Forró in Brazil: Under a Full Moon, Dancing to the Beat of the Zabumba
ABOUT a mile down a cobblestone road from the Vitória gas station, on a moonlit ranch outside São José de Mipibu, a town of negligible importance in northeast Brazil, three men in shiny blue and silver cowboy outfits made music with an accordion, a jangling triangle and a deep-throated zabumba drum.
They were hardly alone. Hundreds of blue-jeans clad young people, mostly from the nearby city of Natal, drank beer, held hands, laughed and made out in a corral-inspired courtyard. Hundreds more couples jammed a dance floor under a thatched roof, locking right thighs to perform a dance that is at once sensual and herky-jerky, a combination that could have emerged only from Brazilian cowboy culture.
The group, Os 3 do Nordeste, was playing forró, Brazilian country music born in the northeastern sertão — dry, cactus-filled, backwoods cattle country — and spread far and wide in the late 1940's by Luiz Gonzaga, the singer, songwriter and accordion master who moved to Rio de Janeiro and made the song "Asa Branca" an international hit.
Since then, it has come in and out of fashion, but after a revival in the 90's it has settled into a hip-to-be-square-dancing mainstream acceptance (in fact, Brazil celebrated its first National Forró Day on Dec. 13). Samba and bossa nova are the international face of Brazilian music, and funk from the favelas may be all the rage in Rio, but even fashionable clubs cannot resist putting on a forró or two as the evening winds down.
In the northeast, though, forró is king. There, the accordion, triangle and zabumba fill nightclubs in the major cities every day of the week, and every June during the festival of São João, transform towns that are usually just dots on the map into musical epicenters that draw thousands of visitors into an accordion-inspired frenzy.
If you're planning a trip to Brazil to hear forró, there are a few things you should know. First is the pronunciation: it's faw-HAW. Next, although you can find forró clubs in most Brazilian cities, the northeast is really the place to go. The two biggest cities in the region, Recife and Fortaleza, are both forró hubs; I chose Recife so I could squeeze in a visit to Caruaru and Campina Grande, two small cities also known for their forró traditions. Then there is the definition. It's a slippery term, and can mean different things depending on who your source is. Mine was Sérgio Gonzaga, nephew of the famous Luiz.
Sérgio, a 51-year-old forró purist with curly salt-and-pepper hair, broke it down for me. On the side of good is traditional forró, known as pé-de-serra, or foot-of-the-mountain. Based around the trio of accordion, triangle and zabumba, it is old-fashioned, good ol' boy forró, what Bo and Luke Duke would have listened to had they been Brazilian. On the tacky side is forró estilizado, the stylized pop music version played by groups like Calcinha Preta, full of electronic sounds with the accordion relegated to a secondary role. It's "not part of the sertão culture, not part of its history," Sérgio said. And Calcinha Preta, after all, means "Black Panties," not exactly evocative of country roots.
A bit more acceptable, he said, is forró universitário, generally associated with college kids and groups like Rastapé and Falamansa that still focuses on traditional instruments but with a smoother sound.
Around midnight at Sala de Reboco, in Recife, I knew from the buzz of activity — the line of taxis outside, the vendors roasting meat and selling beer — that I had come to a forró hot spot. At the door, there was no pretense of snobbery, no line to enter or to get one of the tickets that bartenders mark to keep track of your tab. There was just a wave of heat radiating from the dance floor.
Inside, I found something like an artsy barn-in-the-city with a slightly self-conscious touch of cool. It was a cavernous space full of old wood beams, white plastic tables and chairs, and a sizable dance floor and stage on the far side. The young people in jeans were unintimidating, far different from the tanner-than-thou skin-baring set at clubs in Rio.
Marking everyone's ticket as they ordered, bartenders tossed out Antarctica beers and the occasional whiskey, and a slushy orange-colored frozen drink from a machine. It turned out to be vodka with what a helpful local explained was "a fruit we have around here that's called a tangerine."
Couples who could not penetrate the densely packed dance floor danced around tables covered in empty beer cans, drink glasses and cigarette butts, frat-party style. The volume of the sound system was completely bearable, halfway between department store Musak and a rave. You could converse without shouting, which was a good thing, because my dancing ability alone wasn't going to win me many friends.
By SETH KUGEL
Published: May 7, 2006