How the Viola Got Hip in Brazil

 How the Viola Got Hip 
  in Brazil

The history of the
viola in Brazil always accompanied that of the
man in the field. There are more than 20 different tunings for
the instrument. One of the most common in the states of São Paulo
and Minas is the big onion. It’s said that women cry when they
hear violeiros playing in this tuning as if they were chopping onions.

by: Rafaela

Sound samples are available through the links.

"They say that if
you want to look for the sertão you will never find it. Suddenly,
by itself, when you are not expecting it, the sertão comes."
The force of the sertão to which Brazilian fictionist Guimarães
Rosa was referring is back once more thanks to one of the principal forms
of expression of the culture of the sertão: music made with
the viola caipira, also known as the viola cabocla, or the viola
de arame (wire), or by as many names as there are years of Brazilian history.

A history that was forgotten,
but which is making a comeback with a new generation of violeiros,
who are doing research and reviving traditions, at the same time as they are
inventing styles, and bringing the viola caipira to the areas of instrumental
music, MPB and classical music.

For many of these new
artists, the viola caipira also arrived unexpectedly, after years spent
playing other instruments. Its sound recalls the songs from folias-de-reis
heard in childhood, of the songs of Tonico and Tinoco and of Tião Carreiro
played on the radio.

And it is thus that these
artists explain the growth of the public for the viola caipira: "The
viola has a lot to say about the history of Brazil, about the imagination
of the people; that is why it is coming back so strong", says the violeiro
Ivan Vilela, from Itajubá in Minas Gerais.

For Passoca, a Paulista
composer who mixes elements of música caipira and MPB (Música
Popular Brasileira—Brazilian Popular Music), "everyone in the city
has roots in the country: they heard moda de viola as a child, with
their father or grandfather."

There are curious stories
that go along with the viola, such as that São Gonçalo,
who, in addition to being the patron saint of violeiros, also protects
prostitutes, is called on by those who wish to marry, and is the saint of
fertility. Or the different versions of making a "deal with the imp",
something necessary for those not naturally gifted—since as we know the
devil has always been an excellent musician.

For these musicians, nevertheless,
it is not easy to carve out a niche in the context of the contemporary record
industry, in which the large record companies are not interested in modest

"Some of these artists
could even attract the attention of an important label, since their presence
adds value to their catalogue, but they have a style which is far from that
of the formula for mass success", explains José Roberto Zan, professor
of music at the Departamento de Artes da Universidade Estadual de Campinas

Independent production,
or with small labels, ends up being the rule, and the discs are sold at shows,
stores with broader coverage, or over the Internet. For this reason, there
are more financial difficulties, but also more creative freedom.

"In comparison to
what used to happen decades ago, today access to the means of musical production
is easier, and this is reflected in the large quantity of recordings which
happen at the margins of the traditional system", says Zan.

"As is happening
throughout the world, Brazil also has an increasing demand for "authentic"
cultural manifestations, which have some link with tradition, since, with
globalization, culture is more and more losing its relation to its place of
origin, and tends to become more standardized", he adds.

Tunings and Rhythms

"When I bought a
viola, I thought that I would simply need to transfer my knowledge
of the guitar to it. But I soon saw that it was quite different," tells
Braz da Viola, who today gives classes for those who want to learn to play
and construct the instrument, in São Francisco Xavier, is the state
of São Paulo.

Generally smaller than
the guitar, with a smaller waist, it does not have six strings, but ten in
groups of two. Nevertheless, according to the violeiro and researcher
of the instrument Roberto Corrêa, in his book A Arte de Pontear Viola
(The Art of Playing the Viola) at present it is possible to find in Brazil
violas with anywhere from five to twelve strings.

Widely known in Portugal
in the sixteenth century, the viola was brought to Brazil soon after
its colonization. At the very beginning, indigenous rhythms were mixed with
those from Portugal. Later came African influences, and by the twentieth century,
those of countries bordering on Brazil.

Thus, there is a variety
of rhythms today: cururu, cateretê, toada, cana-verde, arrasta-pé,
batuque, lundu, moda campeira, xote, rasqueado, waltz, mazurka, polka
and guarânia, among others.

