where the writers are
Translations of songs by José (Zeca) Afonso

In 2009, I translated the songs on Cristina Branco's CD "Abril".   All of them are by Portuguese singer-songwriter Jose Afonso, who was also known as Zeca Afonso.   An important and highly influential performer, he is closely associated with the Portuguese revolution of 1974.  Here are the songs in English (Cristina sings them in Portuguese, of course).

Lyrics by José Afonso
Translations by Richard Zimler

 
The Train Coming Down the Line

On the train coming down the line
Everyone was laughing, having a ball
Some because they were watching the others
And others for no reason at all
On the train coming down the line
From Queluz to Cruz Quebrada...

On the train coming down the line
Faces were filling each window
Some weren’t saying a word
And others chattered in an endless flow
On the train coming down the line
From Quebrada to Palmela...

On the train coming down the line
The party couldn’t have been any better!
Some were sleeping and others dozing off,
And some neither one nor the other
On the train coming down the line
From Palmela to Portimão…

Spring Chorus

 

Cover yourself, bastard
In your shroud
Today, the king walks nude

Tyrants long feared
Of even a thousand years
End up dying just like you

Dig the trenches
Women who fight
Slip yourselves inside

You’ve always seen
The opposition
On the other side.

Rise oh sun of summer born
We are the singers
Of your song of dawn
You can already hear the humming
You can already hear what’s coming
You can already hear the drumming

Let your fear depart
The sun will soon start
To burn it all away

Comrade, as for you
Stand on guard anew
They’ll try to take your life today.

Come women who work the earth
Those who know what toil is worth
Come from the fields in flower

Walk together
Hand in hand
Let love be the seed you sew

Rise oh sun of summer born
We are the singers
Of your song of dawn
You can already hear the humming
You can already hear what’s coming
You can already hear the drumming

There came the high tide
Of an idea inside
To summon us forward

Just a thought
Of the moment sought
To prompt us onward

Join one more arm
And yet another
In a fraternal stand

The hunger inside
Has always ruined our lives
Let me now take your hand

Rise oh sun of summer born
We are the singers
Of your song of dawn
You can already hear the humming
You can already hear what’s coming
You can already hear the drumming

 

 

It Was a Loaded Word

It was a loaded word
A sum of separate things
Waves were appearing
In fingers infertile
The flesh your hair
Residues of home,
On Laura’s steps
The ink was spilling
Onto the empty furniture
Gathering up splinters
Ringing the telephone
Killing cockroaches
Anger was growing
For vengeance it clamored,
On Laura’s steps
In the dancing room
On the street children were playing
And Laura
In the waiting room and on a chair
Still bringing order to the very air

 

 

 

May, Ripe May

Who painted you, May, sweet May?
He who broke your spell, never loved you anyway.
The sun in the south was already shining.
And a felucca from Istanbul came sailing.

After siesta summoning the flowers.
The Day of May Beloveds was ours.
It was a time for raising voices in song.
And a felucca was trolling far along.

If only it was May and my friend was with me.
In the harvest month we’ll always sing free.
The wrath of the ocean doesn’t cause us fright.
So that your voice isn’t silenced we will fight.

On the long road the Shepherd-King
Sells the fluid of life that brings us soothing.
Comes and see, May is born.
Let your voice not be silenced or by the rabble torn.

 

 

Golden Boy

My golden boy
Is of gold so bright
Don’t trouble yourself with his being slight
My golden boy
Of gold soft and free
I shall one day carry him to sea.

Let birds come down from the sky
And alight in joy
On the shoulders of my boy
Of my boy, of my boy
Come with me, come one and all
So I’m not alone all day
I’ll whisk the boy upon my sleigh.

So many delicate dreams
Come to give you peace
Greedy boy don’t be scared
Wherever you go in your dreams
I want to be there from beginning to end
Golden boy I am your friend.

Let high mountains surround us
And the winds off the water
Since my boy
For love was born
Come with me, come one and all
So I’m not alone all day
I’ll whisk the boy upon my sleigh.

My golden boy
Is of gold – gold that’s bright…

Let high mountains surround us
And the winds off the water…

 

 

 

 

 

The Indians* of Meia-Praia

Meia-Praia village
Near Lagos and the sea of blue
I’ll sing the best homage
That I can write for you

From Monte Gordo they’ve come here
Some walking in an uphill climb
One arrived by a bicycle
One marching backwards double-time

When your eyes stumble across
A soaring gull that calls
You won’t see fish but coins of gold
For sale inside the market stall

He who comes here to find his worth
Don’t bring a table or a lamp
With just six feet of cemetery earth
One can build a camp

All year long you load your barrow
And in the market they leave you mute
They suck out all your marrow
And take your scalp to boot

If only we had people
With Agostinho’s bravery
To spread the word of what we want
To strangle the bourgeoisie

Farewell to Monte-Gordo is his cry
No longer bound to a past afflicted
But neither bound to the present time
If he’s the only one who’s tricked

Eight thousand hours ticked away
Without a pause they worked here
Until finally there came the day
The first official document appeared

There were women and children
Each holding a brick
It was an orchestra they formed
And anyone who disagrees is thick.

