Guest post by Daniel B. Sharp
The first draft of the book Naná Vasconcelos’s Saudades didn’t center on the record Saudades all that much. My idea was to use the album recorded in 1979 as a destination as I took stock of the key first 15 years of his career, between 1964-1979, but with more focus on the journey than the endpoint. Jason Stanyek, the series editor, wasn’t having it. He told me to go back and dig deeper regarding the record’s specific tracks. I’m so glad now that he insisted, because returning to the tracks led my research in directions I hadn’t originally expected.
In particular, I came to hear the wordless, cinematic Track 3 “Ondas (Na Óhlos de Petronila)” as a devastating protest of 1979 Brazil from afar. “Ondas” means waves, and the letters of the title double and reverse like they are reflecting in water. The reversal of “Petronila” and “Petrolina” in the subtitle opened up the floodgates to a very specific context. First, I learned that Petronila is Naná’s mother’s first name. And by reversing the “l” and the “n,” Petronila turns into Petrolina, the name of the city in the interior of Pernambuco that is the hometown of Naná’s longtime friend Geraldo Azevedo. At the time Naná composed the track, Petrolina had just become the site of the largest artificial lake in the world. “NaNá reflected in the pools of his mother’s eyes” became readable as “NaNá reflected in the waters of Petrolina.”
In February 1979, not long after Naná’s move from Paris to New York City, Petrolina, Brazil, began to appear in international newscasts. The Lago de Sobradinho hydroelectric dam there had reached maximum capacity, and right as it began producing electricity there were heavy rains. The São Francisco river rose, and the enormous reservoir overtopped, causing massive floods. For some in the area who were displaced in 1979, this wasn’t the first time. Two years before, in 1977, the rerouting of the São Francisco river deliberately submerged five towns, forcing over 60,000 residents to relocate to newly constructed communities with the same names, as if nothing were changing. Abandoned, mostly submerged churches, only their bell towers or the tops of their roofs visible above the surface of the artificial lake became an arresting image of rapid and drastic forced change.
This violent uprooting and forced sacrifice in the name of progress troubled artists and activists like Guttemberg Guarabyra, who wrote a protest song about the disaster. Instead of Guarabyra’s plainspoken approach, though, Naná decided to wordlessly evoke the scene, so that the listener would more viscerally feel the dread of the water rising. To do this, he borrowed from the atmosphere of Milton Nascimento’s melancholy tunes that evoke empty small-town churches, only to add rushing water to the mix as he imagined the moment that water flooded an entire town.
In the track, Naná (or rather, several overdubbed Nanás) paint this sonic image of the expansive horizon that a large body of water creates. But the percussion confirms that this water is not still, but splashing, churning, and moving forward, overwhelming and unstoppable. The image of the flooded church is a haunting one, and I imagine that Naná, hearing about the flooding while living so far away from his home state, was shaken by it.
Dan Sharp is Associate Professor at Tulane University, USA, jointly appointed in music and Latin American studies. He is currently chair of the Tulane music department. He is the author of Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse: Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil (2014)Spanning the genres of samba, tropicália, rock, hip hop, forró, bossa nova, heavy metal and funk, among others, 33 1/3 Brazil is a series devoted to in-depth examination of the most important Brazilian albums of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Learn more here!