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Zeca Afonso

José Manuel Cerqueira Afonso dos Santos, known as José Afonso, Zeca Afonso (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈzɛkɐ aˈfõsu]) or just Zeca (2 August 1929 – 23 February 1987), was born in Aveiro, Portugal, the son of José Nepomuceno Afonso, a judge, and Maria das Dores. Zeca is among the most influential folk and political musicians in Portuguese history. He became an icon among Portuguese left-wing activists due to the role of his music in the resistance against the dictatorial regime of Oliveira Salazar, resistance that triumphed in 1974 with the pro-democratic leftist military coup of the Carnation Revolution. His song "Grândola, Vila Morena" is closely associated with the revolution, since it was chosen to be the password transmitted by radio for the beginning of the movement that toppled the dictatorship. In the ensuing revolutionary process, Zeca was a very active musician and continued composing political and folk songs, often criticizing the post-revolutionary changes. Years after his death, Zeca Afonso is still widely listened to, not only in Portugal, but also abroad.


Early life

José Afonso was born in Aveiro on 2 August 1929, at 10:30 am.

In 1930, his parents travelled to Angola, a Portuguese colony at the time, where his father had been placed as a judge in the city of Silva Porto (present-day Kuito). José Afonso stayed at Aveiro, in a house near the "Fonte das Cinco Bicas", due to some health problems with his aunt Gigé and his uncle Xico, who called himself "republican and anticlerical". In 1933 Zeca travelled to Angola at his mother's request. On the ship Zeca met a missionary who became his companion during the voyage. José Afonso stayed for three years in Angola, where he began his primary education.

In 1936, he returned to Aveiro and in 1937 he travelled for the second time, this time to Mozambique, another Portuguese overseas territory in East Africa, where his parents were then living, with his brother and sister, João and Mariazinha.

He returned to Portugal in 1938, this time to the house of his uncle Filomeno, mayor of the town of Belmonte. There he finished the fourth grade. His uncle, a fierce fascist supporter, made him a member of the "Mocidade Portuguesa", a youth organization under the right-wing regime of the Estado Novo; Zeca came to consider those years among the worst of his life.

He went to Coimbra in 1940 in order to continue his studies. He studied in the D. João III high school and lived with his aunt Avrilete. His family went from Mozambique to East Timor, also a Portuguese overseas territory at that time, where his father continued his job as a judge. Mariazinha went with them while his brother João returned to Portugal. With the occupation of Timor by the Japanese, José Afonso received no news from his parents for three years, until the end of World War II in 1945.

File:Jose-afonso-coimbra 1.JPG
Azulejo in homage at the house in Coimbra, where José Afonso, O Zeca, lived. Known as the troubadour of liberty.

University years

In that year he started singing his first songs as a bicho (which means something like a bug or a worm), a traditional rank of the University of Coimbra for high school students (José Afonso was in the 11th grade). He was known as bicho-cantor ("the singing bug"), which granted him the right of not being rapado ("head shaved") by the organized trupes ("groups") of older students who were guardians of the university's traditions.

From 1946 to 1948, he worked to finish high school, after two prior attempts failed due to his chaotic lifestyle spent among the older students. He met Maria Amália de Oliveira, whom he married, secretly due to his parents' opposition. He travelled with some of the most important university musical groups, as Orfeon Académico de Coimbra, and played football for the Associação Académica de Coimbra. In 1949 he started studying History and Philosophy at the University of Coimbra.

In January 1953, his first son, José Manuel, was born. That year, he released his first recordings, of which no copies remain today.

From 1953 to 1955, he underwent compulsory military service. He was sent to Macau, by then a Portuguese territory, but he was sent home due to health problems. After that he was stationed at Coimbra. He experienced many economic difficulties and divorced. After his military service, and now with two children, José Manuel and Helena (born in 1954), Zeca finished his studies with an 11 (out of 20) for a thesis about Jean-Paul Sartre.

Early political action

In 1956, he released his first record, Fados de Coimbra. In 1956 and 1957, he became a teacher and worked in the south of Portugal. Due to his financial problems he sent his children to the Portuguese overseas territory of Mozambique in 1958, where his parents were at the time. In that year he became enthralled by Humberto Delgado's presidential campaign; Delgado lost due to massive fraud perpetrated by the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. In 1959, he started singing in his trademark musical style, colored with political and social connotations, in many popular groups around the country. This granted him a growing popularity among the working class and the rural population. In 1960 his fourth record, Balada do Outono (Autumn Ballad), was released. From 1961 to 1962 he paid close attention to the student strikes and demonstrations demanding democracy and the end of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, which were brutally repressed by the police. He continued releasing many of his songs and introduced important new guitar arrangements. He played in Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden, in a fado guitar group with Adriano Correia de Oliveira, José Niza, Jorge Godinho, Durval Moreirinhas and the singer Esmeralda Amoedo. In May 1964, José Afonso played in the Musical Society Workers' Brotherhood in Grândola, where he found the inspiration to compose the song "Grândola, Vila Morena", which would be the signal (broadcast by the national radio channel) for the start of the Carnation Revolution in 1974. Also in 1964 the album Baladas e Canções was released. From 1964 to 1967, José Afonso was in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) and Beira, Mozambique, with Zélia (his second wife); there he reunited with his children. In his last two years in the overseas province he taught in Beira, and composed music for the Bertolt Brecht play The Exception and The Rule. In 1965 his daughter Joana was born. In 1967 he returned to Lisbon, marked by the colonial reality and by the Portuguese Colonial War against the independence-seeking guerrilla movement of Mozambique, Frelimo. However, he left his older son, José Manuel, with the latter's grandparents in Mozambique. José Afonso became a teacher in Setúbal; after that he developed a severe health crisis which left him hospitalized for 20 days. When he left the hospital, he found that he had been expelled from public school teaching because of his leftist politics and because the regime's censors considered his songs strongly subversive. His book Cantares de José Afonso (José Afonso's songs) was published. The Portuguese Communist Party invited him personally to become a party member but Zeca refused because of his bourgeois origins. In that year he signed a contract with the Orfeu label, which would record 70% of his works. Expelled from the teaching job, he became a private tutor for some students and he started singing much more regularly in the popular groups on the south bank of the Tagus river, Margem Sul do Tejo, a fiercely Communist-supporting region that even before the revolution had strong local movements and associations, and which remains to this day, a stronghold of the Communist Party. For Christmas, Zeca released the album Cantares do Andarilho, with Rui Pato, the first album recorded for Orfeu. His contract was very special: he received 15,000 escudos per month on condition that he recorded an album per year.

Anti-regime activities

In 1969, with the replacement of António de Oliveira Salazar by Marcelo Caetano, the Estado Novo-controlled nation got a very slight taste of democracy, such as permission to rebuild a democratic Labour Union movement. José Afonso joined the movement and supported it by all the means he could; he also took part in the second wave of student rebellion against the regime in Coimbra, an important university town. He released the album Contos Velhos Rumos Novos and the single Menina dos Olhos Tristes which contains the popular song Canta Camarada (Sing, Sing, Comrade!) which was almost adopted by the Portuguese Communist Party as an unofficial anthem. He received the award for best album that year, and again in 1970 and 1971. For the first time on a Zeca album, an instrument other than the guitar was used. His fourth and last son, Pedro, was born.

In 1970 the album Traz Outro Amigo Também (Bring Another Friend Too), recorded in London, in the Pye studios, was released. It is the first album without Rui Pato, forbbiden to travel by PIDE, the fascist political police. On 21 March the Portuguese press gave him an award for his "high quality work as singer and composer and for his decisive influence upon Portuguese popular music". He participated in an international festival in Cuba. At the end of 1971, the famous album Cantigas do Maio (Songs of May), recorded near Paris, in the Château d'Hérouville studios, was released. The album is generally considered the best album of his career. His 1972 album is called Eu Vou Ser Como a Toupeira (I Will Be Like the Mole), and was recorded in Madrid, at Cellada studios.

In 1973, José Afonso continued his "pilgrimage", singing all over Portugal. Many of his appearances were forcibly cancelled by the PIDE/DGS. In April he was arrested and spent 20 days in Caxias prison (a prison mostly used for political prisoners) until the end of May. In the prison he wrote the poem Era Um Redondo Vocábulo. For Christmas, he released the album Venham Mais Cinco, recorded in Paris and on which José Mário Branco collaborated. Janine de Waleyne, from the Blue Stars of France and a prominent vocalist in French chanson, guested on the title track. On 29 March 1974, there was a full house at the Coliseu, in Lisbon, for José Afonso, Adriano Correia de Oliveira, José Jorge Letria, Manuel Freire, José Barata Moura, Fernando Tordo, and many others, who ended the concert by singing "Grândola, Vila Morena". Some soldiers from the revolutionary movement that in April would take part in the Carnation Revolution, the MFA, were in the audience and chose "Grândola" as a symbol for the Revolution. A month later, on 25 April, the Estado Novo regime was overthrown in a nearly bloodless military coup. He released the album Coro dos Tribunais (Courthouse Chorus), recorded in London, again at Pye, with musical arrangements by Fausto. The album includes two Brechtian songs, composed in Mozambique in the period between 1964 and 1967: "Coro dos Tribunais" and "Eu Marchava de Dia e de Noite".

