Tripping Out on Chico Buarque

Chico Buarque is a truly fascinating character. Best known for his music, he is a Brazilian singer-songwriter, guitarist, composer, playwright, author and poet (amongst a million other things), who has been shaping Brazilian culture for the past 5 decades. To this day, he remains a mammoth figure in Brazilian pop music and is widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest songwriters. In his home country, Chico is nothing less than a national treasure – his lyrics are still studied as part of the Portuguese language curriculum, his songs are still sung all over the country, and women keep falling for his chiselled good looks and blue eyes. This final remark is particularly impressive when we take into account the fact that Chico is currently 74 – I am writing this article at the ripe age of 27 and the cumulative amount of women who have complimented my natural good looks can be counted on the fingers of my 2 hands. Actually, on the fingers of just 1 hand if we exclude my own family members.

But what does that have to do with you, dear reader? Well, given that Chico Buarque is one of my favourite Brazilian artists, the original idea for this piece was simply to share my 20 favourite tracks with you as a form of ultimate Brazilian music cocktail. But an artist like Chico deserves more – much more. To truly appreciate how powerful his music is and why he is widely regarded as a hero in Brazil, one must go a little further and try to understand the context within which his music was written. With that in mind, after finishing the playlist I so eagerly want to share with you, I realised that, while listening to it (yes, the 20 tracks are cleverly hidden within this piece), you also deserve to be properly introduced to Chico Buarque. I also think it’s safe to assume that your Portuguese might be a little rusty, so allow me to help you interpret the complexity behind the (sometimes seemingly clear) lyrics of a storyteller like Chico. Even if I am wrong, and your Portuguese is “Intermediate” or even “Fluent”, most things in life are better understood with some contextualization, as someone infinitely wiser than me put it (a doctor, in case you were wondering). And after all, all music deserves to be better explored than by simply pressing shuffle on the most popular Spotify playlist – isn’t that also the point of Audio Snobbery?

Yes, that is Chico Buarque and Bob Marley playing football

Born Francisco Buarque de Holanda in Rio de Janeiro in 1944, Chico is, above all, a brilliant storyteller. The intellectual upbringing boosted by his father, the historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda, and his friendships with early bossa nova musicians such as Vinicius de Moraes, Baden Powell and Oscar Castro Neves, all contributed to his lifelong career in music and arts and current “living legend” status – a role he never felt comfortable with, as one might ascertain from the rare interviews that he does grant. Chico prefers to simply identify himself as a man devoted to his art, who likes going to the beach and playing football, his earliest and most enduring passion. As a teenager, driven by the music of Joao Gilberto (of which he was a particular admirer), Chico began singing and playing music of his own. His interest in music only grew as years went by and even expanded into other arts – he began composing music for theatre and released first singles Pedro Pedreiro and Sonho de um Carnaval. But the definitive turning point in his career came in 1966, when, only 22, three of his own compositions were recorded by the undisputed queen of bossa nova at the time, Nara Leão, with one of them (A Banda) in turn becoming a massive hit and launching Chico into superstardom. This made him a viable artist on his own and on that same year he released the first of an endless list of albums – several concerts all over the country and many more TV appearances consolidated his position as one of the rising stars of the Brazilian bossa nova. It is also during this period that Chico released 2 of my favourite songs – O Velho, which is a disturbing summary of what we will have to share as an old person if we avoid love in our lives, and the lovely poem Até Pensei.

It was also in 1968 that he wrote a lifechanging play entitled Roda Viva, where the protagonist is literally torn apart and eaten by both his fans and the machine that is “Show Business.” Considered one of the most important plays to be written in Brazil in the 1960s, it ended up being cancelled during its 2nd year of exhibition, with actors assaulted and the stage destroyed by the Comando de Caça aos Comunistas – literally translated as “Command for Hunting Communists.” Please keep in mind that this was 4 years into the military dictatorship, when we have to assume that “freedom of speech” wasn’t exactly the regime’s favourite expression, so the fact that the overall tone and message of the play was deemed subversive must come as no surprise to anyone. Chico’s name suddenly appeared on a “list” and he was brought in for questioning due to his involvement in anti-government riot, alongside the provocations within the play he just wrote. Despite his release, the episode set the tone for the tumultuous relationship between Chico and the Brazilian authorities for years to come. Chico and his family decided to leave Brazil in 1969 as part of a European tour and, with continuous reports of artist incarcerations coming from his motherland, decided to stay abroad – Chico’s daughter Silvia was actually born in Rome in 1969. However, frustrated by the professional stagnation experienced abroad, Chico returned to Brazil in 1970 determined to antagonise the regime, releasing two noteworthy additions to this list from that same year. With lyrics from Vinicius de Moraes, Gente Humilde is a beautiful poem on which Chico reminisces about the average Brazilian; a simple and humble hard working people with no one on their side. There is a heart-breaking moment when Chico, famously known for being irreligious, asks God to provide and take care of his people in light of their poverty. Essa Moça Tá Diferente, on the other hand, is an upbeat song that talks about the modernization of women in Brazil, hitherto unthinkable.

