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The beautiful cardinales

Thesis analyzes song by Bahian singer and identifies close association of his work with sacred symbols of diverse natures

A song has the inexplicable power of summarizing in three or four minutes a moment in someone’s life that marks. On hearing by surprise “that” song on the radio, emotions like longings, sadness or nostalgia come to mind and may alter the humor of the day, even leading someone to take attitudes or, in some cases, to rethink their existence. This experience often ends as soon as the next begins. In the opposite direction, when heard for the first time, a composition can leave such a mark that it will become a reference for future recollections and emotions. In this case, something similar happened with the professor and journalist Fernando Mesquita, who, in 1982, heard Luz do sol [Light of the Sun], by Caetano Veloso, in the voice of Gal Costa.

His immediate impression was of “a tremendous metaphysical fright”. More than that, it was transformed into a sort of “central axis” of the set of 12 songs that over two decades afterwards were to make his doctoral thesis The Light of the Sun of Songs – solar symbolism in the work of Caetano Veloso, supervised by the academic and composer José Miguel Wisnik and defended in 2004 in the Vernacular Literature Department (area of Brazilian literature), of the Faculty of Literature of the University of São Paulo (USP). “At the time (and now as well), it seemed to me to be a song sung from paradise. When he finished listening to it, it came to mind that it was “a Greek hymn to the Sun!”. He did not even know why he thought that, he admits.

The experience did not leave his head any more. Six years after, Mesquita discovered that the initial verse of Luz do sol was very similar to that of the famous Paean 10, by Pindar, a hymn of supplication  to the Sun, composed on the occasion of an eclipse. The word paean comes from the Greek and means savior, protector, one of the epithets of the god Apollo – and represents a lyrical poem, a hymn of invocation or thanks dedicated to the saving and protecting gods in the Greece of classical antiquity.

If Caetano sings: “Luz do sol/ que a folha traga e traduz” [Light of the sun / that the leaf swallows and translates], Píndar said: “Irradiating light of the Sun! Thou that seeeth so many things”. That is to say, initially, the pronouncement is made in the form of a greeting or invocation of the name of the deity (light of the Sun, irradiating light of the Sun). Afterwards, through a linked reference to what, the formulation of a eulogy in epithet form. What the author did not know was that the “name pronounced/epithets” pair is a “eulogic cell” (from eulogy) of universal reach, since it is in the foundation of all the doxologies – the hymns of praise to the glory of the divinity.

Going deeper into his research, Mesquita was able to determine a solar hymn paradigm from various civilizations – Egyptian, Vedic, Greco-Roman, Armenian, Inca, Medieval Christian, Zoroastrian, Iranian Shiite etc. He found 11 hymns exactly with the same structure, and, what is more important, in his opinion: Luz do sol, in spite of being a contemporaneous Brazilian sing, fits into this paradigm “as if it were one more hymn”. Incidentally, the author adds, this “fit” lies not only in the reiteration of the initial and generating “eulogic cell”. There are also marked “structural homologies” (there is no way of escaping from the cliché). “Homologies that I prefer to interpret as ‘passages’ to the sacred symbols of traditional civilizations and that, obviously, are not restricted to Luz do sol, but that appear in countless points of Caetano’s work”

This aspect of the paradigm, though, did not come into the final text of the thesis. The decision to exclude it came at the suggestion of the supervisor. In Wisnik’s opinion, it would mean a very ample digression in the analysis of Caetano’s work. At the same time, it would make the analysis “weigh down” too much on the side of the sacred. “Although I agreed with these observations, I also thought that, as it is very interesting and clarifying, this detour would end up being a stimulus to the reading. I made the cut because I felt that this paradigm was not yet ‘at the point of publication'”. “Working on the version for a book, which he is doing at this moment, the author realized that it would be fundamental to develop the question of the four archetypes to provide more clarity, which implies a definitive and precise definition of what he understands by ‘archetype'” which, in turn, led to a study of the phenomenology of the visionary look.

