Scary Brazilian lullabies

Photo by Alan L/Flickr
Photo by Alan L/Flickr

Most Brazilian lullabies and children songs are scary like hell. Some of them are not exactly child-appropriate. Or human-appropriate.

Check this hit parade:

  • The big classic “Atirei o Pau no Gato”, that says: I hit a cat with a stick, but he didn’t die. Mrs. Chica was surprised by the cat’s cry.
  • What about the morbid “A Canoa Virou“: the canoe turned down, because someone let it happen: [name of the kid] didn’t know how to row. If I were a little fish and knew how to swim, I would rescue [the kid] from the bottom of the sea.
  • Or  the even scarier “Nana neném“: sleep baby, because Cuca (a forest monster) will come for you. Mammy is in the plantation and daddy is working.
  • Or the vaguely racist “Boi da Cara Preta”: Black-faced ox, come for this kid that is afraid of grimaces!
  • Or the gloomy “O Cravo Brigou com a Rosa”:  Carnation fought with Rose, under a set of stairs. Carnation got hurt and Rose lost her petals. Carnation got sick, Rose came visit. Carnation fainted. Rose began to cry.
  • You can also try “Ciranda, Cirandinha“, that says: “the ring you gave me was made of glass and broke. The love that you had for me was not enough and vanished”.
  • Or “Samba Lelê”: Samba Lelê is ill, his head is broken. What he really needs is to be spanked.

You’ve got the spirit.

You don’t have to have a PhD in Psychology to realize you might want to keep your kids away from this songs. Instead, look for Paulo Tatit’s brilliant work – such as “Palavra Cantada” and “Pé com Pé“. Or maybe, go for Chico Buarque de Hollanda’s “Os Saltimbancos”. Also, check the Cocoricó TV program soundtrack. This video of a Cocoricó’s sketch shows some of the main characters, chickens, singing their omnipresence and offering translations of “hen” in different languages.

22 thoughts on “Scary Brazilian lullabies”

  1. This is great. Some years ago I put on YouTube a presentation (not authored by me) where the Brazilian children’s songs are scary. I got so many negative comments (threating me, not the presentation) from Brazilians of course, that I had to disable comments. Check it out:

    So, be prepared to receive the same :o)

    BTW, excellent blog, I’m always reading your RSS. Thx

    PS: even being concerned, I still sing to my son all of them!

  2. You know, Fernando, I bumped before into your Youtube video, when I was preparing this post. It is really cool, although for some reason the sound was off.
    Isn’t it weird how some people here on the web have no sense of humour? Sometimes I get some really aggressive messages. The other day I read a post by a Brazilian cultural journalist, Maurício Stycer,, where he gave his opinions about one of the players of TV show Big Brother Brazil. You should see the rage in the messages. So many people wishing for him to be fired. Hello! It is just a TV program!

  3. Good one! I’ve often wondered about these songs, and you posted some new ones I didn’t know. To be fair, a lot of the old Brother’s Grimm stories are quite terrifying as well. I’ve also noticed a tendency amongst my Brazilian friends and family to try to scare their kids to keep them in line (“don’t go in there! there’s a huge cockroach (or monster) in there!”) Have you noticed that as well?

  4. Indeed, the original Grimm stories are very violent (although recent versions tend to minimize the bloody aspects). Red Riding Hood is not only scary but also demonizes wolves and the woods. And old versions of Cinderella (which is, i believe, a French tale) show the two half-sisters mutilating themselves to try to fit the crystal shoe.
    Maybe this phenomenon is not exclusively Brazilian. I grew up watching Japanese movie films (there was a theater in São Paulo that had children’s sessions without subtitles in the seventies) – they were terribly graphical, and always began with the death of the kid’s parents.
    Finally, answering your question: I have no clue if scaring children is a common Brazilian practice. I tend to believe it is not.

  5. Nice! I love scary songs and stories. Kids do too! My favourite stories as a small kid were the scary ones with little devils or monsters that my Grampa told me. There was one with a caravan and an old lady and a super scary ending that I always anticipated with delight and exhilaration. I’m too lazy to google now, but I’m sure they have some function in learning something (the joys of specificity), and are generally positive. We turned out well singing those songs, no? Well, maybe not 🙂 Maybe we are scarred for life.

