Messiahs, Troubadours, and Bards of Brazil

Literature of CordelI knew I had to visit Juazeiro do Norte, Ceará, as soon as I saw the television broadcast of the 1997 funeral march for Frei Damião, a northeastern religious leader.

Thousands of people marched with signs and banners for the fallen prophet, begging God for forgiveness and singing songs for Frei Damião’s fast trip to heaven.

They yanked hairs out of their heads, thanked him for bringing meaning to their lives, leading them for decades, answering their prayers, protecting them from drought, and keeping away the evil eye.

They laughed and cried, but most amazing was the sheer number of people who attended what was not even a funeral, but a memorial prayer service.

The lines wrapped around the block several times; the mourners slept on the streets, bought out the town supermarkets, and marched under the hot sun for hours.

The bus ride from Fortaleza to Juazeiro was supposed to take between five and six hours. It took more than ten.

Two hours into the trip I looked at my map, cross-checking it with the name of the town where we were stopped, and realized that we were going in the wrong direction.

Two hours after that we cut back through Fortaleza’s suburbs, where we initially started our sojourn; the driver was taking a circuitous route around the city so no one would notice we were back where we began hours earlier.

He apparently had told his sister he would deliver her daughter to her community and took us all for the four-hour ride. Our trip was only just beginning.

I had the good fortune of sitting next to a mother with her three children, one of whom threw up continuously. The child’s mother decided at every bus stop to give the sick child more to eat, usually soft and greasy food like yogurt and deep-fried chicken, which invariably ended up on my shorts.

The mother was trying to deal with two crying babies in addition to the sick girl. Because she was short on money, they were all sharing one seat—next to me.

Although they had assured me at the bus station that there would be air conditioning and a movie, there was neither.

To make matters worse, the windows did not work on account of a dust storm that somehow sealed them shut.

The driver himself was not overly concerned because he had a window in the front that kept some air circulating, but only for him.

When he smoked cigarettes, he would flick the butts behind him through a small opening in the door, so they landed on the floor and sprayed ashes over the passengers.

We were sealed in airtight, inhaling sweat, vomit, and bus exhaust as the slightly ajar window sucked in the fumes from an exhaust pipe that lacked the all-important catalytic converter.

For a while I tried to inhale as many noxious fumes as possible, hoping they would knock me out until our arrival, though I was beginning to doubt we would ever make it.

I had asked at the bus station if livestock would be on the bus because one must ask this question on certain routes in northeast Brazil. Of course not, said the woman behind the counter, and she laughed.

At the time it was funny, but she had the last laugh as I stood in line, wearing my travel clothes, assuming that the bus would be too cold from air conditioning. I brought along a sweater, which I ended up using to mop vomit from my hair.

Hours later, as I looked out through a tiny clearing in an otherwise brown window, my pants and shoes soaked with sheep urine, cow manure, and chicken dung, pictures of quaint villages whizzing by were far from my mind.

After staring at a cow’s behind for forty-five minutes, before I yelled at the owner to let me sit near the head, I did not think the woman at the bus station was very funny.

The goose would not shut up; every time the chickens had sex, their feathers fell on me; and the sheep that rubbed up against me had open sores. When an intoxicated man got on the bus, I knew my luck had reached new lows.

He began pestering me, calling me a Nazi, and telling me I should give him money because I was a rich European. “Techno, you like techno, ha ha ha,” he repeated again and again, but slurring badly.

I was about to punch him when I was informed that he was the local priest, and I should just ignore him as they all did. I endured the peanuts he threw at me from two seats behind while calling me Judas and “murderer of Jesus.”

He informed the entire bus, which was listening to him attentively and appeared to respect him enormously, that I was the cause of all their problems and that they should just shoot me or ditch me on the side of the road so bandits could finish me off.

I was not amused when at our one hundredth stop of the day, the driver not only chose to stop in the middle of the road under the torturous sun rather than in the shade, but also bought the drunk priest a six pack for the remainder of the trip. And, of course, the mother of the child next to me bought her queasy daughter more candy.

I decided to pull out my harmonica and play a few tunes to pass the three remaining hours. It was a special harmonica I had bought a few months earlier from a poet who had since passed away.

