In the same meeting with singer/composer Xandreli (see last blog #10), I had the opportunity to meet Vicente Lopes Ramos, a seresteiro (seresta musician), to learn about Seresta. In the previous meeting, Wander had just told me about the differences between a Seresta and a Serenata – both are essentially ‘a serenade’, but indicate slightly different musical roots.
While ‘Serenata’ is a term widely used to encapsulate songs (or a cantata), ‘Seresta’ portrays a unique identity of Brazil, because it inherited musical elements from both the European and African cultures. Considering Diamantina’s significance as a town of diamond mines during the colonial period, it is no wonder that such a musical genre was developed.
So, how did the Seresta become a popular music genre in Diamantina?
According to Wander, the beginnings go back to the late 18th Century, when pianos were imported from Europe to the homes in Diamantina. Because of Diamantina’s rich resources and close connection to Rio de Janeiro, having a piano at home was not a rare thing. At home, ‘modinha’ (sentimental songs) were sung. However, having a piano was not everyone’s luxury, and therefore gradually, music was taken to the streets so that it could be shared more widely.
As the ‘sarau’ (entertainment) became an event shared amongst the common people, so did the music which represented the demographics of Diamantina. The ‘Fandango’ and ‘Lundu’, which are two musical elements of African dance music, were incorporated into the ‘Modinha’. With this fusion, Seresta was developed.
Although the term ‘Seresta’ was somewhat lost before the 1970s, it was once again revived by one of the exponents of this tradition, the former president Juscelino Kubitschek. Kubitschek joined the Serestas himself, and he once said: ‘A serenade in Diamantina is more beautiful than a night of troubadours in Naples.’
On the basis of this historical background, I wondered - how does Seresta resonate with the people of Diamantina today?
Vincente, who is a singer and composer of Seresta, has written over 200 songs. Vicente told me that the themes of these songs vary from romance to the beauty of the city. The structure of these songs are often one simple melodic line with instrumental accompaniment. The common instrumentation includes (but not limited to): Cavaquinho, guitar, pandeiro, flute, clarinet and accordion.
After an introduction, Vicente gave us a special performance of his song, ‘Acorda, Chica’ (which means ‘Awake, Chica da Silva’). Chica da Silva was a significant figure in Diamantina during the 18th Century, who rose from slavery through championing social democracy.
After listening to Vincente, I recalled the popular Seresta song ‘Oh Minas Gerais / Peixe Vivo’ which I had recorded in London last month (this was filmed to be part of the Vesperata in April, but this is currently being postponed to a later date, due to the lockdown). ‘Oh Minas Gerais / Peixe Vivo’ is a song that has been sung at the Vesperata.
With a simple, beautiful melody that tells the story of homeland, these songs can be easily sung and shared by everyone (as one can see in the video below). When seeing the various footages of Vesperata with the crowd being immersed in this song, it is clear that the Seresta is still an important vehicle today, to bring people together. I look forward to joining the Seresta at the Vesperata (Date TBA!)