“Baião” and “No meu pé de serra”

Lyrics to “Baião” by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira (1946)

Good Audio Version (Luiz Gonzaga)

I’m going to show you all how the baião is danced
And whoever wishes to learn, please pay attention
Morena, come nearer, right next to my heart
And now just follow me, cause I’m going to dance the baião
I’ve danced balancê, xamego, samba and xerém
But the baião has a certain something that those other dances don’t have
Hey, whoever wishes, just speak, because I with great pleasure
Am going to dance, singing the baião…
I’ve sung in Pará, played accordion in Belém
I sang up in Ceará, and I know what’s good for me
That’s why I’d like to state with utter conviction
That I’m crazy for the baião

— Interpretation —

Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira. Gonzaga’s over-the-top northeastern outlaw garb was a sign of Gonzaga’s stagemanship.

This song is a good example of how a new rhythm was created, marketed and consumed in mid-twentieth century Brazil.  The commercial baião musical style that swept dance halls in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and throughout Brazil’s southeast region in the late 1940s and 1950s was essentially a product of a partnership between Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira, a lawyer from the northeastern state of Ceará who also composed music. The pair packaged and sold the rhythm – a forebear of forró whose name derived from baiano (from Bahia state) – as a product of the Northeast at a time when Rio de Janeiro was being flooded with northeastern immigrants nostalgic for their homes in the sertão, or backlands of Brazil. What’s more, they brought baião and northeastern rhythms to the radio at a time when radio and recording studios were booming in Rio and São Paulo.

The new genre took off.  Gonzaga and his songs came to represent the arid Northeast and its culture in these southeastern cities, and in the meantime, northeasterners in the sertão tuned in to broadcasts from Rio and São Paulo and heard their kind of tunes being played, which brought the country closer together. By 1949, Rio’s Diario Carioca reported that baião was “making the vast empire of samba tremble.” To this day, Gonzaga’s songs, including “Baião” and “No meu pé de serra,” are hits at dance halls throughout the country, and Gonzaga’s habit of pronouncing how delightfully fun and seductive it is to dance the baião remains an integral component of the genre, which expanded into the broader genre of forró.

Exu, Pernambuco, the sertão, or backcountry, where Luiz Gonzaga was born and raised.

Luiz Gonzaga do Nascimento was born on December 13, 1912, in Exu, Pernambuco. The family stayed in Exu until 1924, when flooding forced them to move to the nearby village of Araripe. Gonzaga’s mother, Santana, was a fieldhand; she cared for the family’s modest home and tended their crops, some of which she was able to sell in local markets for extra income. Gonzaga’s father, Mestre Januário, was a famous accordionist in the region, and made a living playing at parties and dances throughout the area and fixing simple eight-bass accordions for musicians from across the northeast.

Gonzaga was the second of nine children that the couple would have together.  By age five or six, relatives recounted him playing around on accordions in his father’s repair shop and banging on plates to accompany bass drums. Though as a boy his mother attempted to recruit his assistance in the fields, Gonzaga preferred to play music, and his father encouraged him.  When Gonzaga was around eleven or twelve he began accompanying his father to play at dances, and by fourteen, he was bringing in a steady income with his performances.  But at age seventeen, after a foiled romance with a richer and whiter local girl, Gonzaga ran away from home. He sold his accordion to buy a train ticket to Fortaleza, Ceará, where he joined the army.

Luiz Gonzaga’s father, Mestre Januário.

Gonzaga spent nearly ten years in the army, and didn’t play music for much of that period. He didn’t fancy cornet, and found guitar difficult, though his guitar-picking during his army years helped him understand harmony. Regardless, he didn’t have the traditional musical training that the army band leaders were looking for, and no longer had an accordion of his own to practice with.  Fortunately, as his time in the army was coming to a close (service was limited to ten years), he managed to buy an accordion, which he took with him to Rio de Janeiro in March, 1939.

In Rio, Gonzaga was scheduled to spend a few months in the barracks as he waited for the ship that would take him back to Pernambuco. But he was drawn into the festivities in the Mangue, the red-light district of Rio where he was living and hanging out. What’s more, he realized he could make pretty good money playing his accordion there.  He worked on adapting his accent, mannerisms and musical style to fit in, and began playing traditional tangos, waltz, polkas and fox-trots without the northeastern twist he used to give them in Pernambuco.  He struggled to set himself apart in these genres, though: he recalled being fired two days after he was hired to play at the dance club O Tabu after customers complained about his terrible tangos. Desperate, Gonzaga sought lessons with Antenógenes Silva, the “Accordion Wizard,” and improved his tango a bit. In 1940, he began competing on  Ary Barroso‘s radio talent contest for amateurs; earning a 5/5 on Barroso’s program brought a prize of 150,000 Reis and often led to new radio contracts.  But still, his lackluster tangos and foxtrots earned him mediocre scores, at best.

Then, in 1941, according to Gonzaga, a group of students from Ceará recognized his northeastern accent and asked him to play some regional music for them. Taken aback, he told them couldn’t remember how  – with his different stations in the army, it had been more than nine years since he’d lived in the Northeast. The students insisted, so he told them to give him a week.  That week, he wrote “Vira e mexe” (Turn and shake) and composed a new adaptation of a folk song, “Pé de Serra” – a quick polka tune with northeastern flare. The songs were a smash when he played them the following week for the students from Ceará.  The audience laughed and cheered, and passersby stopped in to hear the music, as Gonzaga recalled.