Revolutionary period

From 1974 to 1975 he became directly involved in the popular revolutionary movements. The PREC (Ongoing Revolutionary Process) became his passion. He performed on 11 March 1975 (the day of a failed fascist coup) in the RALIS (a leftist military stronghold) for the soldiers. Zeca established a collaboration with the extreme-left movement LUAR. LUAR released his single "Viva o Poder Popular" (Hail to the People's Power) with "Foi na Cidade do Sado" on the B-side. In Italy, the revolutionary organizations Lotta Continua, Il Manifesto and Avanguardia Operaria released the album República, recorded in Rome on 30 September and 1 October. The money received from the sales of the album went to support the striking workers of the newspaper República. The album is almost unknown in Portugal and includes the songs "Para Não Dizer Que Não Falei de Flores", "Se os Teus Olhos se Vendessem", "Foi no Sábado Passado", "Canta Camarada", "Eu Hei-de Ir Colher Macela", "O Pão Que Sobra à Riqueza", "Os Vampiros", "Senhora do Almortão", "Letra para Um Hino" and "Ladainha do Arcebispo".

In 1976 he supported Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho's presidential candidacy. Otelo was an important commander of the 25 April military operations, and Zeca supported him again in 1980. He released the album Com as Minhas Tamanquinhas.

The album Enquanto Há Força, released in 1978, again with Fausto, shows some of Zeca's concerns about colonialism and imperialism and is also a critique of the Catholic Church.

In 1979 the album Fura Fura was released with the help of the popular artist Júlio Pereira. It contains many songs that were meant for the theatre. He participated in the Anti-Eurovision Festival in Brussels.

Zeca's last years

In 1981, after two years of silence, he returned to Coimbra with his album Fados de Coimbra e Outras Canções. He played in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville.

In 1982 he started to develop the first symptoms of the severe disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (motor neurone disease, or Lou Gehrig's disease in the US). He played in Bruges at the Printemps Festival.

On 23 January 1983, Zeca, weakened by the disease, played with some difficulty in a huge show with a full house at the Coliseu dos Recreios, Lisbon, with Octávio Sérgio, António Sérgio, Lopes de Almeida, Durval Moreirinhas, Rui Pato, Fausto, Júlio Pereira, Guilherme Inês, Rui Castro, Rui Júnior, Sérgio Mestre and Janita Salomé. At that show the live album Ao Vivo no Coliseu was recorded. After that, José Afonso performed one last concert, on 25 May 1983, at the Coliseu in Oporto.

At the end of 1983 he released Como Se Fora Seu Filho, a political testemonial. It contained the following songs: "Papuça", "Utopia", "A Nau de António Faria", "Canção da Paciência", "O País Vai de Carrinho", "Canarinho", "Eu Dizia", "Canção do Medo", "Verdade e Mentira" and "Altos Altentes". The city of Coimbra awarded him its Golden Medal. "Thanks Zeca, this is your house", the mayor, Mendes Silva, told him. "I don't want to become an institution, but I feel very grateful for the homage", Zeca answered. After that the president, Ramalho Eanes, wanted to give him the Order of Liberty, but Zeca refused to fill in the papers.

In 1983 José Afonso was reinstated in his official teaching position, whence he had been expelled in 1968; he was sent to Azeitão. His sickness started spreading and his health got worse.

In 1985 his last album, Galinhas do Mato, was released. Zeca was unable to sing all the songs on the album, being replaced by Luís Represas ("Agora"), Helena Vieira ("Tu Gitana"), Janita Salomé ("Moda do Entrudo", "Tarkovsky" and "Alegria da Criação"), José Mário Branco ("Década de Salomé", duet with Zeca), Né Ladeiras ("Benditos") and Marta Salomé ("Galinhas do Mato"). Musical arrangements are by Júlio Pereira and Fausto. The album also included "Escandinávia Bar-Fuzeta" and "À Proa".

