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