Text and photos by Jason Birmingham
An interview with Brazil’s leading proponent of American country music
2004 was a good year for Rodrigo Haddad. In June, he was on stage in Nashville, Tennessee, representing South America at the CMA Music Festival. Two months later, his single Santa F” reached number one on the Indie World Country Record Report. That same month, he performed his newest song, “Rodeo”, in front of 35,000 country music fans at Brazil’s Festa do Peão de Boiadeiro. In September, he was on the road again, headed for a country music festival in Argentina.
Rodrigo Haddad at his office in São Paulo, Brazil.
For a man who makes a living playing American country music in Brazil, it doesn’t get much better than this. Speak Up magazine caught up with Rodrigo at his seventh floor office in São Paulo. Sitting at his desk, looking out over skyscrapers and traffic jams, Rodrigo picked at his guitar while discussing his career, the differences between serteneja and American country music, and why the Brazilian country music scene is set to explode in 2005.
SPEAK UP: How does a kid from São Paulo become a country music singer?
RODRIGO: My dad started raising Quarter Horses twenty years ago and his friends would give him country music albums from the United States. Whenever we traveled, he’d play Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, and George Strait on the car tape deck. I was only 15 and we used to argue because I wanted to listen to the popular music playing on the radio – but little by little country music grew on me. A year or so later he took me to Texas and I was fascinated by the way people dressed and how they’d sing along to country songs. When I got back to Brazil, I started buying country music from the United States, I learned to play guitar, and I put together a band with a friend of mine. We called ourselves the Texas Rangers, but changed the name later on. George Strait starred in a movie called Pure Country (1992), which defined a generation and a way of life. We became the Pure Country Band, and the name stuck.
SPEAK UP: – What attracts people in São Paulo to country music?
RODRIGO: São Paulo is one of the world’s biggest cities… twenty million people live here… and you’ll find fans of just about every kind of music. Country is no exception. But American country music wasn’t really popular here… not the way it is today… until 1998. That year Country Music Television was on the air in Brazil and they brought Garth Brooks down to play at the Barretos International Rodeo. The show was such a success that Alan Jackson performed the next year… then Reba McEntire in 2000. Things have changed [CMT has since shut its doors in Brazil and the rising cost of the dollar makes it hard for rodeo promoters to book international artists] but country music still has a big following. Our band stays busy, playing anywhere from bars that seat fifty people to country nightclubs with space for three thousand.
SPEAK UP: How is Brazil’s homegrown country music, sertaneja, different from American country music?
RODRIGO: Let’s start off with the similarities. Both are rural forms of music. Both talk a lot about love, loss, partying, friends, road trips… that sort of thing. Both are about people and feelings… both tell stories we can all relate to. Now the differences. First, you have the language.Sertaneja is sung in Portuguese and American country music is sung in English. Also, sertaneja usually has just two voices – the lead and an accompaniment. With American country music you have more options – there are solo singers, bands, trios, and you also find more women singing. Sertaneja duos tend to be made up of men. But like American country music, sertaneja is undergoing a crossover trend. To reach larger audiences, many sertaneja bands are borrowing from the American country tradition – adding steel guitar and fiddle to their sound.
SPEAK UP: Why couldn’t you sing American country music in Portuguese?
RODRIGO: A lot of people think I’m prejudiced against singing country music in Portuguese. And in a way, I am. I lived in Nashville for eight months and I know how patriotic country music fans can be. When you talk about American country music, you’re talking about a tradition. You can’t just imitate the sound and translate the lyrics – the language is part of the music. It would be the same as going to the United States, where a lot of people like Brazilian music, to sing samba in English. It just wouldn’t fit…
SPEAK UP: You were back in Nashville recently to perform at the CMA Music Festival. What was that like?
RODRIGO: This CMA Music Festival… it used to be called Fan Fair… is the world’s largest country music show. It’s been around for twenty years, but 2004 was the first time they put on a show by global country artists. They invited six performers from Canada, Greece, Ireland, and the Netherlands – plus me from Brazil. It was an unforgettable night. I’d been to the festival several times as a fan and to be invited to sing was amazing.
SPEAK UP: You talked about the boom of American country music in 1998. How were you involved in Garth Brooks’ visit to Brazil?
RODRIGO: CMT asked me to show Garth and the band around while they were down here. I was backstage on the night of the show and it was one of those magic moments. Garth was at the top of his career and “Standing Outside the Fire” was playing on Brazilian TV and radio. 50,000 people turned up that night…
SPEAK UP: What was Garth’s reaction?
RODRIGO: He was fascinated by it all. When he sang “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” the people in the arena took off their cowboy hats and sang along – in English! But the highlight of the show was “Standing Outside the Fire.” In the middle of the song, Garth pulled off his country-western shirt. I’d given him a Brazilian soccer jersey and he was wearing it underneath. The crowd went crazy…
SPEAK UP: Do you believe the hype that 2005 will be even better than 1998 for country music in Brazil?
RODRIGO: Globo TV… Brazil’s most important channel… is filming a new soap opera called “America”. It’s going to air prime time in 2005 and it highlights the country way-of-life in Brazil and in the USA. The cast is made up of Brazil’s biggest stars – Deborah Secco, Murilo Bencio, Murilo Rosa, Juliana Paes, Vera Fischer. The author is Glória Peres, one of Brazil’s best screenwriters, and the director is Jaime Monjardim, who’s also famous. Plus, when Globo TV decides to do something, everyone else follows along. Record TV has a sertaneja program starring Chitãozinho & Xororó. Bandeirantes has another one starring sertaneja idol Srgio Reis. The country culture has never received so much media attention in Brazil. And to top it all off, the Barretos Rodeo will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. In other words, 2005 is the year it all comes together. Everyone’s expecting wonders… and so am I.
Top: Rodrigo Haddad on stage. Left: Cover shot from a recent album. Right: Rodrigo and Pure Country Band founding member Marcel Gholmieh with Garth Brooks prior to the Barretos show of 1998.
SPECIAL ACOUSTIC SHOW!
Rodrigo Haddad will be playing a one-night only acoustic show with Jason Bermingham at the Finnegan’s Pub in Pinheiros.
SUNDAY, MARCH 6, AT 7:30 P.M. – COVER CHARGE = R$4.00
Rua Cristiano Vianna, 358
Pinheiros, São Paulo
For information call: (11) 3062-3232
Jason Bermingham works as a writer/musician in São Paulo, Brazil. This article appeared in Speak Up – Brazil’s premier English-language magazine: www.speakup.com.br. If you enjoy Bob Dylan covers, send him an e-mail at email@example.com. He’ll set you up with a table at his next gig.“