SCOTT SAUL: AFTERNOON IN ITAPOÃ



(Editor’s note: Scott Saul is, among other things, an award-winning professor of English at UC Berkeley, the author of Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, and in general, an impressive “man of letters” who has critically mused on everything from the mythologies of Los Angeles, the tragedy of Jonestown, and the Civil Rights Movement in the North; he is also currently writing a biography of Richard Pryor. All of which is to say – he’s as interesting and dynamic a scholar/writer as one could aspire to (myself included). For his summer songs post, Saul riffs on the wisdom that can be learned from men in bathtubs. –O.W.)

    Afternoon in Itapoã

    By Scott Saul

    Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980) was, by turns, a precocious poet, publishing his first chapbook by age 20; a law student; a film critic; a diplomat, posted during the late-‘40s to the Brazilian consulate in Los Angeles, where he befriended Orson Welles; a playwright and scenarist, who first came up with the story for Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus; and a co-founder of bossa nova, that amalgam of cool jazz and samba that taught an earlier generation how to be sophisticated and taught a later generation how to lounge. He was also, throughout his life, a dedicated drinker who claimed that whiskey was man’s best friend (he called it “bottled dog”): after his feverish, three-month-long songwriting collaboration with the guitarist Baden Powell, he computed that the two of them had consumed 240 two-liter flagons of Scotch — close to three bottles per day, or, given that they wrote 25 songs in that period, about 10 bottles per song.

    He also taught me — I was thirty-four; he had been dead for over twenty years — how to love city beaches and, through them, my hometown of LA, which is why he figures in this post. The song that did the job was “Tarde em Itapoã” (Afternoon in Itapoã), which he wrote in his late-‘50s. For me, it was a portal into another world, which turned out to be my hometown in an alternate guise.

    Vinicius de Moraes: Tarde em Itapoã
    From en Mar del Plata (Trova, 1971)

    I first came across the song on the recording Days in Mar del Plata (1971), a loose-jointed “live in-studio” album that projects a sense of living-room intimacy, with Vinicius chatting up his imaginary audience as if they were one step away from being fast friends, fluently segueing from song to song, sampling from his own deep catalog as well as from younger tropicalists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. There’s a perfect fit between music and milieu: while many bossa nova albums are cluttered by string arrangements so cheesy that only a hunk of Camembert could love them, the acoustic sound here harkens back to the informal jam sessions, at Copacabana apartments and bars, where bossa nova was born.

    Best of all, the album conveys an essential but often overlooked aspect of the bossa nova sound — effortlessness. Not just the effortlessness that is virtuosity’s reward (though you can hear that too, when the guitarist Toquinho lets his samba and jazz chops loose), but the effortlessness that comes from feeling a sense of compatibility between the demands placed on you and the role you wish to play. This effortlessness was perhaps best expressed in bossa nova’s relaxed vocal sound, which revolutionized Brazilian pop music. Vinicius himself had a roughened baritone — no great shakes in the vocal sweepstakes — but in the service of his songs, his voice seems richly conversational, its texture a testament to a life fully lived. He never has to strain to hit notes, and even when the (often ingenious) melodies swerve in unexpected directions, he doesn’t seem to swerve.

    “Tarde em Itapoã” is not just an effortless-seeming song, but also a song about effortlessness itself. More precisely, it’s a song about relaxing on the beach in the company of friends. The props described in the lyrics are modest: the singer arrives on the beach in an old bathing suit, with just straw matting to lie down on, and some homemade cachaça and agua de coco to drink. But the feeling evoked by the song is expansive — a contrast signaled by the first rhyme of “um velho calçao de banho” (an old bathing suit) with the more visionary “um mar que não tem tamanho” (a sea that has no size).

    Put another way: a day with no plans except lounging —“um dia pra vadiar” — turns out to be the key to bliss. Laziness is next to godliness, in the Vinicius scheme of things. (It’s no surprise that Vinicius loved his bathtub, writing poetry and conducting interviews from it.)

    And the music conveys this sense of happiness ingeniously and brazenly, with the G-minor key of the verses switching, in a flash, to the G-major key of the chorus. Admittedly this minor-major modulation, while unfamiliar in most American pop music, is more common in Brazilian music: a similar change of mode, and of feeling, can be found in the bossa landmark “Chega de Saudade,” in sambas like Paulinho da Viola’s “Tudo Se Transformou” (Everything Changed), and in Vinicius’s own “Canto de Ossanha.” Still, I can’t help but feel the pleasant surprise of this musical convention here, as all the minor-sevenths of the verse evolve into the major-sevenths of the chorus — a surprise delivered with nonchalance, as if pleasant surprises were simply the way of the world.

