Since colonial times, the huge area of grasslands and sparsely populated plains in the interior of Brazil, from Paraná and São Paulo in the south to Piauí and Maranhão in the north, has been known as the “sertão”. Its history and image in popular culture bears much in common with the old “wild west” of North America. Sertão in many ways symbolizes the borderland between civilization and modernity on the one hand, and wilderness and the ancient on the other. Historically, the sertão has been associated with wild animals and hostile Indians, gangsters, cowboys and adventerous settlers. Sadly, poverty has also been a problem very much associated with the sertão, where people have lived mainly off small scale cattle farms and agriculture. “Sertanejo” is the Portuguese word to designate someone or something from the sertão. With time, it has also become the name of the music genre typical of this part of Brazil.
During the last 50 years or so, standards of living have risen significantly in the interior of the states of São Paulo and Paraná, which is probably the reason why this region is usually no longer even thought of as part of the sertão. This is somewhat ironic, as the by far most popular and well known sertanejo music of today is based on the folk music from these southern parts of the sertão.
Sertanejo music originates from the celebrations of festivities and religious events in the interior of the states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul, São Paulo and Paraná, as well as in southern Goiás and southern Bahia, during the colonial era. According to historians and anthropologists, the music has its roots in the Iberian song and dance traditions, mixed with mostly Amerindian influences. The type of guitar, viola caipira, which is by far the most important instrument in sertanejo music, is a modification of the typical Portuguese guitar, called the "viola de arame", which was introduced in Brazil already during the 16th century, by the Jesuits. In the beginning, violas were manufactured by using animal intestines to create the strings, though this practice was later abandoned in favor of steel strings.
Different kinds of sertanejo music
It was the mix between religious songs of the Jesuits and Portuguese immigrants, together with the traditional native Brazilian Indian folk music and dances, that originated a series of closely related music and dance styles, such as catira, cururu, toada and moda de viola, which together form the genre of sertanejo (or “música caipira”, as it is also called). The early sertanejo was very similar to Iberian folk songs. The harmony vocals, so typical of modern sertanejo music, is also a legacy from Europe, while the genre’s exceptionally high voiced way of singing, often teetering on the verge of falsetto, is thought to have Amerindian roots.
Catira and cateretê are two very similar music styles, with traditions that go hundreds of years back. They are both performed on guitar and accordion and with a general feel that resembles that of North American country music. Another old sertanejo sub-genre is the cururu, where the main instruments are the viola caipira and percussion instruments drawn from the Afro-Brazilian music traditions. Cururu songs often have sad or nostalgic themes, but the inciting and rich percussion rhythms make the cururu a very dance friendly music style.
A fourth sub genre of sertanejo music is the moda de viola, which, compared to catira, cateretê and cururu is much less dance oriented. Historiclly, moda de viola has been the most widespread form of sertanejo music. Viola caipira is the dominant instrument within moda de viola and it may or may not be accompanied by a vocalist. The focus on the guitar as the dominant and often only mean of expression, has encouraged the moda de viola musicians to create complex, intricate and elegant compositions that require highly refined guitar plucking skills. Until the early 20th century, moda de viola songs were not rarely up to 40 minutes long, where the lyrics consisted of almost literary narratives about historical events or adventure. This is a reflection of the moda de viola music's origins in the European medieval troubadour tradition. Very close to the moda de viola, in terms of sound and execution, is the toada, common mainly in the state of Minas Gerais.
For all the regional styles differences, as a whole, the main hallmarks of all sertanejo music is always the sound of the viola caipira and the lyrical themes replete with emotions, such sadness, melancholy, longing and love.
Sertanejo in modern times
The technological progress and the adoption of radio and phonographic recording as means of distributing music had a significant impact on the sertanejo music. As an adaptation to the radio and 78 rpm disc format, sertanejo songs were shortened down from the 40 minutes format to two to four minutes, to fit the new mediums. The year 1924 also saw the first recording of a sertanejo song on a phonographic disc, in the form of the well known toada Tristeza do Jeca, written by Angelino Oliveira in 1918.
In 1931, the businessman Cornelio Pires organizied a sertanejo concert on the prestigious venue of Teatro Municipal in São Paulo, where sertanejo-musicians representing different subgenres for the first time got the chance to present their music to an urban audience. The show was a huge success, both among critics and audience, and sertanejo music suddenly became fashionable also in the big cities. Although sertanejo fell out of fashion again during the late 1950’s, which saw the surge of the then newly created bossa nova and North American rock, the 50’s and 60’s was the a time of success for several popular sertanejo duos (or “duplas sertanejas”, as they are called) as Alvarenga & Ranchinho and Tonico & Tinoco.
