The carnival quality of Chico Buarque’s suave songs about love and life may have got many Brazilians sambaing in the street, but the generals weren’t joining in with their military two-step. Ever alert to the subtexts of Buarque’s lyrics – the wonderful party of ‘Tanto mar’ (Sea of plenty) was, in fact, the Portuguese Revolution, while the parade of ‘A Banda’ (The Band) was an attack on Brazil’s ultraconservatives – the military dictatorship set about banning Buarque with a special zeal. Often it was a game of cat-and-mouse as Buarque tried to slip songs under the censorship radar. Often he failed – and when you hear the force of ‘Vai Passar’ (I Will Pass) or ‘Apesar de Você’ (In Spite of You) you understand why.
A singer who came into the limelight in the early 1960s, Buarque was briefly imprisoned and then exiled. For a period there was a famous falling-out with the tropicalismo movement, spearheaded by Caetano Veloso, which favoured a more forward-looking samba. Released to mark Buarque’s 60th birthday this year, Favourites is an important CD honouring a musician whose social importance in Brazil’s recent history is undoubted. There’s much that’s superb, but this collection both captivates and disappoints. While Wrasse Records’ compilers have done an excellent job in collating the album, 23 tracks don’t seem enough to do justice to a long career which is still by no means over. Even more problematic is the lack of translations. Like Serge Gainsbourg or Jacques Brel, Buarque is a writer known for his verbal dexterity and playfulness. Some translated examples would have made a good release so much better.