The legacy of songs by Rolando Boldrin and Gal Costa

Image: Miguel Á. godfather


There is still room for these ways of making songs in today's world.?

While some public figures are “doing overtime in the world”, others, unfortunately, “depart before schedule”. November 2022, XNUMX has become a kind of Ash Wednesday March for the universe of Brazilian popular song: “and in the heart, nostalgia and ashes, that was what was left”. “And yet”, continue Carlos Lyra and Vinícius de Moraes, “it is necessary to sing”. Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos, aka Gal Costa, and Boy, from the duo Boy & Formiga, better known as Rolando Boldrin, are extremes of the constellation of our songbook, that is, due to the distance that brings them together, their works help to illuminate the configuration of the popular Brazilian Music.

On the one hand, the multifaceted muse of tropicalist cosmopolitanism; on the other, the soap opera heartthrob who would become one of the great representatives of rural culture. The so-called modernity and the so-called tradition meet in death and in the media. Or, in other words, the modernization inherent to the consolidation of country music − just remember the ambitious and, by the way, successful phonographic project by Cornélio Pires in the late 1920s − takes on a national profile in the actor and accountant of stories that “never lived in the countryside or on a farm, always in cities, in the small ones in the countryside and in big São Paulo”, as Ieda de Abreu reminds us in Rolando Boldrin: stage Brazil. (Official Press), in addition, of course, to the emblematic Inezita Barroso, who died in 2015; both performers and, for many years, talk show hosts.

On the other track, Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso − to be restricted to the duo that emerges together on the album Sunday (Philips, 1967) − mix through their music, as through their performances, the internationalizing posture of the countercultural elements of the 1960s and 1970s, the “behavior hippie and the music pop“, in terms of the reference study by Celso Favaretto – Tropicália: allegory, joy (Ateliê) – with “a revival of Brazilian archaisms”, from sambas from the first half of the XNUMXth century to terreiro points.

An attitude that “is unique for integrating non-musical resources into its form and presentation”, as Celso Favaretto points out, always accompanied by media reverberations, from the hair and clothes that shocked customs at the first televised music festivals to the album covers, being, the most emblematic case of Gal Costa's career, the LP India (Philips, 1973): on the cover, a Close on the singer's hips, as she undressed from an indigenous straw skirt; on the back cover, Gal appears with her breasts partially bare, dressed in paraphernalia linked to native peoples, such as bead necklaces and headdress. The photos taken by Antonio Guerreio, as was to be expected, violated the morals and good customs hypocritically defended by the military, which censored the graphic design, forcing the record company to cover the disc with blue plastic.

figure 1: Cover and back cover of the LP India by Gal Costa

The covers of Rolando Boldrin's albums are also quite revealing of the social meanings of his artistic work, as can be seen from the recreation, on the albums Hick (1981) and guitar player (1982), both released by RGE, of two emblematic paintings by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, respectively, the Redneck smoking tobacco (1893) and the violist (1899)

Figure 2: On the left, the album Caipira (Rolando Boldrin); on the right, the painting Caipira chopping tobacco (Almeida Júnior)
Figure 3: On the left, the album Violeiro (Rolando Boldrin); on the right, the painting O violeiro (Almeida Júnior)

The reunion proposed by the musician with the painter goes beyond the obvious thematic proximity, after all, as already defended by Gilda de Mello e Souza in Contemporary Brazilian painting: the precursors (reading exercise. Ed. 34) “his [Almeida Júnior’s] main merit does not derive from having painted the caipira”, but, more profoundly, from the aesthetic solution employed in shaping this subject, exposing on canvas what only exists in this way of life: “it’s ours”, continues Gilda de Mello e Souza, “the way a man leans on the instrument, sits down, holds a cigarette between his fingers, expressing on body dropped the impression of tired strength”.

The italics, despite my responsibility, is due to the reading made by Paulo and Otília Arantes in the essay redneck fashion (Meaning of education: three studies on Antonio Candido, Gilda de Mello e Souza and Lucio Costa. Paz e Terra), in which they highlight the importance of Almeida Júnior, whose work is an “effective ground zero”, for what Gilda de Mello e Souza names, based on the work of the painter, a “European and ambiguous solution”, since it achieves a finish that, even immersed in European tradition, finds a way to expose the traits and marks embedded in people who live in the countryside. A technique, so to speak, “which Almeida Júnior must have found adequate to solve, without causing violent ruptures with tradition” – read coming from overseas – “for the problem of tropical light”.