Mesquita’s work also shows a well-grounded argumentation for unraveling the songs – which may be a delight of discoveries for Caetano’s fans. By his concept, solar songs are those in which the Sun appears – both the physical sun, the one “that everybody sees with their eyes”, and the symbolic, transcendent one, which “not everybody sees”. The examples are many. Besides Luz do sol, he cites Trem das cores [Train of the Colors], Leãozinho [Little Lion], Força estranha [Strange Force]  (this one, a “tremendous” solar hymn), O estrangeiro [The Foreigner] etc.

Black Sun
As the sacred symbols are always ambivalent, they show a “negative” face, Songs of the Black Sun also appear: Sol negro [Black Sun], O ciúme [Jealousy], Dor-de-cotovelo [Broken Heart] Tigresa [Tigress] etc. The analysis also includes two songs not written by Caetano Veloso. Cores vivas [Live Colors] is by Gilberto Gil; and O velho [The Old Man], by Chico Buarque. In this case, the choice occurred because Caetano declares, in the libretto for Velô, having written O homem velho [The Old Man] in response to O velho. The quest for evidencing sacred symbols in these songs led Mesquita to interpret why, in the work of a contemporaneous composed, located “in full post-modernity”, these elements of a different nature blossom. “As I thought that there is a solar emphasis in Caetano’s songs, I concentrated on the sacred solar symbols.” Actually, he adds, the mythical presence is not merely a characteristic of the lyrics of the Bahian composer. “In my view, there is a general movement in this direction in Brazilian culture, and Caetano is one of the ‘privileged mirrors’ of this.”

It can, for example, be perceived in the case of some important writers of Brazilian literature. Mutatis mutandis, it would make it “perfectly” possible to note the presence of the sacred in Guimarães Rosa, which could be ever richer and more wide-ranging than in Caetano. “The work of Clarice Lispector is splendorously peppered with epiphanies.” Or, that is to say, if someone “avails himself of the necessary patience, breadth and capacity for work”, he will be able to carry out a marvelous mythical reading of the plots of the samba schools. These would have the power to tell “the sacred history of the past” and the “sacred history of the future” through mixed-blood forms, in a spectacle of “total art”, as Wagner imagined and Wisnik observed.

In this final interpretation, Mesquita finds, Caetano deals with Brazil as a mixed-blood society and culture located in a “time warp” that oscillates between an apparent profane time, post-modern and globalized, and a sacred time on the reverse, for the time being manifesting itself through “ciphers”. “For the time being”, because the researcher is convinced that “in the future” this time will be clearly dominant, as, for example, is announced by the song Um índio [An Indian], an interpretation of the lyrics of which closes his analysis.

Fernando Mesquita has a life story that binds him surely to the work of Caetano – for many, the greatest icon of their generation. Born in São Paulo, he was directly involved in the armed fight against the dictatorship – he was a partner of the guerilla leader Carlos Lamarca and remained imprisoned in Salvador for three years in the 1970s. When the amnesty came, he became engaged in the alternative press. At the beginning of the 1980s, he moved to Mato Grosso, where he remains until today, faithful to his political convictions. “I recall with great satisfaction the resistance to the dictatorship, I would do it all again, I never fell for the acrylic siren’s call of neoliberalism.”

In all this period close to the forest, he lived like an “alternative at the edge of the wood”. For a good period of time, he felt “completely lost”, but without any desire to go back to São Paulo or to “be found”. Afterwards “from losing myself so much, I ended up finding myself”, he jokes. Mesquita believes that if there is some merit in his posture, it was that of not having been self-indulgent, not having been afraid of “turning into a nobody”. He guarantees, though, that his discoveries of the sacred in Caetano Veloso were based neither on the political militant nor the alternative journalist.

