In Brazil, cowboy culture pushing into the Amazon jungle

Country music is new in Novo Progresso, but so is everything. This is the frontier, Brazilian style

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, expensive-looking 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 25-year-old owner of the open-air 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 long-ago 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 begins to sing, 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.

Bevins is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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