Cálice – Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil

When talking about music which “has been a tool for rebellion, revolution and political change” and “has been influential in political movements and protest“, Cálice, by Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, should...

When talking about music which “has been a tool for rebellion, revolution and political change” and “has been influential in political movements and protest“, Cálice, by Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, should be in the top 10 of any chart.

Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda and Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira are two of the most important musicians in Brazilian music history, both well known also for their political commitment and activism during and after the US-backed Brazilian military regime (1964 – 1985), one of the worst dictatorships in South America, famous for its censorship of all media and torturing, killing and banishing of dissidents and activists. Chico and Gil too were seen as a threat by the military government which arrested them once, among others, and forced them to leave the country. Although they both decided to come back.

Cálice is a sad song, co-written for a May 1973 Phonogram show in Rio de Janeiro, organized by the label to show off its most representative artists. Gil, on a Holy Friday, went to Buarque with an idea: writing a song to protest censorship against freedom of speech by the dictatorship, disguised as the narrative of Jesus’ Gethsemani prayer to the Father to pass from Him the chalice of bloody death probation. This “masked” parallelism has a very strong meaning itself: both Jesus and the Brazilians suffered from betrayal and pain before coming back to life/freedom.

The first line is a quotation from the Holy Bible (Mark 14:36) which embodies the whole trick: “Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice”/”Father, take this chalice from me”. Cálice means chalice, but in Portuguese it’s pronounced exactly the same as “cale-se” which means “shut your mouth” and clearly refers to the censorship.

The whole text of the song is full of double meanings; so this time is better to present the lyrics first:

Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice
Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice
Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice
De vinho tinto de sangue

Como beber dessa bebida amarga
Tragar a dor, engolir a labuta
Mesmo calada a boca, resta o peito
Silêncio na cidade não se escuta
De que me vale ser filho da santa
Melhor seria ser filho da outra
Outra realidade menos morta
Tanta mentira, tanta força bruta

Como é difícil acordar calado
Se na calada da noite eu me dano
Quero lançar um grito desumano
Que é uma maneira de ser escutado
Esse silêncio todo me atordoa
Atordoado eu permaneço atento
Na arquibancada pra qualquer momento
Ver emergir o monstro da lagoa

De muito gorda a porca já não anda
De muito usada a faca já não corta
Como é difícil, pai, abrir a porta
Essa palavra presa na garganta
Esse pileque homérico no mundo
De que adianta ter boa vontade
Mesmo calado o peito, resta a cuca
Dos bêbados do centro da cidade

Talvez o mundo não seja pequeno
Nem seja a vida um fato consumado
Quero inventar o meu próprio pecado
Quero morrer do meu próprio veneno
Quero perder de vez tua cabeça
Minha cabeça perder teu juízo
Quero cheirar fumaça de óleo diesel
Me embriagar até que alguém me esqueça

Father, pass away from me this chalice
Father, pass away from me this chalice
Father, pass away from me this chalice
of wine tinted with blood!

How to survey this bitter drink
Inhale the pain, swallow the drudgery.
Even if the mouth is shut, the heart still remains
Silence in the city is not heard.
For what is it worth for me to be the son of the holy mother
Best were I born to another one
Another reality less lethal
Without so many lies and repression.

How hard it is to wake up and notice you cannot open your mouth
If I pang in the quiet of night
I desire to release a wild scream
Which would be a way to be heard
All of this silence makes me dizzy
Dazed, I remain attentive
In the expectation of, at any moment,
To see the monster of the lake emerge

From so much fat, the hog no longer walketh
From so much use, the knife hath gone dull
How hard it is, father to open the door
With this word stuck in the throat
This Homeric world drunkenness
What’s the advantage of having good will?
Even if the heart is silenced, consciousness remains
Of all the drunkards in the center of the city

Perhaps the world isn’t that small
Nor is life a consummated fact
I desire to invent my own sin
I wanna die from my own poison!
And disconnect my mind from yours once and for all!
May my head lose your way of thinking
I wanna sniff diesel fume
And get intoxicated until I’m forgotten!

Now, let’s start with the true meaning of these sad and deep lyrics:

  • “How to survey this bitter drink/Inhale the pain, swallow the drudgery”. Refers to the agony and the disenchantment that censorship creates. People must accept what they see, no matter what, as if it’s something “normal”.
  • Even if the mouth is shut, the heart still remains”. “Even if the heart is silenced, consciousness remains/Of all the drunkards in the center of the city”. You cannot shut down minds; even if one cannot talk about his thoughts or act as he wants, censorship cannot avoid ideas. The drunkards are those who still believed in freedom.
  • “For what is it worth for me to be the son of the holy mother/Best were I born to another one”. This line should have been different: “filho da outra” originally was “filho da puta” (son of a bitch) which would not have been accepted by the censorship. In any case, it refers to those who accepted the regime, its favors and its protection.
  • “Dazed, I remain attentive/In the expectation of, at any moment,/To see the monster of the lake emerge”. Even if sedated people must remain attentive because the monster, a word often used by the government when talking about a possible revolution or revolt, can emerge from the lake at any moment.
  • “From so much fat, the hog no longer walketh/From so much use, the knife hath gone dull”.  The regime (the hog) is so corrupted and so inefficient that cannot walk anymore, and its knife, the military force, has been used so much that it doesn’t hurt anymore.
  • “With this word stuck in the throat”. This word is “freedom”.
  • “Quero perder de vez tua cabeça/Minha cabeça perder teu juízo”. Literally can be translated as “I want to lose your head/My head lose your way of thinkingAlso in this case the goal is to avoid censorship, by making use of this nonsense which instead talks loud and clear: I want to throw away your impositions, your way of thinking and your moral to start to use my own head freely again.
  • “I wanna sniff diesel fume/And get intoxicated until I’m forgotten!” Refers to the tragic death of Stuart Angel, a leftist activist arrested and tortured to death by the military police, which forced him to breathe from a muffler. After his death he was declared “missing”.

The true meaning of the song was hidden, but not as much as Chico and Gil expected: before the show, they were blackmailed and forced to do not sing it (just playing the music) or rephrasing the lyrics. In an impressive footage of the show, you can see and listen to Chico trying to sing the refrain (Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice) before its microphone was shut down (and also those near to it, which he tried to approach) whilst Gil was just mumbling the melody. At the end of the performance, microphones were on again and captured Chico’s outburst:

Estão me aporrinhando muito.

Esse negócio de desligar o som não estava no programa.

Claro, estava no programa que eu não posso cantar a música [“Cálice’] nem “Anna de Amsterdam”.

Não vou cantar nenhuma das duas.

Mas desligar o som não precisava não”

This is really annoying.

Switching off the microphone was not in the program.

Sure, it was in the program that I cannot sing neither this song nor “Anna de Amsterdam”.

I won’t sing any of them.

But switching off the microphones was totally unnecessary”

After the show the song was banned. It was restored just 5 years later when Chico could record it, this time with Milton Nascimento, and feature it in its self-titled album.

Cálice – Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil
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Marco Principia

Born in Rome, his beloved city. Graduated with honors in Political Science and International Relations at Università degli Studi "Roma Tre". Expert of current affairs and United Nations. Recently attended a course in Humanitarian Emergency at INTERSOS. Currently employed at CIES - ONLUS in the Coordination and Organization Office for Interpreting and Translation Service for Territorial Commissions for the Recognition of International Protection. Huge fan of A.S. Roma.
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