Chico as he returned to Brazil

The overall environment was the same as when he left, with fear of the dictatorship and the constant disappearances of enemies of the regime still a dark cloud over everyone’s head, but Chico didn’t give up, and in 1971 completed what is perhaps his most important record – the main reason behind this whole article – Construçao. Released during what was probably the harshest decade of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the record is packed with cleverly disguised critics to a regime with a complete lack of concern for the Brazilian worker and their average living conditions. The record’s eponymous single, Construçao, is as an epic tale (6-and-a-half minutes!) about the life and death of a Brazilian construction worker. Chico narrates his day; a man kisses his wife and kids in the morning, leaves his house and heads up to a construction site, stopping to eat and drink, before falling through the sky onto the sidewalk. His story is told from 3 different perspectives – the first a simply descriptive approach of the day, the second taking into account the character’s awareness of how automated his life has become, and the third a hallucinated view of his own day-to-day, leaving the open-ended question of whether his death was a work accident or a voluntary choice in light of what his life has become. This worker’s death ends up hindering nothing more than “the crowd”, “the traffic” or “the Saturday”, according to each of the 3 different perspectives, which can also be heard as a criticism of the overall apathy towards the average Brazilian worker.

Construçao is probably Chico’s most intelligent record and can be considered the start of the second stage in his career, in which the majority of his music often included social, economic and cultural commentary on Brazil. Though most of his pieces were sadly rejected under strict censorship (at one point, for every 20 songs he wrote, only 2 would be approved), Chico often conveyed his messages through analogies and was able to pass much by the censors. Valsinha, for example, is a waltz composed with Vinicius de Moraes that tells the story of an entire city that overcomes the adversity and unspoken oppression it is living under for a day, led by a couple who rediscover each other and find joy in life once again. Deus Lhe Pague, an exquisitely-produced direct criticism of dictatorship, or Minha Historia, a tale of the son of a prostitute and the sailor father he never met, are 2 tracks from this record that also deserve a place in Chico’s ultimate playlist.

Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque

During the second half of 1970s, Brazilian media remained heavily censored and opponents of the regime were incarcerated, exiled or even eliminated. It was amidst this environment that Chico released his 10th LP, Meus Caros Amigos, in 1976. The record’s arguably most famous song, Meu Caro Amigo, is a traditional choro with a samba-influenced melody in which Chico describes the difficult political and economic situation in Brazil in the form of a tape to one of his friends, Augusto Boal, who was exiled at the time. The record is also known for O Que Será? (A Flor da Terra), a beautiful conversation with Milton Nascimento about how Music is an adventure, and for several songs that were written for plays and movies, such as Mulheres de Atenas, written for Augusto Boal’s play entitled Lisa, a Mulher Libertadora, or Vai Trabalhar, Vagabundo, composed for Hugo Carvana’s homonymous film. While the former is a delicate song with a feminine theme packed with irony, the latter is an energetic samba that tackles oppression and massification.

In 1978, Chico released an album commonly known as Samambaia, which included the participation of several prominent Brazilian singers, such as Milton Nascimento, Elba Ramalho, or the MPB4 choir. The record’s most famous song, Cálice, is a protest song that cleverly takes advantage of the specificities of Portuguese language to disguise once more a clear critique of the regime. Allow me to elaborate – the word “cálice”, which in Portuguese translates into “cup”, is almost unnoticeably replaced with “cale-se”, which, despite sounding the same, means “shut up”. Apesar de Voce, which beautifully closes Samambaia, is a classic samba that ended up becoming an anthem for the democratic movement in Brazil before being banned by the regime some time later. As the lyrics allude to a fight between lovers more than a critique of the dictatorship, the song was originally approved by censors before Emílio Garrastazu Médici, the General and President of Brazil at the time, prohibited all Brazilian radios to play the song. Another personal favourite from this record is Feijoada Completa, an overall feel-good song about the preparation of a typical Brazilian dish consisting of rice and beans. Interestingly enough, while this dish is normally seen as the daily meal of the oppressed Brazilian worker in most of Chico’s music, in Feijoada Completa it is regarded as something saved for feast days, weekends or gatherings with family.

Chico – Cronista, Político, Malandro, Trovador e Amante

Chico’s melodramatic tone is one of his trademark characteristics and my personal favourite of his traits – yes, I am aware that for someone as prone to hedonism as myself, it is odd how strangely attracted to melancholic and downbeat songs I am. This tone is particularly evident in Geni e o Zepelim, which was released as part of Opera do Malandro, which Chico wrote in 1979. The song tells the story of a transvestite famously known for her kindness and provision of comfort to the oppressed, and for which she is universally despised. Long story short, one day a war zeppelin and his captain are set to destroy the city, disgusted by its decadence – a scenario only avoidable if Geni is willing to spend the night with the captain. Briefly regarded as the population’s only saviour, she decides to save the city and sleep with the captain, only to discover the next day that she is just as persecuted as she has always been.

The last song I want to share with you is from 1984 – unlike Apesar de Voce, considered the anthem of the anti-regime movement, Vai Passar, an uplifting song with a message that everything will change and good times are coming, became the “official” song of the introduction of democracy and republic to Brazil. The song is simultaneously a reminder of the sadness and suffering of the military dictatorship and a celebration of resistance and hope in the form of an explosion of unironic joy. It is the tale of how the regime tried to bring the country down, exiling and censoring its opponents, but how, in the end, it was democracy that won – all of this cunningly masked as a parade of allegorical cars down an avenue.

So for you, meus caros amigos, here’s Chico Buarque – I hope you enjoy him as much as I do. Perhaps it is also worth leaving you with the factoid that he could potentially claim ultimate credit for the band name Radiohead, in case you are curious enough to dig a bit deeper into his biopic-worthy life. This piece, unfortunately, only scratches the surface of it – to this day he remains one of the most loved, yet controversial, artists in Brazilian music, serving as a reference point in remembering and understanding a particularly dark period in his country’s history. Isn’t that the mark of a true artist? 

Chico Buarque – 74 years of beautiful art