Just as I was about to start playing, a man behind me, who had been coughing the entire journey, was covered in lesions, and most likely had the whooping cough, grabbed it from me, saying,
“I love to play, my new friend. May I? Listen to this one”—at which point he played a forró song called “Amor,” which repeats the line, “I’m simply a strawberry of the Northeast.”

“If music were a person, this song would be my archenemy,” I had told my housemate Paola a week earlier.

The man played for hours. The entire bus sang along with him, and another drunk man played the drums on the cow’s behind. When he tried to give the harmonica back to me, soaking wet from his tuberculoid saliva, I had to beg him to keep it.

“Really,” I said, “You deserve it more than I do. You are so talented with the harmonica.”

When the bus driver started drinking, too, and letting a select group of women sit on his lap, I cursed everyone in my head and planned to write a long litany of complaints to the bus company.

I also contemplated several lawsuits as well as the joy of hunting down the woman behind the counter in order to strangle her. About eleven hours later, we pulled into Juazeiro.

Keeping It Old School

Eloi Teles welcomed me into his radio studio, where he allowed me to ask questions during commercial breaks of his program. As director of the Crato Academy of Cordel, Teles produced and was the DJ for the most popular local radio show of northeastern music.

He had burning green eyes, a large belly, and a sincere passion to keep cordel from changing. He was an elderly man, fighting a losing battle against time and television.

The purpose of his academy was to preserve cordel in its “essence and originality,” so it maintained its “original objectives.”

Today, he said, people take for granted the fact that “you can listen to what you please: rock, country, or cordel.” Technology, he explained, is changing cordel. People no longer respected the meter and rhyme schemes, and they even published cordel on computers rather than at local graphic print shops. Cordel, he said, “is a vehicle for messages, history, and the history of love.” His mission was simple: to resist change.

Teles hoped to bring cordelistas together to preserve and disseminate the art form. The poetry symbolizes the cultura rasteira (the lower and marginalized classes) and is intended for a culture of analfabetos (illiterates).

He could now speak openly about cordel in schools, universities, and radio, but there was a time, he said, when this was not possible. The initial purpose of the academy “was to dismantle discrimination, and we did it. Now we get respect.”

Teles began the academy in 1990 with 112 cordéis, giving the public access to literature and history. He put “intellectual books” into cordel so people could learn their own history, and he wrote a six-part cordel on the history of Crato and Juazeiro. Cordel, he said, “translates classical language into popular language.”

The idea of using cordel as a form of protest is something new, he said, that began with the poet Patativa do Assaré. Patativa, Teles explained, “put sentiment and love into cordel, tears, suffering, and love for the earth.

“He spoke of leaving and looking behind, listening for news, coming back the second he hears of rain in his home. We all owe a lot to Patativa, for he actually lived this. Some of us did not. He put the sentiment of love into poetry.”

Teles explained in detail why there is so much cordel about drought:
It was necessary since there was no access to newspapers, television, radio, or magazines. Our caboclo [half-Indian, half-black], our matuto, our son of the soil, never had the opportunity to read about the world.

“Cordel came from abroad, with the colonizers, and became a poetic tool to express reality. Now only our region of Brazil has popular poets. Drought is sung as a necessity. Before there were bandits, there was drought. So the poets sang the drought.
Poets prefer three themes: the drought, the bandits, and the miracles of the saints, what I call fanaticism. Within these, the drought is the most developed theme because the dosage of suffering impresses the reader. It is a great theme for the cordelista.

I cannot think of specific drought poets because they all have at least one or two poems about drought. Mostly, they are brave enough to say that the fault of the suffering lies with the government. It was not always possible to say such things. I believe that this theme, the politics of the drought, was sung only after Patativa. The others took from him the cue that it was appropriate to speak about the politics of drought.

The northeastern poet is that guy who stays up all night after a hard day of work, improvising verses on his guitar. You see them playing, and it looks easy. Did you know many never sleep, losing it all so they can improvise for hours on their guitars?

