The Ama­zon’s Wild West

Ranch cul­ture moves in, with coun­try tunes and de­for­esta­tion

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - Bevins is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

The mu­sic is loud, but the two men are able to com­mu­ni­cate one thing very clearly: They will not al­low any­one, un­der any cir­cum­stances, to pat them down for weapons at the door.

It’s tough to tell where on their out­fits of match­ing white cow­boy hats, tight blue­jeans, ex­pen­sivelook­ing cow­boy boots and close-fit­ting shirts they might be stor­ing a pis­tol or knife. But they won’t al­low the se­cu­rity guards to frisk them, ei­ther out of fear of be­ing caught, or pride.

Slightly in­tox­i­cated, they make half­hearted at­tempts to fight the guards be­fore shuf­fling off into the dusty night. The bounc­ers and Alexan­dra Loch, the 25year-old owner of the ope­nair night­club, are en­tirely un­fazed and con­tinue to col­lect ten-real notes at the door.

From out­side, they can hear Nando Fer­raz belt­ing out lyrics in Por­tuguese that cover the stan­dard coun­try mu­sic themes — love, loss, re­bel­lion. “I’m suf­fer­ing, but it’s pass­ing.... What we need is to for­get...,” he sings, stand­ing on­stage alone with his am­pli­fied acous­tic gui­tar. And then: “Don’t you speak ill of that woman, you. Don’t you ever speak ill of her.”

Like most every­body else in this town, Loch was not born here. But she ar­rived more re­cently than most, just two years ago. She came with her hus­band from the nearby state of Mato Grosso, where coun­try mu­sic and ranch cul­ture are more en­trenched, be­cause they heard this town of slightly more than 25,000 peo­ple was boom­ing.

She’s blond, wears large gold hoop ear­rings and works the door with ease as her teenage nanny, Sil­via, rocks her daugh­ter in a car seat un­der the ta­ble.

“We heard about ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on here,” Loch says. “Dig­ging for gold, log­ging and, of course, cat­tle ranch­ing. But it’s even wilder here than we ex­pected.”

Coun­try mu­sic is rel­a­tively new here, but so is ev­ery­thing. This is the fron­tier, Brazil­ian style. The town was founded in 1991, and the ma­jor­ity of the land is still cov­ered in Ama­zon rain­for­est, though some out­laws are do­ing their best to quickly re­duce the sup­ply.

Brazil­ian ranch cul­ture is push­ing north into the jun­gle, cel­e­brat­ing the rugged ru­ral life­style of the farmer and ad­ven­turer, a stark change from the in­dige­nous cul­ture and jun­gle that dom­i­nated in this re­gion a gen­er­a­tion or two ago.

A big dirt lot next to a gas sta­tion serves as park­ing for the night­club, and waves of pickup trucks roll up to the front, slowly, so their own­ers can make a grand ap­pear­ance in their ex­pen­sive new ve­hi­cles. Younger boys, with darker skin, lis­ten to the mu­sic while sit­ting on their mo­tor­cy­cles a bit far­ther back, un­able or un­will­ing to pay the $3 en­trance fee.

In­side is a chaotic swirl of peo­ple young and old, danc­ing close, min­gling over whiskey in makeshift VIP ar­eas or wait­ing in line to buy beer tick­ets. Some are in coun­try out­fits, oth­ers Brazil­ian ul­tra-ca­sual, sport­ing polo shirts or T-shirts, shorts and san­dals that make the heat more bear­able. One em­ployee, in a huge straw hat, is over­whelmed by the crowd’s de­sire for more beer and loses his tem­per, yelling at a cus­tomer be­fore apol­o­giz­ing pro­fusely.

The in­ci­dent is quickly forgotten. Fer­raz, 20, has ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion as he starts an­other song. He has movie-star good looks and tal­ent. His voice is full and earnest, and emo­tion comes through even when the sound sys­tem blurs his words.

De­spite the samba, beach and biki­nis that dom­i­nate the coun­try’s im­age abroad, Brazil­ian coun­try mu­sic, or ser­tanejo, has long been one of its most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful gen­res.

Else­where in Brazil, the dress and coun­try themes can feel like af­fec­ta­tion. Here, how­ever, there is no fak­ing. Just up the road, you can pur­chase sad­dles and spurs. Next door, you can buy and sell cat­tle.

“Coun­try mu­sic, our real coun­try mu­sic, ser­tanejo raiz, al­ways has some­thing to do with the real lives we are living,” says Fer­raz, stand­ing out­side. Raised by farm­ers and ranch­ers, he started singing at 16 and tours the re­gion from his home in Mato Grosso. “It’s a tra­di­tion we in­her­ited from the past. But it’s alive.”

Life here has some­thing else in com­mon with the fron­tier cul­ture of the lon­gago Amer­i­can West. Much takes place in an am­bigu­ous space. Gold dig­ging, ranch­ing and log­ging go on out­side of­fi­cial reg­u­la­tions, and all of it hap­pens on land that was Ama­zon jun­gle un­til re­cently. When the law comes, it of­ten shows up in the form of fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cers or the fed­eral po­lice that re­cently ar­rested the city’s most prom­i­nent cit­i­zen for il­le­gal de­for­esta­tion. The mayor has been forced out of of­fice tem­po­rar­ily amid scan­dal, and his re­place­ment has had his cat­tle con­fis­cated over en­vi­ron­men­tal crimes.

When Loch hears that, the night be­fore, some­one was shot and killed in front of a bar on the other side of the high­way, she’s not par­tic­u­larly fazed. “Oh, that neigh­bor­hood is full of drug peo­ple,” she says, re­fer­ring to a street four short blocks away.

The city of “New Progress,” Novo Pro­gresso, or just Pro­gresso, as lo­cals call it, of­fi­cially cov­ers 15,000 square miles. Gas­par Martins, who is stand­ing out­side the bar, has spent most of his life here and watched the place trans­form com­pletely.

“This place used to have three houses. Man, it’s changed too much,” he says. Martins is deeply tanned and looks like he has lived his 42 years fully. He works odd jobs on a nearby ranch.

As Fer­raz fin­ishes a song, Martins ap­proaches the stage and whis­pers in his ear. Then he climbs up and takes the mi­cro­phone while the en­ter­tainer ac­com­pa­nies him on the gui­tar.

“I’m go­ing drink­ing with my friends,” Martins sings, mak­ing his way through an old stan­dard about a man who is sorry he has to lie to both his wife and lover. “I won’t be com­ing home un­til the morn­ing.”

Ev­ery­one in the room knows Martins, and his singing is im­pres­sive. The house erupts in ap­plause. In Novo Pro­gresso, the party is just be­gin­ning.

Pho­tog raphs by Vin­cent Bevins For The Times

MU­SI­CIAN Nando Fer­raz per­forms in the Brazil­ian fron­tier town of Novo Pro­gresso, where il­le­gal gold min­ing, jun­gle clear-cut­ting and log­ging are the rule.

NIGHT­CLUB owner Alexan­dra Loch takes en­try fees. Coun­try mu­sic is new here, but so is ev­ery­thing.

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