“Forgive me but…have you been to Bahia Donald?”
Those simple words, uttered by the dapper green parrot José “Joe” Carioca, introduced audiences to the song “Você Já Foi à Bahia?” (“Have You Been to Bahia”). The number was part of the 1944 Disney film, “The Three Caballeros”. It celebrates the multitude of pleasures–namely good food, dance, and beautiful women–found in the Brazilian state, which sits in the northeastern region of the country.
Becoming Good Neighbors
The movie was the second of two produced after a 1941 trip undertaken by Walt Disney and a handful of artists to South America as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy.
FDR’s initiative began in 1933 as an attempt to bolster relations with the countries of Central and South America. It became particularly important as a means of combatting Nazi idealogy spreading in the region.
Beginning in 1940, the United States government began approaching members of Hollywood to undertake Good Will visits to Latin American countries, though early attempts failed to produce the program’s desired results. So, Walt Disney was called upon to join the effort.
Although initially hesitant to undertake the trip–saying that he wasn’t good at handshaking– Disney ultimately agreed. He decided that it would serve as good research for future films. A group of 18 made the journey, visiting Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. The entourage became known as “El Grupo”.
Speaking of the trip, Walt would say, “It was our first expedition of that kind, a sort of a search for new songs, dances, plots, and personalities for our cartoons.”
In 1942, “Saludos Amigos” was released, an anthology-style film that mixed live-action and animation inspired by the trip. Two years later, “The Three Caballeros” premiered.
The character of Joe Carioca debuted in the first film. In an article published by the Walt Disney Family Museum, author Keith Gluck recounts, “While performing research, it didn’t take long for the team to discover just how large a part of local culture the Brazilian Parrot was. Several of the artists began focusing on studying the bird, by way of local zoos and museums. Creating a character based on the “papagaio” was an obvious yet wise decision: José Carioca would become Donald Duck’s co-star.”
The pair would be joined by Panchito Pistoles of Mexico (full name Panchito Romero Miguel Junipero Francisco Quintero González III) in “The Three Caballeros”, though only Donald and Joe featured in the “Você Já Foi à Bahia?” segment.
A Universal Genius
Dorival Caymmi, the legendary composer, and singer released the song “”Você Já Foi à Bahia?” in 1941.
Born in the capital city of Salvador, which sits along the Bay of All Saints, he became one of the defining voices of Brazilian music in the 20th century.
Ben Ratliff, of the New York Times, wrote that he was, “perhaps second only to Antônio Carlos Jobim in ‘establishing a songbook of [the 20th] century’s Brazilian identity.” While Jobim himself declared Caymmi, “a universal genius” and went on to state, “He picked up the guitar and orchestrated the world.”
His 2008 obituary published in the Washington Post noted, “Those who covered Mr. Caymmi’s music and borrowed heavily from his style included João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Beth Carvalho. Yet it was with Brazilian singer Miranda he was most often linked.”
Her performance of his song, “O que E que a Baiana Tem?” (“What does the Bahiana Have?”) helped catapult her to international stardom in Hollywood.
The great-grandson of an Italian immigrant, he initially planned to become a journalist and had no formal musical training. The Washington Post obit notes that his, “inspiration was in propulsive Afro-Brazilian rhythms, gentle sambas and other indigenous folk sounds of his birthplace.” As a native of the City of Salvador, Caymmi could not help but be immersed in the African influence on Brazilian music. As noted in the book “Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music”, “From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Brazil received more enslaved Africans than any other country. As a result, Brazil has the largest presence of African descendants in any single country beyond Africa. The northeastern city of Salvador, Bahia, was one of the principal ports where enslaved Africans were brought to labor on sugar plantations.”
Despite his lack of training, Caymmi grew up surrounded by music. The Brazilian magazine Época notes that “His musical initiation took place as a child, listening to relatives who played the piano. His father, in addition to being a civil servant, was an amateur musician. He played, in addition to the piano, mandolin, and guitar. His mother, a maid, sang at home. Listening to his relatives, the phonograph, and then the record player, he took a liking to music, and the desire to compose was born.”
By 20 years old, Caymmi was performing on Rádio Clube da Bahia. In 1936, at the tender age of 22, he composed an award-winning samba. Three short years later, his song “O Mar” was part of a program promoted by First Lady Darcy Vargas. His ascendence into the ranks of Brazil’s most talented musicians and composers continued over the years.
The “Global Soundtracks” book states that Caymmi was, “…part of a group of younger Samba composers who emerged from higher-class neighborhoods…and began to produce romantic sambas that highlighted harmonic and melodic aspects and placed less emphasis on rhythm.” They also note that these composers gave rise to a form of music known as, “samba exaltação” which celebrated the beauty of Brazil and its culture.
