Dorival Caymmi

Here I am, again, in Mar Grande, in the island of Itaparica. Last year’s vacation was so pleasant that my wife, my youngest daughter, her husband, her two children and I decided to reprise it.

And I am now sitting on the beach, listening to the sounds of the sea and remembering Dorival Caymmi’s songs. Actually Caymmi’s songs are the sounds of the sea... 

A picture of Dorival Caymmi

I remember reading a statement by Dorothy Hammerstein, Oscar Hammerstein II’s wife, saying, “Ol’ Man River was written by my husband. Jerry (Jerome Kern) only added the sounds of the river...” She was partially right; the lyrics that Oscar wrote for Ol’ Man River are superb. But it was Kern’s “sounds of the Mississipi river” that immortalized the song. 

Dorival Caymmi was a great genius of Brazilian music who wrote the songs of the sea and Jerome Kern, like Caymmi, was a musical genius who wrote the sounds of the Mississipi river.  Their music is totally different, but they share the influence of the sounds of nature in their work.

It is interesting to note the words of another Brazilian musical genius, Antonio Carlos Jobim, concerning Dorival Caymmi: “When I think about Brazilian music, I will always think of Dorival Caymmi.” “He was a universal genius and Brazil's greatest composer; he picked up the guitar and orchestrated the world.”

He celebrated the sea, the beaches, the fishermen and the women of Bahia. He never had a formal education in music; he taught himself to play guitar in the late 1920s, with a unique style that he himself developed. Being a perfectionist, he composed only about one hundred songs in the more than 70 years of a very active artistic career. 

He was 16 years old when he composed O que é que a Bahiana tem? (What does the Bahian woman have?), the song that made him and Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda internationally famous. His friend Fernando Lobo told me that sometimes he would spend years polishing and perfecting a song, he would refuse to make it public before he considered it adequate. This is how he achieved a reputation of composing songs of exceptional quality. Caetano Veloso once said that “I have written 400 songs, and Caymmi 70. But Caymmi has 70 perfect songs, and I do not.”

My uncle Irundy, my father’s youngest brother, was partly responsible for making me appreciate Caymmi’s music. (The word “Irundy” means “four” in the Guarany language, he received this name because he was my grandfather’s fourth son.) It was in his house in Salvador that I began to hear Caymmi’s music; since I lived far from the sea, these songs were less well known in my home town.

Mar Grande - a lovely place to hear Caymmi's music
My uncle was particularly fond of A jangada voltou só (The raft returned alone), a sad song about three fishermen who died in a storm.

Most of the time he wrote the lyrics for his songs, occasionally he had help from friends like Fernando Lobo and Carlos Guinle. He also wrote music for poems of Jorge Amado, one of his good friends. The best known of these songs is É doce morrer no mar (It is sweet to die in the sea). In fact Caymmi and Jorge wrote it together during a dinner at Jorge’s home. 

In addition to the songs of the sea – Suite do Pescador (Fishermen Suite), Meu Senhor dos Navegantes (My Lord of the Sailors), Promessa de Pescador (A fisherman’s promise), Noite de Temporal (Storm night), Quem Vem Pra Beira da Praia (Those who come to the beach), and so many others, he also wrote many songs about love. Sweet love – Dora, Marina, Rosa Morena, or unexpected love – Nem eu (Neither did I), Só louco (Only crazy people), Não tem solução (No way to deal with it), or love ending badly – Nunca Mais (Nevermore).

A particularly beautiful song is Saudade da Bahia (Longing for Bahia).

He composed only one waltz – Das Rosas. It was recorded by American singer Andy Williams – And Roses and Roses. Williams's version was a hit and resulted in an invitation to Caymmi to join him in his TV show. Caymmi did not like airplanes, so he took a ship to the States and spend four months in Los Angeles.

Caymmi’s religion, which certainly influenced him in many aspects, was Candomblé, a “nago” word that means “dance in honor of the gods.” It is a mixture of traditional African beliefs and incorporated some aspects of Catholicism over time. It officially originated in Salvador at the beginning of the 19th century but actually began when African people were brought to Brazil as slaves. Each African nation had only one god – orisha – but since the slaves came from different African regions, there was a fusion of all of those primitive religions, a typical Brazilian phenomenon. In order to show respect for Catholicism and also preserve their freedom to practice their own religion, the slaves identified the orishas with the Catholic saints. Candomblé is practiced by approximately two million persons in different countries and also influences many people of other religions. 

Caymmi honored his religion by composing a beautiful song, Oração de Mãe Menininha, dedicated to the Iyálorixá of the Gantois temple, known as Mãe Menininha do Gantois. His song was also recorded by Brazilian singers Maria Bethania and Gal Costa, but Caymmi’s original recording is the only one with the true complicated rhythms of the Candomblé.

The following lyrics of the song Saudades de Itapoã are among my very favorites:

Ó vento que faz cantigas nas folhas no alto do coqueiral,
Ó vento que ondula as águas, eu nunca tive saudade igual.
Me traga boas notícias daquela terra toda manhã,
E jogue uma flor no colo de uma morena em Itapoã.

I tried my best to translate this, but my translation is definetly not as beautiful as the original:

Oh wind that plays songs on the leaves, on the tops of the coconut trees,
Oh wind that makes waves in the sea, I have never known such longing.
Bring me good news of that beach each morning,
And throw a flower on the breast of a girl in Itapoã.

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