San Vincente

Milton Nascimento, “San Vincente”

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written by Olivia Harris


One of my earliest memories is of my mother and me dancing in our living room. She is holding me in her arms, resting me on her hip, and we are slowly spinning in place. Each time we go around in a full circle, I see her face and mine pressed against each other in the mirror on the mantelpiece. We are humming and mumbling to words we don’t understand, but our blood is flowing to the universal language of vibration. The music is coming from the David Byrne compilation Brazil Classics: Beleza Tropical. On the cover of the album is a woman reaching diagonally across what looks like unending sands. She is upside down, so she appears to be diving forward, rather than falling backwards. It is an image seared into my mind because I stared at the album and the liner notes for hours on end, trying to match the Portuguese words to the English translation.

I could write thousands of words about the entire album, about how it shaped the person I am and want to be, but I’m settling on just one song. It is a song that didn’t appeal to me when I was young because not only did I not speak the language, I didn’t understand the emotional content. Now, having learned the languages of both Portuguese and pain, I am moved every single time by the power of this relatively unknown piece.

It begins:

Coração Americano
Acordei de um sonho estranho
Um gosto de vidro e corte
Um sabor de chocolate

American heart
I woke from a strange dream
A taste of broken glass
A flavor of chocolate

I’ll start with the facts. It is called “San Vicente”, and is sung by the Brazilian artist Milton Nascimento, a man whose voice even in his seventies haunts you in your sleep about regrets you didn’t know you had. This feathery voice twines around a simple plucked guitar. They pick up speed and percussion along the way. By the end, there are church bells ringing, almost clashing with the arpeggiated bass. From beginning to end, this insistent and unforgettable voice breathes so far above the rest of the arrangement, keening and crying, howling with the bitterness of an immigrant torn from a beloved homeland.

A espera na fila imensa
E o corpo negro se esqueceu
Estava em San Vicente
A cidade e suas luzes

The wait on the long line
And the black body forgotten
I was in San Vincente,
The city and her lights

Traveling internationally, I have come to understand the tense waiting in the customs line, the anxiety-inducing possibility that something crucial has been forgotten and that I could be detained at any moment. It’s irrational for a tourist, but this crushing fear has been narrated to me by relatives who emigrated from the Caribbean to various North American and European countries. The heightened awareness of every moment, coupled with a profound feeling of being a black body amongst a sea of white ones, can suck all the air out of a room and freeze time. And though some of my cousins laugh now about their deportation experiences and close shaves, this song always puts me back into that moment, the moment when your heart is dead-set on becoming an American but your body has yet to cross the border.

Enquanto acontecia, eu estava em San Vicente
While it was happening, I was in San Vicente

At this point of transition in my life, I have decided to forgo my ties to home and family in pursuit of bigger dreams, aware that for some, leaving is not by choice. Instead of excitement and anticipation, they harbor bitterness like broken glass. And as my hairs stand up on my arms, I am so grateful that the choice of movement and the certainty of a welcome are mine to claim.

Olivia Harris sings, writes, and performs under the name of Olivia K, and can be found bringing down various physical structures with the force of her sound. She and her soul-fusion band, Olivia K and the Parkers, have just released a 4-song EP entitled “Power,” which can be streamed on Spotify, or downloaded on Apple Music or her own website

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