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Nostalgia for Jeca in the 21st century

Studies analyze country music and reveal an accurate image of Brazil: willing to move forward but always looking back

Reproduction of the painting O Violeiro by Almeida Júnior, 1899, Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo museum and photo by Miguel BoyayanThe composer of the best known and most revered Brazilian country music song, Tristeza do Jeca (1918), was not, as one might expect, a long-suffering inhabitant from the hinterland. To the contrary, Angelino Oliveira, the songwriter, was actually a dentist, police precinct clerk and storeowner. Recorded by “hillbillies” and “country music singers” in the “good old days of the authentic cururu” (a folk dance), as well as in the “modern times of the Americanized music played at rodeos,” Tristeza do Jeca is the best example of the noteworthy, albeit little known, fluidity of the transition between the rural and urban environments of Brazilian music. At a time when men only sang in major keys and deep voices, Jeca, unembarrassed by his “lack of masculinity,” is humble, tearful and melancholic, lamenting the fact that he cannot return to the past; and so, “every tune represents a longing.” Oliveira’s Jeca is not interested in the poverty of the rural region, nor in its natural catastrophes. Instead, he focuses on that which is intimate and sentimental and this is the tone that has shaped Brazilian country or hillbilly music. “Popular Brazilian music maintains a deep longing for country life. It is modern, sophisticated and urban, yet it is equally country-like, rustic and unrelated to urban life. This applies to the songs composed by Jobim and by Chico and continues to hold true for most of our contemporary music. All these personas have assumed the voice of the paradigm of the migrant, reflecting a status of rootlessness, dependency and longing,” says political scientist Heloísa Starling, deputy dean of the Federal University of Minas Gerais/UFMG and the editor of Imaginação da terra: memória e utopia na canção popular brasileira [Imagination of the land: memory and Utopia in Brazilian popular songs]. A compilation of texts, the book resulted from the seminar of the same name sponsored by the República Project at UFMG and held in 2008. The compilation, due to be published in the second half of this year by the UFMG publishing house in conjunction with NEAD, the Center for Agrarian Studies and Rural Development, focuses on a broad discussion of the national longing for the rural areas and backlands.

The site of the República Project also has a page to assuage the longing of any urban being for Matão. This page, another result of Imaginação da Terra, contains a chronology of Brazilian country music and includes links, for those who want to listen to the genre’s best-known songs. The page also includes a pioneering and fundamental mapping of country music. After all, these “rural” songs – largely composed in an urban environment by composers who commute between the city and the country (but who see themselves as coming “from the countryside”), the researcher points out, talk about the absence of nature and reiterate the pain of loss, a longing, a nostalgia for the good old times – in reaction to a period during which the country was hypnotized by the desire for modernization and witnessed waves of migrants from the rural regions. “This gave rise to songs that suggest that, in this problematic script called Brazil, there is something that is both permanent and devoid of a specific site; this is why the songs contain all the places, all the absences, everything that can come to be: the archaic backdrop of a rural world projected over a primitive society that is far removed from the urban arena and which is, apparently, its reverse side.” Surprisingly, this topic attracted the attention of U.S. anthropologist Alexander Dent, a professor at George Washington University. After more than 11 years of research in Brazil, especially in the State of São Paulo, he wrote a book on the subject, to be published next month by Duke University Press: River of tears: country music, memory and modernity in Brazil (312 pages, US$ 84.95), the first ethnographic study of Brazilian country music. Dent’s intention was to explain not only the production and reception of this musical genre in the country, but also the reasons that led it to grow so much from the end of the military dictatorship to the beginning of neo-liberal reforms. “The rural genres reflect a generalized anxiety that change and modernization were too fast and too radical. When they define their music as country music, Brazilian musicians, whose work is extensively heard in cities, want their music to be a critique of the increasing and inescapable urban life that has taken over Brazil, an urban lifestyle characterized by suppressed emotions and a lack of respect for the past,” Dent explains. “The music evokes a ‘flood of tears’ flowing through a landscape of lost love, country life and man’s ties to the world of nature.”

