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(Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, 1946 - 2020)

In the midst of the turbulent times we currently live, the loss of one of Brazil’s most successful composers has reminded us of just how central music is in times of revolution. Aldir Blanc, a Psychiatrist by education, and writer and composer by practice, left a songbook of over 600 songs. The most famous of these, “O bêbado e a equilibrista” (The Drunk and the Tightrope Walker) having become one of the most well-known protest songs of the Military Dictatorship Brazil lived from 1964 to 1985.

For over 20 years, Brazil experienced a Nationalist government, with strict censorship laws, that regularly violated the populations’ basic Human Rights. It was a period where many members of the artists’ class in Brazil chose or were pushed into exile, giving birth to songs like Caetano’s “London London” and Gilberto Gil’s “Aquele Abraço.” Due to the strict censorship laws, lyrics had to hide the true meaning of songs that were against the government’s strict and conservative agenda. Songs with titles such as “Pra não dizer que não falei das Flores” (So you won’t say I didn’t speak of flowers) and Apesar de Você (In spite of you) were hits of the era but also carried strong anti-government messages, and were able to bypass censorship laws.

Elis Regina, Brazil’s “Little Darling” fell into some hot water when she agreed to sing at the Military Olympics of 1973, a clearly pro-government event while many of her friends and peers suffered the consequences of defying these same people. Political cartoonist Henfil created a famous cartoon “burying” (or ‘cancelling’ as the kids would say) Elis Regina. The singer, who had previously tried to stay neutral amidst the tense political climate, started to feel the need to take bigger risks in regards to her political stance, as dangerous as that could be.

Helfil’s charge for Elis from 1972. The title reads “Henfil presents with sadness in his soul: Cabôco Namadô and his fantastic cemetery of the living-dead.” Elis in her coffin: “You comedians are funny! You want to be everyone’s moral compass!” Cabôco: “But miss Elis...”

It wasn’t until 1979 that Elis would find her voice in the song that was initially written to honor comedian Charlie Chaplin. At the time of the actor’s death in 1977, Jõao Bosco who was Aldir Blanc’s partner in writing the song, claimed to have written a samba that had melodic similarities to Chaplin’s “Smile.” In an interview to the Brazilian Press Association in 2007, Blanc stated that he “Met up with Henfil and Chico Mário who wouldn’t stop talking about the brother in exile. And that gave me a click. We could create a Chaplin character that in reality expressed the conditions of those in exile.”

The opening line of “The evening fell like a bridge” immediately places the listener in 1971 Rio, where a bridge in its final phase of construction collapsed killing 29 people and injuring 22 more. Blanc tells in an interview to O Globo in 2016 that his own grandfather had just passed under that bridge minutes before the accident and nearly lost his life, leaving him covered in the debris. The Chaplin character emerges immediately, “dressed in mourning” resembling the typical malandro who wanders the streets at night, drunk and just barely avoiding the violence that surrounds him.

João Bosco (left) and Aldir Blanc (right) perform together

Such was the case of exiled Betinho, Henfil’s brother who’s return “Brazil dreams of” according to the lyrics. Others were less fortunate and ended up captured, tortured, and dead at the hands of the government, and whom “Marias and Clarices cry for.” This direct reference to Clarice Herzov, wife of Vladimir Herzov - a Russian journalist naturalized Brazilian who was captured by DOI-CODI - and never seen again. The Brazilian Intelligence Agency carried out numerous human rights violations including unlawful and undocumented arrests, torture, and murder, claiming that those involved imposed threats to National Security.

Against this clearly painted picture of chaos and fear, “Hope dances on the tightrope with an umbrella” showing poise and control in the face of danger. “Knowing that she can be hurt in each step”, hope prevails, even if she’s only hangin on by a thread. The song closes with the epic affirmation, in any language, that the artist’s “show must go on”.

The song was a hit before even being officially released due to a live performance by Elis. Speaking about the first time Elis played him the song, Henfil stated that she “Cried the whole time. It’s as if she knew the importance that the song would have. Something I didn’t notice back then.” Not only would it become the most popular track in her 1979 album Essa mulher, but it would also become known as the “Anthem of Amnesty.”

May we keep Blanc’s message of courage and hope alive regardless of the circumstances we face. May his memory live on in the beautiful music he has left us. Enjoy Elis’s flawless performance of O Bêbado e a Equilibrista and check out the full lyrics below.

The Drunk and the Tightrope Walker

The evening fell like a bridge

A drunk wearing a funeral suit reminded me of Chaplin’s tramp

The moon, like a brothel madam

begged from each cold star a rented shine

And clouds, up there in the blotting paper of the sky

sucked on tortured stains, what crazy agony

The drunk wearing a bowler hat was being irreverent

for Brazil’s night, my Brazil

is dreaming of the return of Henfil’s brother

of so many people who left on the tail of a rocket

Our gentle mother nation cries

Marias and Clarices cry, on Brazil’s soil

But I know that pain this sharp won’t be in vain

Hope dances on the tightrope with an umbrella

And with each step on this rope you can hurt yourself

Bad luck, the balancing hope

knows that each artist’s show

must go on


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