Note, then, the union that establishes a bridge between postures, aesthetic and public, diametrically opposed. It is on Gal Costa's body that the most widespread contestation of youth at the time, the so-called desbunde, first appears, but this is done through the evocation of a way of life that would be intrinsically local, the clothes of the native peoples who passed by, as as you know, by yet another wave of extermination under the wings of the military regime.[I] Rolando Boldrin's covers, in turn, revive the way of behaving of the caipira, not in the pejoratively widespread − that is, ideologically conditioned − version of the sick young man because he is backward from the countryside,[ii] rather, the “body behavior of the rural man” is due, as Gilda de Mello e Souza says, to the “various daily tasks”; updating, however, through an object produced by the big industry, in this case the phonographic industry, and mediated by the visual work of a Brazilian artist studied abroad.

Finally, there is a line that unites them: the need to maintain ways of living rooted in the community in a context of dissolution of these ties; what entered the history of Latin American critical thought as dependent and peripheral capitalism, in the terms of Ruy Mauro Marini, or, more commonly said, the so-called conservative modernization. However, the proposed aesthetic reflections, despite starting from the same diagnosis, propose different treatments, so as not to abuse the category of opposition.

Rolando Boldrin bears the mark of constancy, being a kind of guardian angel of the rustic sound by keeping alive the memory of this social manifestation, acting close to the collector, as Walter Benjamin understands this figure in Eduard Fuchs, collector and historian (Autentica), which teaches the historical materialist the value of “sources”, because “in his passion” about objects that are sometimes the most insignificant, the act of collecting countless times demonstrates a kind of “archaeology” that has the potential to “restore to the work of art its existence in society, from which it had been so segregated”, the one that had lost the link both with “its producers” and “with those who could understand it”.

Action that breaks with the supposed progressivity of history, guided by homogeneous and empty time, because without change, typical of the winners of history, as he himself presents in the theses of About the concept of history. Hence the recurrence in the acoustic sounds of the guitar and viola, of the countless re-recordings by João Pacífico, Tonico e Tinoco, Raul Torres, Alvarenga and Ranchinho.

At the other extreme, Gal Costa acts on the sign of transformation, of re-elaboration. An artist who operates through the phagocytic spirit of tropicalist anthropophagy. In one recording, the sweetness of the promise of happiness predominates, in the formulation of Lorenzo Mammi, of bossa nova as in terraced by Caetano Veloso in his inaugural album (Sunday. Phillips, 1967) to two years later on the album Gal Costa (Phillips, 1969) the appearance of the “cursed” sound of Macalé and Capinan in Pulsars and Quasars, recording that already has the timbres, rhythms and screams that would bring the admiration of many in the watershed that was Fa-tal – Gal at full steam (Phillips, 1971), such as the vocalized howls of cheap steam, this “Franciscan” song in structure without great harmonic ostentations, as Túlio Villaça says (Another song of exiles available on the author's website: About Song) and strident and vigorous in the exploration of timbres.

In another phonogram, what emerges is a danceable song, half funk half bossa, as in his version of How wonderful by Jorge Ben Jor and Toquinho (of so many loves. BMG Brazil, 2001). Sometimes a stylized terreiro point, which almost turns into a reggae samba, can be heard in It's from Oxum, song by Geronimo and Vevé Calasans (GAL, BMG-Aiola, 1992). At other times, a sound construction that fuses an ostinato of an electronic beat, recurrent and insistent, with comments from the guitar, the clavinet and, mainly, the seven-string guitar and its typical phrasing of the old regional choro; fragments that inhabit the same space as the recording, in which Gal Costa's vocal delivery tends more towards declamation than singing, as happens in the track that opens the album corner (Universal music, 2011), song by Caetano Veloso entitled dark nook.

