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published on May 22, 2006

Música Sertaneja: What It Is – And Isn’t (Part One)

by Ayrton Mugnaini Jr.(*)

Agência Brasil
A sertaneja duo bookends President Lula
São Paulo - “I must say I love the ‘sertanejo’ duos for what they do,” says Brazilian humor columnist José Simão. “They can write five hundred songs using only ten words: love, darling, life, bed and come back to me.” Obviously, he’s making fun of that kind of music that passes for “sertanejo” these days: a fusion of pop-rock ballad, American country music and a soupçon of real Brazilian rural music, manifestly commercial in words, melody and arrangements.

Well, humorists know no sacred subjects. The same kind of fun can be made of any kind of music and its respective lyrics. For instance, much has been said of the “cryin’, lyin’ dyin’” lyrics of American country music. Let’s not forget American pre-rock pop music and its mellifluous “croon tunes for moon in June.” And try to imagine the blues without “Oh Lawd” and/or “I woke up this mornin’.” Would any congressperson be heartless enough to issue a decree forbidding James Brown to say “do it” or depriving Otis Redding: of his “gotta, gotta, gotta”? But non-Americans are not above such putdowns. Remember the “amore, cuore, fiore” of, needless to say, most Italian music. And no less than the Beatles have rhymed “believe me” with “if you leave me” at least thrice.

All right, there is no life without fun, but let’s get to the serious stuff. “Música sertaneja” is the label for non-urban Brazilian music, or, more correctly, Brazilian music made far from the bigger Brazilian urban centers, sounding like the very life away from these bigger urban centers: bucolical, clean, tranquil – or, in more objective terms, music that is simple, naïf, devoid of much melodic or harmonic sophistication, and more natural, i.e., acoustic. No screeching saxophones, 5/4 time, strident electric guitars, drum machines, chords in 12th or any other “urbanoid” music traits, but rather more hinterland instruments like accordion, viola caipira and vocal duets in the interval of thirds. In short, música sertaneja, like American country music or all its brethren around the world, reflects the country versus city conflict.

The birth of Música Sertaneja

This conflict began in the 11th century, as researcher José Ramos Tinhorão reminds us, when industrial society was born, people beginning to make a living from handcraft labor and primitive industrial work, rather than subsistence from farming and cattle raising. Thus begat the first bigger urban, less rural, towns, including the first indoor leisure centers for theatre, music and other artistic manifestations, unlike the open-air gatherings typical of rural populations.

But let’s talk about the urban vs. rural rivalry later; first, perhaps, we should define the term “música sertaneja.” “Sertaneja” pertains to “sertão,” from the Latin word “desertanus,” desert, uninhabited, and meaning, according to Aurélio (the Brazilian Webster’s, of course), “little-populated region in the interior of Brazil, especially the semi-arid Northeastern interior, where cattle raising prevails over agriculture.” Strictly speaking, “sertão” means the North-Northeast region of Brazil, comprising the States of Ceará, Pernambuco, Bahia, Alagoas, Sergipe and Paraíba. Strictly speaking, “música sertaneja” should designate the typical music of these regions: baião, coco, xaxado and other lively rhythms, as well-exemplified by the movie O Cangaceiro. But, by common usage, most people mean by “música sertaneja” the more sentimental and rhythmically simpler rural music from the Centre-Southern region of Brazil (comprising the states of Mato Grosso, Goiás and inland São Paulo) - in keeping with other definitions of “Sertão,” the Aurélio provides: “Arid region, far from settlings or cultivated land; land covered with woods, away from the shore.” Anyway, both kinds of music have in common the fact of not being big-city music, and both share many common traits such as “desafios,” langorous “toadas” and the use of accordion and viola caipira. As researcher J. L. Ferrete sums it up: “All Brazilian regional popular music is a sole entity, in that it metabolically pleases everybody without belonging to anyone. Each aspect of its manifestation sounds like a particular aspect of each cultural segment. A cururu played with an accordion will sound akin to the balanceio. If a coco is played with viola caipira, it will sound like a cateretê. Change the instrumental accompaniment of the calango and it will resemble a ranchera.” Northeastern rural men soon became known as “vaqueiros” (exact correspondent to “cowboys”), whereas Center-Southern rural people became “roceiros” (“roça” people) or “caipiras” (from the Tupy word “caa-pir,” “lawn cutter,” curiously enough similar to the Latin “carpere,” “to seize”). The confusion between Northeastern and Southern rural musics is compounded by the fact that the first duo to attain great success, Jararaca e Ratinho in 1927, came from the Northeast, but used Southern musical devices.

