“Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade” Series | Fifth of Nine Articles

For those of you just joining the series… I’m tracing the contours of the Portuguese word-universe saudade, remembering that particular word and how I came across it, and also  remembering (in bouts of nostalgia) my own childhood surrounded, though unknowingly, by the sound of Brazilian music. The word and experience of ‘saudade’ was in that music that crossed all types of boundaries, the luck of international recording deals, to arrive on my father’s record player in a very small town.


And there I am, probably around age six, on that dead end, dirt road in the middle of nowhere where I was partially raised by dogs, back to the sounds of my father’s record collection. You see, in a place like that, you travel through sound as a means of survival and to escape absolute boredom. That is what happens when dogs teach you to recognize signs of change by measuring pitch, when your life might be determined by the sound of an electronic device emanating vibrations even though on mute, when the sound of a distant car means there might be a passerby or something new, and when you had to find magic in the things that you experienced—sound, light, clouds, wind, storms, animals—because there were no neighbors and no companions other than the imagination.


Always taught to recognize sound as language by my canine brothers, the explosions of rhythm coming from my father’s record player, usually far too early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, was also the sound of possibility opening up. Chega de Saudade, Garota de Ipanema, Água de Beber, Águas de Março blasted through those mornings into the afternoon.

And there you have it: when you are six, a complete outcast whose only saving grace was being moderately good at soccer and baseball, beyond capable of spending days in complete solitude, in that little town at a bend in the river of backwoods Massachusetts, you do not really process difference and you do not perceive “other.” You are it. The music that my father would play, no matter what it was, became part of me. It had to. There was no separation.

I danced crazily to Gilberto Gil, breaking things occasionally because the happiness in his voice jumped into me, stirring something in me. I never thought that I might not know what he was saying because I knew exactly what he was feeling, and I knew too well the imprint of what he was feeling would leave on me. “Jacob, cut it out, you’re going to break down the house with all of that dancing.” My father was right. Sometimes the rain would pound into the living room through cracks in the roof along with the sound of Brazil that, to me, was just as close as the winding tributary of the Connecticut River I had been exploring since I could walk.

That amazing music I heard every weekend and sometimes at night, was, in my mind, part of the reality of that western Massachusetts town, the gift of international record deals, the success of the original film and soundtrack of Orfeu Negro and boom of Bossa Nova that I knew nothing about at the time (I was too busy dancing wildly, taking on the identity of two baseball teams, a series of sports announcers, and thousands of cheering fans watching my imagined baseball game which I performed, alone, against a wall).

Those songs of my childhood were anything but “foreign” to me—they were part of my immediate reality, they were the architectures of feeling. When I listen to them now, harmonically, rhythmically, melodically carried back to those days, it’s amazing how a kid from that little town would identify so profoundly with the the language and expression of traditions so far from that town at the foothills of the Berkshires. Even more amazing to think that I really believed that undulating sound floating through the speakers on top of guitars, on top of tambourines, was naturally coming from that bend in the river where I grew up.


Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel, this is the Fifth of Nine Articles on “Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade” (though it is possible that there will be more than nine after the music opened a new understanding of saudade and the ocean). Stay tuned for the next one! There are many more articles on language, culture, and translation themes on the SiroccoBlue Facebook Page. Please check it out and “Like” it! In addition to writing projects, you can check out some of the projects that I work on as a freelancer, all of them tied in one way or another to the movement across boundaries and frontiers that is translation and that translation opens.



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