In the final days of the month, as the sky opens and empties an ongoing downpour on the riverside Liberty Liberty Fest (so nice, they named it twice), the bossa nova song stuck in my head offers itself as a theme: "The Waters of March" by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
And the riverbank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the promise of life
It’s the joy in your heart.
I’m probably most familiar with the David Byrne rendition with Marisa Monte on the 1996 album Red Hot + Rio. But I listen to enough bossa nova to know Brazilian versions as well. That is, I know the sound of them, but I don’t speak Portuguese, so I just imagine the English version as I listen to the Brazilian singers. After all, Jobim wrote both sets of lyrics.
For years the song has lifted my spirits and helped me endure the feeling of unending late winter. Yes, March is dismal, with trees still skeletal against a steel-colored sky and unending mud underfoot, but spring is on its way. The waters of March signal the promise of life and let joy return to my heart.
But, silly me, I’d never thought before of how different March is in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed. March, in Jobim’s Brazil, marks the onset of winter, not spring.
"The inspiration for ‘Águas de Março,’" Wikipedia informs us, "comes from Rio de Janeiro’s rainiest month. March is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds that cause flooding in many places around the city."
A stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, these seemingly random bits in the lyrics are examples of all that gets churned up and washed away in the floods. The Brazilian waters of March are full of refuse. It is not a washing away of the detritus so much as a threat of chaos before the oncoming cold.
Wikipedia explains: "All these details swirling around the central metaphor of ‘the waters of March’ can give the impression of the passing of daily life and its continual, inevitable progression towards death, just as the rains of March mark the end of a Brazilian summer."
Did I just get it backwards? Is my song of hope really a song of despair, misinterpreted because of cultural narrowness?
Apparently that’s not the whole story. Jobim added additional phrases to the English lyrics to make them fit better with the Northern Hemisphere’s conception of March: "the joy in your heart" and "the promise of spring."
As I’ve written in a different context, "the message sent is not always the same as the message received," but in this case, we have multiple messages at the source. The life-affirming lyrics are Jobim’s gift to his English-speaking audience, and I’m grateful for them. After an unusually long and cold winter, when I find myself standing in mud, huddled among my comrades, discussing liberty in the downpour, I need the waters of March to speak of hope for a future that is no longer some abstract distance on the calendar, but just around the next bend in the deep river.
[Cross-posted at bkmarcus.com.]