This is the second part of an in-depth history of Portugal’s touchstone protest song, “Grândola, Vila Morena”. (Click here for Part I)
In the late 1960s, Zeca Afonso began to become more curious about different musical aesthetics. While seeking out the traditional sounds and poetic forms of Portugal, he also approached the music of Africa and the Brazilian wave of protest songs. He believed that Portuguese musicians should be inspired by the examples of Brazilian dissenters like Chico Buarque and Geraldo Vandré.
Indeed Portuguese musicians were becoming more engaged on a global level in the late ’60s and early ’70s. First there was Luís Cília, composing during his exile in France. Talking about the colonial war and the dictatorship, Cília channeled the melancholy strains of his home country’s music in songs such as “O guerrilheiro” (1974), set to a marching tempo. Others appeared on the scene, including José Mário Branco (who would help produce one of Zeca’s albums), Sérgio Godinho, Fausto (Carlos Fausto Bordalo Dias), and even the priest Francisco Fanhais. It was a heterogeneous group of artists, but each had a connection to Portuguese folk music as well as being lyrically nourished by the wave of neo-realist poets that emerged in the 1950s.
In 1971, Zeca recorded the album Cantigas do Maio, one of the most important records of his career, and a great innovation in the musical landscape. On it we don’t hear just a guitar and a singer – there are also elements of percussion, piano, accordion, and flute. It was also on this album that “Grândola, Vila Morena” first appeared, although Zeca had composed the song in 1964.
A year before writing this masterpiece of protest music, Zeca had just finished his thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre. He then traveled to Grândola in the Alentejo region — an area where people suffered greatly during Estado Novo. Working from sunrise to sunset in the fields for a few bucks a month, their situation was reminiscent of the exploitation described in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Here Zeca played at the Sociedade Musical Fraternidade Operária Grandolense. Fraternidade (fraternity) is one of the words that found its way into a poem he wrote during those days in Grândola, a plea for the end of the dictatorship. Continue reading