Besides the native music of the Indians, the first music played in Brazil was rural – more exactly, Portuguese rural music, as can be construed from the famous letter by Pero Vaz de Caminha. Much has been said about the first Catholic mass held in Brazil, in the place which in time would be a part of the State of Bahia, on the 26th April 1500, five days after Cabral’s arrival. But in the afternoon of that day the first festive reunion took place; the recently-arrived Portuguese played bagpipes and tambourine – and their music must have been the Portuguese rural one, since, as Tinhorão points out, the players had come out of Portugal rural centers, trying to make it in Lisbon, but ready and willing to take any job, even one as risky as exploring distant and unknown lands.

Bahia is “the cradle of Brazil,” where white persons first made their presence felt (at least the Portuguese; I won’t go into the Pinzon controversy here), and always has been a very productive and influential culture centre. Bahian languid musicality, along with folk appendages such as the acarajé delicacy and the “pretas velhas” (“old black women”) who sold it on the streets would rival foreign rhythms such as waltz and foxtrot in middle class favor during World War One and the 1920s. But, such huge influence notwithstanding, from an economical standpoint Bahia was lumped together with the rest of Brazil as “interior” to Rio de Janeiro, the capital city, until the 1920s, when São Paulo (until then a 300,000-strong town – many of them Italian immigrants – and economically little more than a gateway for the gold to be brought from Minas Gerais and a huge coffee plantation) began to take over as a industrial potency. Early 20th Century Brazil had officially 24 million souls; only 6 million of which could read and write. So Brazil couldn’t help “beginning the 20th Century with a ‘roda’ flavor, a ‘caipira’ accent and a straw cigarette,” to quote literature student Marisa Lajolo. This can be gleaned by a great deal of art works from the period, but a few being the documentary book Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) by Euclides da Cunha, novels Fruta do Mato by Afrânio Peixoto, Alma Cabocla by Paulo Setúbal and Urupês by Monteiro Lobato and the music play A Corte Na Roça by Chiquinha Gonzaga, not to mention O Guarani by José de Alencar, inspired by the homonymous Indian tribe and having in turn inspired the first Brazilian musical piece to attain worldwide success, Carlos Gomes’ opera Il Guarany.

Until the 1920s, every work of art (song, poetry, theatre) concerning itself with the countryside, sertão and non-urban subjects - thus pretty much free of the influences of jazz, Neapolitan song, French chanson and other non-Brazilian styles - was labeled as “sertaneja.” It stood in opposition to urban rhythms and styles such as maxixe, samba, choro and polka. The earliest examples of non-urban rhythms to reach the big city include toada, modinha and the livelier embolada, cateretê and maracatu. Of course, there are no watertight compartments in art, so before long there was a “samba sertanejo,” a “polka sertaneja” etc., as well as ruralized urban genres such as habanera (transmuted into Gaucho rural rhythm “vanerão”) and schottish (which became the “xote”).

You may know the 1950s American joke about “a folk song I wrote last week.” Well, there’s also a more artificial “música sertaneja” made in the city, as a well-intentioned imitation, or for laughs, or just plain commercialism (bringing to mind the old saying, “It is not evil to be commercial, but rather to sell something under false pretences”). Many use the label “música sertaneja” for these big city-made facsimiles or the heavily diluted rural music, as opposed to the more authentic “música caipira.” Singer and researcher Inezita Barroso states a factor that definitely puts “música caipira” apart from the more fake “sertaneja”: authentic rural music is about country life, including tales about animals, more often than not being akin to a fable set to music (although, dare I add, it may also concern itself with tales about religion and the urban versus rural contrasts, as well as, according to American critic Greil Marcus, a certain extent of necrophilia, morbidity and other traits or “rural nostalgia”), whereas “música sertaneja” made in the city concerns itself with urban subjects, mostly the most dramatic and negative, such as money losses, tragedies, adultery and loss of love in general – just like much modern American country music is derided as “something that passes for country nowadays – rock music influenced by country, rather than the other way around.” Rural songwriter José Fortuna (1923-1983), a pioneer in spreading the Paraguayan rhythm of guarania (a ¾ slow song not unlike the “galliard” of European Renaissance), has divided rural music into four themes: “Dor-de-cotovelo, raiz, erótico e humorístico” (torch song, roots, erotic and satirical). He went on to explain: “Torch sells best. All songs on this theme are about love, lovesickness, someone going away...” Completed his partner Pitangueira: “In short, all those dramas one can go through in life,” adding that the roots theme concerns itself with nature only. Fortuna added maliciously that sex can occur even in the roots theme, giving an example of his own: “Uma chuva despencando-se nos espaços, estendendo os seus longos braços, como uma noiva cobrindo a serra...” (Rain falling into the open space, spreading her long arms, like a bride covering the hill).

Ayrton Mugnaini Jr., born in São Paulo in 1957, is a journalist, songwriter and popular music researcher. Has more than ten books published, and has no qualms about inviting publishing houses to issue a revised and updated version of one of them, the first Encyclopedia of Brazilian rural music (Enciclopédia das Músicas Sertanejas, released in 2001, now out of print). Learn more by visiting his blog.

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