Finding new songs for my foreign-language repertoire always involves much digging and listening to other artists. It is a process I find most enjoyable, like stepping into a dark, mysterious castle with only a spotlight at hand, never knowing what you’ll find. It was exactly that way that I came across the very playful and cute bossa nova song “O Barquinho“(My Little Boat) from 1961, about a boat sailing along on a calm summer day as the evening falls.
I had only recently discovered the American vocalist Karrin Allyson. It was through a search for different interpretations of the French chanson “Sous le Ciel de Paris” that I was adding to my French repertoire. Her version of the 1951 classic from the French film that carries the same title, is from one of her early albums, “From Rio to Paris”. Despite finding her interpretation slightly humourless, I very much took to her grounded voice and her elegant intonation. Her songs are often spiked with very delightful and short, not endless, self-indulged scatting sequences.
So, while enjoying a cooking session in my kitchen, I flipped through the other songs in French and Portuguese. I immediately took to her very cute and enticing version of “O Barquinho“, sung in both beautifully phrased Portuguese and English. Later, I understood why The New York Times, had called her a “singer with a feline touch and impeccable intonation.”
Brazilian Jazz Rhythms
I have now been performing “O Barquinho” after learning the Portuguese lyrics for a couple of weeks now. In its lightheartedness and cheerfulness, it very much reminds me of tunes like “Summer Samba” (also known as “So Nice” and in Portuguese “Samba de Verão“). “So Nice” is a song I also enjoy singing because of its cheerful bounciness. It was written in 1964 by the Brazilian composer Marcos Valle, with English lyrics by the American lyricist Norman Gimbel and original Portuguese lyrics by the composer’s brother, Paulo Sérgio Valle.
“O Barquinho“, that was written three years earlier, also has very buoyant lyrics and its rhythmical temperament makes it a very typical bossa nova song. When playing these kinds of songs live, it is crucial for the right tempo to be counted off. If it’s too slow it will lose it’s cheeriness and when only a bit too fast it will make you feel as if you are singing the title melody to a breath taking car-chase. Another element of course, is the groove itself. While “So Nice” is a Samba and “O Barquinho” is a bossa nova, Brazilian jazz tunes like these have in general their very own rhythmic feeling – like the bossa nova composer Carlos Lyra, described in reference to one of his own songs “Influência do Jazz”. He said that overall, the rhythm has a “swaying” feel rather than the “swinging” feel of jazz. The samba rhythm moves “side to side” while jazz moves “front to back”.
O Barquinho (The Little Boat) 1961
The topic for the song was obviously already at hand but he may also have been influenced by the Portuguese children’s song, that carries the same title, ‘O Barquinho’ and whose Portuguese lyrics with the English translation you can read here.
“O Barquinho” was first recorded in 1961 by João Gilberto. In 1962 the American entertainment magazine Billboard that is also known for its music charts, including the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200, listed Charlie Byrd’s recording of O Barquinho in the column of singles with “strong sales potential”. Indeed, it was to become one of Menescal’s most famous songs.
Further Info & Reading on Brazilian Jazz
~ For some more insight into this music genre check out the book “Brazilian Jive: From Samba to Bossa and Rap” by David Treece, professor of Brazilian studies, author and founder of the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society.
~ Watch the documentary film “Coisa Mais Linda: Histórias e Casos da Bossa Nova“ (This is Bossa Nova: The History and Stories) released in 2005: Menescal and fellow trailblazing composer Carlos Lyra tell the stories of the people, places and performances that put Brazilian music on the international music scene in the early 1960s, culminating in a 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall in New York.
~ See also this playfully illustrated and informative website called Mama Lisa’s World that collects international children’s songs from around the world.
And here’s João Gilberto’s version from 1961: