The illiterate poet who wowed the carioca burgoise

JULY/ 2014

“Modernizing the past is a musical evolution”, immortalized the singer and composer Chico Sciense Olinda (1966 - 1997) in the song Samba Makossa, present in the essential Da Lama ao Caos (From Mud to Chaos) (1994).

An icon of the ‘manguebeat’ (‘mangue’ = mangroove, a musical movement of the early 90s in Recife, which mixes regional rhythms such as maracatu, rock, hip hop, funk with electronic music), the man from Pernambuco took to heart the meaning behind the music, and he not only modernized the transposed past, he dove deep into it, to understand and respect this rich Brazilian musical heritage, before passing it to new generations. His successful and eclectic mixtures of sounds present in his albums are proof.

It was modernizing the past when, in the early 2000s, during a presentation of the Rio Group Forroçacana, led by multi-instrumentalist Duani Martins, I was exposed to the work of João Batista do Vale (1934-1996).

The pulsating and explosive song ‘Morena do Grotão’(composed in partnership with Zé Cândido), coated with a percussive sound and language, projected from the versatile musician straight to my ears like a cannonball.

Who was the sensitive composer who was able to weave a translation of such sophisticated social-political jargon of Luiz Gonzaga and the quick-paced samba of Jackson de Pandeiro’s northeastern music, with the refined simplicity of the rhythmic and poetic transcendence of the northeastern musical style?

I discovered a shy guy, from the northern backcountry, dark as night. The grandson of slaves, semi-illiterate and simple habits: he walked barefoot and he was often seen walking about shirtless.

While most composers of the so-called northeastern music explored the drama of the drought, Joao do Vale sang of social inequalities, he was the first to address, without fancy rhetoric, the agrarian reform: “Just give me land and you’ll see/ I’ll plant rice, peas and coffee… I’m a good farmer / but sow to share / I won’t do this anymore”(Sina de Cabloco, with Jocastro Bezerra de Aquino).

Born in the country town of Pedreiras (Quarries), Maranhão, in 1934, João do Vale (Johnny from the Valley) in the name, but from peoples in his rich poetry, was the fifth child in a family of eight children. He attended school until the third grade when he had to interrupt his studies - not to work, but to make room for the son of a newly hired quarry employee. “When I was elementary school, a quarry official was hired and he brought along his elementary-school aged son. There were around 300 students but they had to choose me to make room for the man’s son. Today they name streets after me in my honour, trying to erase what they did…But even God willing, I won’t forget” remarked the artist during an interview.

School, or its lack thereof, wasn’t enough to prevent João, graduated from the school of hard-knocks, from overcoming the difficulties he faced as a poor backwoodsman (he toyed with words in an unique way, making it easier to understand his ideas), a reality of which he knew so well: “I used to sell candies, pastries, mangunzá / While I went to sell candy, my friends went to school” (Minha História – My Story).

The Author of great hits in popular brazilian music, such as: Carcará, Pisa na Fulô, Coroné Antônio Bento, Estrela Miúda, Na Asa do Vento, No Pé do Lajeiro, the artist, despite unknown to the masses, is revered by icons of the national artistic elite. Artists such as Chico Buarque, Fagner, Bibi Ferreira, Nara Leão e Ferreira Gullar.

“João do Vale is an abundant tree from which people go and grab its fruit”, said Chico Buarque, whom, in 1981, together with Fagner and Fernando Faro, produced the album João do Vale Convida (Johnny from the Valley invites) (featuring Nara Leão, Tom Jobim, Gonzaguinha e Zé Ramalho). In 1982, the same Chico Buarque recorded an album with Joao and, in 1994, would revere his friend; bringing together artists to record the album João do Vale.

João do Vale started working as boy (he’d help out at home selling candy and pastries his mom made). At 13, the family moved to the state capital of Sao Luiz, where he partook in a folklore event composing verses. At 14, he’d travelled cross-country to the south- he dreamed of going to Rio de Janeiro. His parents wouldn’t let him go, so he ran away on the train to Teresine, where he found a job as truck loader. In his travels between Fortaleza and Teresina, he reached Salvador, the first big city he’d ever seen, and soon after, he went to Minas Gerais. He reached Rio de Janeiro by 17 and went to work as a bricklayer.

