Ships, saudades, secret signals … the sounds of José Afonso

Escina2This might shock some people who know their Portuguese history and culture but until last week I had never heard of José Afonso. I only found out about him while researching the song Tenho Barcos, Tenho Remos by Os Golpes on my previous post about Sydney’s Gay ATMs. I thought it was a new song by the band, but then I came across a recording of it by José Afonso in 1962 in the fado tradition of Coimbra (which is different to the Lisbon fado style). 

When I first heard this version, I could not believe it was a man singing. I thought it must be one of the great dames of fado from the 1950s or 1960s, a Portuguese equivalent of the likes of Vera Lynn or Edith Piaf. I spent hours on the internet “googling” in Portuguese and English in a bid to find out who was this woman whose voice gave me goosebumps. I wanted her greatest hits! In the end I gave up and concluded it could only be José. After all, the fado of Coimbra is almost always sung by men.

What a voice this man has. Give this a listen. If nothing else, the song will give you some insight into what constitutes “saudade”, that particularly Portuguese “nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves“. The lyrics are explained below. Apparently it is a traditional folk song from the Alentejo region of Portugal. 

Tenho barcos, tenho remos – (I have boats, I have oars)
Tenho navios no mar            – (I have ships at sea)
Tenho o amor ali defronte    – (I have a lover there up ahead)
E não lhe posso chegar        – (And I can’t get to her) 

Tenho navios no mar
Tenho navios no mar
Tenho o amor ali defronte
Não me posso consolar        – (I can’t console myself)

Tenho o amor ali defronte
Não me posso consolar

Já fui mar, já fui navio             – (I’ve been the sea, I’ve been a ship)
Já fui chalupa escaler             –  (I’ve been a sloop)
Já fui moço,  já sou homem   – (I’ve been a boy, I’m already a man)
Só me falta ser mulher           –  (All that’s left is to be a woman)

José Afonso (popularly referred to as Zeca or Zeca Afonso) was one of the poets/minstrels of his generation, and a champion of the poor and oppressed at a time when, in the days of the Salazar dictatorship, it was dangerous to be one. He lived from 1929 to 1987. You can read all about him here. Another of his claims to fame is that the people who were plotting the overthrow of the government in 1974 chose one of his songs, Grândola, Vila Morena, which, when played on the national radio channel, would be a signal for the start of the coup d’état and what turned out to be the Carnation Revolution. Here’s the song.

The song is about a town in the Alentejo. I like the line quoted in the picture at the top of this post, em cada esquina um amigo… on every corner (there’s) a friend

2 thoughts on “Ships, saudades, secret signals … the sounds of José Afonso

  1. Olá.
    Eu estava a procurar a letra da música Tenho Barcos, Tenho Remos e tropeçei no seu blog. Comprei recentemente o CD “O Melhor do Novo Pop Rock Português” e gostei da canção. Depois de encontrar o seu blog, li a sua história e identifiquei-me com ela. Sou também um Austráliano que está a aprender português mas moro em Adelaide. No meu caso há apenas dois anos mas isso tem ficado um passatempo obsessivo. Admiro a sua persistência e espero que ainda esteja a estudar português em 10 anos.

    I hope this makes sense. Interesting blog.

    • Olá, como está? Parabéns, você escreve muito bem, eu entendo tudo. Na minha opinião, o Português é bonito e assim é a música de Portugal e Brasil e dos outros países luso-africanos. Gosto de Adelaide, e uma cidade linda, sem muito barulho.

      I hope you enjoy the music on the CD, it’s funny that you should have the same one. And thanks for perusing my blog and commenting, all the best, cheers, Bernardo

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