Exu, Pernambuco: a Visit to Luiz Gonzaga’s Hometown
by John Krich
Why Is This Country Dancing?
Exu, Pernambuco - "Seven hundred kilometers from nowhere." That's how Luiz Gonzaga Junior described his father s birthplace. Backstage at a concert hall in a Rio suburb the citified son of Brazil's greatest country singer made his ancestral home sound like the far side of the moon. "Seven hundred kilometers inland from Recife, seven hundred from Salvador, seven hundred from Fortaleza. The town is called Exu, that's an Indian name for a honeybee. A very dangerous bee. If you want to know something about music that comes out of dust and poverty, you must go there. Then you'll understand why the songs of Luiz Gonzaga will never die. My father is forever."
Who could blame Gonzaguinha, or "Little Gonzaga" as he is popularly known, for getting grandiloquent about "Gonzagão"? While there are very many characters in Brazil whose dearth of accomplishments is further diminished by the diminutive inho, few are big enough to earn the ending ão. It is hard to quantify Luiz Gonzaga's importance in Brazilian music. He could he compared to some groundbreaking hillbilly star like Hank Williams. He could just as easily be thought of as a counterpart of Woody Guthrie, with a bit of Louis Armstrong thrown in. Though no great instrumentalist, he reigned until his death in 1988 as the undisputed King of the Baião - a variant of forró which became nearly his personal signature. As a great star of Brazil's radio era and the early days of mass recording, Gonzaga's evocations of daily life in the sertão, his smooth delivery and accordion, his outfit of leather cowhand cap and tasseled vest, gave Brazil's rural poor a sweetly dignified presence on the national bandstand.
Where Gonzaga Senior was jolly, rotund, and unthreatening, Junior looked scrawny, bushy-haired, wild-eyed. He had the bony cheeks and terrorist goatee of what Brazilians call "a face dying of hunger." Despite winning recognition in his own right as a modern balladeer and songwriter, Gonzaguinha still spoke like the illegitimate product of a youthful liaison-hungering for a father's acceptance. "I was raised in Rio, far away from him, but I've been doing my father's work since I was young. Maybe my father didn't have much chance to see me, but I know he was very proud of my being a musician. I know that he had confidence in me." With a loyalty that could only be born of abandonment, he asked, "My father was famous, so why do I need to be famous?" For Luiz Gonzaga's son, the trappings of stardom included being hip enough to disdain stardom. "I like to be able to walk in the street, to talk with the people, to drink with the people. I'm just another worker. A worker in beauty."
Perhaps that's why I'd caught up to him in a plain changing room at the back of a grimy auditorium next to a bus depot. "I don't play for money," Gonzaguinha assured me. "You don't have enough money to compensate me for the pleasure I get when I play. Unfortunately, here in Brazil we are developing your 'star system.' But that has nothing to do with music." As though to underline his point, this famed singer's dinged-up, brown Ford station wagon wouldn't start. His percussionist and I had to give him a push. Leaning my weight into each heave, I came face to face with the proud heir's bumper sticker. I LOVE GONZAGÃO.
Fortunately, I have not had to push my way to Big Daddy's hometown. To complete the pilgrimage, I hire a car for the last fifty-mile stretch from Juazeiro do Norte through the no-man's land between the extreme western corners of the states of Ceará and Pernambuco. My driver hardly needs to be told where to go. The tiny town named for the honeybee is his most-requested excursion. "Aside from the bandit Lampião," the young cabby in a Lacoste polo shirt tells me in complete earnestness, "the two greatest men of the Northeast are Padre Cicero and Luiz Gonzaga."
On our way to the hometown of the latter late great, we pass Crato, birthplace of the former. This other side of the Cariri Valley is clearly the other side of the tracks. Advertised in red lettering, a "SWING MOTEL" marks the outer city limits. Crato is not exactly Sin City but there are a few bars and pool halls around the main square. The whole place appears more green and relaxed, out from under the good Padre's rectitude. Indeed, as a young priest, Cicero Romão Batista moved his congregation out of Crato because the people here were more skeptical of their native son's miracle working.
