BARRETOS, BRAZIL — The streets are filled with cowboys and cowgirls, and the warm breezes carry the aroma of barbecued meat. Over in the stadium, the bulls are running wild, while in the midway, speakers blast music about big hearts, broken hearts, and achy-breaky hearts.
It can only be a rodeo.
But this is not Houston or Calgary, where young 'uns learn to rope steers before they can walk. This is Barretos, Brazil, home of what organizers proudly call "the biggest rodeo party in the world."
The festival's success - more than 1 million people are expected to pass through the turnstiles during the 10-day event - is indicative of the rise of country culture here in Brazil. Over the past few years, the number of Brazilian rodeos has grown, the popularity of both Brazilian and North American country music has soared, and the fans of both have begun to shed their inferiority complex, carving their own little niche in Brazilian culture.
"Until very recently, those of us in the provinces were ashamed of wearing a cowboy hat," says Emilio dos Santos, president of Os Independentes, the group organizing the festival. "But now it's a reason for pride. Nowadays, I think people who wear cowboy hats should be respected by the guy in the capital city. People are catching on."
Although Brazil is more commonly associated with beaches, soccer, and carnival sambas, vast parts of its unconquered wilderness are reminiscent of the Wild West. Brazil is bigger than the continental United States and is home to 8 million guns, 18 million cattle, and no shortage of dusty outposts where big landowners rule the roost.
Many of those ingredients are evident this week in Barretos, a small agricultural city 265 miles northwest of São Paulo. Every August, the town hosts the annual Festa de Peão, a huge festival that is part rodeo, part state fair, part country-music festival, and part spring break.
The party was started in 1955 by a group of young cowboys who lived in and around the city, and it has become bigger and more boisterous every year. The Barretos festival is now one of the most eagerly anticipated dates on Brazil's festival calendar - and an obligatory stop not only for the nation's partygoers but also for Brazil's big advertisers, who pour more than $1 million into sponsoring the event.
Organizers say there has been a huge increase in rodeos all over Brazil. There are now 1,800 rodeos across the country each year, and more than 10,000 professional riders regularly participate in traditional events such as penning, bulldogging, and the blue-ribbon event, bull riding.
Brazilians are particularly adept at the latter, a brutal competition in which cowboys fight to cling to the back of a bucking 3/4-ton bull for at least eight seconds. One of the sport's biggest stars is Adriano Moraes, who in 1994 became one of only four men in history to go eight seconds on 10 consecutive bulls.
Mr. Moraes' feat not only won him the privilege of being the only Brazilian to be honored in the US with a life-size statue, it is also conclusive evidence that the Brazilian riders have the potential to provide real competition for their American counterparts. US cowboys familiar with Brazil say that Brazilian riders have learned quickly on the sand and organizers have taken advantage of it.
"There's been a huge jump in the development in the sport," says Barney Brehmer, a Texan who judged at Barretos for nine years. "Professionalism, talent, fairness, purses ... it has really upgraded in every respect."
The heroic deeds of bull riders, however, are not the only reasons people travel for hundreds of miles to take in the atmosphere at Barretos. What goes on before and after the broncos buck is a key factor in setting Barretos apart from the more traditional rodeos in North American cities like Houston or Las Vegas.
During the day, agricultural shows attract farmers, and a small petting zoo with cows, sheep, and ponies keep youngsters entertained. When the sun goes down, the park's restaurants are packed with people eating barbecued beef, and western shops sell everything from cowboy hats to leather polish do a roaring trade. Outside, cowboys and cowgirls of all ages dance to the ridiculously loud sounds of The Rolling Stones, Kenny Loggins, and the ubiquitous Shania Twain.
Ms. Twain's trademark pop country twang booms relentlessly from every corner of the 311-acre park, indicating how crossover country - and Brazil's home-grown version, sertanejo - has become one of the festival's big draws.
Although many in Brazil's more cosmopolitan cities dismiss sertanejo as provincial and tacky, big names can easily sell out the park's 35,000-seat arena. Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire have all played to packed houses here and although the fall of the real, Brazil's currency, has made the hiring of international stars prohibitively expensive, the locals are just as happy to see Brazilian duos like Zeze di Camargo and Luciano, and Xitaozinho and Chororo.
Just as country entered the mainstream in North America in the 1990s, sertanejo is gaining respect in Brazil, and country and sertanejo now account for 21 percent of all sales, up from 9 percent 10 years ago, says Mattheus Calil, president of Clube da Viola, an agency that manages four of Brazil's best-known duos.
Mr. Calil says bringing artists to Barretos is a no-brainer. It's the nation's "country capital." At least once a year.
"Everything that happens here has the chance of going nationwide," Calil says. "Barretos is our focus, the national meeting point for country fans."