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“Aquarela do Brasil” (Portuguese: [akwaˈɾɛlɐ du bɾaˈziw], Watercolor of Brazil), written by Ary Barroso in 1939 and known in the English-speaking world simply as “Brazil“, is one of the most famous Brazilian songs.
Background and composition
Ary Barroso wrote “Aquarela do Brasil” in early 1939, when he was prevented from leaving his home one rainy night due to a heavy storm. Its title, a reference to watercolor painting, is a clear reference to the rain. He also wrote “Três lágrimas” (Three Teardrops) on that same night, before the rain ended.
Describing the song in an interview to Marisa Lira, of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, Barroso said that he wanted to “free the samba away from the tragedies of life, of the sensual scenario already so explored”. According to the composer, he “felt all the greatness, the value and the wealth of our land”, reliving “the tradition of the national panels”.
Initially, he wrote the first chords, which he defined as “vibrant”, and a “plangent of emotions”. The original beat “sang on [his] imagination, highlighting the sound of the rain, on syncope beats of fantastic tambourins”. According to him, “the rest came naturally, music and lyrics at once”. He declared to have felt like another person after writing the song.
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Release and reception
Before being recorded, “Aquarela do Brasil”, initially named “Aquarela brasileira”, was performed by the baritone Cândido Botelho [pt] on Joujoux e Balangandans, a benefit concert sponsored by Darci Vargas, then the First Lady of Brazil. It was then recorded by Francisco de Morais Alves, arranged by Radamés Gnattali and his orchestra, and released by Odeon Records in August 1939. It was also recorded by Araci Cortes, but despite the singer’s huge popularity at the time, the song was not a success, perhaps because the song was not adjusted to her tenor voice.
“Aquarela do Brasil” took a while to succeed. In 1940, it was not among the top three songs of that year’s Carnival in Rio. The president of the jury was Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Barroso, offended that his masterpiece was not on the list, ended his relationship with him. The two men would only speak to each other again fifteen years later, when both received the National Order of Merit.
The song only became famous after it was included in Walt Disney’s 1942 animated film Saludos Amigos, sung by Aloísio de Oliveira. After that, the song became known not only in Brazil, but worldwide, becoming the first Brazilian song to be played over a million times on American radio. Due to the huge popularity achieved in the United States, it received an English version by songwriter Bob Russell.
It was voted by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone as the 12th greatest Brazilian song.
This song, because of its exaltation of Brazil’s great qualities, marked the creation of a new genre within samba, known as samba-exaltação (exaltation samba). This musical movement, with its extremely patriotic nature, was seen by many as being favorable to the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, generating criticism towards Barroso and his work, which was perceived as Barroso’s prostration to the regime. The Barroso family, however, strongly denies these claims, pointing out that he also wrote an anti-Nazi song named “Salada Mista” (Mixed salad), recorded by Carmen Miranda in October 1938. Vargas, although not a fascist himself, was as sympathetic to such regimes in the early years of his presidency as the European governments of the time.
The Department of Press and Propaganda, the official censorship body of the regime, wanted to censor the verse “terra do samba e do pandeiro” (“land of samba and the pandeiro”), which was seen as being “derogatory” for Brazil’s image. Barroso persuaded the censors to keep the line.
Some criticism to the song, at the time, was that it used expressions little known by the general public, such as “inzoneiro”, “merencória”, and “trigueiro” (intriguing, melancholic, and swarthy), and that he was too redundant in the verses “meu Brasil brasileiro” (“my Brazilian Brazil”) and “esse coqueiro que dá coco” (“this coconut palm that produces coconut”). The composer defended his work, saying that these expressions were poetic effects inseparable from the original composition. On the original recording, Alves sang “mulato risoneiro” (laughing mulatto) instead of “inzoneiro” because he was unable to understand Barroso’s illegible handwriting.