I make a quick stop to search for a local deejay and find him broadcasting from a glassed-in studio inside a convent. After forty years of spinning forró music, Eloi Teles de Moraes has been forced by local record merchants off commercial stations. "They would no longer buy advertising because I refused to play today's forró hits. They are played by city' people, full of sexual innuendo and coarse imagery. This purist with a pencil mustache is unimpressed by the local paper's headlines about the Grammy Award just won by the U.S. forró release titled Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers - referring to the maids and taxi drivers of Brazil's big cities who began life out here as farmhands. "In the old days," moans the deejay while a record is playing, "the music respected country folk and celebrated the natural cycle of their lives. Planting, harvesting, marriage, birth, death - this is when the people must have their forró!" He punctuates his music hour with announcements of tractor sales, auctions, baptisms. Grandiloquently trilling his r's, screeching like a soccer announcer after a goal, Senhor Eloi offers his listeners more "Forrózinbo, bem grande! Bom demais!" - "A bit of forró, well done, couldn't be better!" Off-air, he concedes, "True forró is going to disappear along with the differences between city and country. The new technology is stripping the people of their true clothes. It's not like the days of Luiz Gonzaga."
Luiz Gonzaga was an old-fashioned believer. He often mentioned Padre Cicero, sometimes in the form of shouted punctuations to accordion riffs. At his death, Gonzaga's body was flown back to Juazeiro and lay in state at the cathedral where Padre Cicero preached. A major controversy, still discussed in these parts, ensued when the skeptical Gonzaguinha tried to block this portion of his father's wishes from being carried out. Before a compromise was struck, an actual tussle between priest and singer broke out on the church steps. Even without such shenanigans, the funeral was one of the great events in the history of the region. A massive cortege, crowded with musicians and politicians, had followed this same road, up along a surprisingly forested ridge, back to Exu. The procession was bracketed by the red fire trucks of the local bombeiros.
Across the border with Pernambuco, the hills are drier, the vegetation more scraggly. Nothing I see in the sertão approaches scorched-earth desolation, just a blue-tinged high desert which would compete well in boulder-strewn barrenness with portions of New Mexico. Things do grow here, just not useful things. No fauna is tall enough to block my view of another huge valley into which we descend in one cascading switchback. The single clump of houses below is Exu, from inxu, indeed a Carifi word for "honeybee." Aside from music, the town's other claim to fame is murder. A long-held family feud over water and women has led to dozens of shootings and poisonings, including the sudden demise of distant relatives living thousands of miles from Exu. The highway through town hardly reveals a setting for mayhem: a single gas station and three or four roadhouses.
I make brief stops in the Gonzagão Restaurante, the Bar Gonzaga, and the Asa Branca (White Wing). This was Gonzaga's signature tune, a stirring, up-tempo anthem which describes the plight of a peasant driven off his land by drought, "not a plant in my fields... my horse died of thirst," and his wait for the rains to fall again so he return to "my sertão." Nobody is eating at the yellow Formica tables, skating rinks for flies. Beer and barbecue constitute the menu. The waitresses are outnumbered by portraits of "the King" at various stages of his career, whole walls mounted with Gonzaga album covers. I wonder how much of this affection is genuine, how much mercenary. AI QUANTA TRISTEZA... FAZER BAIÃO SEM TU! goes the banner hand painted on the wall inside the Asa Branca. "Oh, how much sadness... to do the baião without you!"
A quarter mile down, just before the road leaves town, there is a symmetrical compound facing a swampy watering hole. The front gate is open but the building is closed. We will have to return after lunch, but I don't expect the unlocked shrine to look any less desolate. This could be some sort of military outpost except that the boxcar in the middle bears the oversized lettering MUSEU DO GONZAGÃO. Despite earning enough to lead the high life in the big city, Luiz Gonzaga always returned to his boyhood home, enlarged by several white barracks bedecked with baby-blue shutters. To the left, duly labeled in matching blue letters, is the former home of Januário, Gonzaga's musical father. To the right is the motel-style housing which Gonzaga built for the many musical cohorts who accompanied him here. What could all those luminaries have possibly done except pose for pictures or jam with the master?
Staggering through the heat back toward town, I come upon the communal washing post. Against concrete pillars built beside a covered trough of water, giggling housewives beat their clothing to submission. At the sight of me, they stoop further toward their task. These housewives are most un-Brazilian in their modesty, covered with kerchiefs, T-shirts, and ankle-length skirts. Their skin color is no darker than sunburn, yet something about this ritualistic scrubbing underlines the sertão's connection with Africa. A second visual clue, more telling than a whole set of meteorological tables, is the way all the women carry jugs of water or square tins of cooking oil balanced on their heads.