Over the course of his career, Caymmi released close to 20 albums and penned roughly 100 songs. Among his most popular tunes were songs such as, “Samba da minha terra”, “Marina”, “Nem eu”, ” “Oração de mae menininha”, “Rosa morena,” “Saudade da Bahia,” “Requebre que eu dou um doce,” “Doralice,” “Das rosas,” and “Promessa de pescador”. Tom Schnabel, of KCRW, referred to him as the alpha and omega of Brazilian music, and stated, “His music not only celebrated Brazil: it embodied the country’s very spirit.”
In 1972, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the State of Bahia. Twelve years later, he was given the Commendation of Arts and Letters of France by French Minister of Culture Jack Lang.
Outside of his music, he was known as something of a barfly and even engaged in naturism. In an interview, he spoke of how this came about at a lagoon frequented by washerwomen, saying, ”When they left, my class took the opportunity to bathe naked in the lagoon. We would wrap ourselves in coconut palm leaves and slide down the sand mountains. There were people who didn’t like it, but most of them knew that we weren’t naked for naughtiness…”
The Bounty of Bahia
In “Você Já Foi à Bahia?”, Caymmi praises numerous cultural aspects of Bahia. Watching the film, we hear this bit of musical dialogue:
José: They have vatapá,
Donald: What’s that?
José: They have caruru,
Donald: Is that so?
José: They have munguzá,
José: Do you like to do samba?
Donald: Oh, sure!
Vatapá is an Afro-Brazilian dish made of bread, shrimp, coconut milk, peanuts, and palm oil which was brought to Brazil by the people of West Africa. Caruru is a dish made from okra, onion, shrimp, and toasted nuts, that is also of African origins, while mugunzá is a sweet porridge with links to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It’s interesting to note that prior to the 1930s, many of these dishes were spurned specifically for their African associations. It was not until the 40s that they came to be viewed as part of the national cuisine, around the same time that samba-exaltação began celebrating the country’s national identity.
Samba also traces its origins to the African slaves living in Brazil, who mixed their musical traditions with those of Europe such as the waltz and polka. It is a dance that is said to have originated in Bahia, though it gained its greatest popularity in Rio de Janeiro.
In the film, the song is sung in a mix of Portuguese and English, with some minor alterations made to the original lyrics. In Caymmi’s composition, the song is addressed to an unnamed woman, referred to simply as, “nega,” which means a female lover. The word typically, though not exclusively, referred to a woman of African descent. However, in the Disney film, the song is addressed to Donald Duck, forcing a change in wording.
Where the original lyrics ask, “Você já foi à Bahia, nêga? Não? Então vá!” Joe asks, “Have you been to Bahia, Donald? No? Well, let’s go!”
The song also features several untranslated passages. The first is:
Muita sorte teve,
Muita sorte tem,
Muita sorte terá
This translates roughly to:
Much luck it had
Much luck it has
Much luck it will have
The second portion is:
Nas sacadas dos sobrados
Da velha São Salvador
Há lembranças de donzelas,
Do tempo do Imperador
Tudo, tudo na Baía
Faz a gente querer bem
A Baía tem um jeito,
Que nenhuma terra tem!
Translated to English, this reads:
On the balconies of the two-story houses
Of old São Salvador
The memory of the maidens
In the time of the emperor
Everything, everything in Baía
Makes people really want it
Bahía has a way
That no land has
During this portion of the performance, Carioca splits into four identical versions of himself, all of which are dressed in the style of Carmen Miranda, a true Brazilian icon who, as noted, had strong ties to Caymmi. The image was yet another celebration of the local culture, inspired as it was by the baianas, or Afro-Brazilian fruit vendors, that Miranda encountered in her youth.
Altogether, the number is a joyous extolling of the state, accentuated somewhat comically at the end by the revelation that, like Donald, Joe Carioca has never actually set foot in the place he waxes poetic about.
A Lasting Legacy
Over 80 years have passed since the release of “Você Já Foi à Bahia?” and three years ago “The Three Caballeros” passed its 75th anniversary. Both remain as vibrant as the day they were released, providing a fascinating window into the time and places that birthed them.
The influence of the movie can still be seen in Disney through attractions like Epcot’s Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, and cartoons like The Legend of The Three Caballeros on Disney+. The impact can even be found in unexpected places, such as “it’s a small world”. Artist Mary Blair, who is largely responsible for the attraction’s design, was part of the group that traveled to South America, a trip which would play a large role in her passionate and brilliant use of color. that can be seen in the attraction and in her mural at Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort.
Dorival Caymmi once said, “My dream is to write a folk rhyme, a little folk rhyme, something that gets lost among the people.” Through songs like “ Você Já Foi à Bahia”, he created a body of work that helped define Brazilian culture for the world at large. Their beauty and longing are the perfect examples of “suadades”, a sense of melancholy and nostalgia set to music that seduced the world while giving voice to the hearts that call Bahia home.