022: Roberta Sá and Chico Buarque, ‘Mambembe’

Posted by on Oct 19, 2017 in Brazilian, Song Of the week, Vocalists |

I’ve had a good life.

I’ve thought a lot about the facts that I was awarded life only because my grandparents had the prescience to leave Belarus; and that I was born into the wealthiest country in history at a time of freedom and therefore presented with unlimited possibilities of all sorts; and that I was born into a people with a very special history, with concomitant obligations and baggage; that I had the luxury of choosing the country I wanted to live in and the good fortune to live a life I chose, rather than following one I was born into; and that I was born at a time that my coming-of-age coincided with the bloom of the Beatles’ and Dylan’s recording careers. I may have missed the existence of the walkman during my formative years, but all in all I think I was well-born.

But if I were able to do it all over again, I think I might have chosen to be born in Brazil, sometime after the advent of bossa nova. Their music is so often so magical that it makes everything non-Latin sound plodding and pedestrian. My friend Miki did have that good fortune. He can do just a little clapping shuffle with his hands, and it sounds like dancing. He sent me an email this week with the subject “You will fall in love” and the link to our SoTW

He, of course, was right.

All too frequently I discover music through obsessive detective work — someone I respect makes a passing reference to an artist I’m not familiar with. I start following clue after clue, fall into a binge of three days or four weeks poring through the entire discography, acquiring a dozen CDs, ignoring work, family, and reality listening to them, reading interviews transcribed from Croatian radio, the whole shebang.

But in this case, I did it right, just like a normal human. Well, almost. Miki sent me the link, and I watched it. Then I watched it again. And again. And again. You can figure out the ellipsis. And I did indeed fall in love with the girl, the song, the clip, the event filmed there. As has every person I’ve shown it to in the last week, as will I hope you as well.

So it was only after watching it 30 or 40 times that I took a break to research, document, dissemble, dissect and analyze the poor thing.

The girl, Roberta Sá, was dropped out of the 2002 ‘Brazilian Idol’ competition after 4 weeks, but she’s had a pretty good run of it since. Many of the highly respected icons of Brazilian music have recorded with her, including Chico Buarque in the clip here. He’s 64, creator of an extensive and highly respected discography, a master of lyrics who managed to stay in trouble with the Brazilian authorities for many years.
The song itself was quite a surprise to me. It’s a homeless gent, maintaining that he shouldn’t be pitied, he has the freedom of a gypsy:

On stage in the square, the circus, a park bench
Running in the dark, graffiti on the wall
You will know me–Mambembe, Gypsy

Beggar, rogue, nigger,
Good or bad mulambo, singing.
Runaway slave, a lunatic.
I make my festival

Poet, clown, pirate, pirate, Wandering Jew
Sleeping on the road, nothing, nothing in
And this world is all mine


Under the bridge, singing
Beneath the earth, singing
In the mouths of the people, singing

But padding the clip with facts just distances us from it. I may just as well stick to my local Israeli associations—Uri Mamillian accompanying Meir Ariel and (oxymoron follows) a meltingly sweet and smiling Yonit Levi.

But of course none of that is the point. The point is the magic in the clip. The magic floating guitar. The charm, the sweetness, the utterly captivating power of the smile. And most of all, of course, the nascent, vibrant electricity between the two singers.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Esperanza  Spalding and sex appeal in female singers. Well, this clip is a lot more articulate than I am. Sometimes, that’s what it’s all about. And it can be great.

Just for an experiment, listen to the music without watching the clip. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? I’ve listened to quite a lot of Roberta Sá’s recordings, and they’re respectable, but really nothing special. I keep thinking of Ruhama Raz, for those of you who know her, sweet and innocent and girl-next-door harmless. And I’ve listened to some of Chico Buarque’s stuff, and it’s too lyric-based for me to overcome the Portuguese barrier (as I can do with many other more universally musical Brazilian artists).

But the clip, my gosh. It’s so disarming and charming and intoxicating. Like Miki said, I fell in love. And enough words, go enjoy the absolutely entrancing flirtation between these two singers.

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Sep 20, 2012 at 8:05 pm

“Mambembe” é umas de tantas outras canções do CBH de minha preferência. Roberta Sá é um talento, e remoça o Samba brasileiro. O Registro desse video, dele com a Roberta Sá é algo muito especial. Histórico e belo. Mambembemo-nos!!!! [ Só uma pequena correção – é BUARQUE – e não BUARKE]. Parabéns pelo Blog. O post sobre Lee Konitz, de seu encontro com ele, é muito, muito bom. Há um blog no Brasil em que vale a pena dá uma conferida http://umquetenha.org/uqt/category/lee-konitz/

Jul 4, 2015 at 9:20 am

I totally agree with Grivo.

Luis Alfonso
Jul 4, 2015 at 4:26 pm

I have known CBH since I listened WILLIE COLON and SOLEDAD BRAVO CBH’s music versions versions in Spanish with Salsa Rythm in the early 80’s, and have enjoyed many nice songs as A Banda and other of social content spiced with cotidian events too, but this one is magnificent art in every sense, a real auditive and visual pleasure!!!

Some people said that CBH have had many years out of a recording studio and Roberta watched him walking in a street anc run after him to make him go again to a recording studio and sing with her this magnificent jewel of brazilian music….SHE has the power to move a giant as him into the history again in his own terms!!!

Thank you very much for sharing and Cheers to you and all from Guatemala!!!!

Luis Alfonso
Jul 4, 2015 at 4:52 pm

One important thing I forgot to say: I Remember some years ago, just in 1996 watching in TV Cateano Velhoso’s video named “FINA ESTAMPA” that The Brazilians sing the same way as the speak their lovely language…..wonderful….natural….and is trurth, and want to share something more than a year said Mr. Nicolàs Selem said on the Video comments:
“At right the guitarist, (BTW named Marcello Gonçalves) wanting to be the singer, in the middle, he, (CBH) letting her love him, and left her, divine, with those threads coming out of hes eyes shakes their hearts of the protagonists … … and ours , remote viewers that can never be in that place at that time.
As if that were not enough, in the background, the song, a masterpiece, a sweetness to the ear, honey for the soul. thanks x each every 136 seconds…”

Without a doubt as Jeff said: many of us might have chosen to born in Brazil….

Christine Armstrong
May 1, 2018 at 3:49 pm

Hi Jeff!

I have just discovered your blog, while googling around about Chega de Saudade, one of my favorite songs. I’m going to try to find everything you’ve written about Brazilian music. I was born in Texas in 1960, but, like you, I think I might have chosen to born in Brazil. Luckily, my father, who loved all kinds of music, had a few of the great Bossa nova records, which he listened to hundreds of times – and then I listened to thousands of times. Of course, I bought many Bossa nova records, then tapes, then cd’s, then downloads of my own. I look everywhere for research on the genre. I’m sure you’ve read Ruy Castro’s book on Bossa nova. If not, I highly recommend it. It is extensively researched and full of great stories and (mental) images. It’s a little plodding though, perhaps because of the translation. Your writing is much livelier and tighter. Your description of the word “saudade,” in another blog post, speaks so much to why I fell in love with Brazilian music. You should write a book! I’ll buy it first and extra copies for friends. I am very lucky now to sing Bossa nova in New York City with a great band, currently called “A Lua.” I think we need a new name. Amy ideas?

May 2, 2018 at 6:50 pm

Thanks very much, Christine.
I’m closing in on 300 blog posts.
At about 1500-2000 words a shot, that’s, um…
How many words are there in a book?



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