Death of Brazilian singer shines spotlight on mainstream's cultural disconnect

With his chiselled jawline, immaculately groomed stubble and smile that could shift toothpaste by the ton, João Gabriel is immediately mobbed as he descends the stage into the crowd halfway through his set at Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa 40° club.

Unruffled, Gabriel’s grin never flickers or dims. The 29-year old singer has been doing this since he was nine, traipsing from bar to bar with his father.

It’s not samba, bossa-nova or baile funk that’s driving the crowd wild, however: Gabriel is a star of sertanejo, a kind of accordion-infused country pop, that is phenomenally successful in Brazil, if rather less so outside.

But until the recent death of the singer Cristiano Araújo – a friend and colleague of Gabriel – the huge popularity of sertanejo had been largely overlooked by the country’s São Paulo and Rio-based media.

“There’s a prejudice against sertanejo,” Gabriel said. “Some of the elite in this country turn their noses up at what the people like.”

Araújo and his 19-year old girlfriend were killed in a car accident in the early hours of 24 June, as they returned from a concert in the centre-west state of Goiás.

The reaction to his death revealed a gaping cultural chasm within Brazilian society: millions mourned on social networks, but much of media commentary expressed a mixture of bewilderment and disdain at the outpouring of grief for an unknown artist.

As the news of his death broke, Brazilian TV channels interrupted their usual programmes to pay tribute to Araújo, broadcasting extensive interviews with the singer’s family and friends, the paramedics who attended the scene of the accident and other sertanejo stars who wished to offer their own musical condolences.

But one of the highest-profile presenters on Brazilian television, Fátima Bernardes, revealed the ignorance of many by mistakenly announcing the death of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid footballer, rather than Cristiano Araújo.

A few days later, Zeca Camargo, another prominent journalist from the dominant Globo network, reported on the media’s “insane” coverage of Araújo’s death. “How have we become collectively seduced by such an unknown person?” he asked, arguing the reaction had highlighted the “poverty of Brazil’s cultural soul”. Camargo’s comments prompted a swift, vicious backlash from sertanejo fans, with a picture of his name scrawled on a toilet bowl quickly going viral.

Allan Oliveira, a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, believes the media’s reaction was driven by panic at its ignorance of what is happening in large parts of the country.

“There is a centralisation of the media in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo,” he said. “But you have a huge amount of culture outside of this axis. There are significant consumer markets, and sertanejo is one of them, about which the media knows nothing.”

Sertanejo universitario, the kind of pop-country sung by Araújo and Gabriel derives from traditional caipira music, introduced to Brazil by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. Originally used as an instrument of religious instruction, it thrived in Brazil’s vast interior. Whereas much of the country’s most successful musical exports are strongly influenced by its African heritage, sertanejo is more a product of its European settlers.

The contemporary version, however, bears little relation to its origins, according to Romildo Sant’Anna, a writer and journalist on caipira culture, who describes sertanejo universitario as “infantile”.

“In the 1940s, Brazilians started to move to the cities,” he said. “A culture that had been agro-pastoral for 450 years suddenly had to adapt to an urban environment. This triggered an identity crisis that is reflected in popular music. Sertanejo now has lost its country roots; it is an urban music that is the expression of a people in search of a new culture.”

Back at Lapa 40°, Lorena Borges, 29, a dentistry student from the northern state of Maranhão, is attending the club’s sertanejo night for the first time. A fan of the music, she accepts the criticism that the lyrics are often “inane”, but argues that it is the rhythm that appeals to her. “There’s still some prejudice, but I think that attitudes are changing,” she said.

Gabriel is proud of his role in building up a fanbase for his music. “I was a pioneer, the first to put on a big sertanejo night in Rio.” For the past five years he has played the same venue every Thursday night.

Indignant at the criticism levelled at the genre, Gabriel said that some Brazilians were ashamed to like genuinely popular music. He compared sertanejo to gospel, another massively successful music that receives little coverage in the mainstream media.

“Most Brazilians are devoted to God and to Jesus,” he said. “Like gospel music, sertanejo also speaks to the heart, it talks about love and suffering. That’s why people like it.”

the guardian |Bruce Douglas

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