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published on March 26, 2010

Brazilian Rodeo: The Festa do Peão in Barretos, São Paulo State

by Alexander Sebastian Dent


Leandro Nascimento (Divulgação/Os Independentes)
Barretos Rodeo 2009
Barretos - In his book River of Tears: Country Music, Memory, and Modernity in Brazil (Duke University Press), anthropologist Alexander Sebastian Dent of The George Washington University describes the Barretos rodeo. The following is an adapted excerpt from the book.

According to some estimates, attendance at the nation’s largest rodeo, Barretos, in the state of São Paulo, exceeded 1.5 million as early as 2000. That figure has steadily increased since.(1) The National Rodeo Federation (Federação Nacional do Rodeio Completo – or FNRC), an organization created in 1996 to support the “development of rodeo as a sport,” has outlined how it finally achieved success in 1999. At the Brazilian National Rodeo Championship in November of that year, the Minister of Sport pronounced rodeo, with its eight events, to be an official Brazilian sport, and promised to introduce legislation to solidify this announcement in Congress. The very next year, they felt their nationalization of the sport had been well founded, since, in 2000, Brazilians purchased 24 million rodeo tickets. To everyone in the news-media’s ostensible surprise, the total was equivalent to the number of tickets sold for professional soccer matches in the same year.

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In a purely financial vein, the gross income from Barretos in 1996 was US$120 million, much more than the US$45 million generated by Carnival in Rio that year, according to a paper published in 2000 by C. Izique in the journal Pesquisa FAPESP. In the São Paulo town of Americana, their rodeo makes US$15 million and accounts for 10% of the region’s annual income, Izique noted. Such figures seem remarkable since Embratur (the Brazilian Tourism Office) offers no financial aid or advertising support to rodeo, although they heavily fund carnivals. Some 1,200 rodeos acknowledged by the FNRC blanket the nation. Moreover, this number of official events fails to include the countless informal ones that have sprung up in urban and rural environments alike.

Those performing, or listening to, rural musical genres, as well as those attending or competing in rodeos, offer a variety of reasons for turning to rodeo and things “country.” One rodeo producer explains it this way: “In a country like Brazil, where society has its origins in a rural life, rodeo fills a hole in our current lifestyle. Today, the magic of rodeo is catching, among people in small and large cities, and it’s leading to increasing tourism, as well as economic, social, and cultural activity. It is providing dreams, and happiness. Rodeo is a kind of cultural revolution.”(2)

Barretos, São Paulo: Saturday, August 21, 2004

In the northern portion of the state of São Paulo, close to the border with adjoining state Minas Gerais, lies the town of Barretos, which has been a center of Latin American beef production since a large slaughterhouse and refrigeration plant was constructed there back in the early nineteen hundreds. In 1955, a group of local bachelors calling themselves “The Independents” (Os Independentes) proposed an annual get-together involving competitions in horsemanship, races of various types, and soccer-games. The following year they actually held their first Peon Party – “peon” being the deliberately chosen archaic term for cowboy now universally employed in the designation of Brazil’s 600 odd rodeos as “Festas de Peão.” As years went by, the annual event grew, and by 2004, this once modest gathering had developed international links to Canada, the United States, Australia, and Mexico by way of a transnational rodeo circuit.

Barretos, along with other large-scale Brazilian rodeos such as Americana and Jaguariuna, currently shares some features with its international counterparts, such as bull-riding; the techniques used to ride bulls in Brazil were brought back from the United States by a cowboy who had been competing there in the early 1980s.(3) At the same time, however, Brazilian rodeo displays distinct attributes, such as the kind of announcing that happens during each cowboy’s ride; in Brazil, announcers speak quickly and excitedly, like radio sportscasters pumping fans up when the soccer-ball gets close to the net, whereas in the United States, announcing is much slower and more laid-back. Barretos’ almost 1.5 million annual visitors over 10 days near the end of August make it the largest rodeo in Latin America and one of the largest in the world.(4) The physical plant of the festival, which was housed under a circus tent for its first season, took its current form in 1989, when The Independents built a reinforced concrete park and stadium planned by Brasília’s architect Oscar Niemeyer.(5) During the 2004 rodeo, the way that Barretos' organizers had scheduled “música caipira” and “música sertaneja” events within the physical space of the park had important consequences for the way in which fans and musicians could experience and fashion history, politics, and culture.