In 1986 he supported the presidential candidacy of Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, a progressive Catholic woman; she was not elected.

José Afonso died in Setúbal at 3 am on 23 February 1987, aged 57, a victim of the sclerosis that had been diagnosed in 1982. His funeral in Setúbal was attended by 30,000 people. The procession took two hours to cover 1300 meters. His coffin was covered with a red flag with no symbols, as he had wished, and it was borne by, among others, Sérgio Godinho, Júlio Pereira, José Mário Branco, Luís Cília and Francisco Fanhais.


On 18 November 1987, the Associação José Afonso was created with the objective of fulfilling Zeca's intentions in the areas of Portuguese music and art.

In 1991, the city of Amadora inaugurated a Script error: No such module "convert". statue of Zeca Afonso in the city's Central Park.

On 30 June 1994, as part of Lisboa-94, European Capital of Culture, a festival in homage to Zeca took place. Many Portuguese musicians, both veterans and younger artists, joined in the tribute festival, called "Filhos da Madrugada" ("Children of Dawn", the title of one of Zeca's most famous songs). Earlier that year, BMG had released an album with the same title as the festival, and with the same artists performing their own versions of Zeca's songs.

Performers at this event included Brigada Victor Jara, Censurados, Delfins, Diva, Entre Aspas, Essa Entente, Frei Fado D'El Rei, GNR, Madredeus, Mão Morta, Opus Ensemble, Peste & Sida, Resistência, Ritual Tejo, Sérgio Godinho, Sétima Legião, Sitiados, Tubarões, UHF, Vozes da Rádio, and Xutos & Pontapés.

Thirteen years earlier, Zeca had remarked that "If rock is the musical style that the young prefer, then we should ask for good quality rock music".

In 1995 José Mário Branco, Amélia Muge, and João Afonso, Zeca's nephew, released another album in homage to Zeca, called Maio, Maduro Maio, that included many of his songs and two previously unreleased ones, "Entre Sodoma e Gomorra" and "Nem Sempre os Dias São Dias Passados".

For the 10th anniversary of Zeca's death, in 1997, EMI released for the first time in CD format the 1964 album Baladas e Canções.

In 1998, Vitorino and Janita Salomé took part in a concert in homage to José Afonso, included in Expo'98's programme.

In 2007 he was elected the 29th Greatest Portuguese.


  • 1960 – Balada do Outono, Rapsódia
  • 1962 – Baladas de Coimbra, Rapsódia
  • 1963 – Dr. José Afonso em Baladas de Coimbra, Rapsódia
  • 1964 – Ó Vila de Olhão, EMI/Valentim de Carvalho
  • 1964 – Cantares de José Afonso, Columbia/Valentim de Carvalho
  • 1964 – Baladas e Canções, Ofir
  • 1967 – José Afonso, ?
  • 1968 – Cantares do Andarilho, Orfeu
  • 1969 – Menina dos Olhos Tristes, Orfeu
  • 1969 – Contos Velhos Rumos Novos, Orfeu
  • 1970 – Traz Outro Amigo Também, Orfeu
  • 1971 – Cantigas do Maio, Orfeu
  • 1972 – Eu Vou Ser Como a Toupeira, Orfeu
  • 1973 – Venham Mais Cinco, Orfeu
  • 1974 – Coro dos Tribunais, Orfeu
  • 1974 – Viva o Poder Popular, LUAR
  • 1974 – Grândola, Vila Morena, Orfeu
  • 1975 – República, Lotta Continua/Il Manifesto/Vanguardia Operaria
  • 1976 – Com as Minhas Tamanquinhas, Orfeu
  • 1976 – José Afonso in Hamburg, Portugal Solidaritat
  • 1978 – Enquanto Há Força, Orfeu
  • 1979 – Fura Fura, Orfeu
  • 1981 – Fados de Coimbra e Outras Canções, Orfeu
  • 1983 – Como se Fora seu Filho, Sassetti
  • 1983 – Ao Vivo no Coliseu, Sassetti
  • 1983 – Zeca em Coimbra, Foto Sonoro
  • 1985 – Galinhas do Mato, Transmédia

Posthumous releases

  • 1987 – Os Vampiros, Edisco
  • 1993 – Zeca Afonso no Coliseu, Strauss
  • 1996 - De Capa e Batina, Movieplay
  • 1997 – Baladas e Canções, EMI (2nd edition)
  • 2001 – José Afonso, Movieplay
  • 2007 – As Últimas Gravações, CNM


External links

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