Zeca – 1971

Today’s track of the day, “Coro da Primavera” (Springtime Chorus), comes from the supremely important Portuguese artist Jose “Zeca” Afonso. Born in 1929 in the port city of Aveiro, Portugal this fairly inconspicuous man would be the last person you’d think who would grown up and write such songs like “Grandola, Vila Morena“, “Balada do Otonho” or “Milho Verde“…songs that if you ask any Portuguese person they could probably sing back to you by heart. However, few people remember the truly forward thinking music from his Cantigas do Maio album. Itself a crowning achievement to a marvelous Portuguese sound. A sound so distinct you’ll probably have a hard time placing it anywhere else but Iberia.

Unfortunately, today I don’t have the time to write a long bio on the man himself. There’s more than a bit of disappointment in my part for this since his life and music marks nearly all the changes from dictatorship to freedom that Portugal underwent. In doing so, his music has been cherished for contributing much to this liberty many Portuguese hold dear now. However, Wikipedia thankfully has a great bio up that some kind people put together which you can find here. What strikes me about the man? Well, for me its that as you listen to the music you can hear the sound of someone who knew the importance of composition and structure as weights onto thoughts and prose. Leo Ferre, a French artist who I’ll cover later, once said that what good is poetry if it remains stuck in books, the best poetry is the one that can travel into the ears of everyday life through the transport of music. This is the thought process that has informed the trajectory of Zeca.

Placard outside his home in Coimbra.
This educator who first started releasing albums with great prose/lyricism but faltering, sparse musical accompaniment realised that he needed more than just pretty words on tape to make a difference. His crowning achievement 1971’s Cantigas do Maio album shows his peak. The man was gifted with a heavenly vibrato voice and he uses that voice coupled with instrumentation entirely unheard of for his time to be found on a Fado record: synthesizers, electric guitars, woodwinds, trumpets, and musique concrete, to create some sound, a sound that positively floats off your headphones and music that floats above simple protest songs. 
Cantigas do Maio album cover.

There are protest songs through and through like the haunting “Cantar Alentejano” for instance made to honor Portuguese liberal martyr Catarina Eufémia, “Grândola, Vila Morena” a song about the Alentejo region which then became the song of the Carnation Revolution, but some are songs that transcend mere protest like “Senhor Arcanjo” and “Maio Maduro Maio” which stir something inward in the soul. Zeca said he wanted to make an album counteract all the gloominess and depressive sounds that Portuguese music was stuck in the moment. Before you overthrow the bastards…you’ve got to throw off some of your chains. For now, listen to the songs I’ve highlighted for the day. Can you feel things are getting better? Zeca rightfully thought so (only 3 years later the Carnation Revolution sweeping out the Estado Novo). In the future I’ll circle back and dig deep for the reasons those songs still move people so, I can’t recommend highly enough listening to the full album (its something I will quantify soon enough)…

Listen to Cantigas do Maio at Grooveshark.

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Bonus track time, the brilliant stop/start opener from Cantigas do Maio of “Senhor Arcanjo”…

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and my personal favorite, the probing Pyrenees-like high-low balladry of “Maio Maduro Maio”…

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p.s. might as well stick in this wonderful Mozambique-influenced live version of “Milho Verde”…

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