The cordelista is like a painter. He sees something or considers a problem, and he is inspired to react. The cordel is a reaction, like a painting is a manifestation of what the artist is thinking. For instance, I am fascinated with the history of Crato, so almost all of my cordéis are about the history of Crato.

The intellectuals wrote a history of Crato, but the people are not allowed to read it. What do I mean? They are illiterate. They have no access to literature, so the works of intellectuals reach no one. I decided to translate the words of intellectuals to the poetry of cordel.

In other parts of Brazil, there are Germans, Italians, Japanese, and many immigrants and a different culture. Not here. Here we are people of the earth. We get crushed by drought.

Here the poets speak of droughts, suffering, miracles, cangaceiros; it’s a good language, so cordel grew rapidly. This is a region full of popular legends. But the legends are not written; they are just spoken. I want them to be remembered.

Let me give you another example: Doctora Violeta Rais, the state secretary of culture. Ten years ago the governor asked her to organize a celebration of the anniversary of the death of Mozart. She decided to have a performance of Don Juan [Don Giovanni].

It was going to cost the state one hundred thousand reais [roughly fifty thousand U.S. dollars then] to bring the orchestra from the south. This was far too much for Ceará to afford. She wanted to bring artists from all over Brazil so it would be a great event.

She phoned me and said, “Can you find a poet who has written some cordel about Dom João?” I said no. “Can you write one?” she asked. She asked me to write a cordel about the opera.

I spent fifteen days reading the opera. I had to get to know the personalities and the plot. I needed to know the important aspects, and finally I finished a cordel of sixteen pages.

A French magazine commented that the cordel was great. Everyone was talking about this. It was very fun. It was a really Brazilian event, you see, about Mozart. Only popular poetry could do something like that. I was so proud that day.

Cordel, you see, makes miracles. For the first time ever, the government health campaigns are reaching the public because in order to reach the public you must speak their language.

I recall one cordel commissioned by then-governor Ciro Gomes about a serious topic, boiling water during a time of cholera. The governor spent lots of money on television, radio, and newspapers at first, getting nowhere.

Then they asked a few good cordelistas to write about this topic. You should have seen what happened this time. They ended up printing an extra 150,000 folhetos. It was a great success. Everyone knew about cholera from the folhetos

Where was I? Oh, yes, my primary efforts today are against ridiculous and dirty cordel. There are many people making commercial cordel just for the money.

They even have pornographic themes, such as “the woman who had sex with a dog” or “the devil who raped the pig.” My goodness. . . .
[He sighed, realizing the road ahead is long and arduous.]

The Poetic Politician

Abraão Batista (Abraham the Baptist), biochemistry professor and director of the Museum of Padre Cícero, was spotted in the 1950s in Rio de Janeiro covering a soccer game for his readers as if he were a journalist.  One cordel he showed me was “The Old Man Who killed a Dog so He Could Sleep with a Turtle.”

I had found my man.

“Here is another one,” he said, “‘The Devil Who Took Away the Dog-pig’ or ‘The Boy Who Gave Birth to a Baby in Minas Gerais.’ It is a very interesting story. It is true, also. This, Nicholas, is the heart of cordel.”

I opened up the local newspaper several weeks later to find the following headline: “Cordel Attacks the Image of Mayoral Candidate.” Featured prominently is a photograph of a man glaring ominously at the camera lens, wearing a large straw sombrero, and mysteriously rolling his eyes.

It is Abraham the Baptist. Next to him is the cover of his folheto. It has a picture of the candidate on a broomstick. The title reads: “Trick Me, Because I Enjoy That.”

Two thousand copies of these folhetos—in which the Workers’ Party candidate Íris Tavares is referred to as a “communist,” “mother of the Devil,” “sister of Satan,” among other “unprintable personal accusations”—were distributed throughout Juazeiro.

The candidate brought the poetry to the attention of the police, who swiftly collected some pamphlets for examination. The investigation revealed that Abraham authored them. (It was not too difficult to ascertain this fact, considering he signed them all.)

A judge eventually decided that distributing folhetos was not a crime. Tavares, “shocked and very sad,” complained, “This work comes from a popular artist, a university professor. The other candidates are throwing trash my way and sinking to low levels of attack. For the first time a candidate is trying to break the oligarchy of Juazeiro.”