The history of the viola
always accompanied that of the man in the field. In the past, the violeiro
sought, in a spontaneous way, to tune the strings of the instrument "so
that the sound would be good for accompanying the voice, and so that it would
not be necessary to be too gymnastic with the fingers, since his hand was
already sore because of his heavy labor", explains Ivan Vilela.

And so various tunings
began to appear—today there are more than 20 different ones in Brazil.
One of the most common in São Paulo and in the south of Minas Gerais,
the cebolão (big onion), was already used in Portugal, and is
so named because "they say that women, when they hear the violeiros
playing in this tuning, used to cry as if they were chopping onions",
according to Vilela.

The rio abaixo
tuning, used by the Paulista violeiro Paulo Freire—and, they say,
also by the devil—is typical of the Urucuia valley (in the north of Minas
Gerais), where Freire learned to play the instrument.

After reading Grande
Sertão: Veredas, by Guimarães Rosa, he went there in search
of the sound of the sertão. He learned with old violeiros,
such as seu Manelim—Manoel Neto de Oliveira—, with whom he
composed some of the songs of his disc Rio Abaixo, winner of the Prêmio
Sharp for new instrumental in 1995.

Accompanied by violoncello,
seven string guitar, and various percussion instruments, he plays songs such
as Mosquitão, –
– also performed this year in his project "Personagens por Seus
Sons" (Characters and their sounds), at Sesc Vila Mariana, in São
Paulo, together with the Contadores de Estória Miguilim (Miguilim Storytellers),
who declaimed portions of the work by Guimarães Rosa.

The paths by which players
learn to play the instrument are various. Some artists emphasize the importance
of living in the sertão, of contact with older, unknown violeiros
who are still spread throughout Brazil. Other do not think this is so important,
and mention the young urban generation which is now learning to play the viola
caipira and including it in various musical contexts.

The notion that transformations
in the style and in the arrangements of the song, leading to a broader knowledge
of the instrument, are inevitable is widespread. But the question remains
of how to modernize without losing the connection with tradition.

On Track for Success

A pioneer in the dissemination
of música caipira, Cornélio Pires had to cover the costs
of the first 78 rpm discs that he launched in 1929, with a repertoire from
the interior of São Paulo, after Columbia turned him down, not believing
that they could be commercially viable.

He soon proved Columbia
wrong, and the Cornélio Pires series, which ended up being released
on Columbia, ran to a total of 48 records, beginning the history of recorded
música caipira.

With the advent of radio
came the success of the duplas caipiras. The idea of two voices, explains
Roberto Corrêa, is almost intuitive in rural areas, and was brought
from there to the recording studios.

In folias-de-reis,
for example, there is always a guia (guide) and a contraguia
(counterguide), who repeats or responds to the verses sung by the guide.

The duo Alvarenga e Ranchinho,
one of the first to appear, made their name singing humorous songs, and political
satire. Tristezas do Jeca (Jeca’s Woes) by Angelino de Oliveira, was
another classic of the period.

Raul Torres, another important
figure, joined Serrinha in a duo, recording hits such as "Cabocla Tereza"
and "Pingo d’Água" (composed with João Pacífico),
and also sang with Florêncio.

Tonico and Tinoco already
had made their appearance by the fifties, as well as Tião Carreiro,
who played with Pardinho and Carreirinho, and with the latter created, in
1959, a new rhythm—pagoda—fundamental for any violeiro who
is beginning to strum the instrument.

One of the songs that
established the new beat, "Pagode em Brasília" –
– by Teddy Vieira e Lourival dos Santos, was rerecorded as an instrumental,
renamed Crisálida (1996), by Corrêa.

In this period, rhythms
such as the bolero, the Paraguayan guarânia and the Mexican rancheira
were already having an influence of the music of the duos, bringing with them
new instrumentation.

"Beginning with the
initial change, in which música caipira stopped being just folk
music and entered the market, stylistic fusion has intensified", explains
José Roberto Zan. Along with this came the gradual electrification
of the instruments, and as this happened, the viola lost prominence.

Duos such as Chitãozinho
and Xororó, active since the seventies, sought to get closer to the
successful young urban music, such as that by the Jovem Guarda and especially
that of Roberto Carlos, exploding in 1982 with their eighth album, Somos
Apaixonados (We are in love), and the hit Fio de Cabelo (Strand
of hair).

