Boy from Brazil

Dom Phillips pro­files one of the big­gest mu­sic stars you’ve never heard of — but that may soon change

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - The Times

THE scene at this Brazil­ian coun­try mu­sic show, staged af­ter a rodeo in Jaguar­i­una, deep in the in­te­rior of Sao Paulo state, could not be fur­ther from the tra­di­tional top 40 count­down. Cow­boy hats are de rigueur. The mu­sic is big on ac­cor­dions and foot-stomp­ing rhythms. And the song that Michel Telo is singing, an in­fec­tious num­ber called Ai Se Eu Te Pego — which could roughly trans­late as If I Get (or Get Off) with You — is all in Por­tuguese.

Ai Se Eu Te Pego is a blend of Brazil­ian coun­try mu­sic, or ser­tanejo, and the quick­step rhythms of forro, the dance mu­sic of Brazil’s ru­ral north­east. Armed with an ac­cor­dion lick and a cho­rus that bur­rows into the ears like a tick, it has al­ready been No 1 in 35 coun­tries and sold 15 mil­lion times across the world.

The video for Ai Se Eu Te Pego has been watched 425 mil­lion times on YouTube. Telo was al­ready a Brazil­ian pop star, but this hit has taken him in­ter­na­tional. ‘‘ It has a magic,’’ he says. ‘‘ Some­thing from God that I don’t in­tend to un­der­stand.

‘‘ It’s in­cred­i­ble all of this that’s hap­pen­ing, it’s a very spe­cial mo­ment,’’ Telo tells me, re­lax­ing hours be­fore his rodeo show on a couch in his Sao Paulo pent­house, the me­trop­o­lis’s end­less city lights re­flect­ing in the win­dow be­hind him. Later he mas­sages and hy­drates his throat with a hand-held de­vice — the 20-odd shows he plays a month are tak­ing their toll. ‘‘ You have to take ad­van­tage of this spe­cial mo­ment, work a lot.’’

The song was writ­ten by Brazil­ian artists Sharon Aci­oly and An­to­nio Dyggs, and recorded in ver­sions vary­ing from forro to the Rio funk hip-hop style, in Bahia state. Telo was in his dress­ing-room in Bahia af­ter a show when he heard the group play­ing af­ter him singing it. A girl on his pro­duc­tion team started danc­ing. He knew he’d found his next hit. But he did not imag­ine just how big a hit it would be­come. The song ex­ploded on Brazil’s gar­ru­lous in­ter­net and so­cial net­works and was a hit throughout the coun­try for most of last year. Foot­ballers such as Brazil­ian star Ney­mar, then Real Madrid’s Cris­tiano Ron­aldo picked up on the dance rou­tine to cel­e­brate goals.

This is be­cause the lyrics, os­ten­si­bly about a boy try­ing to pick up a girl at a party, can be in­ter­preted in other ways. ‘‘ Play­ers want to make a joke with the op­po­nent,’’ Telo says. ‘‘ I got you.’’ Ney­mar even joined Telo at New Year to dance to the song live on Brazil­ian tele­vi­sion. ‘‘ It’s cool to have him danc­ing, en­joy­ing him­self, with one of our songs.’’

The last time a Brazil­ian song be­came a world­wide pop hit was in the early 1960s, with Astrud Gil­berto’s The Girl from Ipanema, recorded with Stan Getz and Joao Gil­berto. It is a gen­tle, lilt­ing clas­sic, an evoca­tive re­minder of a golden era, not just in Brazil­ian mu­sic, when a group of mid­dle-class Rio de Janeiro youth cre­ated bossa nova, but also of a young, op­ti­mistic coun­try that a few years later would be taken over by a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship that would last two decades.

Telo’s hit is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an­other Brazil, but one that is no less con­fi­dent. Af­ter more than a decade of eco­nomic growth and so­cial ad­vance­ment, Brazil to­day is a richer, brasher, hap­pier coun­try. More than half the pop­u­la­tion is now clas­si­fied as class C: a sort of lower mid­dle class.

