39. The girl from Ipanema

Posted on 15/03/2017

39. The girl from Ipanema

‘The girl from Ipanema’ is the second most recorded song in history (after ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles). and a very charming song it is. But most of those who listen to it have no idea of the most vivid image in the song. Here is a lovely instrumental version of the song by the composer of the music: Antonio Carlos Jobim.

the tune is very good. But  interest lies in the words as much or more than the music. Here is an early video with Astrud Gilberto singing and Stan Getz’s memorable sax filling in the spaces.

The word ‘balanco’ is central, and the so is the ‘cedilla’ (not reprorduced here) the little squiggle under the ‘c’. It softens the letter and gives it a swing.

The point is that the ‘walking’ is not walking at all. ‘Balanco’ is a seductive Brazilian smooch that the girl was doing as a matter of course as she walked. Not a wiggle, but a langourous smooth undulation of the hips and the bottom that was clearly irrestible to the author of the lyric. Luckily the man who witnessed this girl walking past the cafe each morning to the beach was one of Brazil’s best poets and lyricists. His lyric is therefore apt. In English it runs

Look, such a sight, so beautiful,
So filled with grace,
It’s her, this girl who comes and who passes,
With a sweet swing, on her way to the sea.

Girl with body of gold
From the sun of Ipamena,
Her swing
Is more than a poem,
Is a sight more beautiful
Than I have ever seen pass by

The author’s translator uses ‘sweet swing’ and ‘swing’ to convey her sexy walk: teh ‘balanco’. There is no single English word to describe it, which is probably something of a criticism of English girls.

This balanco clearly mesmerised Vinicius as he sat there drinking his morning coffee. The girl who inspired Vinicius to write the lyric was Helolsa Pinheiro. She was a 17 year old girl who lived in Ipanema a suburb of Rio De Janiero and she walked each day to the beach to sun herself. Vinicius was  a middle aged many times divorced by then and sat watching her with longing that comes out in the lyric.

Vinicius de Moraes was born in 1913 and became a diplomat in various embassies around Europe. He had been to Oxford as a young man, writing verse with other Brazilian emigres, before becoming a diplomat. He spent most of his life as a diplomat, but by the 1950’s developed a singing and performing career especially involving Antonio Carlos Jobim. The ‘Girl from Ipaneman’ song was written in 1962 for a show and itt was not until the recording with Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz in 1964 that it became a hit.

Vinicius was a well known alcoholic and died in his mid 60’s. But he left a considerable body of poetry and plays which ensured his longer term reputation. But the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ is the source of his fame. The second stanza is more mournful than the first one reprinted above;

Ah, why am I so alone?
Why is there so much sadness?
This beauty that exists,
This beauty that is not only mine,
That also passes by alone.

Ah, if she but knew,
That when she passes by,
The world smiles,
Is filled with grace,
And becomes more beautiful,
Because of love.

 In those later verses one can see the sadness of the older man, who was probably between wives at the time (he reached his eigth wife by the time he died: a latter day Henry VIII, thought there were no beheadings in his story as far as I know).

Helolsa Pinheiro earned nothing from the worldwide hit. However she was known as the inspiration of the song and became a celebrity hostess on Brazilian TV. So she did earn something from the fame of the song.

This video, at least  the first bit of it, conveys a little of what Helolsa must have been like in the early 1960’s. She inspired a song which has become the most famous ever created by a girl (Yesterday was not a song in the image of a girl). That’s quite a feat. But the video does not illustrate the balanco unfortunately. that has to be left to the imagination!


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