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Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Paula Lavigne: What's left of the Mafia do Dendê

For younger generations, Caetano Veloso is perhaps just the hairy guy who, who knows why, appears in the famous video in which he says, with a Bahian accent: “You’re dumb, man, how crazy. you’re stupid. What an absurd thing. What you said is all stupid. I can’t record very well what you said because you talk in a stupid way”.

The images are from the program Vox Populi, shown by TV Cultura in 342. The target of the attacks was journalist Geraldo Mayrink, one of the country’s main cultural critics at the time. Mayrink had asked if it would not be a contradiction on Caetano’s part that he harshly criticizes the media, while at the same time resorting to them to publicize his work. Even at that time, the Bahian singer made frequent attacks on journalists who did not present a very favorable view of his work.

But the least remembered part of the answer may help to explain what, years later, would come to be called the “Dendê Mafia”. Caetano insinuates that Mayrink should not hold the position he held. “I am aware of what I do, very differently from you and your colleagues, who accept your job that they cannot, who are not competent to exercise”.

The term “Mafia do Dendê” would only take shape two decades later, thanks to journalist and cultural critic Claudio Tognolli. Tognolli’s thesis was based on the disproportionate influence that Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had in the world of national culture. Tognolli accused the Mafia do Dendê of exerting undue influence over the cultural sections of the major Brazilian newspapers — at a time when cultural sections were still considered capable of influencing public opinion. Tognolli even named two journalists who would have been fired at Caetano’s request after reporting that displeased him. Tognolli himself claims to have been forced to publish a report praising Dorival Caymmi because of a request from Gilberto Gil.

The singer Lobão, who years later would have his biography written in a partnership with Tognolli, helped popularize the term. In 2000, for example, he used the Mafia do Dendê to criticize the duo of Bahian singers: “People keep quoting Caetano and Gil all the time, but they are no longer the paradigm of the avant-garde. One poses for “Guys”. Another goes to Xuxa, does Angélica’s show…”

O blog do Milho

According to Lobão, the Mafia do Dendê became more sophisticated when Gilberto Gil became Minister of Culture in 2003, during the Lula government. The rocker accused the group of favoring friends in the distribution of resources. scandal made the national news years later, in 2011.At the time, Maria Bethânia (Caetano’s sister) was authorized to raise BRL 1.3 million for a blog in which would recite poems on video.

When the case gained repercussion, she ended up giving up the project. Caetano wrote an article, furibund, attacking Folha de S. Paulo and the magazine Veja, which had dealt with the case, perhaps as an attempt to make a statement , the text was published by a Bahian newspaper: A Tarde There, the singer defended his sister and regretted that other artists did not go public to do so. Caetano also showed his anger with newspaper non-aligned authors: “Certain journalists need to feel the damage they cause with their levity”.

Before that, in his (now defunct) blog, he had rejected the accusation that he was leading a kind of mafia. “Unanimity? Never, in any period of my life, have I experienced such a status. I am not worried about it: I neither desire nor fear it, unanimity. And, on second thought, even Machado de Assis receives repeated thrusts (sometimes very violent and unfair) from Millôr Fernandes.”

The Dendê Mafia evolves

Tognolli and Lobão were not the only ones, nor the first, to point the finger at Caetano and Gil. The singer Fagner had already detected the search of the two for the protagonism, which took away the space of those who were not of the same group. “He thinks he owns the truth”, recalled the singer from Ceará in an interview with Marcelo Tas, on TV Cultura, in 2020. Long before all of them, Paulo Francis had already bought a fight with Caetano and Gil when criticizing the disproportionate attention received by Bahians, to which he received an unpublishable response from Caetano.

But the episode of Maria Bethânia showed that things were changing. Inside the newsrooms, the figure of Caetano and his group was no longer so revered. Furthermore, the internet was already proving to be a powerful force in favor of the diversity of opinions — including criticizing the distribution of public resources to established artists.

