Thursday, August 18, 2011

João do Vale: Poet of Maranhão

"Bright moon, the sun has a red face
The sea is a large mirror
Where the two will look at themselves
Yellow rose loses its scent when it wilts"
--João do Vale and Luis Vieira, "Na Asa do Vento"

by Chris McGowan 

Not long ago, when Brazilians gathered to play guitars and sing at the beach or in someone's house, they often sang a beautiful, mysterious tune called "Na Asa do Vento" (On the Wing of the Wind), which was recorded by Caetano Veloso in 1975. Those who sang the song seldom knew who had written it, although they might have guessed that it was Veloso or maybe Dolores Duran, who recorded it in 1956. If you had mentioned João do Vale's name to them, it would usually have drawn a blank stare. Who? Yet it was João do Vale (1933-1996) who co-wrote that song and the classics "Caracará" (which helped launch Maria Bethânia to fame), "Sina do Caboclo" (recorded by Nara Leão), "Pisa na Fulô (sung by Ivon Curi and many others), "A Voz do Povo" (interpreted by Alaide Costa), "Coronel Antonio Bento" (which rocked in Tim Maia's recording), and "O Canto da Ema" (sung by both Jackson do Pandeiro and Gilberto Gil).

João do Vale and Chico Buarque perform "Carcará" in 1982

Although comparatively unknown, João was an important popularizer of northeastern song styles, along with Luiz Gonzaga and Jackson do Pandeiro, as well as a great lyricist. He told the story of his life and of the poor people of Maranhão in concise, poignant narratives filled with vivid images and the vernacular of the sertão (a dialect sometimes difficult for urban Brazilians to fathom). He could indulge in earthy good humor—as in the lascivious “Peba na Pimenta” (Armadillo in the Pepper), a playful tune full of lewd double entendres—or meditate lyrically about love and nature, as in “Na Asa do Vento.”

"Love is a bandit
It can even cost you money
It's a flower that has no scent
That all the world wants to smell"
--"Na Asa do Vento"

Caetano Veloso sings "Na Asa do Vento"

João Batista do Vale was born in Pedreiras, Maranhão in 1933. He was the fifth of eight brother in a poor family. Instead of going to school, he helped sell the sweets and breads that his mother made. When he was 13, his family moved to the state capital São Luis, where young João sold oranges in fairs. He also participated in a bumba-meu-boi folkloric group called Noite Linda. Not too long afterwards, the young teenager resolved to try his luck in the South, the traditional path for the young and out-of-work in the Northeast. João ran away from home, going first to Teresina, Piauí, where he got a job as a trucker's assistant. Then came Salvador, and Minas Gerais, where he worked in a mine. He was musically inclined and all the while he was writing songs, concentrating on the words since he couldn't play an instrument and didn't have a great voice.

In 1950, João made his way to Rio de Janeiro, where he found work as a bricklayer and also spent time hanging out at the Radio Nacional and Rádio Tupi stations. At the latter, he met songwriter Luis Vieira, who liked João's songs and helped him develop them. In 1953, the singer Marlene recorded their baião "Estrela Miúda" (Tiny Star)*** and Zé Gonzaga (the bother of Luiz) recorded the stylized baião "Madalena," which he had co-written with João. During the '50s, João achieved more songwriting successes (including Dolores Duran's covering of "Na Asa do Vento." And he began to appear in films, such as Mão Sangrenta, in '54.

Jackson do Pandeiro and João perform "O Canto da Ema"

In the 1960s João stepped into the limelight for a few years. Early in that decade Zé Keti took him to a hip musician’s hangout—the restaurant Zicartola, run by the sambista Cartola and his wife, Zica. João began performing there and was invited to play a role in the musical theater piece Opinião, alongside Keti and Nara Leão. The play was a success, and one of its songs, João’s stirring anthem “Carcará,” launched Maria Bethânia (who replaced Leão) to fame the next year when she recorded it as a single. “Carcará” was about the carcará bird of prey that never goes hungry, even when millions of northeasterners are starving to death in the sertão during one of the region’s frequent droughts. João’s song “Sina de Caboclo” (Fate of the Mestizo) concisely summarizes the fate of many northeastern men.

"I am a poor mestizo, I earn my living with a hoe
What I harvest is divided with he who plants nothing
If it continues thus, I will leave my sertão
Even with eyes full of tears and with pain in the heart
I will go to Rio to carry mortar for the bricklayer"
--João do Vale and Jocastro Bezerra de Aquino, "Sina de Caboclo" 

João released his first album, O Poeta do Povo (The People's Poet) on Philips in 1965. Yet he did not have a great voice and achieved recognition through his songwriting. By the late 1970s he had fallen out of the public eye, but his peers never forgot him. In 1981, several of his musical friends (Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Alceu Valença, Fagner, Amelinha, Clara Nunes, and Nara Leão among them) gathered with João to record João do Vale, a retrospective of his greatest hits. His home town of Pedreiras named a street and a school after him. And in 1995, Buarque organized another tribute album, João Batista do Vale, in which Buarque, Valença, Edu Lobo, Maria Bethânia, and others interpreted João’s classics.

YouTube Links:
Caetano Veloso performing "Na Asa do Vento."
Maria Bethânia performing Caracará" in Opinião, 1965.
João do Vale and Chico Buarque performing "Carcará" in 1982.

***Further Notes:
I had the pleasure of playing a role in getting João's song "Estrela Miúda" onto David Bryne's Brazil Classics 3: Forró, Etc. (a 1991 compilation album of music from Brazil's Northeast), and in giving the album its name. I interviewed Byrne in 1989 as he was promoting the MPB compilation Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical, and while he was working on the second album in the series, O Samba, as well as Forró, Etc. I made two sampler cassette tapes for him, one full of samba (including two songs that appeared on O Samba) and one of northeastern music that I labeled "Forró, Etc." On the latter tape, I included a performance by João and Amelinha of "Estrela Miúda" from the 1981 CBS retrospective João do Vale, which was quite obscure for an American and certainly something Byrne would not have encountered on his own. Soon after, I received a call from Yale Evelev, who worked at Bryne's Luaka Bop label. They were having trouble finding a master tape of "Estrela Miúda" and wanted to know if I might have a CD of the album (I didn't). I received a handwritten letter of thanks from Byrne for sending him the tapes, but was never credited for my help on the record. I was surprised that they used my offhanded "Forró, Etc." label for my sampler tape as their album title.