João Gilberto – “João Valentão” (Dorival Caymmi) and “Chão de Estrelas” (Orestes Barbosa and Silvio Caldas)


“João Valentão” by Dorival Caymmi (1945)

João Valentão é brigão// João Valentão is a tough
De dar bofetão// He throws blows
Não presta atenção e nem pensa na vida// He doesn’t pay attention and doesn’t even contemplate life
A todo João intimida// He intimidates every João
Faz coisas que até Deus duvida// He does things even God can’t believe
Mas tem seu momento na vida// But he has his moment in life…

É quando o sol vai quebrando lá pro fim do mundo pra noite chegar// It’s when the sun goes breaking over the end of the world, for night to arrive
É quando se ouve mais forte o ronco das ondas na beira do mar// It’s when the roar of the waves can be heard more loudly at the edge of the sea
É quando o cansaço da lida, da vida, obriga João se sentar// It’s when the weariness of the struggle, of life, forces João to sit down
É quando a morena se encolhe, se chega pro lado querendo agradar// It’s when the morena curls up, comes to his side, wishing to please
Se a noite é de lua a vontade é de contar mentiras, de se espreguiçar// If the night is moonlit, the urge is to tell fibs, to stretch out
Deitar na areia da praia que acaba onde a vista não pode alcançar// Lie down on the sand on the beach that ends beyond where the eye can see
E assim adormece esse homem que nunca precisa dormir pra sonhar// And that’s how this man falls asleep, who never needs to sleep to dream
Porque não há sonho mais lindo do que sua terra não há// Because there is no dream more beautiful than his land, there’s none

“Chão de Estrelas” by Orestes Barbosa and Silvio Caldas (1937)

Minha vida era um palco iluminado// My life was a lighted stage
Eu vivia vestido de dourado// I was always dressed in gold
Palhaço das perdidas ilusões// Clown of lost illusions
Cheio dos guizos falsos de alegria// Full of the phony bells of joy
Andei cantando minha fantasia// I went around singing my fantasy
Entre as palmas febris dos corações// Among the feverish palms* of hearts

Meu barracão lá no morro do Salgueiro// My shack, on Salgueiro Hill
Tinha o cantar alegre de um viveiro// Had the cheerful song of an aviary
Foste a sonoridade que acabou// You were the sonority that ended
E hoje quando do sol a claridade //And today, when the sun’s rays
Forra meu barracão, sinto saudade// Stream into my shack, I feel saudade
Da mulher, pomba rola, que voou// For the woman, dove that flew away

Nossas roupas comuns dependuradas// Our modest clothes hanging
Na corda, qual bandeiras agitadas// Out on the line, like waving flags
Parecia um estranho festival// Appeared an exotic festival
Festa dos nossos trapos coloridos// A party of our colored rags
A mostrar que nos morros mal vestidos// Showing that on the poorly dressed hillsides
É sempre feriado nacional// It’s always a national holiday

A porta do barraco era sem trinco// The shack’s door had no latch
Mas a lua furando o nosso zinco// But the moon, boring through our tin
Salpicava de estrelas nosso chão// Peppered our floor with stars
E tu pisavas nos astros, distraída// And you stepped on the stars, absent-minded
Sem saber que a ventura dessa vida// Unaware that the fortune of this life
É a cabrocha, o luar, e o violão// Is the cabrocha, the moonlight and the guitar

— Commentary–


Última Hora, Missão 2858-59
João Gilberto’s debut at Copacabana Palace, 1959. Photo via Arquivo Publico do Estado de São Paulo. 
Jornal Aqui Sao Paulo;
João Gilberto. Photo via Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo.

It would be hard to find a foreign lover of Brazilian music whose life wasn’t fundamentally changed by João Gilberto, who died yesterday, July 6, at age 88.  I remember listening over and over to a playlist put together by the fantastic Zuim Podcast in 2011 for Gilberto’s 80th birthday. I was living in New York at the time and the songs — which still bring to mind memories of runs in Prospect Park and drab days at a midtown office — helped inspire this blog, which I started a few months later, and my move to Brazil. They included several from this 1958 recording from the casa de Chico Pereira, linked above. Especially beautiful to me was “João Valentão,” to this day, thanks to that recording, maybe my favorite Brazilian song — or at least one of the first that would come to mind if I had to answer that impossible question. It was one of the first songs I translated for the blog back in 2011. Here it is reprised with João Gilberto singing, along with “Chão de Estrelas” (which also has its own post from 2012), which follows “João Valentão” on the album. Over the next few weeks I hope to get time to translate more João Gilberto recordings on here; for now, here are two of my favorites.


*The first verse of “Chão de Estrelas” 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.”

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
Dorival Caymmi on the beach, via

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