With his care­fully di­shev­elled hair, colourful logo T-shirts and snazzy train­ers, Telo looks just like one of them. His ap­peal is very much the boy next door, his ready smile as in­fec­tious as his hit. ‘‘ Peo­ple iden­ti­fied with me singing it,’’ he says. ‘‘ This is very im­por­tant; you un­der­stand what the peo­ple want to hear.’’

Ser­tanejo, the ur­ban Brazil­ian coun­try mu­sic he spe­cialises in, is the dom­i­nant pop mu­sic style in con­tem­po­rary Brazil. It is a sound that be­gan on the coun­try’s vast farm­lands and, like much of the pop­u­la­tion, moved to the big city.

‘‘ When it be­gan, it talked about the in­te­rior, talked about the out­back, what was hap­pen­ing on farms,’’ Telo says. ‘‘ Peo­ple mi­grated to the big cities. I think ser­tanejo slowly be­came more ur­ban. I think this hap­pened with Amer­i­can coun­try mu­sic as well, it be­came ur­banised, be­came more pop.’’

His fam­ily is of Ital­ian de­scent and he and his two broth­ers spent their early years in a sim­ple wooden shack in Parana state, in south Brazil, be­fore his par­ents moved to Campo Grande, in the in­te­rior of Mato Grosso state, near the fa­mous swamp­lands. They bought a bak­ery and life im­proved.

Telo started singing ser­tanejo young: he was seven when he first per­formed on stage, 12 when he went pro­fes­sional and 14 when he built his first bed­room stu­dio. He was a mem­ber of the suc­cess­ful ser­tanejo act Grupo Trad­i­cao. ‘‘ We sang ser­tanejo mu­sic, gaucha mu­sic from Rio Grande do Sul, Paraguayan mu­sic,’’ he says.

Mean­while, in Campo Grande his par­ents’ busi­ness ex­panded and he at­tended a pri­vate school. ‘‘ We had a mid­dle-class life,’’ he said. Now 31, he went solo three years ago. With one brother as man­ager and the other as his book­ing agent, he hired a strate­gic plan­ning con­sul­tant and they wrote a busi­ness plan.

To­day, 90 per cent of his in­come comes from live shows. In the week that we talked, he had per­formed in Colom­bia, Brazil’s Mi­nas Gerais state and the iso­lated Ama­zon jun­gle town of Coari, where 40,000 turned up in a town reach­able only by boat or air. It was ‘‘ in­cred­i­ble; emo­tional’’.

Telo is adept at blend­ing ser­tanejo with other styles, as his lat­est al­bum Na Bal­ada (At the Party) shows. On a newer song such as Hu­milde Res­i­den­cia (Hum­ble Res­i­dence), he mixes it with samba rock. On stage, he even ven­tures into elec­tronic dance mu­sic. But the ac­cor­dion is al­ways there, and the style in­vari­ably up­beat — ac­ces­si­ble melodies, easy dance melodies, lyrics about mod­ern love that his au­di­ence can re­late to. Lessons learned play­ing all-night ses­sions in coun­try sa­loons in Mato Grosso.

‘‘ When it was good, it was a group that made peo­ple dance,’’ he said. ‘‘ It’s im­por­tant for me to see peo­ple danc­ing, and singing, in­ter­act­ing. I like this. So my mu­sic ends up be­ing com­mer­cial.’’

Hours later, on stage in Jaguar­i­una, he sang Ai Se Eu Te Pego a sec­ond time, this time with the help of a small boy Telo lifted on to the stage to sing along with him. It was a crowd­pleas­ing mo­ment, and the cam­eras broad­cast­ing the show live on Brazil­ian tele­vi­sion zoomed in to record it. The boy’s name, Telo told his au­di­ence, was Sa­muel. Some­what in­evitably, Sa­muel too was wear­ing a cow­boy hat.

Michel Telo per­forms in April this year dur­ing the Bill­board Latin Mu­sic Awards in Miami, Florida

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