Then the Mafia do Dendê evolved. And Caetano’s wife, the cultural producer, Paula Lavigne, is a central figure in this. Nicknamed “general” and self-proclaimed “bossy” and “hyperactive”, Lavigne took the lead and began to recruit artists for political militancy of the most diverse causes – all on the left. Paula Lavigne still had braces on her teeth when she met Caetano, 27 years her senior. She had 13; he, 40. Since then, with some comings and goings, they have been together.

In 2017, she and a group of artists, loosely led by Caetano, founded the group 342 Artes to protest against the “censorship” imposed against the Queermuseum. The exhibition, frequently visited by children in a cultural center in Porto Alegre, featured sexually explicit figures. The 342 has the participation of figures such as Fernanda Montenegro, Letícia Sabatella, Camila Pitanga, Lázaro Ramos and Wagner Moura.

Installed in Rio de Janeiro, the movement makes frequent visits to Brasília and records videos, many of them embarrassing, with a poignant tone, with an aesthetic and ethic that refers to the years 1970. And the guidelines are many. In favor of the election of Baleia Rossi (MDB-SP) as president of the Chamber. Against deforestation in the Amazon. In favor of the exhibition in which children interacted with a naked adult in a state museum. Against police actions in favelas in Rio de Janeiro. In favor of an irregular occupation promoted by the MTST, by Guilherme Boulos, on a plot of land in São Bernardo do Campo (SP).

Last month, part went to Brasília — with Nando Reis and Mariana Ximenes , among other artists, to ask for the rejection of measures that could, in their view, harm the environment. Led by Caetano, who even sang in the Federal Senate, they delivered a letter to the authorities. Among the signatory entities is the PT’s Animal Rights Sector.

Paula Lavigne has also worked on other corporatist fronts. She is the president of the “Procure Saber Association”, which, among other things, lobbied in favor of banning unauthorized biographies, ie: censorship. The group also acts as a kind of union and often works for more generous distributions of resources from Ecad, the entity that charges music performance fees even at baptisms.

Falling Influence

As citizens of a democratic country, artists have the right to express their opinions. But the premise of 342 Artes is different: it is as if the fame of the past guaranteed them an automatic right to have an opinion on all matters, always with a aura that they carry the purity of intentions against truculent and ignorant politicians. In this sense, Bolsonaro is the ideal villain. Paula Lavigne accuses him of having been elected because of “hate” and “fundamentalism” and of wanting to “destroy culture”. “I don’t have a friend bolsominion”, she said in an interview with the newspaper O Globo last year.

Much of the influence of the Mafia do Dendê already seems to have worn off as the artistic influence of Caetano and Gil wanes. The most recent release by Caetano Veloso had 342.40 views on your YouTube channel — in four months. Caetano is closer to Jorge Vercillo (134.000 views on their most recent video, posted two months ago), than for second-tier country artists. Matheus and Kauan, for example, released a new video two weeks ago and it already has 6.1 million views.

In addition, Caetano’s influence on newspaper editorials is much smaller, and — more importantly — the influence of cultural notebooks today is very close to zero. Access to record labels, which used to be essential, is now just one of many paths: any artist can produce and release their own music for free on the internet. Finally, the tap of public resources for projects by famous artists is not so generous, and the political group in power does not walk on the same side of the street as Caetano and Gil.

The group itself 342 Artes has a mere 7,000 followers on Twitter and 4,800 subscribers on YouTube. But the influence of the Bahians remains strong in at least one aspect. Caetano doesn’t have the views, but he and his group have what the views can’t give: respectability. The convescotes at Paula Lavigne’s house have already been attended by figures such as Joaquim Barbosa, Marina Silva, Ciro Gomes and Guilherme Boulos.

Younger artists, and more popular than Caetano and Gil, may have the numbers bigger. But they do not always have the image of an engaged and well-connected artist. Perhaps this explains why, recently, even the singer Anitta has joined the group. Once reluctant to express her political views, she is now a frequent figure in 342 publications and has come to attack the government frequently. For the joy of the first lady of the Mafia do Dendê. “When an artist who has never spoken, we celebrate,” Paula Lavigne told O Globo last year.

Perhaps Claudio Tognolli was right when he said, more than two decades ago: “The payment of the Mafia do Dendê is not in cash, it is with an aura of glamor and conviviality.”

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