DISSEMINATION/ REPÚBLICA PROJECTThe duo Alvarenga and Ranchinho: country music written in the cityDISSEMINATION/ REPÚBLICA PROJECT

A passion for the country, however, is no longer restricted to the world of music and has raised the awareness of a significant number of the urban elite to country fashions, country music, and to the million-dollar spectacle of rodeos. “Despite its impressive growth, the country phenomenon is still rather blurred, devoid of clear contours capable of clarifying its definition and understanding. For example, there is no perception of the particularities of the country life style in Brazil. In general, the overall impression is that the country phenomenon is a copy of what exists in the USA,” says sociologist Silvana Gonçalves de Paula, an assistant professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro and at the Economic Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Undoubtedly, the rise of this phenomenon is closely connected to the American experience, but one can’t give in to the temptation to automatically transform this link into a mere copy, a reductionist idea of imitation that supports a nationalistic cliché. This cliché, given its fundamentalist insistence in preserving something that is authentic, denounces the infiltration of our society by the ‘evil’ inclination to reproduce everything that comes from abroad, especially from the United States.” This is also reflected in the eternal and unconvincing dichotomy between country music, “colonized, commercial and modernized,” and hillbilly music, “dignified, grass roots, sincere,” which permeates the prejudice of academics and, above all, of journalists, in regard to everything that stems from the first genre to the detriment of the second genre. “One line of discourse states that, from the 50’s onward, rural music lost its purity and its accent after it blended the moda de viola (music played on the hillbilly guitar) with other Latin genres and the incorporation of other instruments, making it necessary to preserve the original characteristics of this backcountry music so that it doesn’t disappear,” points out sociologist Elizete Ignácio, from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV-Rio).

“There is a longing for this traditional country life, which is mixed with the bitter taste of a time now lost because of modernization, which obliges everyone to live in a world devoid of enchantment and dominated by mass media, whose ideological control allegedly transforms the population into ‘mere consumers,’ and not the ‘producers’ of the final discourse,” she adds. According to the researcher, the view now held by modern country folk is that they reflect a new agricultural elite that is totally unrelated to the hillbilly, the latter being defined as a simple, unsophisticated and cordial human being. The folk feast seems to have been drowned by technical apparatus. The search for all that is international and for the “multi” element, the offspring of modernization, along with the adoption of new technologies and languages, have brought the rural folk closer to the American country folk than to the Brazilian hillbilly. “My research on cowboys who come to Brazil to take part in rodeos reveals other, more subtle realities. In American society, the country life style is associated with toil, simplicity, the rustic dignity of contact with nature. In Brazil, the country life style is almost the total opposite – our country life incorporates a rural spirit in the criteria of urban civility, an insertion that occurs as a result of the plea to dignify human beings. The country life style introduces the theme of rural life into the urban scenario and conducts a dialogue with the traditional boundaries that determine the relationship between the country and the city in Brazil” Silvana points out.

In music, the subtlety of the surprises can be even stronger. “Country music as a specific segment within the field of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) surfaced between 1902 and1960. Initially, until 1930, country music referred, specifically and indistinctly, to music produced in Brazil’s inner-state areas, largely symbolized by Brazil’s Northeast Region. From the 30’s onwards, country music was defined as that produced by the capira, the hillbilly from the Center-South region, and a few years later, from São Paulo State. The country singers Jararaca and Ratinho, who were the icons of the transition from the backlands hillbilly of the Northeast to the caipira, worked in Rio de Janeiro. The duos who were popular in the 40’s, such as Tonico and Tinoco, worked in São Paulo,” explains anthropologist Allan de Paula Oliveira, who recently presented his doctoral thesis, Miguilim foi pra cidade ser cantor: uma antropologia da música sertaneja [Miguilim went to town to become a singer: an anthropology of country music] at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. The researcher points out that early on, country music was somewhat “colonized” by caipira music by means of the tone quality and new sub-genres. The typical singing format of the duos was the three-note interval and comprised a specialization in the form of the so-called caipira duos. This included using make-up and hillbilly clothes. In the 50’s, country music, in its caipira version, had already settled into its new format. In addition, just as the “neo-country singers” of today are victims of the purists” prejudice, in the 60’s, Allan points out, caipira country music was similarly excluded from the major processes that resulted in the acronym MPB. “Likewise, the genre did not stand out in the music festivals of the 60’s, having been virtually sidelined in the genesis of MPB. Back then, young audiences regarded the baião [a form of Northeastern popular dance] as an example of country music.”

