Making Me Understand: “Alguém Cantando”

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or an artist means to me right now.)

Things have really settled down for me in the past month. My Crohn’s is well under control thanks to medication, I’m no longer afraid of food. I am even halfway to vaccinated against Covid. Spring is coming on, and I feel pretty good. Ergo, it was high time for an attack of saudade.

I was born in Brazil — my family lived there for a couple of years while my dad was on assignment for work. We returned to the U.S. when I was six months old. I stayed just long enough to acquire Brazilian citizenship, which I keep meaning to officially renounce (it’s a long story). But I have now lived long enough to see how geography and genealogy leave their traces on you. I never saw my birthplace again, never spoke Portuguese, but I am drawn to Brazilian popular music so strongly, it sometimes feels as though in a past life I was a bona fide Brazilian.

This year I am staring down the (artificial) milestone of turning fifty, and I suddenly feel that there really is no more time to lose. I am trying to honor that sense of urgency, a sense I definitely had back when I was gravely ill, but which has steadily faded as the threat to my life has. I want to get more of my writing out to readers. And when something calls my attention especially, I’m trying to figure out why that is happening and what I might make of it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking up a song by Caetano Veloso that I knew from a live album, to see what the studio version sounded like. I wound up listening to the album, Bicho, in its entirety. It was recorded after Veloso spent a month in Lagos, Nigeria, and the influence of his time there can be heard clearly in many of the tracks. But the final song on the album, “Alguém Cantando” (Someone Singing), sung primarily by Veloso’s oldest sister Nicinha, is a quieter, more contemplative number — the perfect accompaniment to hours of brooding saudade.

Alguém cantando longe daqui
Alguém cantando longe, longe
Alguém cantando muito
Alguém cantando bem
Alguém cantando é bom de se ouvir

Alguém cantando alguma canção
A voz de alguém nessa imensidão
A voz de alguém que canta
A voz de um certo alguém
Que canta como que pra ninguém

A voz de alguém
Quando vem do coração
De quem mantém
Toda a pureza
Da natureza
Onde não há pecado nem perdão

Someone singing far from here
Someone singing far, far away
Someone singing a lot
Someone singing well
Someone singing is good to hear

Someone singing some song
The voice of someone in this immensity
The voice of someone who sings
The voice of a certain someone
Who sings as if for no one

The voice of someone when it comes from the heart
Which keeps all the purity of nature
Where there is neither sin nor forgiveness

That’s it. The simplest melody and the vaguest possible lyrics, perhaps deceptively so — the song applies to nothing and no one, and to everything all at once. The song is about The Song and The Singer. Nothing is especially unremarkable about it… until that very last line, which raises all sorts of questions. There has not been any hint of sin or forgiveness before that last line… or has there? A straight appreciation of the art of the song, and then the last verse sends the song spiraling into a different direction. If there is neither sin nor forgiveness, doesn’t this suggest that in fact there was, otherwise why bring it up? It calls into doubt the heart and the purity thereof. It calls everything into question that we’ve heard. Is this song actually a form of apology? (If so, was it a successful one?)

Once I heard this song, I found I couldn’t stop listening to it. It invaded my ear, occupied my brain, became an obsession. The only way to get out from under it was to: print out the chords, take the lyrics sheet down to the piano, discover that it was much too high for my vocal range, transpose it a bit further south on the keyboard, and begin my laborious process of learning to play and sing it. The Portuguese isn’t a natural fit for my mouth, so there are contortions I need to learn. There are places where I need to sustain notes, and I need to learn how not to run out of breath. The exhausting physicality of singing came back to me (I took singing lessons, briefly, in that long-ago time before Young A. was born). And then there is the emotional component of singing — I don’t often sit down to learn to sing a new song, but nearly every time I do make time for it, I am overcome by emotion and unable to sing, the first few times through. Some might say this means I haven’t been letting myself sing, and the release when I do is all the more intense. But after five, ten, fifteen times through, I find I am able to manage.

I started the day today with a list of things I wanted to have accomplished by the time I went to bed (cf. the whole turning fifty, no time to lose, etc etc). So you might say this song hijacked my day. Sure, I took a walk, I ate three meals, and I seem to remember speaking to other members of my family. But what I will remember about this day was sitting at the piano, trying not to trip over the unfamiliar sounds as I try out broken chord patterns that will not overwhelm the perfect simplicity of the original recording. Will the sound of my voice singing this song ever make it into the world? I can’t commit to a yes or no just yet. I’ll sing “as if for no one”… but maybe I’ll record it?

Happy Spring, everyone. (Unless it is Fall where you are. Happy Fall.)

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