Music of the Uruguay/Brazil Borderlands


Here is a playlist compiled from my book chapter “‘Vamos al Freeshop’: The Uruguay Brazil-Continuum”. The songs are intimately of and about life along the fronte(i)ra (border) between Uruguay and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, dealing with everything from contraband to linguistic rights to ranching.

Tracks 1 and 2 are about the border area in Cerro Largo department.

On the road from Melo and Aceguá or Rio Branco, be careful. Chances are you will cross paths with men on motorcycles weighed down with Brazilian loot. These are quileros, Uruguay’s equivalent of African women balancing five baskets on their head. In Camino de los Quileros (TRACK 1), the great folklorist Osiris Rodriguez Castillos sang about the quileros decades ago, evoking their impoverished background and the necessity of the profession,

There’s a road in my land

Where the poor go for bread

The road of the quileros

For the hills of Aceguá

Little gurí[1] with skinny legs

A melon belly

Where there are so many fat cows

There isn’t even jerky for you

Cane, yerba, candy

And just a roll of tobacco

The poor we contraband

On all fours, to meet our needs

[1] kid in rural Uruguayan Spanish, and Gaúcho Portuguese

Rapaduras de Ossobuco is not a meat confection as its name would suggest, but a Carnaval troupe from Melo. With a kazoo cameo, Rapaduras’ La Cueva del Hurón (Cave of the Ferret) (TRACK 2) makes fun of the fragility of the profession, and the idea that anything goes along the border. In the hustle and bustle of today’s quileros, helmets are off, seatbelts are unfastened, and red lights are run. You set your own rules, because your gas is Brazilian.

Tracks 3 through 7 come from the Rivera/Livramento area.

For a bi-national city of less than 200,000 people, Rivera/Santana do Livramento has an extraordinary wealth of music rooted in its unique geographic predicament. Three types stand out.

  1. Musica Nativista Fronteriça: Middle and Upper Class Urban appropriating rural traditions: Gaúcho Portuguese with fronteriço phrases and phonology
  2. Cumbia Bagacera: Peri-Urban Lower Classes: In Portunhol (Rural Uruguayan Portuguese)
  3. Cumbia Pop Cheta de Rivera: Urban Middle Class: Switches between the standard Rioplatense Spanish of Buenos Aires and Brazilian Portuguese of Porto Alegre and São Paulo.

The term that best describes the dual nationality along the Uruguay-Brazil borderlands is “doble chapa”, which refers to the practice of registering your vehicle in Santana and Rivera and thus carrying chapas (plates) from both countries. Gaúcho da Fronteira’s “Gaucho Doble Chapa” (TRACK 3), constantly alludes to this bi-nationalism in a decidedly fronteriço dialect and accent of Portuguese.

           Soy doble chapa meio touro, meio galo

            Fui parido de a cavalo entre Santana e Rivera

            Levo na guela a voz das pátrias hermanas

            Alma cruda e paisana de gaucho da fronteira


(I’m doble chapa half bull, half cock

I was born on horseback between Santana and Rivera

I carry in my throat the voice of the brother homelands

Raw and peasant soul of the border gaucho)

Another performer of musica nativista gaúcha dressed in boina and bombacha (traditional gaucho clothing), Joca Martins recently penned an ode to Santana do Livramento, which alludes to the hills unique for the pampas, as well as the crowds on the pedestrian streets which swell with shoppers at Rivera’s many duty-free shops. The title Eu Sou Bagual (TRACK 4) has a double meaning. Bagual refers to both to an untamed horse, and Gaúcho (referring to Rio Grande do Sul) slang for something awesome. While the lyrics are in Portuguese, the slang and the pronunciation are also of a border variety. Martins does not pronounce the l in Bagual as a w as you would hear in the rest of the country. It’s a plain old l. In linguist speak, this post-vocalic alveolar lateral is the result of contact with Spanish, in which it is common practice.

Terremoto is a cumbia band from a peripheral neighborhood of Rivera whose instrumentation and vulgar lyrics praising idleness, drunkenness and throwing your mother-in-law in the trash resonate with the cumbia villera from Buenos Aires. Only, a porteño or even a porto-alegrense would have a torrid time understanding them. Terremoto sings most of its tunes in the basilect of Riverense Portuñol, which is in itself a political act. Uruguay’s military dictatorship suppressed the use of Portuñol and Portuguese in the border regions, insisting on Spanish as the language of public instruction and public life and a symbol of national identity. In the late 70s and early 80s, editorials in El País bore titles such as “Augment the hours of Spanish against language penetration”, and “Think about the penetration of TV and radio of neighboring countries.

Every country has its “talk different” place, and Uruguay’s is Rivera. While the return to democracy has left harsh language policies behind, Riverenses are still mocked for their speech throughout the Oriental Republic. Aside from the duty-free shops, when I mentioned Rivera, people’s first association was the Portuguese inflected tones. “No dicen ree-beh-ra, dicen HEE-VAAAAY-RUH” a friend told me my first week in Montevideo. When I watched a documentary about the history of Peñarol with my friend María del Huerto, she giggled every time manya legend and Rivera-native Pablo Bengoechea opened his mouth. Thus, it’s important to note the advocacy for linguistic independence by a group like Terremoto, which geographically, economically, and culturally is far removed from centers of power. While most of their tracks are in this hybrid language, the song Bagacera (TRACK 5) stands out for its overt declaration of the local tongue, reading as an instruction manual on Portuñol to a standard Uruguayan Spanish speaker.

There’s a third type of music from Rivera/Santana that illustrates yet another instance of Brazilian/Uruguayan cultural contact. Canto Para Bailar is a cumbia cheta band whose vocalist hails from Rivera. As its title would suggest, their hit Soltera Soltinha (soltera = single girl in Spanish, soltinha = single girl in Portuguese) (TRACK 6) uses the lyrics of both languages. But unlike the use of fronteriço dialect, or straight up Portuñol, this more upper class music switches between the standard urban Brazilian Portuguese of Rede Globo and the standard urban Rioplatense Spanish of Tinelli. The chorus is in the former, and the refrain in the latter. As the work of linguist Ana Maria Carvalho has demonstrated, the higher up a riverense is in socioeconomic status, the more likely they are to palatalize consonants like a television host in Porto Alegre, Rio, or São Paulo. A similar example is El Super Hobby, another cumbia group from Rivera, though not quite under the same cheta umbrella as Canto. Their hit Chica Brasileña (TRACK 7) exemplifies the exotic visions of Uruguayan men toward Brazilian women, exhibiting a linguistic schizophrenia with lyrics like (Princesa la dueña de la noche, você ja conquistou meu coração).

Canto Para Bailar and El Super Hobby aren’t exactly local bands just kicking it around. These two songs have 15 and 22 million YouTube hits respectively, and both groups tour regularly in Argentina and Rio Grande do Sul. This speaks to the overall importance of the Portuguese language in Uruguay, not just on the eve of Rivera’s founding or leading up to the dictatorship, but today. Aside from ethnic enclaves like Nueva Helvecia or San Javier (the colony of New Israelites who fled from Czarist Russia to Río Negro Department in 1913), English is the likeliest second language for contemporary Uruguayan youth, and Portuguese is a clear third. High schools that used to teach French and Italian have gradually shifted to the languages of the Americas’ two largest nations, both of which provide significant employment opportunities for Uruguay’s brain drain. High streets of many major towns and Montevideo neighborhoods have an Alianza and Instituto Anglo, the language and culture outreach arms of the USA and Britain respectively, and all along Av. 18 de Julio, there are flyers advertising expedient Portuguese courses, “Portugues en Cuatro Meses”.



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