Rui Veloso and Isabel Silvestre on two kinds of literacy

Isabel Silvestre "A gente não lê"

Isabel Silvestre "A gente não lê" (The people can't read)

Released in 1998 in a folk fusion style, this cover version brings extra force and meaning to a wonderful song - which was originally recorded 16 years earlier in a rock/blues guitar style.

What it's about: The title "A gente não lê" uses an ambiguous construction in Portuguese. It can mean "The people don't read", "We don't read" or even "I can't read". The song is about rural illiteracy, but also the loneliness of old people in the rapidly depopulating villages of Portugal. It is the older generation now who can't read, and the young people who are leaving.

Both the music composer Rui Velosi and the singer Isabel Silvestre were brought up in the sort of place the song deals with - in the mountains between Coimbra and Porto in North-Central Portugal. The writer of the words, poet and lyricist Carlos Tê, comes from Porto itself.

Here's the Portuguese text if you want to follow along. Both singers are clear, but Rui Velosi in the version further down the page drops fewer syllables (the famous Portuguese "vowel reduction") than Isabel.

Ai Senhor das Furnas
Que escuro vai dentro de nós,
Rezar o terço ao fim da tarde,
Só pr'a espantar a solidão,
E rogar a Deus que nos guarde,
Confiar-lhe o destino na mão.

Oh Lord of the Caves,
How dark it is inside us,
Praying with the rosary at the end of the day,
Just to chase away the loneliness,
And asking God to watch over us,
Entrusting our fate to his hands.

Que adianta saber as marés,
Os frutos e as sementeiras,
Tratar por tu os ofícios,
Entender o suão e os animais,
Falar o dialecto da terra,
Conhecer-lhe o corpo pelos sinais.

What good does it do us to know the tides of the sea,
The timing of the fruits and of sowing,
Of being able to treat the crafts as first-name friends,
Understanding the farm and wild animals,
Of speaking the language of the earth,
And knowing the body of the world through its signs.

E do resto entender mal,
Soletrar assinar de cruz,
Não ver os vultos furtivos,
Que nos tramam por trás da luz.

And yet misunderstanding all the rest,
Signing our own names by marking a cross,
But not seeing the furtive figures,
Who are plotting against us beyond the light.

Ai senhor das furnas,
Que escuro vai dentro de nós,
A gente morre logo ao nascer,
Com os olhos rasos de lezíria,
De boca em boca passando o saber,
Com os provérbios que ficam na gíria.

Oh Lord of the Caves
How dark it is inside us
We die so soon after birth,
With eyes wet like marsh water,
The knowledge we have is passed by word of mouth
In proverbs contained in the language of ordinary speech.

De que nos vale esta pureza,
Sem ler fica-se pederneira,
Agita-se a solidão cá no fundo,
Fica-se sentado à soleira,
A ouvir os ruídos do mundo,
E a entendê-los à nossa maneira.

What value to us is all this purity,
Without reading, we just keep digging up flint,
We just stir up an isolation deep inside,
We stay sitting on our own doorsteps,
Listening to the noises of the world,
And understanding them as best we can.

Carregar a superstição,
De ser pequeno ser ninguém
Mas não quebrar a tradição
Que dos nossos avós já vem.

We carry the superstition
Of being small, of being a nobody
But we don't break that tradition
Which goes back to our grandparents' day.

Words: Carlos Tê
Music: Rui Veloso

I've translated this song freely to get the meaning across - the poet's words are more memorable and suitable for singing. I have attempted to give the meaning of the whole song, which I normally avoid. This is because the subject of the song is very close to the legitimate instructional aims of this site.

It should be born in mind that "A gente não lê" may apply to you and me to some extent. When we are in a foreign country and can't understand the language, perhaps dealing with officialdom, we get a small taste of what it is like not being able to read at all.

Isabel Silvestre version of the song comes from her first solo album, A Portuguesa (Portuguese Woman) from 1998 which was recorded when she was around 50. However, 20 years earlier she helped revive and became principle singer of O Grupo de Cantares de Manhouce, a highly influential folk group which sings in the style of the rural north. Its repertoire includes traditional work and festival songs of the region, including female acapela styles, and also choral religious works of the folk.

As well as being a prominent folk singer in the Northern rural style, Isabel Silvestre is a life-long primary school teacher in a village in the region.

A gente não lê shouldn't be interpreted as against religion or tradition per se. Rather what it is against is the reduced life that a lack of literacy brings. It's about breaking the "superstition of being small, of being a nobody" (superstição de ser pequeno ser ninguém).

Before everything changed in Portugal in the years 1974-5 the old regime of the dictators was suspicious of both education and industrial development, and made a cult of the simple life of the villages. This helped preserve rural skills and folk music, but the downside was that literacy rates among the oldest generations of Portuguese really were among the poorest in Europe - and deliberately so.

Rui Velosi "A gente não lê" 1982 album version

Rui Velosi "A gente não lê" (The people can't read) 1982 album

Rui Velosi is the Mark Mark Knopfler of Portugal. His first album was released in 1980 - only six years after the revolution that allowed this type of music into the country. It was called "Ar de Rock", meaning Air or style of Rock, which sounds like "Hard Rock" when pronounced in Portuguese. It was genuine blues rock in the tradition of BB King and Eric Clapton.

But right from the start Velosi and his lyricist Carlos Tê were trying to relate this alien music to Portuguese life. A gente não lê comes from their second collaboration, Fora De Moda (Out of Fashion), released in 1982.

What is striking about the song is the lyrical way it describes the consciousness of the people who can't read. They are not stupid. Instead their intelligence is directed into a deep knowledge of the world immediately around them.

Writing now over a third of a century later, literacy rates among younger generations of Portuguese are up to first world norms. But with rural areas depopulating fast and being denuded of young people, it is hard not romanticise the rapidly receding knowledge of the population that used to work the land.

Literacy nowadays is not unambiguously empowering - as in this song. Now it is revealing a trivalising side, in this age of Twitter spats and instant shallow online certainty.

But the song A gente não lê is more profound than its immediate objective. It's not just campaigning for greater literacy. It goes beyond that to lyrically describe two forms that human literacy can take. There is the reading of words - but also the reading of our surroundings. Our rural forebears were probably much better at this than we are today. Perhaps we need some literacy in both, and illiteracy in neither. Without this balance we risk being confined to a limited understanding of our world, and end up with just pederneira - stony flint.

Rui Velosi "A gente não lê" 2003 live

Rui Velosi "A gente não lê" (The people can't read) 2003 live

This performance is available on the Rui Veloso – O Concerto Acustico 2003 album. See also a Rui Velosi discography, and here's Isabel Silvestre's discography at the same excellent Discogs site.

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