Last year, en route to Cape Verde, I flew to Zurich on Swiss Air, then transferred to a TAP plane (Portugal’s national airline). I was about to board the plane when I was stopped at the gate and told that I would have to check my bag. I didn’t want to; I had another connection to make in Lisbon to get to Praia, Cape Verde. I tried every argument and was rebuffed by the officious TAP gate staffers.
Finally I turned around and happened to notice that the plane was called the “Spirit of Amália Rodrigues,” at which point I launched into my spiel: I featured her for decades on my radio shows, put her in my book, Rhythm Planet, and knew her best record, Com Que Voz (With My Voice). They eventually gave up and allowed me to board. Such is the status of Amália Rodrigues in Portugal.
Amália Rodrigues is to fado what Charlie Parker is to bebop: the alpha and omega of the fado genre. She recorded her song, “Barco Negro” (Black Boat), in 1954, and it’s been covered by many artists ever since. But Amália’s own, earlier version was not the first. “Barco Negro” has an unusual history. The original version was written in 1954 by two Brazilians, Piratini (Anthony Amabile) and Caco Velho (Matheus Nunes), who titled titled it “Mãe Preta” (Black Mother). The song was actually banned in Portugal, which was then run by the Salazar dictatorship. But in 1954, David Mourão-Ferreira wrote new lyrics for the song, and Amália Rodrigues recorded and brought it to fame that same year. (I learned this from fado expert Professor Donald H. Cohen.)
I remember seeing statues of black Madonnas inside the large 16th century São Francisco cathedral in Salvador, Bahia, as well as African seraphim and women saints with protruding bellies, suggesting the fertility rites that came to Brazil by way of Africa. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that “Barco Negra” / “Mãe Preta” take their roots in Brazil. Mãe Pretas and Madonnas are earth mothers; and both boats and earth mothers are vessels. Madonna was the mother of God. Somehow the pieces all fit together, though I can find little written about it.
The lyrics of Dalida’s 1956 version suggests Yemanjá, Brazilian goddess of the seas and rivers. The late Cairo-born, Italian-French superstar Dalida (b. Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) adapted the Rodrigues song in 1956, retitling it “Madonna,” in order to bring it a little closer to the original sense of “Mae Preta,” though few listeners would probably have realized this.
Mariza then reprised “Barco Negro” on her album, Fado em Mim (2002). The most recent version is by the Brazilian artist, Daúde Dutilleux, better known by just her first name, Daúde. According to her, Caco Velho was a Brazilian gaucho from Rio Grande do Sul, the southern Brazilian state that borders Argentina. The long and short of it is that this song has legs, as well it should.
Special thanks to Don Cohen for elucidating the song’s history for me. He is a fado aficionado and author of Fado Portugues: Songs from the Soul of Portugal, which comes with a curated CD.
Dalida sings “Madonna” in French with her Italian accent. The song suggests Yemanjá, Goddess of the Seas in Afro-Brazilian religion.
Mariza’s version from a Lisbon concert. She really channels Amália, doesn’t she?
Daúde’s version from her new album, Codigo.
Lyrics to the original song, “Mãe Preta.”
velha encarquilhada carapinha branca gandola de renda caindo na anca embalando o berço do filho do sinhô que há pouco tempo a sinhá ganhou era assim que mãe preta fazia criava todo branco com muita alegria enquanto na senzala seu bem apanhava mãe preta mais uma lágrima enxugava mãe preta, mãe preta, mãe preta, mãe preta enquanto a chibata batia em seu amor mãe preta embalava o filho branco do sinhô
Lyrics to the re-worked version of “Barco Negro,” by Caco Velha, Piratini, and David Mourao Ferreira.
De manh, que medo, que me achasses feia! Acordei, tremendo, deitada n’areia Mas logo os teus olhos disseram que no, E o sol penetrou no meu corao.[Bis]
Vi depois, numa rocha, uma cruz, E o teu Barco Negro danava na luz Vi teu brao acenando, entre as velas j soltas Dizem as velhas da praia, que no voltas:
So loucas! So loucas!
Eu sei, meu amor, Que nem chegaste a partir, Pois tudo, em meu redor, Me diz qu’ests sempre comigo.[Bis]
No vento que lana areia nos vidros; Na gua que canta, no fogo mortio; No calor do leito, nos bancos vazios; Dentro do meu peito, ests sempre comigo.
French lyrics to “Madona, Vierge de la mer”—translation thanks to Redha Hazourli for tracking these down.
Toi qui me tends les bras.
Sainte aux voiles d’or,
je crois encore en toi.
Toi la vierge noire
aux mains gantées de lumière.
Dis-moi que la mer
sera clémente pour moi.
Les femmes du port,
qui guettent le ciel lourd,
les femmes aux voiles noires,
aux ailes de vautour
on vit au ciel des morts
passer sa barque frivole:
dis-moi que les femmes du port
sont des folles.
Refrain (deux fois)
Ramène dans le port
la voile blanche de mes amours.
Réveille dans mon cœur
la foi brûlante des beaux jours.
Ne me dites pas
qu’il est trop loin pour m’entendre!
Je vois son visage
quand je ferme les yeux.
Vierge de la mer,
Prends garde à mon chagrin.
Si l’orage est plus fort
que ton regard divin,
au village on dira
que tu n’es pas notre mère.
Que tu n’es que statue de bois
Refrain (deux fois)
Vers toi notre prière monte.
Lyrics to Madonna, Virgin of the Sea—per Google Translate
You who hold out my arms. Sainte golden sails, I still believe in you. You the black virgin with gloved hands light. Tell me the sea be merciful to me. The women of the port, who watch the heavy sky, women in black veils, winged vulture we live in heaven dead frivolously spend his boat: tell me that women harbor are crazy. Madona, Madona. Chorus (twice) Bring in the port the white sail of my loves. Awakens in my heart the burning faith of sunny days. Do not tell me it’s too far away to hear me! I see his face when I close my eyes. Virgin of the Sea, Take care of my grief. If the storm is stronger that your divine gaze, the village will say that you are not our mother. Whether you are only wooden statue without mystery. Madona, forgive. Chorus (twice) Our prayer rises to you.