Here was a man, singing a very distinct song. One that you may love with a passion or hate equally. A fragile, somewhat jazzy song about a lost love. Salvador Sobral’s Amar pelos dois was remarkable for its soberness between all the other, often excessively orchestrated walls of sound. Luísa, Salvador’s sister, wrote and composed the song herself. It was rewarded with the highest score for any Eurovision song ever and became the first victory for Portugal in the entire Eurovision history.
In the past year Sobral recorded an album and was given a new heart: almost symbolic for someone who sang so tenderly about heartache. In all the surprise over their victory, you might almost forget to wonder what type of song it is. Is it jazz, crossover or typical singer-songwriter material? How Portuguese is it, really? Eurostory meticulously analyses its composition, with the aid of three composers and songwriters. On three-four time, pessoanism and authenticity.
In spite of his classical background Kleppe is a loyal Eurovision viewer. He was pleasantly surprised by the Portuguese victory in 2017. ‘It is a remarkably intimate and personal song, with very little embellishments. The fact that it won, almost seems like a statement against formulaic productions. Braveness and authenticity have been rewarded, by jury and viewers alike.’
Joost Kleppe analyses the arrangement of Amar pelos dois especially for Eurostory. ‘The song’s intro is already very unusual,’ he says. ‘That short piece with strings contains three harmonic turns. We hear some strange chords and it isn’t entirely clear which key we are headed towards. It turns out to be F-major. As soon as we’ve reached that, the song regains some normalcy, but even then, it keeps using chords that are much more exciting than in an average song contest entry. The composition isn’t innovative; the piece could easily have been written in the 30s or 50s of the previous century. The melody is very appealing, with fairly large melodic leaps. Those are very different from pop music, where melodies are largely monotonous, and the rhythm creates the necessary tension. What is very special is that the melody changes towards the end of the song. A bridge such as this is usually found between the strophe and the chorus. Here the bridge comes last, turning it into a climax that emphasizes the song’s title.’
According to Kleppe the three-four time in which the song had been composed is remarkable and unusual. ‘Almost all pop songs and Eurovision entries are in four four time. It is far more suitable for dancing. Three-four time is a little more elegant, closer to the waltz. Three-four is sometimes used in French chansons, and more recently also in Birds by Anouk, a previous Eurovision entry.’
HAPPY YET SAD
‘The song is in major, a happy key, and yet it appears to be sad, because the chorus keeps hinting at the introverted minor. The classical ‘hopelessly in love’ theme appeals to many. Even though it isn’t rendered in a very dramatic way, with little longing and more of a dreamy feel. That is typically Portuguese: an almost fatalistic surrender to melancholy. What small spark of false hope there is obviously exists only in the lover’s imagination: ‘Perhaps you could slowly learn to love me’. The Portuguese word for slow is devagar, but the lyrics use a diminutive devagarinho. Add to that the conclusion: ‘And even if you do not love me, can’t I love the two of us for the both of us?’ In reality, this will hardly ever work out, but it is a lovely Portuguese way of wallowing in that dream. Undramatically, yet wistfully.
A LITTLE OFF-KEY
The manner of singing is not unlike speech; Salvador does not sing from the stomach. One can hear that he is used to singing jazz. Amar pelos dois is also a little influenced by jazz. I find it a very typical piano song. The piano gently pushes in the chords. When you listen to the orchestra very carefully, you’ll notice the strings are a little bit off-key. Whether this is intentional, I do not know, but it lends the song a certain comfortable, tattered charm of lost glory.’
‘It is not an explicitly good song, but not entirely bad either. If anything, it is honest’, Aafke Romeijn says about Amar pelos dois. She believes it to be a sound composition, although not very surprising. ‘The lyrics are a tad too excessive and saccharine for the Dutch palate. It is a typical southern romanticism that is a bit too much for Northern-Europe. The song really fits in with the Portuguese culture and the lyrics do the language justice. The imagery really fits in the Romanic tradition.’
Aafke Romeijn is mostly delighted that Sobral sang in Portuguese. That emphasizes the authenticity of the song and makes it even more credible, she says. ‘Far more countries should choose to sing in their own language. Each language has benefits and drawbacks to sing in, but it does underline the country’s own culture, and this cultural diversity is what makes the Eurovision Song Contest so very special. They often choose to sing in English for the sake of convenience, although it isn’t the nicest language to sing in. Apart from the fact that it makes rhyming rather easy with all the open vowels at the end’. The Dutch language is relatively difficult to sing in, claims the singer who sings and writes mainly in her native tongue. ‘There is that hard /x/ sound, as in Scheveningen. In addition to which Dutch has combinations of vowels and consonants that are easier to pronounce in speech than in song. Each language has similar challenges. Polish, for example, has up to six or seven consonants in one cluster. It’s a disaster to sing in, but that doesn’t mean it should be an obstacle. Salvador Sobral has proven that it’s possible, winning with a song written in your mother tongue. So long as everything fits. One can’t ask that Waylon sings in Dutch; it doesn’t suit his style or genre.’
Romeijn was elated, but also surprised when Sobral was announced as last year’s winner. Not because of the song, but because of his personality and performance. ‘It almost seemed as though they had invited the first street musician they saw. Wearing a far too large suit, belonging to his father. Endearing and a little bit awkward. It was difficult to hold anything against him. He is not the greatest singer ever, but if you ask me the main thing is that it’s believable. That is what matters. He tells a story and takes the audience by the hand. It is very modest and sounds very personal, which, apparently, is now once more appealing to the audience. After a couple of years full of gimmicks and mediocre pop songs there is room again for authentic songs, which is good news.’