    I’ve gotten this far into “Tarde em Itapoã” without mentioning Itapoã itself, which is a disservice to the song, since Itapoã is not just another Brazilian beach. In fact, Itapoã (also spelled Itapoan, or Itapuã, or Itapuan — in Salvador, you can see buses heading up the coast to the beach with all these spellings on them) is far from the picture-postcard paradise often conjured up in discussions of Brazil. It’s a Bahian beach made famous by songwriter Dorival Caymmi, who paid tribute, starting in the ‘30s, to the hard lives of the fishermen who worked from its shores; in the process, Caymmi galvanized a regional folk-music movement in Brazil. In Caymmi’s “Saudade de Itapoã” (Itapoã Blues), the beauty of the beach — the breeze singing through the coconut palms — is exactly what touches off a feeling of melancholy, the feeling that a promise of happiness has been left hanging.

    Vincius namechecks Caymmi in “Tarde em Itapoã” — and apparently he originally wanted Caymmi himself, not his musical partner Toquinho, to write the music for his lyrics — but there are no fishermen trawling nets in his song. The idea of work has been banished for the day, and with it Caymmi’s melancholy. There’s even something like the promise of a Brazilian endless summer to the song. It begins with everyone arriving at the beach yet ends not with everyone leaving the beach, but with something more unexpected: the sun starts going down, the singer starts shivering with the rising of a wind, then decides to sleep under the moon of Itapoã. It’s a moment of total presentness — “sem ontem nem amanhã” (neither yesterday nor tomorrow) — that recalls for me how the word “happiness” shares an etymological root with the verb “to happen”: is there anything more time-sensitive than happiness? Anything more fleeting, yet seemingly out of time?

    I first started listening to “Tarde em Itapoã” when I was teaching at the University of Virginia — a wonderful job but one that put me, for the first time in my life, in an utterly landlocked place. The city of Charlottesville felt small to me: there was only “one of everything” — one good sushi restaurant, one good breakfast joint, etc. — and I was accustomed to more. (It only later became clear to me that, in Charlottesville, it was easy to feel that there was only one of me, which was one of the underappreciated sources of my happiness there.) “Tarde em Itapoã” transported me to another world, where the ocean touched the sky and you could “feel, slowly, the world spinning” (“Bem devagar ir sentindo/A terra toda a rodar”). It was a promise of peace and possibility, both.

    I settled back in LA a little while later, and the song took on a new meaning — as a description of a Los Angeles that I hadn’t seen before. I had been raised in the San Fernando Valley and had rarely ventured to the beach; it’s fair to say that, during grad school, I visited the gravelly beaches of East Haven, Connecticut, more often than I ever took to the beaches of LA. Looking back, I think that the mythology of LA’s beaches had sapped my ability to enjoy them. I’d seen David Lee Roth’s “California Girls” video one too many times on MTV, and so could only think of the beach as a place for looking at bodies — or, much more uncomfortably for me, for being looked at.

    You won’t find any long-legged beauties or chiseled hunks in “Tarde em Itapoã”. The emphasis falls instead on the joy of spending time with friends — of debating the world sweetly (“argumentar com doçura”) with that cachaça in hand. The effortlessness of the music here suggests the effortlessness of true companionship.

    When I returned to LA, I discovered that its actual beaches were closer in spirit to Vinicius’s Itapoã than to David Lee Roth’s erotic fairyland — this despite the fact that the LAPD would be likely to confiscate that homemade cachaça and would be certain to roust anyone who dared, nowadays, to sleep under the moon. Strolling around Santa Monica’s beach, I could hear “Tarde em Itapoã” run through my head and could see its promise realized in the motley crew assembled on the sand: families with their own tents and war-chest-like coolers; dudes scanning the surf; a circle of women talking Sex and the City; an elderly couple with tans approaching the shade of terracotta. All sorts of body types and all levels of social strata were on hand. It was LA at its most Brazilian — and perhaps its most LA.

    Bonus Material:

    • A video of “Tarde em Itapoã” (where Vinicius sings while sitting at a table where a bottle of whiskey is prominently displayed)

     A fabulous documentary – with English subttles — on Vinicus de Moraes (featuring performances and interviews with Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Adriana Calcanhotto, and a few of his nine [!] wives) — see it streaming at

    • Toquinho and Gilberto Gil performing “Tarde em Itapoã” (great harmonies and guitar interplay)

    The song “Itapua” from Caetano’s Circulado (a postmodern take on the beach, with superinventive poetry)

    • The song “Saudade em Itapoã” from Caymmi’s Cançoes Praieiras (thanks to Loronix).


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