Meus vinte anos

Lyrics from “Meus vinte anos” by Wilson Batista and Silvio Caldas (1942)

Good Audio Version (Silvio Caldas)

In women’s eyes, in the mirror in my room
Is where I see my age
The portrait in the living room makes me remember achingly my youth
Life for me has been so wretched, only bitter disenchantment
Ay, I’d give everything to be able to go back to being twenty (repeat)

You left in my life the vivid shadow of tremendous yearning
Leaving me, you ended up showing me the counterpoint, killing my faith
And today disillusioned – I’ve suffered a lot –
Full of bitter disenchantment
Ay, I’d give everything to be able to go back to being twenty

— Interpretation —

Wilson Batista, looking dapper c. 1933.

In this samba, Wilson Batista aches over getting older, lamenting that his appearance continues to diverge from that of the portrait in the living room, and that women’s eyes perhaps don’t shine as brightly when they see him.

Batista was a malandrostyle samba composer — an unapologetic scoundrel sort, known for his impassioned defense of waywardness in a battle he fought in samba songs with the more refined bohemian Noel Rosa. (Rosa contended that malandro sambistas should  toss out their razor blades, stop dragging their wood-soled shoes, and basically get over themselves. You can read about the feud here.)

Batista wrote this song when he was twenty-nine — an age when most would scoff at someone for pining for their youthful days of yore. But maybe he knew his lifestyle did not promote longevity; he died at 58.

The theme of fleeting youth is a universal one, and the song was one of Wilson Batista’s greatest successes as a lyricist. Silvio Caldas wrote the melody and recorded the samba in 1942, and the song was a hit throughout the following year.

Lyrics in Portuguese

Nos olhos das mulheres
No espelho do meu quarto
É que eu vejo a minha idade
O retrato na sala
Faz lembrar com saudade
A minha mocidade

A vida para mim tem sido tão ruim
Só desenganos
Ai, eu daria tudo
Para poder voltar
Aos meus vinte anos.

Deixaste em minha vida
A sombra colorida
De uma saudade imensa
Deixando-me ficaste
Mostrando-me o contraste
Matando a minha crença
E hoje desiludido
Muito tenho sofrido
Cheio de desenganos
Ai, eu daria tudo
Para poder voltar
Aos meus vinte anos.

Main source for this post: A Canção no Tempo: 85 Anos de Músicas Brasileiras, vol 1, by Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello

Chão de Estrelas

Lyrics from “Chão de Estrelas” (Starry Ground) by Orestes Barbosa and Sílvio Caldas (1937)

Good Audio Version (João Gilberto)

My life was an illuminated stage, I was always dressed in gold
A clown of lost illusions
Covered in phony bells of joy, I went around singing my fantasy
Among the feverish palms* of hearts

My shack, on Salgueiro Hill, had the cheerful song of an aviary –
You were the resonance that ended
And today, when the sun’s rays brighten my shack, I feel longing
For the dove-woman that flew away

Our modest clothes hanging out on the line, like waving flags
Looked like an exotic festival
A party of our colored rags, showing that on the poorly dressed hillsides
It’s always a national holiday!

The shack’s door had no latch, but the moon, boring through our tin
Peppered our floor with stars
You stepped on the stars, absent-minded, unaware that the fortune of this life
Is the mulatta, the moonlight and the guitar

— Interpretation —

In 1935, Sílvio Caldas visited the Brazilian poet Guilherme de Almeida and played a new song for him, entitled “Foste a sonoridade que acabou” (“You were the resonance that ended”). After listening,  the poet, touched by Orestes Barbosa’s lyrics, suggested a new name: “Chão de Estrelas.” Thirty years later, Almeida observed: “[At the time] I didn’t even know the author’s name. But what I thought and said of him then, I repeat today: just one of those two images — the colorful clothes hanging on the line and the stars on the floor (…) — is enough for there to still be poets on this earth.”

Similarly moved by the lyrics, in 1956, the renowned Brazilian Modernist poet Manuel Bandeira wrote, “If there were a competition (…) to pick the most beautiful verse in our language, perhaps I would vote for Orestes’s: “tu pisavas os astros distraída” (“you stepped on the stars, absentminded”).

