Portuguese music: first things first

Some songs are part of the Portuguese colective memory, they are songs that virtually everybody knows, whether young or old.

Let us, for a moment, go back to the 1930’s. The Portuguese cinema industry was big at the time and it was common for actors to be also singers and vice versa. Some of the movies from that time have been sources of fun for generations of Portuguese. If you have a Portuguese parent or grandparent, or an elderly Portuguese neighbour, chances are they’ll still remember some of the jokes and songs; the same goes for many of those in their 30’s and 40’s.

In 1933 the movie “A canção de Lisboa” (“Lisbon song”) was a tremendous success and some of its songs quickly became hits. One of them, “Fado do estudante”, is about Vasco (played by Vasco Santana), a college student who didn’t really study, and his relationship with Alice (played by Beatriz Costa). It’s a song about the good times you live when you’re a young college student whithout a lot of cares in the world.

The other song that I chose from this movie also became a hit and stars Alice (played by Beatriz Costa) and Vasco in a typical Saint Anthony’s celebration in what we now call a “typical neighbourhood” of Lisbon.

Beatriz Costa, the first and probably the most beloved Portuguese film diva ever, often sang as part of her roles. In 1938, the movie “Aldeia da roupa branca” is the source of yet another timeless tune, which would decades later be used in a TV commercial. The line “água fria da ribeira / água fria que o sol aqueceu” (“cold water from the stream / cold water that the sun warmed up”) is known by nearly every Portuguese.

In 1943 World War 2 was affecting pretty much every country, even Portugal, which didn’t even take part in the war. There was still humour in movies but there seemed to be more of a tone of thankfulness for all the good things in life, no matter how small; characters were content with having just enough. In the movie “O Costa do castelo” 17 year old actress Milu sings the joys of living in her small modest home. The song, “A minha casinha” (“My little home”) would decades later be covered by the biggest punk / rock Portuguese band ever: Xutos e Pontapés (we’ll talk about them in a future post). Milu was a major diva in her time and, like Beatriz Costa, she received offers to work in Hollywood but refused them all.

Next on today’s post we have another classic, this one from 1951, called “Olhos castanhos”. Mention this song to any Portuguese man over 60 and you’re more than likely to witness a small one-man-show as he puts on his movie star mellow eyes and sings the opening line. The song is a hymn to the beauty and virtues of brown eyes, so you can imagine it quickly became a hit in a country where most people have (duh!) brown eyes.

Heartbreak has always been a favourite song theme and in 1958 another classic rolls around in the amazing voice of Maria de Fátima Bravo singing “Vocês sabem lá”. A favourite of composers and songwriters of the time she had a unique voice (this song is also a personal favourite).

I hope you enjoyed this little time travel! 😉

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  1. Olhos castanhos (brown eyes) one of my Dad’s favourite songs that he still sings at parties. He used to be a singer in his youth.
    Enjoyed listening through them and had to laugh at “A minha casinha”, as I had no idea that Xutos’s song was based on this one.

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