Meanwhile, as further inspiration for Gonzaga to find his niche in Rio, his younger brother showed up at his door one day, asking for help for their family in the drought-stricken northeast.  Looking for ways to help – and eager to launch the career he was sure he deserved – Gonzaga returned to Ary Barroso’s program. When Barroso lightly scoffed, “So, what’ll it be today? Waltz or tango?” Gonzaga surprised him with “Vira e mexe.” His performance finally earned him a 5/5; he took the 150,000 Reis prize, and shortly thereafter – following a similarly convincing performance in Rio’s Bar Municipal – Gonzaga was invited by fellow Pernambucano Zé do Norte to work on his radio program A Hora Sertaneja – roughly, The Northeastern Hour. (Sertaneja used to be used more interchangeably with northeastern, whereas now it’s more associated with a country style from the southeastern Brazilian countryside.) It was just the break he’d been waiting for.

In 1941, Gonzaga began recording with RCA Victor, and was invited to take over for his mentor, the Accordion Wizard, on Renato Murce‘s program Alma do Sertão, Soul of the Backlands, on Radio Clube. He had made huge advances in the past two years, but he wasn’t satisfied.  He was still playing only instrumental songs, and felt he couldn’t go very far like that. He tried to integrate into samba groups, but his twangy voice and northeastern swagger were far outside the norms for samba at the time.

Gonzaga decided he needed a partner to write northeastern-style lyrics for him to sing.  Initially, he settled for local musician Miguel Lima, who wrote the lyrics for two of Gonzaga’s first hits, “Xamego” (1943, previously “Pé de Serra,” mentioned above) and “Dezessete e setecentos” (1945). But Lima was from Rio de Janeiro, and Gonzaga wanted a partner from the Northeast, to help him achieve the genuine regional sound he was seeking and believed would bring him the fame and glory he deserved. He found what he was looking for in Humberto Teixeira, whom he was introduced to by Teixeira’s brother-in-law, Lauro Maia.

Gonzaga proposed to Teixeira that they launch an entirely new genre, and on their first day working together at Teixeira’s law office in Rio, the pair composed the two songs that introduced baião: “Baião” and “No meu pé de serrá,” both songs laden with self-promotion (“the baião has a certain something those other dances don’t have”; “the xote is good to dance”), with the latter referring to the xote, whose name derived from schottische and referred simply to a partnered country dance:

“No meu pé de serra” by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira, 1946

Over there, at my foot of the mountain range
I let my heart stay behind
Oh, how I long to go back to my backlands
On my field we worked every day
But on my ranch I had everything I wished for
There we danced just about every Thursday
There was always accordion, and xote the whole night through
The xote is good to dance, we hold the mestiza girl close and don’t let go
One step there, another here
As long as the windbag’s playing, wailing, crying, weeping, whining without stopping…

Gonzaga continued playing with Humberto Teixeira and playing up his northeastern image, and by the early 1950s he was Brazil’s most successful recording artist, outselling even established Carioca favorites Orlando Silva and Francisco Alves. His swagger and sex-appeal helped cultivate a more agreeable image for northeasterners across Brazil, and he became a sort of social ambassador for the poor Northeast, asserting pressure on the military government in the 1960s and 1970s to invest in basic infrastructure and irrigation systems in the region. Another hit he wrote with Humberto Teixeira, “Asa Branca” – a tale about a poor farmer forced to abandon his land because of drought – was embraced by northeasterners pushing for land reform in the 1970s and later. Gilberto Gil called Luiz Gonzaga “the first spokesperson for the marginalized culture of the Northeast,” and Gonzaga’s music was publicly revered and recorded by the more radical and politically revolutionary tropicalists, most notably Gil and Caetano Veloso.

In 1987,  two years before his death, Gonzaga won Brazil’s most prestigious prize in music, the Shell Award for Lifetime Achievement.  His adopted son, Gonzaguinha, became a popular MPB musician in the 1970s and 1980s, but Gonzaguinha’s roots in Rio and troubled relationship with his former step-father led him to distance himself from Gonzaga, both personally and artistically.  Gonzaguinha died in a car accident in 1991.

Lyrics in Portuguese:  “Baião”

Eu vou mostrar pra vocês
Como se dança o baião
E quem quiser aprender
É favor prestar atenção
Morena chega pra cá
Bem junto ao meu coração
Agora é só me seguir
Pois eu vou dançar o baião
Eu já dancei balancê
Xamego, samba e xerém
Mas o baião tem um quê
Que as outras dancas não têm
Oi quem quiser é só dizer
Pois eu com satisfação
Vou dançar cantando o baião
Eu já cantei no Pará
Toquei sanfona em Belém
Cantei lá no Ceará
E sei o que me convém
Por isso eu quero afirmar
Com toda convicção
Que sou doido pelo baião

Lyrics in Portuguese: “No meu pé de serra”

Lá no meu pé de serra
Deixei ficar meu coração
Ai, que saudades tenho
Eu vou voltar pro meu sertão
No meu roçado trabalhava todo dia
Mas no meu rancho tinha tudo o que queria
Lá se dançava quase toda quinta-feira
Sanfona não faltava e tome xóte a noite inteira
O xóte é bom
De se dançar
A gente gruda na cabôcla sem soltar
Um passo lá
Um outro cá
Enquanto o fole tá tocando,
tá gemendo, tá chorando,
Tá fungando, reclamando sem parar.

Main sources for this post:  Vida do Viajante: A Saga de Luiz Gonzaga by Dominique Dreyfus (1996), and Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil by Bryan McCann (2004)

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