The researcher says that Caetano did not create these songs as a result of a “why”. He simply composed them. Incidentally, he says he has a very strong feeling that he is not going to agree with his approach. Worse, “he’s really going to hate my analyses”. He arrived at this conclusion following conversations with his supervisor. Wisnik knows Caetano well and told Mesquita that he has a veritable detestation of “driveling-mystical people”, of “chats of high transactions”, which regard him, droolingly, as a “seer”, one “inspired by the gods”. This is not the case of his approach, the journalist guarantees. “I think that this kind of ‘ignorant veneration’ has now created a predisposition in him, so that it will be very difficult for him not to feel that I have done something similar, albeit a bit more sophisticated.  And he adds: “Believe me, Caetano’s opinion, in actual fact, does not weigh down on me. Do you think that this could happen after (for example) an experience like the one with the Paean, by Pindar’ And I had several other coincidences while doing the thesis”.

For the author, the Bahian artist is a genius in the sense used for the Greco-Roman poets – someone “inspired by the Muses”, not in the conventional and rococo sense of Parnassianism, but in the one that involves “the terror and the splendor of the presence of the sacred”. And every inspired person “says much more than he knows”. Mesquita’s interpretation is that, if the sacred shows itself ciphered in many of his songs, it is because it corresponds to a real movement in Brazilian culture itself. Accordingly, “what he did was to carry out a very refined translation of this emergent sacred, at the same time that he composed a completely contemporaneous work”.

Following the idea that there is no “translation for” but rather a “translation of himself”, being faithful to himself, Caetano, “quite rightly, really rejects being taken as a ‘messenger of the sacred'”. On the other hand, “whether he wants it or not, whether he likes it or not”, the announcement of this “double meaning” is in his work at several moments. One of the most marked is in Podres poderes [Rotten Powers], in the verse-question “Será que apenas os hermetismos pascoais/ Os tons, os mil tons, seus sons e seus dons geniais/ Nos salvam, nos salvarão dessas trevas/ E nada mais?” [Can it be that only the Hermetisms Paschals/ The tones, the thousand tones, his sounds and his genial gifts/ Save us, will save us from this darkness/ And nothing else?]. The expression “hermetisms paschals”, in the universe of Brazilian popular music, is a reference to the manner in which another genius, Hermeto Paschoal, composes.

However, it allows another reading. “Hermetism”, according to the dictionary, “is the set of doctrines simultaneously mystical, astrological, alchemical, tangentially magic, philosophical, attributed by its authors of Greco-Latin antiquity to the inspiration of the god Hermes Trismegistus, identified with the Egyptian god Thot – that arose in the early centuries of the Christian era, influenced theologists, alchemists and philosophers of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Illuminism”. “Paschoal” (or “paschal”) means everything that is proper to the Pasch, a festival that, if for Christians it commemorates the resurrection of Christ, for the nomadic Jews of the Mosaic era had to do with another resurrection – the eclosion of spring at the end of winter, a frigid, sterile and dark season.

In the two cases, it is a question of an announced renaissance at the end of a “crossing”. Accordingly, says Mesquita, the expression “hermetisms paschals” can be understood as something that refers to the “hermetic symbols” (ciphered, difficult to interpret) that announce a paschal “rebirth” or “resurrection” intended to “save us from the darkness”. “Save” appears as a verb with an eminent sacred meaning. “This annunciation (the verb is in the future – “will save us”), evidently, is done by the “Hermeto Paschoals”, by the genial composers – “tons” (Tom Jobim), “mil tons” (Milton Nascimento) etc. – of the MPB.” A luminous-sonorous annunciation done in the midst of darkness, according to the Gospel of St. John.

Mesquita’s thesis – which should come out as a book by the end of the year – does not see the presence of the sacred as a sort of “occult and fundamental kernel” of Caetano’s work, but rather as an aspect of a work “entirely installed in the vanguard of contemporaneity, right in the desacralized and decentralized world, to which his songs adhere with a proteic, multiform and inviting perfection, covering all the possible ‘ins and outs’ of genres, styles, modes etc.”. Aspects for reflection that are welcome for the importance of Caetano Veloso in the history of the Brazilian Popular Music. It was not before time.