Sílvio Caldas and Orestes Barbosa composed fifteen songs together. Some of their other most popular songs include “Quase que eu disse,” “Suburbana,” and “Torturante ironia.” Though “Chão de Estrelas” was first released in 1937, the song only became a national success when Sílvio Caldas rereleased it in 1950.

Salgueiro favela in Rio

Morro do Salgueiro — or Salgueiro Hill — is a historic hillside favela in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca neighborhood. It is home to one of the city’s most beloved Carnaval samba schools (described here), GRES Acadêmicos do Salgueiro.

*The first verse of the song ends with “among the feverish palms of hearts.” In Portuguese, the literal translation for “clap” in English is “to beat palms.” Orestes Barbosa played with this phrase, referring to beating hearts as “palms of hearts.” The Portuguese word for “floor” and “ground” are the same — “chão” — which makes the translation a bit complicated. “Ground” implies outside, but “floor” implies that there is actually a floor, which may not have been the case in this shack in the Salgueiro favela.

In 1970, Os Mutantes released a version of “Chão de Estrelas” (below) on their album A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado Caetano Veloso began his song “Livros” (1997, Livro) with a play on the lyrics from “Chão de Estrelas,” singing, “tropeçavas nos astros desastrada” (you tripped on the stars, clumsy).

Silvio Caldas (1908 – 1998) was born in the São Cristóvão neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. His father owned a musical instrument shop and was an amateur waltz composer, so Sílvio had a lot of contact with music from a very early age. In 1934, Ary Barroso brought Sílvio to sing at Rio’s Teatro Recreio, where Sílvio sang his first big hit — Barroso’s “Faceira.” Around then, his blossoming partnership with Orestes Barbosa highlighted his talent for “seresta” – a genre of Brazilian music that evolved from the serenade and which Caldas popularized around Brazil.

Orestes Barbosa (1893 – 1966) was a composer, lyricist, writer and poet from Rio de Janeiro. He was an activist and made his political opinions quite clear in his newspaper articles, which landed him in jail more than once. In 1922 he released his first book of prose, In Prison, which related tales of his time in jail. He wrote other books of poetry and prose before beginning to work as a lyricist in the late 1920s.

Lyrics in Portuguese

Minha vida era um palco iluminado
Eu vivia vestido de dourado
Palhaço das perdidas ilusões
Cheio dos guizos falsos da alegria
Andei cantando a minha fantasia
Entre as palmas febris dos corações
Meu barracão no morro do Salgueiro
Tinha o cantar alegre de um viveiro
Foste a sonoridade que acabou
E hoje, quando do sol, a claridade
Forra o meu barracão, sinto saudade
Da mulher pomba-rola que voou
Nossas roupas comuns dependuradas
Na corda, qual bandeiras agitadas
Pareciam um estranho festival!
Festa dos nossos trapos coloridos
A mostrar que nos morros mal vestidos
É sempre feriado nacional
A porta do barraco era sem trinco
Mas a lua, furando o nosso zinco
Salpicava de estrelas nosso chão
Tu pisavas os astros, distraída,
Sem saber que a ventura desta vida
É a cabrocha, o luar e o violão

The main source for this post was A Cancao no tempo: 85 Anos de Musicas Brasileiras, Vol. 1 by Jairo Severiano and Zuzu Homem de Mello

Lenço no Pescoço

Lyrics from “Lenço no Pescoço” by Wilson Batista
Recorded by Silvio Caldas in 1933

Good audio version(Grooveshark)

My hat tilted to the side
Wood-soled shoe dragging
Kerchief around my neck
Razor in my pocket
I swagger around
I provoke and challenge
I am proud
To be such a vagabond

I know they talk
About this conduct of mine
I see those who work
Living in misery
I’m a vagabond
Because I had the inclination
I remember, as a child I wrote samba songs

(Don’t mess with me, I want to see who’s right… )

My hat tilted to the side
Wood-soled shoe dragging
Kerchief around my neck
Razor in my pocket
I swagger around
I provoke and challenge
I am proud
To be such a vagabond

And they play
And you sing
And I don’t  give in

— Interpretation —

This is perhaps the most characteristic example of “samba malandro” — samba songs celebrating malandragem,  a rough, vagrant life initially associated with the poor black communities that formed in Rio de Janeiro after slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888.  A life of malandragem was a rejection of the societal norms being imposed at the time by the country’s white elite.  A malandro (sometimes translated as a rogue), facing intense racial discrimination and socioeconomic oppression, responded with his own, individual form of justice, achieved through cheating, fooling and foiling the authorities, and generally getting ahead through manipulation, cunning and shrewdness.