  6. My father is a psychiatrist. So, he would sing the song, discuss the meaning and then question my reaction. Is that scary enough for you?

  7. Well, first of all, congrats on the website, it’s really good 😀
    I couldn’t help but laugh (in a good way!) all the while while reading this article. It’s amazing how different cultures can be, and how it affects the different perceptions people can have on the same thing.
    I remember being told these lullabies as a child, but I don’t remember ever being scared by them. When my auntie would tuck me and my cousins in, she would sing ”Boi da Cara Preta” and wouldn’t stop until we were all fast asleep. Never have I questioned the meaning behind the lullaby. When I grew a little older though, I do remember stopping to think about the Cuca (”Nana Neném”) one. I thought: ”What’s wrong with you, people? You know the thing is coming to get me and yet you are all gonna leave me alone here for work, and still expect me to sleep tight?” LOL That thought didn’t scare me, though. I still enjoyed the relaxing melody.

    When I was in kindergarten, me and my little friends together with the teacher (usually called ”Tia”, or ”Aunt”, by kindergarten pupils) would gather in a circle, hold hands and sing ”Atirei o Pau no Gato” and ”Ciranda Cirandinha”. It was (and still is, I hope so) an innocent and healthy way to have fun in your childhood.
    If one day I have kids, I won’t ever try to keep them away from these lullabies. They’re not in the least scary, maybe weird from a foreigner point of view. And I do reckon that, well, seeing it the way you see it, they’re not very amusing, are they? lol Maybe if you had had your parents tucking you in with these lullabies, or ever sang and danced to the rhythm of one as a child, you would have a completetely different perception. It would be interesting to know how these lullabies came to be as they are, and knowing the background of this country, you might have an idea. Maybe something indigenous? I remember being told many indian tales at school.

    Now, I don’t believe that scaring kids to keep them away from doing things is common in Brazil. I’ve never been scared as a child (and thank God for that), except on Sundays family gathering (very traditional in Brazil, usually taking place during lunch) when someone would begin telling Brazilian tales (widely known as Brazilian Folklore, or ”Folclore brasileiro) like Saci Pererê, Curupira, Mula Sem-Cabeça, Iara (amazonian mermaid), etc. But the one that scared me the most was the werewolf one, and I also used to believe a lot in the ”Homem do Saco” or ”Bag Man”, a man that would come to take you away in his bag if you behaved badly (like an evil Santa Claus, lol).
    It was fun though, listening to your grandparents, uncles, parents, etc. telling you those stories.

    But anyway, back to the original topic, I’d like to state this as clearly as possible: those lullabies are NOT scary. And, as someone pointed out in the comments (maybe it was you, I can’t remember), ”scary” lullabies and tales can be found in many different cultures. Like everyone in Brazil, I have a very mixed background. I have Italian and Portuguese ancestry from my father’s side, and Japanese from my mother’s (As a matter of fact, I’ve been living in Japan for over 5 years now). So I used to hear japanese lullabies and tales from my japanese grandparents, and thinking about it now, they all involved monsters and spirits. They never scared me, only made me curious, as I’m sure that’s how it works with every kid.

    Wow, I talk too much. Sorry for have made you read this bible I’ve just written (if you did! :D)

    Best regards.

    PS: I used to loooooooove ”Cocoricó!” Also, there’s another very popular children’s tv show that I couldn’t get enough of called ”Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum”, it was cancelled but I think it still airs sometimes on tv, and I’m sure you can find something on youtube as well.