The open-air stadium, in which 35,000 people can be seated, or, according to several security guards, close to 70,000 could stand, housed the main attractions. On the August 2004 Saturday in question, events in the main stadium were due to begin with the usual rodeo roughstock events (bull and bronc riding) and timed events (penning, roping, and barrel racing) at around 7 p.m. These were to last till about midnight, when a musical show consisting of two commercial country duos would begin. The central stadium then, provided the space in which commercially successful “duplas sertanejas” played into the early morning hours to sold-out crowds from the Central-Southern region and beyond.

“Música caipira” occupied a much more marginal space and time. Off to the side of the stadium there is a fenced enclosure called The Resting Spot (Ponto de Pouso – intended to refer to the camp that cowboys would have pitched at the end of a long day’s cattle-drive). This Resting Spot contained trees, some lean-tos constructed just a few years ago to look a half century old, and tiny paddocks. There, the rodeo’s organizers held an annual cowboy cooking competition called The Garlic-Burning (A Queima do Alho). During this competition, each team took up residence within a tiny paddock using primitive implements and open cooking fires to prepare four dishes briskly. They aimed to recreate both the kind and speed of preparation of recipes “the cowboy way.” In this fashion, they attempted to reenact what the cowboy cooks of the past must have done to feed hungry cattle-herders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries out on the trail, by producing simple fare over fires set right on the ground with almost no tools. The name of the event apparently derives from the ridiculousness of men cooking; “he’s going to burn the garlic,” the early 20th century cowboys are supposed to have said in anticipation of their compatriots’ ignorance of garlic’s properties and general culinary clumsiness. In 2004, the results were judged by local radio personalities, politicians, businessmen, and teachers.

In the afternoon hours, long before the evening’s rodeo events were due to begin, the stadium itself lay empty. But the cooking competition off to the side of the stadium bustled. Judges circulated, writing thoughtfully on clipboards as they chewed. They were using three categories to evaluate the teams: “work” (trabalho) which included the implements and techniques; “performance” (the English word, performance)(6) which included deciding whether the competitors’ movements represented the style in which the cooking would, once upon a time, have been completed; and hygiene which addressed the cleanliness of the process. Unsurprisingly, these categories enacted distinctly contemporary criteria for evaluating an ostensibly arcane practice.(7) After the cooking was completed, locals and members of the news-media sampled the cowboy rice, meat-and-bean stew, and grilled steaks that each team had had to prepare. The cooks were finally permitted a beer or two, strictly forbidden before that point.

Country music “in the roots style” added a sense of legitimacy to The Garlic Burning, providing an early 20th century soundtrack for what purported to be an early 20th century culinary practice. The musical accompaniment for this contest came in the form of another competition, this time a musical one where “duplas” (duos) performed folkloric Central-Southern songs: “música caipira.” Having a competition harkened back to the contests of the 1940s and 1950s, in which so many of the great rural music “duplas” had first won public recognition – duplas like Tonico & Tinoco. In Barretos, 2006, pairs of men, often brothers, and always with one of the two members playing a “viola” (the Brazilian 10-string guitar, a requirement), took to a tiny stage at the side of the cowboy cooking contest to sing and play. They were judged on the quality of the song they had chosen, their ability to present that song live, the twinning of their voices (afinação, or the brotherly in-tune-ness), and their instrumental technique. The well-elaborated rules for this competition, equivalent in their complexity to those governing The Garlic Burning yards away, stipulated that no songs played on the stage could have been recorded professionally at any point. None of the musicians could be “professionals” in the sense that they could not have earned their living in full-time music. And as noted, one member of the dupla had to play a viola while the other played a six-string guitar; two regular six-strings, common among non-traditional duplas, simply would not do. The afternoon’s music was heard by a rotating audience of about 20 comprised mostly of passers-by on their way into and out of The Garlic-Burning, and for the most part accompanied the cooking and eating. The songs culminated in the prizewinning traditional dupla and song; this year it was the local Suleiman & Marcos Canela for The Flower of Goiana.