If this sniping doesn’t cease
I might not make it out of here alive
Since nothing can efface
The nobility of the Indians of Meia-Praia

You were always a shark
Who ripped and tore apart
And when you got your prey
You turned him inside out

With the predictable results we’ve seen
Of the elections just completed
You know now what it means
To find so many plans deleted

But that’s not an intention or a whim
And the struggle won’t miss a beat
Since your story is about him
And the people who came out to the street

The big men of high finance
Fight to make things as they were
Claiming that we only have a chance
With foremen giving us the spur

There were women and children
Each holding a brick
It was an orchestra they formed
And anyone who disagrees is thick

Tons of paperwork went shuttling
Between all the ministries
Yet they’ll one day scream and scuttle
From the masses in the streets

* Portuguese slang for poor people living in homemade huts

 

A Demonic Round

Together they were gathered
Witches numbering four hundred
Waiting, waiting
Waiting for the full moon

Together they were gathered
And the old goat appeared
Dancing before the church
Someone must have died

Arlindo gravedigger
With your hunchback
Take me down first
To the grave so black

Arlindo Arlindo
Dancer of fairies and gnomes
Limp along
And dig me a home

Arlindo gravedigger
Dig me a place of rest
No mausoleum or anything grand
A simple ditch is what is best

Arlindo Arlindo
Dancer of fairies and gnomes
Limp along
And dig me a home

 

Senhor Archangel

Mr. archangel
We’re going to dine
The angels are falling
Into a pan of wine

Tibias hibernate
Frogs sigh
Orchids eat
In towers high

Pass on by
Beech-tree lass
Try the pie
Made with sassafras

Pick your teeth
Feel free
Seers sleep
Across the sea

What a lovely bow
And how good to rest
Since Cousin Bia isn’t here
In her fancy dress

There goes the professor
Eating a cabbage
A comb breaks
An eye is damaged

The little pack
Carries more love
Around the neck
Of the governor

Put on your tie
Good little lad
Because that song
Sounds pretty bad

Mr. archangel
We’re going to dine
The angels are falling
Into a pan with wine

And the four daughters
Of the Hindu prince
Wear their necklaces
To eat their mints

 

Let Five More Come Along

Let five more come along
All together
I’ll pay a round
Of red or white
If the old man drops dead
I’ll stay in town

If he’s suspicious looking
Blow your whistle on him
And make him flee
With that sword at his belt
He already thinks he’s king
Of country and colony

Don’t make me
Come down to the street
And shout
It’s already time
To get your things together
And head on out

People will help
We’ll grow in numbers
I’d bet on it
But there are those who’ll want
To knock down
What I’ve built

The bread is hard to swallow
Yet harder still are the rules
That keep things as they are
But we have no room
For sons of bitches
In this war

Don’t make me
Come down to the street
And shout
It’s already time
To get your things together
And head on out

They told me clearly
They warned me early
How the law would be
In my homeland
It’s only the king
Who gets to climb to the top
Of the coconut tree

 

 

Death Came Out to the Street

Death came out to the street on a day like this
In that place of no name with any old purpose
A burning drop on the sidewalk falls
And a river of blood from a chest spills

The wind that blows the fields of sugar cane so tall
And the sickle of a reaper-woman from Portugal
And the sound of an anvil like thunder from heaven
Keeps spreading the word that the painter is dead

Your blood, painter, demands an equal death
The rule is an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth
To the murderous law and to the death that effaces
I say your body belongs to the earth that embraces

We declare to you now tooth-for-tooth is not past
And you’ll laugh heartier than he who laughs last
In the curve of the road are gouges in the ground
But in each will bloom the roses of the nation we’ll found

 

An Avenue in Angola

With a cufflink of white
And an arm that shows black
I’ll ask the world for what’s right
Up ahead beside that shack

There goes one and there goes two
Three doves preparing to rest
One for me and one for you
And the last for he who catches best

In the room are five girls so cute
And the bud of a marigold
They’re made of the ripest fruit
That a prostitute holds

There goes one and there goes two
Three doves preparing to rest
One for me and one for you
And the last for he who catches best

The sun is what makes the cure
With a ladies pin
In the room are five small girls
Made of cotton chintz.

