Tag Archives: Brazil

Courage at Twilight: Reading with Villa-Lobos

Dad’s hobby is reading.  He is the smartest man I know, reading biography, theology, philosophy, history, fiction, science, etc.  He indulges his hobby from 10:30 p.m. until at least 2:00 a.m., every night.  One night’s literary fare may be the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other scripture.  Another night may be The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels or Rumpole of the Bailey stories.  Often he reads the World Book Encyclopedia, the next day telling me everything he learned during the night.  Did you know nectarines spontaneously appeared on a peach tree in China over two millennia ago?  Other days he reads books his children gave him for his birthday or Christmas, when book gifts are a sure thing.  During those late-night reading hours, Dad listens to the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, particularly his Bachianas Brasileiras (my translation: Brazilian musical pieces after the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach).  Having been a missionary, post-graduate student, minister, and international lawyer in Brazil, he loves Brazilian music.  And he loves the Brazilian people.  In 1971, while finishing the sweat equity on the new Baker house in New Jersey, a cassette tape of the Bachianas kept him company.  At a particular point in Bachiana No. 7, an electrifying sensation suddenly swept through him, a visit from a spiritual plane, and he knew somehow that he would be asked the following year to take his family to Brazil to oversee the Church’s missionary work.  The impression came to pass, and our little family went to Brazil for three years— I was eight years old.  I, too, love the Brazilian people, and the food, and the language, and the music.  Villa-Lobos—what a cool-sounding name—and it has a fun meaning as well: city of wolves.  Heitor City of Wolves.  Bachiana No. 7—at counter 16:55 in the Tocata/Desafio.  World Book Encyclopedia: N for Nectarine.  Two a.m. and all is well.

Courage at Twilight: 60 Year-old Lace

Arriving homing from work, I observed Mom ironing white linen handkerchiefs.  Not knowing people who use handkerchiefs, let alone iron handkerchiefs, I inquired.  She told me that when I was an infant in Brazil—(Dad was a post-graduate Fulbright law student at the University of São Paulo)—she would push me in the stroller down the noisy urban streets to the American consulate to retrieve their mail and to check out books from the consulate library.  On occasion, just for the fun of exploring, she would board the street car and ride it to the “fim da linha,” the end of the line, to see what there was to see.  Hearing of women who sewed lace, she rode to the fim da linha and walked to the little lace shop.  Beautiful hand-sewn lace lined shelves and graced tables.  With little money for nonessentials, she chose several thin white handkerchiefs into which were embroidered white vines and leaves and flowers.  Nearly 60 years later, she held them with care and ironed them free of their wrinkles.  Some of the stitching has come out, but still left are the needle holes and impression patters of where the lace used to be.  Beautiful things made by beautiful people so long ago at the end of the street car line.

jangada

jangada

Caymmi crooning How sweet to die at sea, singing the anguish and longing of the fisherman’s widow and mother and child.  On the green waves of the sea.  Painting with his guitar.  Sculpting with song.  He sings the good souls of the penurious pescador, fishermen, uncut gemstones, too often squandered at sea – singing the unsung.  He made his bed in the bosom of Iemanjá, the great sea goddess of African Candomblé.  Take a four-logged Asian jang, add logs five and six for a Brazilian jangada, a poor man’s fishing skiff.  Launch at sunset into the surf and the curious sail hauls him out 75 miles, six logs and a sail and a fisherman, inconsequential specks on an unending ocean, under starlight, under storm.  The ocean wrenches his soul toward fishing.  Watch over our pescador, Lady of the Sea.  Bring our boy home.  His name is Chico Ferreira e Bento – my Chico.  Bring his jangada home.  And the storm arose and the ocean swelled into roiling liquid mountains and that little flat raft bobbed and dipped and splintered and flung Chico into the bosom of Iemenjá.  And his jangada, the Pôr do Sol – Sunset – tumbled to shore two days after, with no Chico, with no Chico.  When the fisherman leaves, he never knows if he will return.  His mother kneels in the surf, Crying as if not crying.  Logs fastened with hardwood pegs and hemp fiber lashings and an upstretched sail of stitched cloth.  The fisherman has two loves: One on land, and One at sea.  On a plywood square a student poured glue and meted colored gravel carefully for a sandy surf and a tumbling blue and that creamy sail turned upward to the sky, wind-bent and heavy, and the brown fishermen working nets and lines and paddle and sail.  The glue and the gravel lie fixed but I hear the water flowing and the sand shifting and the men whistling about the big fish they will heft home for their Chiquinha and Iaiá, their children, to eat, and the big fish they will sell for food and school books and a trinket or two on their birthdays.  I went for a walk one day, and every path led to the sea.  He who comes to the sea will never wish to forsake her.  Sail home, Chico: sail your jangada home.

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Artwork above by my father, Owen Nelson Baker, when a post-graduate student in Brazil.

Caymmi released his LP Dorival Caymmi E Seu Violão in 1956, each song a story of the hopes and griefs of poor Brazilian fishermen and their loved ones, and of the ocean’s capricious waters, both treacherous and divine.  I still have the old vinyl LP, pictured here.  These songs have stirred my soul longer and more deeply than any other music.  The italicized lyrics in the essay, above, are my translations from the Portuguese.  You can hear some of Caymmi’s folk songs here:

 

Ceumar

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(Photo by Elizabeth Mills)

Having lived twice in Brazil (including the occasion of my birth), I have come to adore Brazilian music.  Though Brazil boasts many greats, like folk artist Dorival Caymmi and bossa nova pioneer Carlos Antonio Jobim, my favorite Brazilian vocalist is Ceumar.  This lovely woman’s lovely name means Sky and Sea.  Smitten by her silky, perfect voice, and inspired by her versatile repertoire, I wrote her this poem.

CEUMAR

Ceumar:
where ocean touches sky,
blue on blue,
often tender, assuaging,
at times roiling and violent
and black,
where the boundary
always is unclear,
where always I hear
music: of earth, of water,
of heaven.

I messaged this poem to Ceumar through Facebook, and she responded with grace and appreciation.

My favorite of all Ceumar’s songs is “Jabuticaba Madura”, which she composed herself and sings solo while playing acoustic guitar.  (You can watch her on You Tube.)  In the song, Ceumar compares the small, brown Jabuticaba fruit to a lover’s eyes.  Here is my rough translation of the lyrics.  (I apologize for the loss of nuance and rhyme.)

Ripe Jabuticaba fruit,
not yet fallen underfoot,
hovers shining in the tree,
giving me the desire
to know what it is.
Thus are your eyes.
Who can resist
discovering their dark secret.
Let me be that woman.

Let me climb up to you.
Let me choose you.
Let me taste your sweetness.
Let me lose myself in you.
Blackberry, plum, guava,
mango, breadfruit:
none can compare.
Let me give you a small, dark piece
of the fruit of my heart.

In her music, Ceumar combines quintessential Brazilian sounds and rhythms with the instruments and styles of their European and African roots, including the clarinet, mandolin, accordion, and violin.  Her repertoire avoids shallow pop in favor of mature, deep, moving, and fun music and lyrics.  In my opinion, Ceumar is a genius of Brazilian folk and popular music and culture.  And her voice is nothing short of heavenly.