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Ary Barroso’s Herbal Bath

Ary Barroso's Herbal Bath

Here’s the story of  how young Brazilian composer Ary
Barroso found fame and fortune: The woman ordered: “Take off
all your clothes!” Ary obeyed, and she pointed to the vat: “Get in.”
 The woman prayed and chanted, mixed various herbs into the bath
water, and finally declared, “You may get out. The evil is gone.”
by: Daniella

At the end of 1929, the 26-year-old Ary Barroso was a promising composer in
the musical theatre but had only two successful songs to his name: “Vou à Penha”
and “Vamos Deixar de Intimidade,” both sung on stage by Araci Cortes and
recorded by Mario Reis.

That year, Eduardo Souto, artistic director of the leading record company
Casa Edison, established a competition to select the best songs for the upcoming
Carnaval. Ary vacillated about entering the competition; if he didn’t win, his
budding reputation might suffer. On the other hand, he was poor and engaged to
Yvonne Arantes, nine years his junior. Yvonne’s father, Lindolf de Belfort
Arantes (known to all as “Major”), was not at all keen to see his daughter
married to a wastrel, and the first prize of five million réis was a real
temptation. The young composer thought a great deal about the competition but
decided not to enter.

Some time earlier, a stranger had approached Ary with some lyrics and asked:

­ Youngster, do you play piano?

­ Yes, sir, I do.

­ Could you write a melody for these verses?

Ary didn’t understand the verses but set them to music anyway. Only later did
it transpire that the song, entitled “Vai com Fé” (Go With Faith), was the
official anthem of a dissident faction of macumba. Ary, a devout catholic,
didn’t like this, but the deed was already done.

From then on, nothing went right in Ary’s life. He received numerous
threatening letters, lost contracts, became ill, and had trouble with his law
studies. In various terreiros of Rio and the rest of Brazil, spells were being
cast against the author of the dissident anthem. Even Ary’s own church turned
against him. One day an anonymous letter arrived from a fan, who advised Ary to
go to Niterói and take a herbal bath, the specialty of an old woman there. Ary
kept the letter but continued as before. He still played, but composing had
become difficult; his fingers no longer knew how to improvise. The melodies
refused to come.

The deadline for entering Carnaval songs in the Casa Edison competition was
30 December. On that morning, Ary resolved to act. He took the ferry across
Guanabara Bay to Niterói and asked around until he found the old woman. Her
place was redolent of countless herbs, and at the corner stood an enormous vat
of scalding water. The woman ordered: “Take off all your clothes!” Ary obeyed,
and she pointed to the vat: “Get in.” The woman prayed and chanted, mixed
various herbs into the bath water, and finally declared, “You may get out. The
evil is gone.” She refused to accept any payment. “It was something strong that
they’ve done against you, doctor. Look at the water,” she said. Ary couldn’t see
any difference in the water. He showered and dressed, and the old woman blessed
him: “Go, my son. All will be well now.”

When Ary got off the ferry at Praça XV, there was a large crowd at the tram
stop. A woman had provoked several others who were waiting in line, and the
angry hangers-on were ready to lynch her. From the multitude came a boy’s shout:

­ Dá nela! (let her have it!)

The whole afternoon was still ahead of Ary. Five o’clock was the
competition’s entry deadline. The composer directed himself to Casa Brunswick
for a recording session. Sitting at the piano while the musicians tuned their
instruments, he heard that street boy’s shout, and his fingers, like obedient
soldiers, automatically began to hammer out the melody of a marchinha:

Es-ta mu-lher

há mui-to tem-po

me pro-vo-ca.

Dá nela, dá nela…

Five minutes before five o’clock Ary came running into Casa Edison. His was
the last song to be submitted.

“Dá Nela” won first prize in the competition and became a huge hit in the
1930 Carnaval.

Ary Barroso was a made man, yet he didn’t go bragging to Yvonne’s family. The
fiancée’s sister Dinah recalled that her family became aware of the success only
when they saw the blocos carnavalescos singing the song:

As soon as one finished, another entered, and the chorus was always the same:“ Dá nela! Dá nela!” We were very surprised and delighted. Truthfully, we had never supposed that this could happen. The neighbors came and went in our house, talking of the song. Very excited, my mother said: “Ary my son, the whole city is singing your song. You made it!” Very emotional, she hugged Ary and invited him to go into the streets in order to confirm the success. And so we went to the Avenida Rio Branco to watch that marvel. It was a new situation for all of us: we had to learn how to live with Ary’s fame.

Note: The herbal bath story was told in two different versions in the books Ary Barrozo… Um Turbilhão! by Dalila Luciana and No Tempo de Ari Barroso by Sérgio Cabral. According to Cabral, the submission deadline was midnight on 30 December. At least some of the details in these stories should be taken with a large grain of salt.


The writer publishes the online magazine of Brazilian music and culture Daniella Thompson on Brazil and the website Musica Brasiliensis, where she can be contacted.

This article was originally published in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.

Copyright © 2003 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.

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