June 14, 2013

Kaya-Pop: The brave new world of indigenous music in Brazil

The lead singer crooning catchy pop lyrics, the gyrating chorus-line of girls in mini-skirts, the ecstatic crowd of teenagers swaying and snapping photos with their cell phones, the infectious beats pumping out of an electronic keyboard -- it would all be a typical Friday night forró dance party in the Brazilian Amazon if it weren't for one essential detail: practically all the participants, from the singer to the scanitly clad dancers to the raucous audience armed with digital cameras and cell phones -- everyone except the keyboard player, in fact -- are Kayapó Indians living in a vast expanse of protected forest lands in southern Pará.

Kayapó pop star Bepdjyre

This past 19th of April, the Kayapó village of Turedjam hosted an elaborate festival to celebrate Brazil's National Indian Day. Some 800 people from 15 villages as well as special guests from neighboring Brazilian towns attended the two-day event that included traditional dance presentations, an inter-village sports competition, the 2013 Miss Kayapó and Mister Kayapó beauty contests, and the high point of the evening, a concert by Kayapó pop star Bepdjyre.

The festival included sporting events and the "Miss Kayapó 2013" beauty contest

Bepdjyre, who comes from the village of Kabaú, composes his own lyrics in Kayapó but sets them to popular Brazilian dance rhythms such as forró, brega and sertaneja. He records his CDs in the city of Novo Progresso in southern Pará near the Mato Grosso border. Pykatire, from Las Casas village, has posted a video on YouTube of an acoustic performance in a lovely natural setting. Tewakrã is another young Kayapó singer who, in addition to his own compositions, has covered the Beatles. Mokuká is a 50-year old Kayapó chief from Moikorakô village who composes and performs as avidly as these younger musicians, and has posted a number of lively tunes on YouTubeLive and studio recordings by this handful of emerging Kayapó pop artists circulate virally through villages and Brazilian towns on CDs, cell phones, pen drives, SD cards and portable MP3 players.

One of Bepdjyre's most popular songs, played constantly in Turedjam in the weeks following the concert, is "Waiter bring me another soda" (Pidjo kangô nhoro ondjwy amry ja on dja), borrowing a common refrain from Brazilian drinking songs but adapting it to the Kayapó's tee-totaling prohibition of alcoholic beverages in many villages. 

Bepdjyre onstage with a chorus-line of Kayapó girls

Five girls from Turedjam practiced for several weeks before the show to master the hip-swaying choreography, and they danced in perfect synchrony onstage. They wore matching white mini-skirts bought especially for the show, but underneath the skirts they had on traditional Kayapó ornaments and body paint, adding bright red lipstick to the typical geometric designs in black Genipa and red annatto on their faces.

Teenage fans sing along and snap photos with their phones and cameras

Appearing with Bepdjyre was Mokuká who, unlike Bepdjyre -- in his tight-fitting jeans, white tennis shoes and rhinestone-studded "Tribe" T-shirt -- appeared onstage in traditional Kayapó body paint, bead ornaments and feather headdress. And yet Mokuká swayed and dipped onstage as well as any Brazilian teenager. He sang an extended, encore performance of his contagious Portuguese-language composition, "Tem, tem, tem mulher bonita" ('There are lots of pretty women'). A crowd of teenage boys in the audience sang along with the refrain, "In the village too, in the city too, in the world too: There are lots pretty women!" and pointed out their favorite girls in the crowd or on the stage.

Mokuká sings "Tem mulher bonita"

Alongside Mokuká, a high school student from the remote village of Kuben-Kan-Kren showed off highly erotic, hip-thrusting dance moves wearing ultra-tight, ultra-short-shorts: the Kayapó incarnation of Brazilian dance goddess Carla Peres. As men, both young and old repeated to me, in awe over her performance, "She's the only Kayapó girl who can dance like that. She practiced for months in front of the DVD player." 

"The Kayapó incarnation of Brazilian dance goddess Carla Peres"

The Kayapó cameramen and film makers I have trained over the past three years captured the concert on film and immediately edited a DVD which they distributed in the village and throughout Kayapó territory. On my recent visit to Turedjam, this DVD, as well as MP3 knock-offs of the live audio, was playing constantly. Kayapó men and boys alike are especially enamored of Mokuká's song, "There are lots of pretty women," and the sexy choreography of the girl from Kuben-Kan-Kren.

There is a distinctively masculine gaze in productions by the current all-male cadre of Kayapó film makers: even in traditional ceremonies, women strip down to their underwear for the duration of the dancing, while men wear the same shorts they use in daily life. As the inherent machismo of Kayapó culture blends with the sexism implicit in erotic lyrics and choreographies from Brazilian pop music, I get the impression that Kayapó men and teenage boys don’t just watch home-grown films like Miss Kayapó and the Bepdjyre concert documentary: they ogle.