The malandro life involved days spent singing and dancing in samba circles, drinking, womanizing, and gambling in games like  Jogo do Bicho – a popular nationwide lottery allowing bets as low as 1 cent.  (The game was officially outlawed in 1946, but it remains widespread and incredibly popular in Brazil even today.)

Malandros dressed rebelliously and spurned wage work and the capitalist system in general.  However, in part because of increasing repression from Getulio Vargas’s regime (1930 – 1945, described in this post) and in part in response to broader popular trends, there were only a few songs — including “Lenço no pescoço” — dedicated explicitly to the benefits of such a life versus the life of a working man. Most of these songs were produced during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the celebration of malandragem peaked to such an extent that even Vinicius de Moraes – a student of law and future poet and diplomat –  wrote one of his first songs, in partnership with the Irmãos Tapajós, saying “I’m going to go crazy/I don’t want to work/I was born a malandro/Everyone can see I’m a malandro/ I’ll die a malandro.” Along with “Lenço no pescoço,” other well-known songs dedicated to the malandro life are “Malandragem,” from 1928, and “O que será de mim?” (“What will become of me?”), from 1931.

Under increasing censorship and pressure from the Vargas regime for sambistas to clean up their act (authorities demanded sambistas wear impeccable white suits, for instance) and produce sambas de “exaltação” — exaltations of Brazil’s natural beauty and economic opportunities — and in response to changing tastes among listeners and a broadening national audience for Rio de Janeiro’s sambas, with the proliferation of the radio,  the main themes of samba-malandro songs softened around the mid-1930s.  Sambistas began to focus more on malandros’ artfulness, rather than expressly defying the work that Vargas so heartily promoted. (Laws establishing workers’ rights were defined and formalized under Vargas, including many labor institutions — such as the minimum wage and 8-hour workday — that are still in force today. Of course, Vargas had his own interests in mind: tellingly, the system was modeled after the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini’s Carta del Lavoro.) Also, by the mid-1930s, more and more white sambistas from middle class backgrounds were  becoming popular, diluting the samba-malandro message.

Wilson Batista (1913 – 1968) was born in Campos, in the northern interior region of Rio de Janeiro state. In 1930 his family moved to Rio de Janeiro, and Wilson composed his first samba at age 16 – “Na estrada da vida” (“On the road of life”).  As a poor Afro-Brazilian, and an outsider to Rio’s samba circles, Batista truly had to prove his toughness and guile to make it in Rio. Beginning in the early 1930s, he composed a number of sambas with other famous sambistas of the time that became Carnaval hits throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He produced nearly 600 sambas before dying at 55. While in recent years Batista has been largely overlooked by the media and samba critics,  in the 1970s, Paulinho da Viola declared that he regarded Wilson Batisa as the greatest sambista of all time.

“Lenço no pescoço” stoked a dispute between Wilson Batista and Noel Rosa, a feeble and brilliant white sambista from a middle-class background who had relatively little in common with Batista. Rosa was “not a streetwise tough but a Bohemian poet“; still, his eloquent sambas challenged the samba-malandro link, bridging the favelas and morros, cities and nation of Brazil.  Rosa responded to “Lenço no pescoço” in 1933 with the song “Rapaz Folgado,” a critique of Batista.  The rivalry continued for a few years, with a back-and-forth of sambas disputing the malandro identity and the essence of samba. (2019 update: As João Máximo, Noel Rosa’s biographer, points out in this fantastic 2012 show, a common misconception is that Noel Rosa was denouncing malandragem in general, when in fact he was really just interested in taking jabs at Wilson Batista.)

Sources for this post include Roberto DaMatta‘s Carnavais, Malandros e Heróis;  Bryan McCann’s Hello, Hello Brazil; Instituto Moreira Salles Radio Batuta interview with Batisa biographer Rodrigo Alguzuir; and “Gente do samba: malandragem e identidade nacional no final da Primeira República” por Tiago de Melo Gomes.

Post by Victoria Broadus (About)