Singer and composer Yvonne Lara da Costa—known to the world as Dona Ivone Lara—was born to a poor family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1922. Dona Ivone Lara learned to play a small string instrument called the cavaquinho from aunts and uncles who raised her after the death of her parents. Exposed to samba music by her cousin, Mestre Fuleiro, she was associated with musicians of this genre for many decades—including the Brazilian songwriters Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mano Décio da Viola, and Silas de Oliveira. A large chunk of her childhood was spent in a boarding school and she eventually matriculated from a nursing program, specializing in occupational therapy. Dona Ivone Lara worked as a social worker –largely in psychiatric hospitals—until retirement in 1977.
It was after this life transition, in 1978, that Dona Ivone Lara cut her first album. Since then she has churned out romantic sambas heavily influenced by elemental African music. Dona Ivone Lara broke through that year when Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia recorded "Sonho Meu," on which Lara had collaborated with Délcio Carvalho. That song became Lara’s greatest hit—becoming song of the year and enabling Lara to cut her second album "Samba, Minha Verdade, Minha Raíz" in 1979. During the 1980s, she recorded "Sorriso Negro" and "Ivone Lara." A number of Brazilian artists hit gold with Dona Ivone Lara’s compositions, among them Clara Nunes and Roberto Ribeiro ("Alvorecer"); Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil ("Alguém Me Avisou"); Paulinho da Viola ("Mas quem Disse que eu te Esqueço"); Beth Carvalho ("Força da Imaginação"); Mariene de Castro; Paula Toller; and Roberta Sá. She is associated with a group of composers at the Império Serrano samba school, for whom she collaborates on “sambas-enredo,” written specifically for carnival parades. Her collaboration in this endeavor has been groundbreaking for women as she was the first woman to become part of the composers’ caucus of a samba school. Among the sambas done by Império Serrano was one commemorating the resistance of the longshoremen’s union (sindicato dos estivadores ) in Rio de Janeiro.
Without a doubt, my favorite Brazilian song is “Alguém me avisou”—a Dona Ivone Lara composition. I first heard this amazing tune at a Brazilian restaurant called Canecão Rio on the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat in Amsterdam during the late 1980s. Among my favorite memories is dancing with my friend Paolo to that song in the early 1990s: Subsequent to that Paolo returned to his native Brazil, where he was murdered. Paolo knew quite a few of my comrades from ACT UP and Queer Nation and participated in our actions. I also danced to this song with an artist friend from Brazil named Plauto (who explored issues of gender construction in his work) at his party in the East Village while the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988 raged outside --NYPD helicopters lighting up the sky.
Alguém me avisou
Foram me chamar
Eu estou aqui, o que é que há
Eu vim de lá, eu vim de lá pequenininho
Mas eu vim de lá pequenininho
Alguém me avisou pra pisar nesse chão devagarinho
Sempre fui obediente
Mas não pude resistir
Foi numa roda de samba
Que juntei-me aos bambas
Pra me distrair
Quando eu voltar na Bahia
Terei muito que contar
Ó padrinho não se zangue
Que eu nasci no samba
E não posso parar
Foram me chamar
Eu estou aqui, o que é que há *
Notably, two of the artists most associated with the song “Alguém me avisou”—other than Dona Ivone Lara herself—are the brother and sister Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethânia Vianna Telles Veloso (better known as Maria Bethânia). Importantly, they come from Bahia—the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture at the heart of Dona Ivone Lara’s musical influence.
Caetano Veloso, sometimes called the Bob Dylan of Brazil, is a political activist and a writer in addition to his musical endeavors. He is known primarily for his involvement with the 1960s Brazilian musical tendency called “Tropicalismo,” a fusion of Brazilian pop music with rock and roll, which influenced poetry, theater, and music in that country after a military dictatorship assumed power in 1964. Strongly influenced by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, Veloso’s progressive politics did not endear him to that government (which ruled until 1985). Considered dangerous by the regime, Caetano Veloso and his fellow musician Gilberto Gil were arrested in 1969—after which they went into exile. Ironically, leftist Brazilian students were no more fond of “Tropicalismo,” than the military regime, considering it an imposition upon Brazilian music by cultural imperialism. Needless to say, Veloso’s music was often censored and banned by the government. Despite cessation of military rule and resumption of democratic government in Brazil, Caetano Veloso has remained committed. During the 1990s, he recorded music that called attention to AIDS pandemic, corruption, homelessness, and ethnic tension. Never quite as vociferous as her brother, Maria Bethânia did release a protest song called “Carcará” in 1965.
As to Dona Ivone Lara? Despite her advanced age, she continues to record and to perform before live audiences today.
[ * “Someone Told Me”: They went to call me. I am here, what's going on? I came from there, I came from there as a little boy... But I came from there as a little boy. Someone told me to step slowly on this floor. I have always been obedient, but I couldn't resist. It happened in a samba gig. When I joined to the bambas (people who belongs to the samba "tribe" or “band”) to distract myself, when I come back to Bahia I will have so much to tell. Oh godfather do not get mad. 'Cause I was born in samba, and I cannot stop. They went to call me. I am here, what's going on?]
(Translation assistance: Marcos Antonio Vedoveto)