There goes one and there goes two
Three doves preparing to rest
One for me and one for you
And the last for he who catches best

When the night is approaching
From the other side of the street
Ana will come, and Serafina,
And Mariana, who’s the sweetest

There goes one and there goes two
Three doves preparing to rest
One for me and one for you
And the last for he who catches best

There’s always a cufflink that’s white
On an arm that’s black
I’ll ask the world for what’s right
Up ahead beside that shack

There goes one and there goes two
Three doves preparing to rest
One for me and one for you
And the last for he who catches best

Oh night of Columbidae birds
Take them in your pack today
In the room are five small girls
Made in the very same way

There goes one and there goes two
Three doves preparing to rest
One for me and one for you
And the last for he who catches best

 

 

A Slumber Song

Sleep my boy, the morning star
Has yet to rise anew
If she doesn’t come at dawn today
The next I see will be for you

The next that I see in this dark night
By your charming smile I’ll keep
You’ll hear singing from on high
Songs and ballads to make you fall asleep

Songs and ballads of melodies sweet
So prepare your voice my little singer
When the lamps go off in the street
The morning star’s shine will no longer linger

The tiny morning star will lose its light
If another one does not replace her
So very young is this night
So sleep and let her also slumber

 

Songs of May (I Went to See My Beloved)

I went to see my beloved
In a garden and under a tree
I gave her a rose of blood red
For her to remember me

I went to see the girl dearest to me
In the garden by the church one night
I gave her my handkerchief to keep
Made of linen white

Mother, when I die
Cry for a man who had bitter ways
And say to the world
God gave him to me and God took him away.

I went to see a maiden
Sleeping on a boat
I gave her a blanket silken
To use as her cloak

I went to see an old maid of woes
Weaving in a tiny room
I gave her a crimson rose
To leave her enchanted with me

Mother, when I die
Cry for a man who had bitter ways
And say to the world
God gave him to me and God took him away.

I went to see my beloved
There in the fields of wheat
I gave her a rose of blood red
To always be bound to me

Green pastures and green fields
Where my passion stays
The swallows never cease
Some return and others fly away

Mother, when I die
Cry for a man who had bitter ways
And say to the world
God gave him to me and God took him away.

A Boy’s Song

Along the beaches we race
As children of the dawn
Searching those with the grace
To bring us branches of olive flowers
We navigate from wave to wave
Knowing nothing of hurt or pain
Along the beaches we go running
Searching for a clear morning

From there on the top of a mountain peak
We light a fire anew
To keep alive the flame we seek
That gives life the whole night through
A courier dove that’s summoned here
A courier of the morning dear
When night falls let it fall complete
From there on top of the mountain peak

Where the wind has cut through the ropes
We’ll head out into the night that’s born
Where there is always a kindly star
Night and day are breaking through the dawn
Turn your prow, my dearest galley
Because victory shouldn’t have to tarry
Cool, enchanted, windy Moorish lass
Turn the rudder of my boat at last

 

 

Letter to Miguel Djéjé

Tell me, Miguel, my friend
What have you been up to?
In all of Xipamanine
Nobody’s caught a glimpse of you
I’ll give you my guitar
For you to play a tune

I remember that you showed
Just how great you could be
Even servants started dancing to and fro
While listening to your melody
Miguel, only you had learned
To play as you once played

A whole pile of neighbors came
To learn how it’s done
The way you play in your homeland
Where they know how best to strum
Jaime and Etekinse
Friends like those won’t ever appear again

When at night was heard
The sound of Miguel’s song
There was also a marimba
That used to play along
The night
On Geia Point
And friends I’ll remember long

The boat kept on going
It was Nanga I saw
My longing kept on growing
From far along
The people
In my homeland
Don’t sing that way
The way I heard that day

 

They Called Me Gypsy

One day they called me
Gypsy and yokel
Boy, you’re just no good at all
I dug a ditch that was round
Deep in the ground
And made it my grave
I entered a cave
Killed a triton lizard in the sand
But I had the devil in my hand

There once was a train
Ready to leave without delay
I saw the devil tempting that day
And asked him for a coin
I hung around
Sleeping on a bed of down
They put me in chains
Let loose a dog that was mad
But I had the devil in my hand

I returned on a litter
Armored and carried by men,
Friend, come here again
Up some steps I dashed
Earned some bucks real fast
Mr Marquis what’s-his-name
Though I lost at roulette
At backgammon I won a grand
But I had the devil in my hand

While taking a walk
I tripped and fell reeling
And the devil came squealing
Piranhas swam round
The dark lagoon near town
Fish that big I’d never seen
I wiped my goggles clean
And grabbed my harpoon from its stand
But I had the devil in my hand