Lameirinhas has been following the Eurovision Song Contest from a distance for a while now, because it seemed to him that winning had less and less to do with the actual song. Which is why he was happy with the Portuguese entry. He believed that his home country usually tried far too hard to win. ‘They mostly concerned themselves with the requirements of a song, rather than with its contents. Which is, of course, true for several countries. But that made its success such a surprise: this was a song that was entirely about the song itself. This was the fresh breeze this festival needed so badly. I believe a large, silent group of viewers has managed to get its message across: less circus, more proper songs.’
Salvador Sobral’s song contains that typical Portuguese melancholy, says Lameirinhas. ‘A longing for a lost love with the sincerely cherished hope that this love will one day return. Singing and writing about love, homesickness and loss is a very Portuguese theme. Naturally, these are universal emotions, but in Portugal they have a particular way of expressing them. Very subtle and a little fatalistic. Such lyrics are simple, yet simultaneously very complex. I like to call that ‘pessoanism’. It reaches the soul of Portugal, land of sea and waves. You can feel the undulating sea throughout the song. But not in the more extraverted and dramatic way of the fado. It is far more smooth, in an almost Brazilian way. You could even call it ‘under-expressive’, but that is exactly what makes it so strong. You take something very small and turn it into something far bigger. I hear the same thing in Birds by Anouk, which was also very strong lyrically.’
‘Portuguese is a beautiful language to sing in, just like Italian. It is softer in nature than many other languages. This has, in part, to do with Jewish, French and Celtic influences. Sobral may have performed the song somewhat theatrically, but that fits. He interpreted the song in all of his movements.’
THE PORTUGUESE WAVE
Lameirinhas hadn’t heard of Sobral before Eurovision but does recognise the movement that he is a part of. ‘There is a new generation of Portuguese artists that is developing itself rather rapidly. They are proud of their country and want to keep Portuguese culture alive while at the same time taking on its clichés. They want to demonstrate that there is more than fado. This is a wonderful change. Portugal has gone through difficult times, but the country is now more stable and constant, while the rest of Europe is experiencing a turbulent period. That also makes it a very appealing country to many. Winning the Eurovision Song Contest has also helped to regain some national pride’.
JIM VAN DER ZEE
Jim van der Zee (23) sang the English version (For us both) of Amar pelos dois during the blind auditions of The Voice of Holland. Coach Anouk turned her chair around almost immediately, even before Jim had finished the first sentence. Within thirty seconds the other judges were equally convinced of his talent. The rest is history: Jim van der Zee and his deep, dark voice stayed on for the entire competition and was finally voted the winner.
What far fewer people know is that his decision to audition for The Voice had a lot to do with the Eurovision Song Contest. Jim was discovered by a talent scout and together they mapped out a plan, but the singer was unsure whether The Voice would be a logical next step for him. He decided to travel through Europe for a year, where he played on city streets and squares. Once he was back in the Netherlands, he saw a Portuguese singer performing at the Song Contest, having made no compromise whatsoever, and to his surprise the singer ended up winning. In Eva Jinek’s talkshow Jim revealed that this performance had been the reason that he decided to audition for The Voice after all. ‘I saw him sing that song in that setting and it worked. Which was really strange, because it was a really untypical Eurovision entry. But it proved to me that I could do the same. It convinced me that I could participate in The Voice and still be myself. Salvador Sobral was the example of what I hoped to achieve.’
THE BEST COVERS
Amar pelos dois has won many hearts. At the end of this episode of With Nowaday’s Ears, we would like to share with you some very special cover versions:
First up: the Belgian contest participant for 2018, Laura Groeseneken. Many people were first introduced to this artist when she performed her version of Amar pelos dois in Lisbon, where she performs using the name Sennek.
Alfred, the male half of the duo Afred & Amaia, representing Spain this year, sang a version of Amar pelos dois – during the Spanish talenten show Operación Triunfo – with a slightly altered arrangement, and an endearing Spanish-Portuguese accent.
The Icelandic participant of 2018, Ari Ólafsson, attempted a version of the song in English.
The Slovenian participant of 2017, Lea Sirk, took it one step further. Not only did she sing Sobral’s song, she also dressed up as the Portuguese singer and copied his typical movements.
In Portugal and Spain there is a wonderful tradition called the tuna – a group of students who sing serenades. For the occasion, they wear traditional university clothing and play traditional instruments. The tunas came to be in the thirteenth century, when people sang for money or food. These days it is merely about keeping the tradition alive and meeting other tunas. De tuna of the University of Technology in Porto sang and played a very moving version of Amar pelos dois. in December 2017.
The nine-man strong Spell Choir is the winner of a Portuguese a capella music competition. Without instruments they sang an intriguing version of Sobral’s song.
AND FINALLY: THE MASTERS
There are countless other versions of Amar pelos dois to be found. Luísa Sobral’s song has inspired many artists from around the world – more so than other Eurovision winners – whether instrumentally on violin and guitar, solely on classical guitar, on saxophone or with a small brassband or vocals, in Hebrew, Polish, German or Dutch.
Still, the most moving rendition of the song was the final performance by Salvador Sobral himself, together with this sister, in the period leading up to his heart transplant. In the Portuguese city of Estoril he sang it once more – with a beautiful a capella segment and a finale from the audience.
This article was translated by Sandra Hessels.