The judge recommended that precautions be taken to avoid violence between the candidates.

Sixty-five-year-old Abraham admitted to printing two thousand folhetos to help his boss, the city’s mayor, win reelection. “It is true that I published the pamphlet, but I spent my own money to do so. But it is not true that I am denigrating the image of someone.”

Hmm, I thought, “sister of Satan,” “communist,” . . .

He continued, “Now listen, I really admire that these gentlemen who oppose the president of the republic and the governor of the state are now going up against me, too. I wear that as a badge, friend. I cannot be silenced. I need to create irony. I think the candidate Íris is pretty, and my illustrations of her were misconstrued.”

One illustration features her on a broomstick. Another shows her with fire spewing from her behind.

The article continues: “The popular poet, who has 178 published titles and ‘more than 1.3 million’ distributed folhetos, argued that he is legally permitted to attack candidates by the Constitution.”

Notice that Abraham’s claim of 1.3 million folhetos is in quotation marks.

Here is what Abraham told me:

I am Abraham the Baptist. I am a graphic artist and a cordelista. I have designed several woodcuts about the drought. They are called Drought I, II, III, and IV.

They are about dead animals by the roadside, starving children, and retirantes leaving town. They are a beautiful depiction of our sad reality. Ironic, no, that tragedy is beautiful. That is the work of the artist.

Women find me attractive because of my ability to make beauty with words. I am not beautiful in the physical sense, you see, just good-looking. You know, of course, that I have sold more than 1.3 million folhetos. I have a good reputation.

I have traveled to the University of Florida to do cordel workshops. They were very kind to me and treated me like a distinguished guest. They had a translator just for me, and I was put up in a nice hotel. But you are here to learn about drought, so I will tell you a few things that you do not know.

First of all, you must understand that every culture and every country has thieves, right? OK, well the biggest in the world are the English…

In Petrolina, there you can see the answer to droughts. There you can see bananas, strawberries, asparagus, and tomatoes, everything you can imagine. They have a program there modeled off of Israel. It’s called, it’s called . . . I can’t remember.

It is better than a cooperative. It is a very interesting word, but I cannot recall it. . . . God, that word is just so interesting, and I never do this—forget words, that is. . . .

During the late nineteenth century, there was a great drought. According to my grandmother, a boy from Campina Grande was coming into Juazeiro to sell some goods.

He heard a cry and found a pretty girl whose dad was going to sacrifice her for the rest to survive. So he bought the girl for a bag of molasses, potatoes, and flower. This happened. Incredible, isn’t it?

At the beginning, when I started to write in 1970, I had problems writing about politics. The head of the federal police started a process against me about a cordel I wrote.

He gave me the Black Letter and asked me to confirm that I had written the cordel. [Abraham never finished this story, so I imagine not much happened to him after the Black Letter was issued, nor was I ever able to get a straight answer from him as to what a Black Letter is.]

My cordéis are funny, political, historical, romantic, scary, religious, environmentally sound, just about nearly everything. I have vendors who sell them for me; each cordel sells for fifty cents….

I am also a prophet, like all cordelistas are. For instance, when I was in Brasília, I had a premonition that Fernando Collor would win, and it was after that that I realized I had the power….

I was sitting there one day, watching [TV talk-show hostess] Xuxa being interviewed. She was saying she was lonely, and if she did not marry soon, she would have a baby anyway. So the person asked her what it was that she looked for in a man, and she replied, “A nice butt.”

So I called my wife and said, “Wife, give me a pencil because I have a cordel to write.”

Nicholas Arons has worked as a writer for international policy think tanks, at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at public defender legal offices, for civil liberties organizations, and as a non-violence educator.

He observed the impact of economic sanctions and U.S. bombings in Iraq, publishing his findings in Fellowship, UTNE Reader, Punk Planet, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Iraq Under Siege.

He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to research the culture of drought in Brazil, a graduate of Yale College and NYU School of Law, and is currently an Institute for International Law and Justice Fellow at NYU School of Law.

His book Waiting for Rain – The Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil can be found at fttp:// or Comments welcome at


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