Like them, others would
adopt the visual style of the American cowboy, which would later evolve to
the typical heartthrobs of pop música sertaneja-romântica,
such as Leandro and Leonardo.

Rediscovery of the

While most musicians were
hanging their violas on the wall, others took it up once more and worked
on its possibilities. In the hands of Renato Andrade, from Abaeté in
Minas, the viola began to be heard as a solo instrument in concert
halls by the seventies.

"He broke many taboos.
The viola still did not have the credibility to be played without accompaniment
or someone singing," tells Roberto Corrêa, also a Mineiro,
but based in Brasília, and who since 1977 has been interested in the
viola, and began to write songs and arrangements, and appear in recitals.

He also composed for the
viola-de-cocho, as for example in his Peleja de Siriema com Cobra,
on his disc Uróboro (1994). An instrument typical of Mato Grosso,
the viola-de-cocho is smaller than the viola caipira, made of
a single block of wood, generally without a hole in the front, and with only
five strings.

With Elis Regina singing
Romaria (1977), by Renato Teixeira, and Pena Branca and Xavantinho
recording Cio da Terra (1981), by Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque,
the viola had a space with the audience for MPB.

The duo was presented
by Som Brasil, a program hosted by Rolando Boldrin, which aired on
Sunday mornings on TV Globo, between 1981 e 1989, and later made its way to
various networks, before finally going off the air.

It was Boldrin who brought
to the TV screen the excellent violeiro Zé Coco do Riachão,
"discovered" by the singer Téo Azevedo at the end of the
seventies, in the region of Montes Claros , state of Minas Gerais.

The program "Viola,
Minha Viola", had better luck, hosted for 22 years on TV Cultura of São
Paulo by Inezita Barroso, an iron defender of traditional music, with more
than 80 records.

But it was when Almir
Sater appeared in the novelas (soap operas) Pantanal and Ana
Raio e Zé Trovão (from the late TV Manchete), and later
in O Rei do Gado (TV Globo), that the viola definitively entered
the majority of Brazilian homes.

"Suddenly, the violeiro
was a handsome young man, with a nice voice, who was successful. That eliminated
a lot of prejudice, and gave a boost to the career of other musicians",
says Braz da Viola.

At the time, Almir Sater,
from the south of Mato Grosso, already had five discs. His two instrumental
discs, released in 1985 and 1990, are always cited as fundamental by young

Although the viola
was prominent at the beginning of the nineties, Helena Meirelles, native of
Mato Grosso do Sul, only became well-known after appearing in the American
magazine Guitar Player, in 1993.

Her family had taken cassettes
with her music to Brazilian radio stations in vain, until a nephew decided
to send them to a friend in the United States, and then things changed.

Playing the instrument
since the age of nine, she learned to play by herself, listening to her uncle,
as well as the cowhands and Paraguayans who passed through the region by the
Paraná river.

She left home and began
to live and to perform in bars and bordellos of her native state and in the
west of São Paulo. At 77, she is preparing her fourth album, and her
unique way of playing is a success.

The renewal of interest
in the viola also favored handmade production. Vergílio Artur
de Lima, luthier from Sabará (MG), perfected his construction
techniques with Roberto Corrêa.

He made the violas
used by Corrêa, Paulo Freire and Ivan Vilela. Using various types of
wood, he takes about 150 hours to make an instrument. Since the first, made
in 1984, he has made 150, and the price is never less than R$ 750 (US 250).

In addition to Vergílio,
many other luthiers make violas, such as Joacir de Carvalho,
Roberto Dimathus, João Batista e Francisco Munhoz.

Old and New Styles

"Today there is a
big space for those who want to make modern music connected with the rural
scene. But the musician can also simply use the viola to diversify his work",
says Roberto Corrêa.

"It is important
not to make labels, and in spite of thinking that the strength of the viola
in is popular culture, we play everything, which helps to get rid of the idea
that it is only good for música caipira", adds Pereira
da Viola.

Born in the valley of
the Mucuri, in the north of Minas Gerais, he includes in his four discs, not
only various traditional songs of the region, such as "Bicho Calango"
– but also an arrangement of the "Bolero," by Maurice Ravel,
and the "Habanera," from the opera Carmen, by Georges

Roberto Corrêa,
for his part, presents the "Trenzinho Caipira," by Heitor Villa-Lobos,
"Odeon" and "Brejeiro," by Ernesto Nazaré, and
"Tico-Tico no Fubá," by Zequinha de Abreu (on his record
Crisálida). And even "All Blues," by Miles Davis, has been
played on the viola by Paulo Freire.

