When I get to the end of my life, I hope I’ll be able to look back and say that I lived a little. I guess things are going pretty well so far – I’ve travelled more than most (and had scrapes and adventures along the way), I’ve had some interesting jobs and I’ve met a good number of weird and wonderful people.
But no matter how interesting my life turns out to be, I doubt I’ll come close to the subject of today’s post. This Brazilian was born in 1913 and died in 1980 and during his 66 years he worked as a diplomat, musician, composer, poet and playwright. He married 8 times, had 4 kids, wrote a play that was adapted into an Oscar winning film and was central to the development of a new and hugely successful style of music. Oh yeah, and he co-wrote the second most recorded pop song of all time.
In case you haven’t guess yet, I’m talking about this guy:
Vinícius de Moraes was born and grew up in Rio. Both his parents were amateur musicians and from a young age he was involved in music, singing in the school choir and performing his own compositions while still at high school. After high school, Moraes went on to study Law but at the same time was writing poetry, publishing two collections in his early 20s.
After law school, Vinícius worked as a film censor for a couple of years before going to Oxford University to study English Literature. After his stint in England, Moraes returned to Brazil and worked as a film critic before travelling through northern Brazil as part of a literary tour. During this period he saw the extreme poverty endured by much of Brazil’s population – he later said that this experience turned him into a “man of the left”.
In 1943, Vinícius joined the Ministério das Relações Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and was posted to Los Angeles as vice consul. Later his diplomatic career would take him to Paris, Rome and Monte Video, but all the time he found time for successes in music, poetry and literature. This pattern continued until the end of the 1960s – somehow Moraes managed to run his diplomatic career in parallel with his creative exploits.
Despite his successes in other fields, Vinícius is surely best known for his musical compositions, many of which (including Garota de Ipanema) were written in partnership with fellow Bossa Nova legend, Tom Jobim. During his career Vinícius partnered up with various others, most notably Baden Powell and Toquinho, who you can see along with Tom Jobim in this rather amazing clip:
There are longer, more complete videos of this song available, but to hear Vinícius and Tom discussing how they created this classic song, Só Danço Samba, makes this a bit special.
As you can hear, Vinícius doesn’t exactly have what would traditionally be considered a perfect singing voice. He’s sings with an almost tired, nasal, gravelly quality and yet it works.
This next clip also features Jobim and Toquinho, this time singing Canto de Ossanha. To me, this song epitomises Brazilian music – without even understanding the lyrics you can hear how it mixes foreboding and happiness, yet even the ‘happy’ bits are actually bitter-sweet, speaking of “the sadness of a love that has passed” – nothing is ever simple! Again, there are more complete or better sounding versions, but this video shows Vinícius in his element, sat at a small table with a bottle of whisky and a cigarette on the go.
This song relates to Orixás, gods of Candomblé and Umbanda (Afro-Brazilian religions) – if you’re curious, click here to see a rough translation and explanation.
As his accomplishments as a poet suggest, Vinícius was a skilled wordsmith and is responsible for huge number of wonderful quotations. Here are just a few (apologies to anyone who doesn’t like the translations):
Quer? Então faça acontecer, porque a única coisa que cai do ceu é a chuva.
You want it? Well make it happen, because the only thing that falls from the sky/heaven is rain.
Quem nunca teve um pai que ronca, não sabe o que é ter pai.
Those who never had a father that snores, don’t know what it is to have a father.
Quem nunca curtiu uma paixão, nunca vai ter nada não.
Those who never enjoyed a passion will never have anyting.
O uísque é o melhor amigo do homem – é o cão engarrafado.
Whisky is man’s best friend – it’s the dog in a bottle.
That last quote is typical of the man – he was a long-time alcoholic and died at the age of just 66. If he were still alive today, he would celebrate this 100th birthday this Saturday.
I’ll leave with with one of my favourites – here Vinícius sings Samba de Bênção (Samba of Blessing). The lyrics are gorgeous and brilliantly instructive with regard to Samba and (I think) much of Brazilian music in general (selected lyrics/translation below). Saravá!
É melhor ser alegre que ser triste
Alegria é a melhor coisa que existe
É assim como a luz no coração
Mas pra fazer um samba com beleza
É preciso um bocado de tristeza
É preciso um bocado de tristeza
Senão, não se faz um samba não
Fazer samba não é contar piada
E quem faz samba assim não é de nada
O bom samba é uma forma de oração
Porque o samba é a tristeza que balança
E a tristeza tem sempre uma esperança
A tristeza tem sempre uma esperança
De um dia não ser mais triste não
It’s better to be happy than sad
Joy is the best thing there is
It’s like a light in the heart
But to make a samba with beauty
You need some sadness
You need some sadness
If not, you won’t make a samba, no
Making a samba is not like telling a joke
And those who make a samba like that are nothing
A good samba is a form of prayer/oration
Because samba is a sadness that swings
And the sadness always has a hope
The sadness always has a hope
That one day it won’t be sad anymore, no