DISSEMINATION/ REPÚBLICA PROJECTCover of record recorded by Boldrin brings back an idyllic view of hillbilly Almeida JúniorDISSEMINATION/ REPÚBLICA PROJECT

In later years, country music was relegated to the sad position of being an example of such sociological categories as the lumpen, the proletariat and the alienated. “This musical genre was sidelined by the dominant classes yet consumed by a broad audience, seen as being of a “subaltern” nature, as the lower classes were referred to back then. Until the mid 80’s, country music was stuck in a backstage position within the context of Brazilian music, a genre listened to outside the center. Thus, country music, until then, had been split into two categories: one category enhanced the caipira roots of country music and used the expression caipira music to denote its genre and distinguish it from the other category, comprised of country music open to external influences and which used the expression sertaneja [hillbilly] to describe itself.” The latter’s boom began in 2005, with the feature film Os dois filhos de Francisco [The two sons of Francisco, a biopic of a well-known country music duo]. “It became a blockbuster and sertaneja music, along with axé and pagode, became one of the three most popular genres in the 90’s, with rising media exposure,” Allan points out. According to the researcher, the rise of musical genres that in the past were related to excluded social groups is one of the compensations of the entry of these groups into the world of consumption. Rodeos are a leading indicator in the case of Brazilian country music of the 90’s. Iconic events of the modernized rural world, cowhands are reconstructed in as cowboys. Brazilian country music, the sound track of these events, has maintained its original features, yet has added elements of pop and rock, translated into the new musical format embraced by the duos, with support bands playing electric guitars, base, keyboards, etc. As a result, the sound of the viola caipira, or hillbilly guitar, has become a secondary element when it is played.

“Oddly enough, the rodeo cowhand’s male domination of the bucking bull is like the opposite end of the extremely expressive and lachrymose music that is the background sound at these events. I have spoken to several cowhands who told me that their laconic facial expression masks their emotions, which, according to them, is well represented in those songs,” says Alex Dent. “This also explains the tradition of country music duos, generally comprised of male siblings, with little room for women. By means of this brotherhood, the music performed on stage reveals men’s vulnerabilities, which are normally hidden, being vetoed by machismo.” According to the American anthropologist, the musicians describe their world as sertanejo [backwoods], meaning that the lyrics of their songs criticize the urban reality that suppresses feelings and pays no heed to the past; they use the “old” country as a model and lament everything that has been lost to modernity. “Rural, in the case of this music, does not mean that the musicians and their fans necessarily come from a rural environment, since most of this music is produced and played in an urban environment. However, this ‘rural nature’ should not be understood literally as a reference to the country; the idea is to use this arena to emphasize the fragmentation of the individual and the loss of an idyllic past, which followers believe has been devastated by urbanization,” he points out. Country music, permeated by a state of emotional crisis, should provoke the same reaction in the listener: the re-emergence of the heart. “The Brazilians living in the places where I conducted my research work also feel ill at ease with how fast changes occur and with progress. Although they believe that they must accept novelties, at the same time they fear the imminent loss of their identity. The country music and way of life are among the ways in which this fear can express itself.”