A square grid of wide streets has been built to one side of the highway, lined with stucco fly traps lost in a permanent glare. I'm relieved to find humans in this warren of unstinting Casbah white. It's high noon on the prairie, but a group of stubbly-faced drunks have gathered in wicker seats on the sidewalk before a corner tavern. They've got a good start on the day's stupor. These men wallow in a luxuriant indolence suggesting they've been unemployed since prenatal days. With a wink, they insist that they are hard at work on "an important project." The project's goal is made obvious when they offer me a swig of home-brewed juiabo - there being more variant nicknames for sugarcane liquor in Brazil than there are for favorite musicians. A round holder for bottles is mounted on a tree trunk near the corner, complete with a sign asking patrons to "cooperate" by always keeping the metal coil filled. I expect cynicism from these men concerning Exu's single claim to fame and tourist lure. But the "project manager" quickly volunteers, "Gonzaga is our myth." Another cachaça hound, eyes a horrible shade of bloodshot, elaborates, "We have only two kings here. That's Luiz Gonzaga and Roberto Carlos." Carlos is the former folksinger turned commercial crooner, a Brazilian cross between Julio Iglesias and Perry Como. "And we'd have three kings," he adds, showing me that even out here, soccer is not forgotten, "if Pelé could sing."
"The King Comes Home" is the name of the radio program that blares from an old loudspeaker mounted above the saloon doors. An hour of Gonzaga hits are spun every day at this hour by the town's fledgling Asa Branca FM. Before I know it, one of the younger imbibers is leading me around the corner. He is the proud founder of the station and one of only two disc jockeys. To get to the attic studio, I have to climb upstairs through a trapdoor. A single turntable and transmitter sends the music to a ten-mile radius. The station isn't licensed to accept advertising yet. But my brash host João has already taken the show biz handle of "Jota Grandão" ("Big J"). Before I know it, he sticks the microphone in my face and asks why I've come to the Gonzaga Museum, whether my book will feature Exu or the music of "the King." By the time I'm done, a group of neighborhood kids has gathered downstairs for my autograph. This is the first interview in English on Asa Branca FM.
I get VIP treatment back at the museum. My guide is the daughter of an orphaned Exu girl who was taken in by Gonzaga and served as his lifelong housekeeper. Understandably, this goddaughter has only' hushed adoration for her mother's benefactor. She shows me photos of the pudgy, dimpled singer taken shortly after his nascimento as Luiz Gonzaga do Nascimento in 1912. Under glass is his first contract with RCA in 1941, for the princely sum of 150 reis. I wonder how much that is in cruzados, cruzeiros or cruzados novos. Or how many times the singer received less than his just royalties, considering the display of Gonzaga's prodigious output has reached 241 LPs at last count. I get to watch videos of memorable television specials and a bit of the funeral controversy back in Juazeiro. My guide makes me rest on the single outdoor bench in the middle of a Parque Asa Branca that consists of concrete squares chiseled with the most memorable Gonzaga song titles. There are thousands of trophies awards, keys to cities, and photos of various band members, including the midget drummer Gonzaga nicknamed "Minimum Salary."
More impressive is the most renowned instrument in Brazil: the first of Gonzagão's ivory sanfonas (accordions), engraved in mother-of-pearl, É do Povo (Of the People), a neat summation of Gonzaga himself. I remember Gonzaguinha telling me, "Everyone who knew my father would tell you that he was very humble. He wasn't interested in anything that was far from the people." When I sign a guest register, I notice that the column under occupation is most commonly filled with the words domestica and camioneiro. Those maids and drivers really do love this mu-sic. And they are not ashamed to show their love or list their humble professions.
That's when I notice a hastily added alcove which documents the star's relationship to his son. One photo shows a teenage Gonzaga Junior bashfully strumming the guitar for his father while both stretch in hammocks. "Gonzaguinha supervises everything here," says the goddaughter. "He is most kind to all of us." Now I know why Gonzaga Junior, a child of Rio, had told me, "The Nordestino is very primitive and very direct. The life is so tough, you've got to be that way. But music is the thing which opens all the doors: to good and the devil, to saudade, sol, praia, miséria, floresta. " Longing, sun, beach, misery, forest.
"My father came from a dusty, crumbling place, but people are happy there and they show it. That's because - can you say this in English? - there is no relationship between poverty and poetry. That's why Brazil is pure music."
When word reaches me six months later that Gonzaga Junior has been killed in an auto accident - another victim of the Brazilians' fatalistic flirtation with speed - I can't help thinking about how Exu's faithful goddaughters and drinkers will get along with-out their "worker in beauty'." I can't help wondering if he died in the same jalopy which I had helped push down the road. But none of that matters now. Brazil is pure music. And, like his father, Gonzaguinha is forever.
Award-winning writer John Krich is the author of two widely praised nonfiction books, Music in Every Room and El Béisbol, as well as a novel about the private life of Fidel Castro, A Totally Free Man. This excerpt came from his book Why is This Country Dancing?