s show/ must go on.

7 thoughts on ““O Bêbado e a Equilibrista””

  1. Great music, terrific translations, excellent history lessons, and your own splendid prose. thank you.

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