Sertanejo: Country Music in Brazil

Bruce Gilman explained: "In the past the word sertaneja had been used as a type of umbrella category that included all country music originating in the interior regions of Brazil. Today however Sertaneja refers to music that has a slick studio sound, employs a rock ensemble format, and incorporates synthesizers instead of the viola (the ten string guitar-like instrument).  Its performers dress like Texas cowboys and sing without the regional accent. It is typified by the groups Chitãozinho and Xororó and Leandro and Leonardo. Sertaneja today is not the genuine Sertaneja music of earlier times. It may have gained a better sound quality but without the viola it loses much of its variety, integrity, and creativity."  (Brazzil, December 1995).  

The Grammy Guide to Latin Music offers this definition: "Música sertaneja, or simply sertanejo, is a type of regional country music from Brazil that, in recent years, has enjoyed great national popularity and record sales. Critic Antonio Carlos Miguel notes that sertanejo is rooted in música caipira, the acoustic country music of Southeast and Central Brazil, and that while it was originally characterized by naïve lyrics about romance and rural life, sertanejo has, in recent decades, incorporated the influences of guarânia music from Paraguay, Mexican mariachi music and North American country music."  For a sampling of the music, try the internet radio website Som Sertanejo.

But just popular is sertanejo in Brazil?  We will cite some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted during 2002.  Within this survey, the respondents were asked if they listened to sertanejo on radio frequently.  According to the survey results, 10.5% of them said that they listen frequently.

In the next chart we show the incidences by city and by socio-economic level.  Like most consumer surveys, the TGI Brasil study does not have nationwide coverage.  The study universe consists of the nine major cities and the balance of Sao Paulo state and also the interior of the south/southeast states.  To the extent that sertanejo is more popular in the heartland of the country, the TGI Brasil study does not project to the true national incidence.  Within the TGI survey universe, we see that the two large metropolitan areas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have the lowest and third lowest incidences, whereas the interior city of Brasilia has the highest incidence.  Socio-economically, sertanejo is a decreasing function of socio-economic level.

(data source: 2002 TGI Brasil)

In the next chart, we show the incidences by age/sex groups.  The patterns seen here are perhaps not so distinguished from some previous data that we presented on regional music in Mexico.  

(data source: 2002 TGI Brasil)

But what did we expect anyway?  The word sertanejo is used to describe sertão (plural sertões), which is the term for the interior of the country or the hinterland, and specifically to the backland regions of the northeast.  Here, the association with the 1902 book titled Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands in English) by Euclides da Cunha is automatic.  This book has been described as the "Bible of Brazilian nationality".  Although the book is described principally as a history of a peasant rebellion, it is also remarkable for its introduction sections on the geography and people of the backlands.  The first chapter is titled The Land and begins with "The central plateau of Brazil descends, along the southern coast, in unbroken slopes, high and steep, overlooking the sea; ..."  The second chapter is titled Man and eventually comes to this characterization: "The sertanejo, or man of the backlands, is above all else a strong individual.  He does not exhibit the debilitating rachitic tendencies of the neurasthenic mestizos of the seaboard."  That is a strong characterization of a personality type.

The translator's introduction to Rebellion in the Backlands reads: "The description of the devastating backland droughts holds the tragedy of a people struggling with a blind fate as represented by the relentless forces of nature.  How deeply Euclides da Cunha felt for this folk, how close to them he was, may be seen from any one of a number of vignettes that he gives us, each a small masterpiece in its kind: the cowboy's dead child and the festa that marks its funeral; the cattle dying of thirst and starvation on the edge of the pool where they were accustomed to drink; the vaqueiro and his lifelong vegetable friends, the umbú tree, the joaz tree, and the others; the homeward-bound herd and the herdsman's home-going song, the aboiado; the stampede; and then hours of ease and relaxation, swaying in the hammock, sipping the savory umbusada, the festive gatherings and the 'head strong' aguardente, the poetic tourneys, or "challenges."  It is the life of a race, the mestizo race of the backlands, that lives for us here."

But is this tradition all bygone in this modern industrial age?  Gilberto Freyre said: "A people repudiates that part of its past which is cannot, or should not, use. It throws it into what I have called the 'historical garbage.' To put it more precisely, this past is merely laid aside. One does not know whether it will remain passive, when no longer used. Sometimes this unusable past revenges itself on the people who no longer use it. Thus we often have irrational forces influencing the rational forces that should direct the people. Not everything can be eliminated that one wants to. There are certain parts of the past that we consider entirely dead; yet they have been known to erupt like volcanoes. We had in Brazil - in the Canudos incident immortalized by Euclides da Cunha in his Os Sertões (published in an English translation by Samuel Putnam under the title Rebellion in the Backlands) - an eruption of this kind. The rebellion drew attention to a rejected past, the Sertanejo past, and there was a revival of Sertanejo values.... In Brazil, we have several eras side by side. Some of the population still lives in the colonial era; some in the mid-19th century; some is as up-to-date as can be; and still another part is entirely primitive."  To the extent that sertanejo music commands a sizeable following in Brazil today, the historical rural roots have survived, albeit in hybridized forms.

(posted by Roland Soong, 5/11/2003)

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