‘The world wasn’t ready for him’: José Pinhal, the Portuguese kitsch-pop icon rescued from obscurity | Music

Last summer, wherever you walked on the campsite of Paredes de Coura, one of the biggest music festivals in Portugal, a familiar set of songs played from every tent: Tu És a Que Eu Quero (Tu Não Prendas o Cabelo), Magia (Bola de Cristal Mentia) or Porém Não Posso – all by the obscure, late Portuguese singer José Pinhal.

In Bons Sons, a festival dedicated to Portuguese music in the central village of Cem Soldos, the same phenomenon occurred. “As we walked around the festival site, many people came to us to tell us they were looking forward to the gig, and that, in the campsite, all you could hear was José Pinhal,” says João Sarnadas, one of the founding members of the José Pinhal Post-Mortem Experience. The tribute act formed in 2016, consisting of staff from the independent label Favela Discos and the band Equations. Their sets at Bons Sons and Paredes were among the most anticipated among festival-goers: at Paredes, they played to 4,000 people.

It’s a far cry from Pinhal’s heyday, if you can call it that. He was born in 1952 in Santa Cruz do Bispo. In the 1980s, he sang in some of Porto’s biggest nightclubs and released three albums of música de baile on the label Edições Nova Força to very little attention. A combination of soft rock, synth-pop and new-wave commonly played during arraiais (local celebrations) in Portuguese towns and villages, the genre’s overtly romantic style leans into tropes of jealousy and men being let down by women. Pinhal died in a car crash in 1993, driving home from one of his shows.

A couple of years after his death, the brother of avid Portuguese popular music collector Paulo Cunha Martins found Pinhal’s music in the apartment of the singer’s former agent, and interest began to grow. Word of mouth spilled online: Pinhal’s music started popping up unofficially on YouTube; a Facebook group demanding the reissue of his work was formed; he was even memed, with gags portraying him as a unifying force between different social groups or even a Halloween costume idea.

The Post-Mortem Experience formed in 2016, when Sarnadas formed a tribute band for a birthday party. Since then, they have been helping to spread Pinhal’s music with shows in places such as Bons Sons (where they played atop a stage truck, mimicking a typical Portuguese festivity) that allow them to honour what Sarnadas calls “the repertoire, the popular culture and the spirit of José Pinhal”. They’re not alone: in 2020, the documentary A Vida Dura Muito Pouco, directed by Dinis Leal Machado, shed light on Pinhal’s story. Last year, Lusofonia Record Club (LRC), a vinyl club dedicated to Lusophone music, released some of Pinhal’s best-known songs as Volume I (1984) and Volume 2 (1985); this month sees the release of Volume 3 (1991), the artist’s most mellow set.

album cover of a José Pinhal release from 1991.
A José Pinhal release from 1991.

LRC co-founder Léo Motta came to Pinhal’s music after his friend (and now business partner) Tomás Pinheiro suggested starting a vinyl club and making it their first release. Despite the growing acclaim for Pinhal’s work, says Motta, “it was sad to see that it was being listened to and shared in a quality far from ideal and generating royalties to individuals who had nothing to do with the artist”.

Pinhal’s style of music was influenced by a Brazilian genre called música de dor de cotovelo that relies on the same lyrical cliches (Pinhal mostly sang Portuguese adaptations of Brazilian and Spanish/Latin songs). Today, his music would be considered pimba – despite preceding the birth of the genre by a decade – for its folksy, danceable sound and innuendo-laden lyrics. Today it’s a term usually applied pejoratively because of the music’s association with rural places.

While Pinhal never got much attention during his lifetime, his rediscovery has coincided with a reclamation of traditional culture by Portuguese musicians such as David Bruno, Sónia Trópicos, Ana Moura, Chico da Tina, Sreya, Conan Osíris and Pedro Mafama (akin to in neighbouring Spain, where Rosalía and C Tangana are combining contemporary and traditional styles). This isn’t about kitsch, but an appreciation of Pinhal’s sincerity that parallels a generation embracing aspects of Portuguese pop and folk culture previously dismissed as tacky (such as Pinheiro cabbage leaf ceramics).

Released in 2021, Mafama’s debut album, Por Este Rio Abaixo, combined electronic textures with global sounds including traditional Portuguese music, while lyrically deconstructing the nationalist and lusotropicalist legacy of the repressive Estado Novo regime. He sees kitsch as a concept that can be modified and reinterpreted. “Right now, myself and other artists are exploring local culture and unearthing certain corners of popular music that were forgotten, perhaps because in their time they were seen as not valid.”

Sónia Trópicos, an electronic music producer who centres traditional Portuguese music in her work, credits the internet with helping to break down a sort of shame around Portuguese traditional culture that emerged during the 1990s. “Because of Portugal joining the European Union and the rural exodus that followed in the early 90s, a lot of the population felt a need to embrace a cosmopolitan modernisation,” she says: one in which Portuguese traditional music “just didn’t fit”.

Sarnadas agrees: “There was a time where things that could be considered Portuguese pop culture got erased and [artists] were trying to replicate trends from countries responsible for pop culture exportation.”

“For some reason, artists like José Pinhal were ignored in their time and, years later, are recognised and admired by so many people,” says Mafama.

“People today enjoy music that entertains them and cheers them up, without having to pose or virtue signal,” adds Motta. “We’re helping with that, by making sure Pinhal’s music reaches even more people.”

Trópicos agrees: “The world of his time wasn’t ready for him.”

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