Archaeological maintenance filtered by the cultural industry at one pole of our comparison; in the other, the juxtaposition of national ruins that update the remains and rubble that capitalist development imposes on Brazilian social dynamics. In different directions, both productions think about the present without ever abandoning the past, two ways, in short, that faced head-on the contradiction that the problems between us persist in persisting despite changes or, rather the opposite and more precisely , precisely because everything changes, misfortunes persist. Put in these terms, the production of both, each in its own way, shapes this typical birth problem of peripheral formations.

Rolando Boldrin emphasizes the trait of continuity of practices that are necessary despite being always subjugated, just remember that even today, according to the IBGE, about 70% of the food that people consume in Brazil is provided by small productions, that is, by the people of the countryside. Gal Costa's work, in turn, insists on the need for change that disintegrates and destroys in favor of creating a unitary imaginary; after all, the looting of the national flag by the group of the future ex-president Jair Bolsonaro is just a manifestation of this attempt to forge in the ideal what does not exist in reality: that we are all equal, whether in terms of an idea of ​​a nation, or in terms of more comprehensive, before the law.

The big question that remains: there is still room for these ways of making songs in today's world (neoliberal for some, postmodern for others, based on monopoly capital, etc.), whose domain, within the scope of the phonographic market, is undeniably that of music sertaneja in its most recent guise, which carries with it very little of that country experience and much of the predominance of a music said to have no locality, be it for the themes, be it for the instrumentation, be it for the performances, be it for the clothing, as shown by Bruno Magalhães de Oliveira Rocha in University sertanejo: historical, structural, sound and thematic notes (Master's dissertation, UFMG).

Saying the same thing in other terms: are we experiencing such a political and social sluggishness that only productions that give up the past have space in the media? After all, recent songs of extreme reflective depth about Brazilian tensions undoubtedly exist, but they do not expand beyond a restricted audience.

*Vinicius Jose Fecchio Gueraldo is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at USP.


[I] The actions promoted directly or indirectly by the State of exception to which the country was subjected led many indigenous people to death. According to reports collected by the National Truth Commission, at least eight thousand indigenous people were exterminated in the 1970s, mainly due to the construction of roads. However, the greatest massacre suffered by the indigenous population did not mean immediate death, but a murder of another order. Due to political choices, a large part of the indigenous lands were “occupied” by companies, projects, plantations, etc.; which resulted in a “relocation” of this contingent of people, whose existence was not based on buying and selling products, but on an intimate relationship with the space: the myths, the skills developed over countless generations, the planting techniques and hunting; in short, this mode of production of life itself is inseparable from the place where one lives. Thus, government incentives to make these lands productive (in the sense of producing goods), resulted in the migration of their original inhabitants, thus leading to a long-term genocide, after all, as shown in the work of Maurício Gonsalves Torres (The brink and the land grabber: occupation and conflict in Western Pará. Masters dissertation. São Paulo: USP, 2008.), all activities directly or indirectly linked to survival have an intimate relationship with the place itself. In this way, all the enormous knowledge produced over centuries by this population is lost with the change of place, that is, when they are “relocated”, these people lose a way of existing.

[ii] The most widespread case is the story of “Jeca Tatu”, whose matrix is ​​the ideology of progress, which saves the “poor” man from the countryside from the miseries of backwardness, by incorporating the wonders of the modern world. Note that only he is “saved” in this narrative. I pass the floor to José de Souza Martins (Capitalism and Traditionalism: studies on the contradictions of agrarian society in Brazil. São Paulo: Pioneira Editora, 1975): “An exemplary document in this respect is the history of the Jeca Armadillo, by Monteiro Lobato. The lazy hillbilly (because he is sick) metamorphoses into the rich landowner surrounded by multiple urban amenities (such as closed-circuit television, a means of communication that did not exist in Brazil when history was written), thanks to the intervention of two urban agents: the doctor and the laboratory remedies. This story, which clearly expresses the fundamental ideological components of recent urban awareness of the rural world, denounces the real links between the rural and the urban. Note the 'inability' of agrarian society, through its population, to develop socially, culturally and economically, prey to 'sickly' inertia. And the 'therapeutic' based on the indicated ideology, of action outside the rural environment, of the preeminence of the environment and of urban concepts in defining the way in which agrarian society must integrate the totality of the social system: as a buyer and consumer of goods, as a market ”.

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