According to Dent, this could be yet one more reason that explains the growth of this musical genre when democracy returned to Brazil. “At first glance, country music seems to have ignored the military dictatorship, as there are no songs about torture, censorship or missing activists. The rural nature that underlies the genre, however, emphasizes a veiled criticism of the progress-related lines of discourse that were central to the coercive “economic miracles” of the military dictatorships.” Though the “leaden years” may not be explicitly visible, criticism of these years is always there and can be heard by those who listen to the voice lamenting the “forced loss of innocence” of rural areas. “After 1985, when Brazil returned to democracy, many groups resorted to the sertanejo genre as an alternative to the dictatorship’s progress-related discourse, especially when associated with urbanization, industrialization and guidelines for the future. The looking backwards and the longing for bygone times were suddenly vigorously mobilized to complicate Brazilianized discourses and the thoughtless acceptance of progress for its own sake,” the anthropologist explains. However, this should not be understood as an immediate adoption of less conservative attitudes.

“Rural musical genres also criticized re-democratization, and referred to the modernity of globalization as having more of a corrupting nature than a progressive one. Instead of forgetting the place, the history, and the land, the hillbilly proposes that everyone has a need to recognize himself as a rural being, to enhance the ideal past and to appreciate the ties of kinship with his brothers.” And even though Tristeza do Jeca pulls at the heartstrings of the hillbillies because of its longing for the past, this does not keep them from shedding floods of tears when listening to contemporary recordings of country songs on state-of-the-art sound equipment or on stages where country music is performed with amazing technical resources.

I saw the same CD at the homes of viola caipira students in the camps of the MST, landless peasant movement, and on the shelves of millionaires, in whose opinion ‘the military forces have to be brought back to put an end to turmoil in rural areas and in the world of politics”. One can no longer restrict Brazilian country music to social classes or ideologies,” says Dent. In short, Brazilian country music is an excellent mirror of the nation and its eternal dichotomy between the old and the new. “The brother issue, for example, has always existed in Brazilian country music; in the past, the lament was related to the lack of roots caused by migration; today, the music celebrates powerlessness in the face of love. The hillbilly guitar continues to link the past and the future, as the students who make a huge effort to learn archaic rhythms by digital means demonstrate. The rural spirit is popular, above all, because it allows one to experience the city and the country simultaneously. Silvana Gonçalves agrees. This is the strong ambivalence of Brazilian country music. The followers of this genre view both places as a reference point at the same time, because they cross these boundaries unceasingly. The intriguing aspect of all of this is that the country life style has strengthened its roots because of the relatively recent possibility of coming and going, i.e., of moving between two reference frameworks. This movement produces a territorial element.” Thus, the “badness” of the progress achieved by the military dictatorship (for example, the building of highways, the improvements in rural areas, the development of modern agriculture) now allows one to have a territory that combines the city and the countryside. No wonder democratization came hand in hand with loud country music in the background.DISSEMINATION/ REPÚBLICA PROJECT

“Thus, the country life style in Brazil is not an experience that reproduces country, farming or ranching life styles. It is, above all, an experience that ritualizes elements attributed to the relationship with nature, farming and ranching in urban scenarios (sports tournaments, dance clubs, tourism, fashion, rules of social conduct). The country life style draws on rural characteristics as a source of inspiration in the determination of urban sociability patterns,” Silvana points out. The country (or cáuntri, the pronunciation heard by Dent in the course of his research work in Brazil) style acts as one of the spheres that “produces” the country, backed by Brazilian country music, the creative expression of reality. “Thus, for the hillbilly, there is no reason to separate sertanejo from caipira, given that both belong to same spectrum. I saw evidence of this at a show in the city of Barretos, in 1999, when the Brazilian country music duo Xitãozinho and Xororó joined the duo Tião Carreiro and Pardinho to sing Pagode em Brasília (a successful song of the latter duo) with all the connotations that this city has as a project for the modernization and future of Brazil. In 21st century Brazil, the innovation does not consist of merely conveying this message at one of the world’s biggest rodeo shows, but of combining the representation of the past and the present, as a result of which a commercially successful duo can share the stage with its “roots”, now referred to as caipira,” the anthropologist explains.