The Improbable Charm of Carmina Vacaloura

An animated jazz riff on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus — and I’m not making this up

Cynthia Giles
Oct 17, 2020 · 6 min read
Two of the jazz ensembles from Carmina Vacaloura

My most recent obsession has been figuring out Carmiña Vacaloura.

To decide if this makes any sense, just and spend a few minutes with this mesmerizing animation. Basically, it’s a fable about a wise beetle and a noisy cricket, but don’t worry yet about what’s going on — just enjoy.

At that point you will either love it so much you can’t wait to find out more,
or you’ll hate it so much you don’t want to hear another word about it. If the latter, thanks for trying. And if the former — read on.

Personally, I feel like watching it whenever I’m at wit’s end with the real world. At first I thought it was just because the whole thing is so eccentric, and therefore diverting. I love the stylized animation, and the charmingly discordant, slightly frenetic music.

The fact that I had no idea what it was about, or where it came from, only added to the appeal.

Eventually, though, I just had to find out more . . .

Since I don’t know a syllable of Galician (or didn’t beforehand), it was a bit uphill — but with the help of Google Translate and a little sleuthing, I found out enough to be satisfied.

I started with the many comments that had been left on YouTube. My favorite:

E así nos familiarizábamos os nenos galegos con Wittgenstein: “do que non se pode falar o mellor é sempre calar.”

Roughly translated, it means “And this is how Galician children familiarize themselves with Wittgenstein: ‘of that which cannot be spoken, nothing more can be said.’”

I will only say that this makes perfect sense after you have watched Carmiña Vacaloura a few times. And I’ll get back to Wittgenstein.

But my second favorite comment translates to “What the [expletive] were these guys smoking?” Which is also perfect.

The Wittgenstein reference helped me figure out how/why to persevere on my quest. But two other comments gave me the essential clues. In summary — one of them says something like “This was my favorite. I used to go around singing it all the time.” The other says, more or less, “This always played around snack time, and it really creeped me out.”

Hmmm.

These seem to be about childhood experiences, which connects with the Wittgenstein comment. But I’d assumed the Wittgenstein reference was tongue-in-cheek. Maybe not?

Not.

In true life, Carmiña Vacaloura was one of the “cartoons” featured on Xabarín Club, a kind of super-cool, slightly wacky Galician Sesame Street. According to the Internet Movie Database, “The show is known as an important cultural influence on Galician children born between 1980 and 2005.” As far as I can figure out, it started in 1994, and continues to this day.

The original concept seems to have centered around a whole cast of anthropomorphic animals, drawn in what can best be described as a boisterous style. Here’s a sampling from their website:

As it turns out, popular musicians write and perform songs for Xabarín Club — and the music for Carmiña Vacaloura comes from acclaimed composer and musician Maestro Reverendo (born Ángel Muñoz-Alonso; 1955–2012).

I could never find out whether Maestro Reverendo wrote the lyrics, and whether they were based on some sort of folk tale or children’s story. But in any case, someone has provided some piquant twists.

Here’s my woefully non-idiomatic attempt at translating part of the lyrics — enough to convey the basic story . . .

This is the story of Carmiña Vacaloura,
The most amiable beetle [vacaloura] around.
Carmiña lived in an old oak tree
And got along well with everyone in general.

But at the foot of the oak, in a hole
Cucumber Cricket [pepino grillo] made noise all year round
And Carmiña Vacaloura couldn’t stand it.

Carmiña Vacaloura, disturbed at home by the raucous Cucumber Cricket

“Cricket of the devil who only sees the straw
In someone else’s eye, to say the least:
You don’t see anyone listening to your advice
Because of your moral taste.”

That’s how the angry Carmiña spoke,
Opening its mouth and putting on a bad face:

“You will know what is right or wrong!”

Carmiña lectures Cucumber Cricket

[Carmiña Vacaloura tries to explain that “What can’t be talked about, it is always best to keep quiet.” But — “Cucumber Cricket had a phrase for everything. Little cri-cri and a lot of blah blah blah.” So he continues to make noise, zoom around the forest in his sports car, and generally cause trouble.]

Cucumber Cricket playing the rogue

[Finally, the frustrated insects go to Carmiña Vacaloura for help.]

“Carmiña, you who are great and gentle:
Get Cucumber out of here.
What can’t be stopped,
It’s best to keep it quiet.”

“Patience and conscience
Are matters of bad marriage [explains Carmiña].
They are things of much fighting.
I am not a cow [vaca] nor am I blonde [loura]
But the cricket will hear me.
My jaws are going to scare him.”

[And indeed they did . . .]

So Cucumber migrated from the oak to Nepal!

I have no idea how Nepal got into the story.

[The insects are grateful that peace has been restored.]

“Thank you, gentle Vacaloura
For what you have done for us.
Which cannot be stopped
It is best to keep it quiet.”

And after that comes a long vamp with various plays on the main theme — which is in turn a play on the last line of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

Wittgenstein ended his short but hugely influential book on the relationship of language and reality with a single, abrupt sentence:

Whereof one cannot speak, therof one must be silent.

[Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.]

There’s some disagreement on what Wittgenstein meant by that cryptic remark, and he refused to explain. In fact, he never published again in his lifetime (1889–1951), though he continued to teach and write. An extensive volume of his papers was published in 1953 under the title Philosophical Investigations — which further compounded the confusion, since it seems to take a substantially different approach from his early work.

It’s hard to explain (and may be only imagination) why Carmiña Vacaloura seems like such a perfect invitation to further study of Wittgenstein. But setting that aside, it’s visually charming and musically refreshing. So you might as well spend four minutes on it!

The Junction

The Junction is the premier intersection of fiction, poetry & humor on Medium.

Cynthia Giles

Written by

Writer at large, Ph.D. in interdisciplinary humanities. Persistently curious! Creator: “The Constance Project,” and Dreamfish Press. cynthiagiles.com

The Junction

The Junction is a digital crossroads devoted to stories, culture, and ideas. Our interests are legion.

Cynthia Giles

Written by

Writer at large, Ph.D. in interdisciplinary humanities. Persistently curious! Creator: “The Constance Project,” and Dreamfish Press. cynthiagiles.com

The Junction

The Junction is a digital crossroads devoted to stories, culture, and ideas. Our interests are legion.

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