  8. Those who cited the Brothers Grimm nailed the reason behind the scary aspects of our lullabies… Many of those are european in nature and passed through oral tradition from our portuguese great-grandmothers to our mothers and their origin was lost in time. Its just cultural mixed heritage and oral lore. Some are cautionary tales, some just intend to control normal child behaviour (all the variations of “be quiet or the monster will get you”) and the last kind is lamentation about love lost that reminds me a lot of portuguese fados: “If this street, if this street was mine/I would, I would tile it/with shiny, with shiny little diamonds/for my love, for my love to cross over it… At this street, at this street there’s a grove/that is called, that is called Loneliness/ Inside it, inside it lives an Angel/That stole, that stole my heart… If I stole, if I stole your heart/You stole, you stole mine too/f I stole, if I stole your heart/It’s because, it’s because I want you so much.” How can this not be a fado??? Ciranda Cirandinha, The Carnation and the Rose, all are fados that lost bits and meanings over time. I bet the “I Beat a Cat with a Stick” one (that looks like a cautionary tale about kids beating animals but strangely only has as consequence the neighbour being surprised by the cat’s meow) lost a significant portion of the story over time and only a catchy chorus remained.

    I absolutely adore Tatit’s work and think the modern lullabies are great, but lets not forget that there’s a reason behind the old lullabies existence. I think life becomes poorer if you just wipe off the past because it doesn’t fit your view of the world.

    And by the way, all of the Europe and Asia have some pretty horrifying bedtime stories 😉

  9. Never thought of it, but I think you are definitely right about the shadow of fado over these songs. Portuguese influence is sometimes very discreet in Brazil, but not in this case. I definitely will have to write a post about that. Or maybe, one of these days, you might feel like writing something for Deep Brazil on this subject…
    It is interesting: both you and Eloisa seem to enjoy these songs and Markuza admits he sang them to his kids and Cindy intends to do the same. I wasn’t really exposed to these songs (my Mom sang mostly in French and my father would compose songs for me), so I don’t really have so much attachment. But I know my kid, who was totally fearless till last year, talks about monsters and ghost non-stop since last Halloween (her first real one) and sometimes fears the dark, which didn’t happen before. Just in case, I won’t bring Cuca from the woods…

  10. Cindy, thanks for the long – and cool comment. The blogosphere is huge, I appreciate you took your time to express your vision right here.
    As I mentioned in one of my comments, I grew up watching Japanese children movies at Cine Jóia, in Liberdade (did you do the same?), so I know exactly what you mean!
    You kept me thinking – I find these songs scary because, unlike you, I didn’t listen to them every night before sleeping. When you listen to something everyday, you simple don’t pay attention to the content. That’s why people who visit frequently a website don’t click the ads. It’s the one-time-visitors that do. Now, what is the subliminal effect of these lullabies? Is there one? Maybe not.

  11. Thanks, Erline, really. To write in English in an appealing way is a self-imposed challenge. So far, I am having fun. I am glad you are too.

  12. Hi! I just want to convey that I like all your writing style and that so I am going to follow your blog on a regular basis from now 🙂 Keep it up!

  13. I just can’t figure out why “Boi de cara preta” is supposedly “vaguely racist”. Because it mentions a color? How about “Black bird” by the Beatles, then?

    With regards to “scaring kids”… C’mon! ALL cultures do this. The Brothers Grimm have already been mentioned, but I”ll also point out that scary movies are rarely produced for matuyre viewers in the U.S.

    I bet you stayed up to see the Late Night Horror Extravaganza on T.V. when you were a kid!

  14. Thaddeus, I agree that it is debatable if Boi da Cara Preta is racist, but a Black friend once told me he was insulted by the fact that the color of the ox was mentioned to reinforce the fact that he is scary and mean. I think it is sort of a borderline case. Maybe the song is not relevant as an isolated case, but when you mix it with other messages (angels are blond and blue eyed, Jesus is red haired and blue eyed, the Devil is normally depicted in dark red and black…), maybe there is something there.

  15. One more thing: both you and many people that commented on this post bring up the fact that violence is also present in lullabies of other cultures. I don’t dispute that, but my question is: they are everywhere, but should they be in our toddler’s bedrooms? Well, they don’t enter my baby’s room, this I can tell you. Neither in Portuguese, nor in English or in French.

  16. I agree those songs are better off our repertory of lullabies but, in my opinion, nothing is worse than Halloween, widely celebrated in US. That stuff is sure scary: blood, decapitated heads, monsters of all kinds, ghosts… I guess every culture has its flaws…

  17. Yeah, all cultures have stuff like that – it is probably a way of telling the kids about the wide and dangerous world out there.

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