With his songs and verses saved in his head (he coulnd’t read nor write), he started going to Rio’s radio stations trying to get noticed by some artist. In 1950 he got Zé Gonzaga to record Cesário Pinto, a hit in the northeast. In 1953 he het the ‘radio queen’ Marlene, who recorded his Estrela Miúda which was a hit in Rio. João once reminisced about the time in which he told his friends he wrote the song that was playing on the radio and they laughed him off, saying he’d been out in the sun too long.

There were 2 big moments in his career. At the beginning of the 60’s, he met Zé Kéti who took him to play at the ZiCartola, a bohemian bar owned by a Mr. Cartola and Mrs. Zica where many artists when to showcase their talent. From there he went on to play in the TV show Opiniao, with Zé Kéti and Nara Leão.

Produced by Vianiha (Oduvaldo Viana Filho), Paulo Pontes and Armando Costa and directed by Augusto Boal, the TV show Opinião aired for the first time in December 1964, it was seen by 25 thousand people in Rio alone, and subsequently shown in other states, it would become a vehicle for artistic resistence against the dictatorial rule governing the country at the time. This TV show, which also launched the career of Maria Bethania (who substituted Nara), with her touching interpretation of Carcará, it was re-released again in 1975, with Zé Kéti and Maria Medalha, directed by Bibi Ferreira.

Despite the TV show Opinião being the height of his composing career, the best time in the artist’s life came at the end of the 70’s, when he was elected MC of Forró Forrado, a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. Chico Buarque, Luiz Gonzaga, Elza Soares, Jackson do Pandeiro, Miúcha, Moreira da Silva, Clementina de Jesus, Clara Nunes, Jamelao, Djavan and even the argentine singer Mercedes Sosa have played at the nightclub after being invited by João.

Living on a pension and copyrights, on the 22nd of November, 1996, in ill health, the musician had a second stroke (the first happened in 1987, when he stayed in hospital for 2 years to treat the paralysis of the right side of his body). On the 4th of December, he had the third and fatal stroke, sending him into a coma. On the 6th of December of 1996, at 13:30, with multiple organ failure, João Batista Vale, the people’s poet passed away.

Joao’s songs, about his poor childhood in Maranhão, about the migrant life in the Southeast, about the love of Forró music, and above all, about the pride of Northeastern culture, live on and still influence artists all over the country.


Maria Bethania and Chico Buarque will have to forgive us, but the best interpretation of the song Carcará is from the corporal percussion band Barbatuque. Recorded in 2005 in the O Seguinte É Esse album, the raw and live version is the purest form of representing the vitality of Brazilian musical culture. The lyrics, melody and the percussion have all been captured to represent the characteristics of the tupiniquim peoples.

Worthy mention goes out to carioca singer Teresa Cristina’s interpretation of Pé do Lajeiro, in the 2007 album Delicada, featuring Grupo Semente.

Book: Pisa na Fulô Mas Não Maltrata o Carcará?
Author: Marcio Paschoal?
Lumiar Editora?
Year: 2000

João do Vale Muita Gente Desconhece
Genre: Documentário
Director: Werinton Kermes
Year: 2005
Duration: 30 min


Acronym for Zica and Cartola, Zicartola is a restaurant in Rio, opened by the composer and sambista Angenor de Oliveira, the Cartola, and his wife, Euzébia Silva do Nascimento, a Dona Zica This was the meeting place for the sambista elite in Brazil, such as Elton Medeiros, Nelson Cavaquinho, Ismael Silva and Aracy de Almeida, as well as bossa nova’s greats such as Carlos Lyra and Nara Leao. It was also where Paulinho da Viola started his career.

The best time in the artist’s life came at the end of the 70’s, when he was elected MC of Forró Forrado, a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. Chico Buarque, Luiz Gonzaga, Elza Soares, Jackson do Pandeiro, Miúcha, Moreira da Silva, Clementina de Jesus, Clara Nunes, Jamelao, Djavan and even the argentine singer Mercedes Sosa have played at the nightclub after being invited by Joao.


João Batista do Vale
BMG Ariola/ 1995

João do Vale
CBS/ 1981

Show Opinião – Nara Leão, Zé Kéti e João do Vale
Philips/ 1965

O Poeta do Povo
Philips/ 1965
Tom Jobim and João do Vale
Fagner, Chico Buarque, Ze Ramalho and João do Vale
Nara Leão and João do Vale