As time passed and both The Garlic Burning and the “música caipira” competition came to a close, activity started to pick up in the other areas of the park. The sky darkened, and spectators began to arrive for the evening’s rodeo events. On that particular Saturday, these events included ever-popular bull-riding, as well as family team-penning. As a special treat, bull-rider Ednei Caminhas would attempt to stay the required eight seconds on the bull advertised as the meanest in Brazil: Bandido.(8) (He failed.) Comic presentations, pyrotechnics, and a children’s soccer game punctuated. As these attractions drew to a close towards midnight, many hours after the “caipira” musicians had sung their final chords, people started to arrive in droves for the evening’s “música sertaneja” performance. Tonight would feature the famous “dupla” Rionegro & Solimôes, which had actually won the old-fashioned viola competition here back in 1986, before going commercial. They would be followed by up-and-coming brothers Edson & Hudson. Close to 70,000 ticket-buyers were expected, and while some of them had come to see the rodeo events themselves and the music, at least a third would not arrive until the first “dupla” was almost ready to step in front of the microphones; the head of security informed me that this was common. Many had come chiefly for the commercial country music.

As the rodeo events wound down and the organizers prepared for the two “duplas sertanejas,” the contrast between “música caipira” and “música sertaneja” could not have been clearer. “Música caipira,” with its explicitly traditionalist bent, attracted far smaller crowds and was relegated almost entirely to folkloric sidelines, while its commercial offshoot, “música sertaneja,” packed the central stage. As much as the “música caipira” performers and fans could claim the kind of “roots” that would make a cowboy cooking competition using turn-of-the-century methods feel more authentic, “música sertaneja” seemed to be what most ticket buyers had paid to see.

Barretos Rodeo Notes

(1) Most of the websites devoted to Barretos suggest that attendance was closer to 2 million.
(2) Júnior, F. “Canto do peão – evolução.” Rodeo Country – Canto do Peão. 2000.
(3) The introduction of American style of bull-riding in Brazil, characterized by a single rope that the cowboy holds with only one hand, is debated. The most credible claim seems to be from a cowboy named Tião Procopi, who competed in the United States in the early nineteen eighties, and brought the new technology back with him to supplant the older two-handed metal device that had been used in Brazil up to that time.
(4) Precisely which rodeo is the largest in the world is not simple to determine. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (one million spectators) as well as Cheyenne Frontier Days (“hundreds of thousands”) both claim the distinction. Those making such claims in the United States have not heard much about the attendance figures in Brazil, nor do they seem to attend to claims made in Canada about the Calgary Stampede. Wooden & Ehringer consider the growth of rodeo (1996), but the sport has grown so rapidly in the years since this publication that their treatment requires updating. One of the chief transformations in the rodeo field has been the success of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which has managed to bring the sport to a mainstream audience.
(5) Niemeyer is the Rio-born architect who designed Brazil’s modernist capital in Brasília.
(6) I heard the English word “performance” used in numerous contexts in Brazil. Its employment here cannot be tied directly to this ruralist context.
(7) The organizers experienced no dissonance in folding contemporary categories into this old-fashioned competition. When I asked the director if cowboys would, for example, have been “hygienic” in quite the same way, I received an emphatic “clearly, yes.”
(8) This was the last time anyone tried to ride Bandido, who was subsequently incorporated into 2005’s most successful soap opera América as one of the main characters. The bull’s difficulty is said to reside not in the unpredictability of his bucking patterns – his twisting and turning – but in the fact that he becomes so “angry” if he has not dislodged his rider after a second or two that he flings himself on the ground, often crushing some part of the cowboy. He also “goes after” his riders once he has unseated them, sometimes tossing them into the air. Though he failed on Bandido, Ednei Caminhas won the world bull-riding championship in 2002 in Las Vegas.

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