The fact is that instrumental
music for viola has grown vigorously. "I think that this necessary
in order to rehabilitate the instrument, but it is certainly not the only
way" says Corrêa, who sings various songs on his most recent CD,
Extremosa-Rosa (2002).

For those who make use
of the voice, like Pereira da Viola, poetry, always very present in the caipira
genre, takes an important place. But even old violeiros already had
a great deal of success with the solo viola, such as Zé do Rancho—grandfather
of Sandy and Júnior—and Tião Carreiro.

Some violeiros
use the viola in a classical way. "Our music is made with the
contribution of knowledge acquired through technical studies and the use of
other instruments", says Ivan Vilela.

On his disc Paisagens
(1997), he presents arrangements with rabeca, guitar and percussion,
the result of which is a sonority at the same time simple and sophisticated,
as in the song "Saudade da Minha Terra."

The variation that he
made for "Asa Branca," on the disc Violeiros do Brasil, recorded
live in São Paulo, at the theater in Sesc Pompéia, in 1997,
featured the participation of various violeiros.

"But we have both
classical and spontaneous violeiros, as you can see in `Viola, Minha
Viola’", recalls Inezita Barroso. With a full schedule of shows, lectures
and recordings, the "fairy godmother of the violeiros", as
Inezita is known, points out that this generation is important because it
writes its own songs which allows it to perpetuate rhythms and melodies more
easily, in contrast to the predominantly oral tradition of the past.

The duos are less frequent
today than in the past, perhaps because their image is strongly connected
to the pop sertanejo-romântico style. Nevertheless, Zé Mulato
and Cassiano, who won the Prêmio Sharp in 1997, with the song "Meu
Céu," from the album by the same name. "And there is a generation
of young people coming back to playing in duos, with the work of Tião
Carreiro as inspiration ", recalls Pereira da Viola, whose song "Mãos
e Pilão" –
– is performed by the Orquestra de Viola de Coité, of Londrina, in
the state of Paraná.

There are other orchestras
of violeiros, such as that of Osasco, a pioneer, and that of São
José dos Campos, both from São Paulo, which, like that of Londrina,
is led by Braz da Viola, as well as the Oficina de Viola Caipira, located
in Campinas, also São Paulo, directed by Ivan Vilela.

Once Upon a Time There
Was a Saci…

The story goes "you
can’t tune the viola". Today with new instruments and new musicians,
this has become another "causo" (tall tale) to tell, than
a universal truth. They also say that a violeiro spends more time telling
stories than playing…

When they meet, they like
to talk about potions for making their fingers nimble, or of the various agreements
to be made with the devil for playing well, such as taking some pinga
along with the viola to a crossroads, on a night with a full moon.

And if, even then, the
show is not good, it is because a saci popped up, because he always
messes up everything. These are stories that bring to the art a dimension
of fantasy and ritual that has always been very present in the caipira

But when you ask if they
made a pact with the devil… "Yes and no", answers Paulo Freire,
who tells a story of such a meeting on his disc Rio Abaixo.

And Renato Andrade says
that he doesn’t know if he did or not, since, as he tells in the book Música
Caipira: Da Roça ao Rodeio (Caipira Music: from the backwoods
to the rodeo) by Rosa Nepomuceno, while he was flying with the imp, he called
out a saint’s name, because of the beautiful view, and the devil dropped him.

But, in the text that
accompanies his song "Renato e o Satanás" (Renato and Satan)
– in A Viola e Minha Gente, he tells that, in hell, he heard the devil
trying to imitate his style of ponteado rápido (quick playing)
on the viola.

And Roberto Corrêa
adds: "I always say that, besides those who need to make a deal with
the devil, there are those who were already born with a gift!" How ever
that may be, many of them deserve to be heard.

Rafaela Müller is a Brazilian journalist. You can email her at

Translated from
the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and
culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French,
Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. Comments welcome at

This article appeared
originally in Portuguese, in the magazine Problemas Brasileiros—

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