MAARTEN DE HAAN, August 2006
Originally, he had imagined quite a different career for himself, explained Chico Buarque. During the 2006 World Cup, the 61 year old singer and writer from Brazil was in Berlin. Soccer is his earliest and most enduring passion.
“I started playing soccer when I was four years old, and I still play every week. Between age 10 to 20, I started reading a lot of literature, especially European works. I hoped… no, I knew for sure, that I would later become a writer. Then music sort of held me hostage. I only took up my literary ambitions again when I turned 40,” recalled Buarque.
In Brazil, the worlds of literature and music are not too far apart. In a bar or just on the street the most complicated melodies and lyrics can be recited effortlessly. Buarque illuminated, “Unlike in other countries, there is no strict division in Brazil between high-and pop-culture. A good example is Vinicius de Moraes, who was an established poet when he started writing pop songs and became the co-founder of bossa nova.”
Bossa nova was the music that defined Brazil to the world in the middle of the previous century. A group artists from the neighborhood Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro came together to create a new, influential musical style, which has made an imprint on jazz and pop music. In Brazil itself, the direct successor to bossa nova, Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), found success with bossa nova.
The leading figures of MPB, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque de Holanda, are national icons. And the undeniable intellect of the three, was Chico Buarque who has attained almost superhuman status in Brazil.
Exactly forty years ago, “A Banda”, a song about a marching band, was Buarque’s big breakthrough. poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade praised it highly: “It is rooted so deeply in our culture, a march that, in times of military dictatorship, brings us a feeling of joy that was so sorely missed.” His well-aimed words touched the masses. His handsome appearance was exhilarating… his clear blue eyes spread the magic, which created a countrywide infatuation.
After “A Banda”, Buarque had a string of hits. He was confronted with the fact that fame can make one more vulnerable. The fact that he became famous during the first years of the military dictatorship, which started in 1964, was suspicious. Also, the fact that he went back to an older musical tradition the samba-cançao, and worked a lot with bossa nova musicians led to the inference that he was an opportunist.
Bahia musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, also called the tropicalistas, favored a rock- oriented, activist, anti-establishment kind of music. Even though their fans and themselves as well, did not hesitate to cricitize the “pretty” music of Buarque, the authorities feared Buarques’ cryptic metaphors. Chico Buarque would become a symbol of individual independence against the state power. After he and the tropicalistas had fled the country at the beginning of the 1970s, the ‘misunderstandings’ were forgotten. Later they managed to work together regularly.
Buarque himself downplays his contribution to the resistance movement. “When after 1968 the dictatorship went into the most repressive phase, artists spoke out for the ones that were being silenced. Political parties and trade unions were eliminated and the student movement was muzzled. That is why concerts, even when only love songs were sung, became political happenings. Many songs gained dramatic vigor,” recalled Buarque.
Crafty lyrics like “Calice”, written by Buarque and Gil, were of great influence at the time. In this song, the title word in “Father, let this cup (’calice’) pass away from me” is almost unnoticeably replaced by ‘cale-se’, or ’shut your mouth’, changing the message to ‘Father, let this shut-your-mouth pass away from me.’ Nor does Buarque think of himself as a protest singer. “We do not use that word in Brazil, not like in France or in Latin America. There is a tradition, though, to deal with social issues in songs. The hard, everyday reality is found in carnival songs. They are joyful, full of irony, and even if you would only read the lyrics, you could imagine the music that goes with them,” Said Buarque.
The military dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985. The lion’s part of Buarque’s massive opus was produced during this period. Besides being a singer, he was film composer, playwright, and actor. In music, he wrote lyrics with Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim; composed with Vinicius; and sang with Guinga. He generated approximately 250 titles, which have become classics and part of the curriculum in schools. His preoccupation is humanity, not politics. He is a troubadour who has captured the complexity of human relationships so poignantly and with such intimacy and tenderness often from a female standpoint.
After 1987, only five of Buarque’s 43 albums were released. His visit to Berlin this year was in connection with the release of a brand new, but short CD, “Carioca”. This was his first performance in seven years. His long absence from the stage had to do with his return to his literary ambitions, which proved successful with three nationally and internationally recognized novels: “Estorvo” in 1991, “Benjamim” in 1995 and “Budapeste” in 2003.
Buaque’s novels have a significantly different tone than his songs; one can even claim they are deeply pessimistic, especially “Estorvo” and “Benjamin” which have been described as chronicles of depression. Buarque’s main characters are alienated from their environment. They approach their downfall without any hope for catharsis.
Upon being asked about this, Buarque speculates that the process of songwriting might have kept him away from heavier themes. He explains, “as a composer, I never wrote the lyrics before composing the music, no matter whether I or somebody else, (for instance Tom Jobim), wrote the music. The melody was in the lead, asking for certain words, and it is possible that this made the end result somewhat sweeter. In addition, I tried to forge a break with the past, so to speak, when I started writing literature.”
“Budapeste” has a lighter tone. Considering the writer’s highly publicized life, the protagonist, José Costa, is an intriguing character. A gifted ghost writer who, unseen by the world, makes other people famous, looks for even more anonymity in the city of Budapest. He even replaces his own language with Hungarian. I noted that the only moment in my conversation with Buarque that he, by appearance a very discreet man, became somewhat excited was when he spoke of Costa’s ’search for anonymity… his attempts to break with the well-known, away from the sickness of arbitrary fame, that has nothing to do with achievement.’
After all, Buarque is an approachable icon. In Rio de Janeiro he walks almost every day from his home in Leblon to the rocks of Arpoador - the border between the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. However, he seldom gives interviews and, unjustly, has the reputation of being reserved. True, the Brazilian press does not meet his strict standards of quality. In the eyes of the press, he was too active and successful at the beginning of his career; and now it is the other way around.
Buarque is considered to be washed-up; a philanderer, having had a number of affairs with women after the divorce of his wife, actress Marieta Severo. To escape from the world of easy opinions and judgments is just as attractive for Buarque as it is for his fictional character José Costa.
Only once did he know true anonymity. In order to duck the censorship of the military juntas, Buarque published his songs under the alias of Julinho de Adelaide. Nowadays, as a literary writer, he reaches new audiences in Europe, which is refreshing. Buarque added, “A journalist from Norway asked me earnestly if it was true that I also make music?”
As a musician, Buarque has become a minimalist. The concert in the Berlin Haus der Kulturen was remarkably unassuming. While writing “Budapeste”, which took him four years, he did not pick up his guitar. He said, “I rid myself of all experience and routine.” He explained his self-discipline and self-sacrifice with a remark that composer Berlioz made about his pupil Saint-Saëns “He knows everything, but he lacks inexperience.”
Buarques’ last CD is called “Carioca” or “From Rio”. It is an ode to his city of birth. “Rio is a decadent city. It is poor and full of problems. Currently, the city, as well as the soccer clubs, is managed badly, but Rio deserves to be sung about. One should not forget that, even nowadays, it is the richest source of Brazilian music.”
New generations of Brazilian musicians have come to the world stage. Bebel Gilberto, the daughter Buarque’s sister, singer Miùcha and of João Gilberto, are successful internationally. Buarque’s daughter is married to singer/producer Carlinhos Brown from Bahia. To some extent, Buarque considers himself a key figure between bossa nova and the new generation “but I do not want to compare myself with Vinicius or Jobim. Without them I would never have become a musician,” he concluded.
Further reading: “Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB 1965-1985” by Charles A. Perrone, (University of Texas, 1989). Contains a long chapter on Chico Buarque with many translations of his poetry.