The herbal bath

How the young Ary Barroso found fame and fortune.

Daniella Thompson

17 March 2003

Yvonne Belfort Arantes, nicknamed
“Boy” by Ary

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.

Engagement announcement, A Manhã, 14 December 1928

Modified engagement announcement, A Manhã, 24 December 1928

On the other hand, he was poor and engaged to Yvonne Belfort Arantes, nine years his junior. Yvonne’s father, Lindolpho 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.

Receipt for the prize of 5 million réis, ceding rights to “Dá Nela”

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.

Ary, Yvonne, and daughter Mariúza
at home in Leme

= = =


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.

An earlier version of this article was published in April 2000 on the website Ary Barroso, Giant of Brazilian Song. The photos of Yvonne Arantes and the Barrosos in Leme were scanned by Ricardo Paoletti from the album História da Música Popular Brasileira No. 5: Ary Barroso, Sua Glória É Lutar (RCA/Abril Cultural MPB 05; 1970). The receipt for “Dá Nela” is among tens of thousands of documents available on five CD-ROMs bundled with Humberto Franceschi’s book A Casa Edison e Seu Tempo (Rio de Janeiro, Petrobras/Sarapuí, 2002).


Copyright © 2000–2014 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.