Kayapó cameramen exhibit a distinctively male gaze

At first glance, this indigenous aping of Brazilian pop music genres and sexually charged dance styles seems shocking, disorienting, even degrading: an affront to traditional Kayapó aesthetic values. And yet a closer examination of Kayapó culture reveals the fundamental role of appropriation and re-invention in their relationship with outsiders. Prior to sustained contact with Brazilian society, the Kayapó raided neighboring groups and among themselves, and placed a high value on capturing ornaments, weapons, names, songs and other material or immaterial goods from the enemy, incorporating them into their own cultural repertoire and displaying them as signs of personal and group prestige.[1]

Kayapó body ornamentation is continually evolving to incorporate new materials and aesthetic references

Even after inter-group raiding ceased, the Kayapó continue to value the capture and appropriation of trappings and technologies of the kuben -- Brazilian "white" society -- such as firearms, trade goods, territorial maps[2] and video cameras. The Kayapó made especially powerful use of video cameras in the late 1980s to mobilize an international protest movement[3], blocking international funding for the Belo Monte dam project and paralyzing the project until just a few years ago. The Kayapó continue to use their technological and political savvy and their penchant for spectacle to draw international attention to their cause

With funding from the National Science Foundation and approval from Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq), Middle Tennessee State University anthropologist Richard Pace and I are currently studying how the Kayapó use video cameras and other digital media in their increasingly complex interactions with Brazilian and global society.

A Kayapó film maker at work in his home village

According to Kayapó film maker Tatajyre, having young, sparsely clad Kayapó women strut and dance like Brazilian pop stars does not degrade traditional beauty standards: "We are showing Kayapó beauty to the Brazilians."

Rather than seeing culture as a stark choice between opposing, exclusive categories such as "Kayapó" and "Brazilian" or "traditional" and "modern," the Kayapó today, as always, see culture as an additive process, continually appropriating, incorporating and re-signifying new ornaments, weapons, goods and knowledge from enemies and rivals as a way of highlighting their own strength and perseverance. Does any of this make the Kayapó less "authentic" or "indigenous" or "Kayapó"? Of course not. On the contrary.

Miss Kayapó: "Beautiful as Indians and as Brazilians"
With local village girls dressed both in mini-skirts and traditional body paint, showing off trendy dance moves alongside a native-language pop singer like Bepjdyre, the Kayapó get to have it both ways: they get to be beautiful as Indians and as Brazilians. As Mokuká sings: "In the village too, in the city too, in the world too: There are lots of pretty women."

As I was packing my bags to leave Turedjam, I heard the distant strains of a hauntingly familiar tune: No, my ears were playing tricks on me, it couldn't be. So I followed the sound towards a thatched hut where I found a group of teenage boys listening to a portable MP3 device playing Tewakrã's electronic Kayapó-language cover of, yes: "Hey Jude." 

A brave new world indeed. 


First published in "Knowledge Exchange" in the June 2013 issue of Anthropology News (link no longer active, available to AAA members only).
  Special thanks to Amy Goldenberg for editorial input. 

Cite as:

G.H. Shepard Jr. (2013) Kaya-Pop: The brave new world of indigenous music in Brazil. Anthropology News 54(6): 47-48. 

Video stills courtesy of Tatajyre Kayapó, other photos by G.H. Shepard


[1] Lea, V. 2012. Riquezas Intangíveis de Pessoas Partíveis: Os Mebengkokre (Kayapó) do Brasil Central. São Paulo: USP.

[2] de Robert, P. 2004. Terre coupée: Recompositions des territorialités indigènes dans une reserve d'Amazonie. Ethnologie Française 34(1): 79-88.

[3] Turner, T. 1990. The Kayapó Video Project. Revue de la Commission d'Anthropologie Visuelle, Univ. Montreal.


  1. maybe a link to listen some of this music would be useful !
    thank you

    1. I also found this link to Mokuká singing forró on YouTube! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak9Rqri27Q0

  2. Thanks for your comment, yes, agree entirely. I was planning to include some clips with the posting. However you must remember that both the music and the films are Kayapo productions, so any such publicity must first go through them. I have just gotten back from the village, and they feel that posting videos of only the pop music concert and beauty contest would give a distorted image of their culture. So I am working together with the Kayapo leadership and film makers to post a selection of clips from various Kayapo productions, showing both the spectacular (and frequent) traditional ceremonies as well as these hybrid events. I'll probably post this collection with some commentary, after finalizing this consultation in the village, in September. In the meantime, a Kayapo friend showed me this YouTube music video by Pykatire, another Kayapo pop singer: http://t.co/h6zY8T7St3. And here is an interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e45kZ_rFIlQ. Thanks for writing and watch for updates! Glenn