Your Bossa Nova Winner, and 4 Honored Finalists

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The results are in. I’ll get to them shortly. First, the standards of judging I’ve found myself applying as I’ve unexpectedly been immersed in large numbers of Águas de Março renditions.

  • A bias in favor of duets. Male-female, female-female, human-piano, man-on-dog, whatever. They offer a playfulness, a punctuation, a drama that even the best solo versions can’t match.
  • A bias against English-language versions. There are songs for which an English-language lyric adds to the wit, beauty, or power. Think: Cole Porter. This is not one of those songs. I think I’m not saying this just because I understand English and don’t understand Portuguese (or Slovenian). I can understand French and still think it works better than English for the mood of this song.
  • A preference for musicians who play the song, rather than playing with the song. Cassandra Wilson has an elegant personalized presentation, but it ends up as a Cassandra Wilson song more than Jobim’s.

Read on for the results.

No. 1: Our winner. Really, there was never any contest here. It’s the duet between Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim himself, mentioned in the first entry of this series.

Judge’s explanation? Well, just watch the video. But: the playfulness, intimacy, and perfect timing of their interaction; the centrality of the song’s hypnotic words and musical line; and the realization that the actual guy who wrote this song!!! is the one we see singing it. This is not even considering Regina’s cigarette late in the video.

A reader from Denmark argued yesterday that this version was less austerely beautiful than some others, comparable to Mad Men set in the bell-bottomed 1970s rather than the skinny-tie early 1960s. I understand the point. But this song came out in the 1970s! And the video is remarkable.

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Tie for No. 2, honored finalists, female vocalist division: Stacey Kent and Suzanne Vega singing in English, and Susannah McCorkle, singing in Portuguese and English. Judge’s explanation: I like the way these women sound.

In Kent’s case, I have liked her French-language solo version (which you can see here) but on reflection am won over by the duet quality of her English-language appearance with Vega.

As for McCorkle, I love her voice and tone, am moved by her sad story, and like how she applies her UC Berkeley linguistics training to her bi-lingual version of the song. You hear her singing over the closing credits for the movie Comedian.

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Also Tied for No. 2, honored finalists, auteur division. Two very different presentations. First is David Byrne’s and Marisa Monte’s bi-lingual Portuguese/English duet. This one surmounts one of my biases, in that it is very clearly playing with the song. From Byrne’s singing to the dramatic instrumentation, it’s more his style than Jobim’s. But to my taste it’s effective enough to deserve recognition. Also, Marisa Monte has a beautiful voice.

Which brings us to more or less the opposite extreme in auteur versions, the unadorned simple power of João Gilberto’s voice-and-guitar Portuguese version. For the first 20 years of my exposure to the song, this is the version I had heard most often. It may do more than any of the others to underscore the zen circularity of the song’s patterns. If there were a Shaker version of bossa nova it might sound like this.

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We can’t all be winners! But for readers who (somehow) have not yet had enough of this song, I pass along an astonishing note I received late last night from a reader in North Carolina:

Boulder, Colo., public-radio station KGNU featured three solid hours of Aguas de Marco on June 29, 2007, during the "99 and Barry" show. Hosts Barry Gilbert and his wife Kathleen (aka "Agent 99") collected at least 43 versions of the song and aired as many as they could between noon and 3 p.m. [JF note: Jeez! And I thought I was letting this run on a little more than necessary...]

The playlist seems to have disappeared, but wonderfully, for fans of the song like me, the Gilberts zipped the mp3s into four files that remain on the internet.

I agree with you that it's one of the world's greatest songs. Every year in March I load Aguas de Marco on my iPod and listen to different versions while walking on the greenway trail [in his part of North Carolina].

For my money, the studio version sung by Tom Jobim and Elis Regina is #1.[Judges agree!]

Three hours of Aguas, waiting for you!

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And from a reader who spent part of his youth in Brazil, these valedictory thoughts:

Three comments on your "final" installment (based on your past practice  I have a feeling that there still might be a sequel...). [Ahem]

1. As someone who came of age in Brazil in the late seventies and eighties I can safely say that the female voice in the Charlies Sheen video is not a native speaker of Portuguese (Brazilian or European).  One giveaway is the lack of openness of "e"  and "o" vowels, in words like mistério and sozinho.   So if it's lip-synched the producers didn't bother to procure a native language singer (which would be in perfect keeping with the overall cheesiness of the production).

2. You point to one French version, and of all the non-Portuguese versions, for me French captures the original the best, no doubt because the lexical and grammatical similarity of the two languages makes for a very idiomatic translation.  But you fail to mention one of the greats of French chanson doing his Les eaux de mars.  Moustaki had a "Brazilian" phase based on spending time in Brazil and released a CD with several Brazil-themed songs and covers, and this is one of them. [Video is here.]

3. If I had to categorize all the versions of the song, the top-level split, even before language or style, would be whether it's sung solo or as a duet. About 50% of the charm of the old Elis/Tom recording comes from the interlacing of female and male voices, the ping-pong of the verses.  Most of the other male/female duet versions regardless of language get that about right, and it makes them far superior to all others, IMO. [JF: The judges agree]

I believe that this really is fim do cominho on this theme. Thanks to all participants, and to Jobim and those he inspired.