The late 1960’s was a whater-shed in the history of sertanejo music, as the duo Leo Canhotto & Robertinho introduced the electric guitar, electric bass and drum set designed for rock music in the genre, which thus came to acquire a distinct country pop sound, obviously with inspiration drawn from the North American folk rock scene of the time. The stated intention was to modernize and "rejuvenate" the sertanejo music scene. The countrified sertanejo music rapidly increased its popularity and soon more or less completely replaced the more traditional, acoustic sertanejo from mainstream radio, television and in record shops. In 1982, the sertanejo duo Chitãozinho & Chororó took the concept one step further, through adding even more elements of contemporary pop music, complete with synthesizers and keyboards. Again, the move was a huge success among the younger crowds, and thus the modern, commercial sertanejo music was born. From that moment on, the lyrics of main stream sertanejo also became limited to conventional love and romance and the songs were often presented in the format of bombastic ballads. Many bands also began to dress in cowboy-inspired hats and garments, so as to further strengthen their perceived ties with the North American country scene. Although contemporary sertanejo music has undeniably drifted very far from its traditional roots, it nevertheless still retains some of its most typical ingredients. The almost theatric innocence and purposely exaggerated romanticism in its adress is a very clear heritage from the old sertanejo music and moda de viola. The exceptionally high pitched and sharp tones of the (almost without exception) male duo of harmony singers, is also an obvious reminiscent from traditional sertanejo music.
One can hardly deny that the extremely melodramatic mixture 80’s styled power ballads, North American main stream country music and Brazilian traditional countryside folk music, that is modern sertanejo, drifts well into the kitsch territory of popular culture. Nevertheless, the three most popular duos of contemporary sertanejo duos; Xitãozinho & Xororó, Leandro & Leonardo and Zezé Di Camargo & Luciano, have all achieved enormous commercial success through several decades, with millions of records sold and countless performances at sold-out arenas all over Brazil. Moreover, the latter duo's life was also portrayed in the beautiful, moving and award-winning 2005 movie 2 Filhos de Francisco.
Though very much in the shadow of the countrified contemporary sertanejo, the traditional sertanejo styles are far from dead. They still flourish in many smaller cities on the countryside and among young university students. To distinguish the traditional sertanejo music from the pop and country music-inspired newer rendition of the genre, the traditional sertanejo music is nowdays often presented as sertanejo de raiz (meaning “root sertanejo”). Tonico & Tinoco, Jararaca & Ratinho, Alvarenga & Ranchinho, Ivan Vilela, Chico Lobo and Miltinho Edilberto among the biggest names of the sertanejo de raiz subgenre and they perform mainly traditional São Paulo style sertanejo.
Another much celebrated artist within sertanejo de raiz is Elomar, or Mestre Elomar, as he is sometimes he is sometimes called because of his guru status within the genre. An architect by profession, from the city of Vitória da Consquista in the interior of the state of Bahia, he is considered to be one of the most talented representatives of traditional sertanejo music of the northeast-Brazilian variety. Elomar’s roots in the Nordeste region are very evident in his music, which showcases many of the typical traits of the region’s folk song tradition, which dates all the way back to the 16th century. Renato Andrade, from the state of Minas Gerais, is another prominent sertanejo de raiz musician, whose classic album A Fantástica Viola de Renato Andrade is widely considered as one of the masterpieces of sertanejo genre.
Since the mid 90’s younger musicians, mainly from the interior of the São Paulo state, have formed bands which mix traditional sertanejo music with elements of contemporary rock. The most famous of these bands is probably Matuto Moderno.
Examples of sertanejo music
Click to listen:
Guaxo, Helena Meirelles, 1994
Tristeza do Jeca, Tonico e Tinoco, 1959
Chitãozinho e Xororô, Zé do Rancho e Zé do Pinho
Seriema do Campo, Renato Andrade, 1977
Beijinho Doce, Brazão e Brazãozinho
Chico Mulato, Raul Torres e Florêncio
Chico Mineiro, Tonico e Tinoco, 1959
Tonico & Tinoco during the 1950's.
Arid sertão landscape.
Sertão in the state of Tocantins.
Modern day sertanejo, with Zezé di Camargo & Luciano