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A Tribute to Folk Culture

Researcher and guitarist, Ivan Vilela publishes a book on the Brazilian hillbilly universe

Ivan Vilela perfoming in Goiânia in July 2013: the guitar was made by the luthier Vergílio Arthur de Lima, from Sabará, in the state of Minas Gerais.

Isabel VilelaIvan Vilela perfoming in Goiânia in July 2013: the guitar was made by the luthier Vergílio Arthur de Lima, from Sabará, in the state of Minas Gerais.Isabel Vilela

Composer, arranger, researcher and professor at the University of São Paulo School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP), occupying the chair of caipira guitar, history of folk music, and music appreciation, Ivan Vilela, along with his career as musician and instrumentalist, has been a decisive contributor to a fuller appreciation of the instrument that he adopted in 1995, as well as the entire universe that surrounds it. In 1997, when he released the first of a series of highly-praised guitar CDs, Vilela embarked on a comprehensive study of the caipira (Brazilian hillbilly) universe that in 2007 became his doctoral dissertation and has now been published by Edusp as a book: Cantando a própria história – Música caipira e enraizamento (Singing its own history – Caipira Music and its Roots).

In his preface, Professor Alfredo Bosi suggests the book “be read as a generous tribute to Brazilian folk culture.” Vilela introduces the reader to the universe of the guitar by recounting the history of that instrument, from its Arab and Iberian origins to the variations in models and methods of tuning them. Then, with quotations from classic examples of important caipira music, the author examines the entire history of the guitar and the transformations it has undergone since it arrived in Brazil during the era of the Discovery—its roots, its dilution by urbanization of the market, and the ultimate “return to its origins.”

The whole idea for this work comes from the doctorate Vilela earned in Social Psychology from USP under the guidance of Ecléa Bosi, an oral historian. “I studied history before I studied music; I never completed the program, but what always bothered me was that the history was not being told from the standpoint of the povo pequeno (humble ordinary people), which is the audience that I had always dealt with,” Vilela says.

The second half of the book is composed of interviews with people from that povo pequeno, migrants who recount their memories, prompted by a questionnaire that they had been given.  Many of those memories are associated with the music that people heard on the radio, a vehicle Vilela believes was of vital importance in extending the reach of caipira music and the guitar, starting back in the twenties. Focusing his thesis on the figures of the guitarist and the migrant, the researcher challenges theories advanced by scholars such as sociologist Waldenyr Caldas, especially on the issue of radio broadcasting, as well as the popularization of phonograph records, that are said to have perverted that music that came from the sertão (Brazilian scrublands).

Types of caipira guitar:  the Queluz, the Minervino, and a guitar used by singer Zé Coco do Riachão

isabel vilelaTypes of caipira guitar: the Queluz, the Minervino, and a guitar used by singer Zé Coco do Riachãoisabel vilela

“Those who make caipira music never dwelt on the merits of the musicological question; those who wrote about it were usually historians, social scientists, or sociologists. The media are somewhat disparaging when tackling this subject,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to say that this type of music was distorted, prostituted, by the phonograph record. It wasn’t. The truth is that records and the radio were powerful weapons of dissemination.”

On the issue of national identity and regionalism, among the questions that Vilela raises is the matter of prejudice against the caipira way of speaking and other characteristics that are treated with disdain by the urban elite. “With the advent of the Republic late in the 19th century, the adoption of the positivist ideal meant that the entire oral tradition associated with slavery and patrimonial relationships had to be tossed out,” says the researcher. “And earlier, in the 18th and 19th centuries when our folk culture was being created, the elite was looking outward, trying to be European.  It did not witness that socio-historical process and even today looks at that culture and fails to recognize it as theirs.”

Vilela cautions that the compositions are highly complex, something that is perceived when they are transcribed as a written score. “Since caipira music is a prisoner to its lyrics, changes in tempo are completely atypical, very complicated, really difficult to read,” he says. The parameters are very different from the harmonic sophistication so highly valued in MPB (Brazilian Popular Music, a specific genre that arose in the mid-1960s), according to Vilela. “The textures built into folkloric music, into caipira music—we who study music can’t reproduce them. There are other sophistications that have never been taken into account, principally because of socio-historical disrespect.”

The book is accompanied by a CD, Paisagens (Landscapes) that Vilela had released in 1998 and in which he interprets primarily his own compositions. The refinement of his work since launching the CD that complements the book represents both a new beginning and a preservation of an ideal within the caipira universe. The author says that the book’s subliminal message is the defense of folk culture as a matter of national security, something he sees as true in developed countries. “All that feeling of being a nation, a collective of ordinary people, that exists in those countries comes from thinking as a community, rather than individually as we do in Brazil,” he observes. “That’s connected to the folk culture.”