Forro takes Manhattan
By Ernest Barteldes
During the final years of World War II, the U.S. military maintained bases in northeastern Brazil as a strategic point. According to legend, once in a while the officers clubs would have balls that were open to the general public under the label for all in which the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey was replaced by the local sounds. Those sounds were provided by small, local groups that played the accordion, triangle and a hand-held bass drum called zabumba.
The music they performed was a fast-paced, two-by-four syncopated dance beat that was then called baião, and couples danced along to songs with simple lyrics and melodies that spoke of the hard life of the retirante (farmers who are forced out of their homelands in search of work during times of drought) and their struggles with the lack of rain so characteristic of that region of the country, of love won and lost and also of the simple peoples love for the relief of dance.
The locals who lived around those bases could not speak English, so they would adapt the word for all on the clubs billboards to their own speech and accent. In time, for all became forró (pronounced fo-HOH), and the name became synonymous not only with the events, but with the spirit, the music and everything else associated to the music that region of Brazil.
The first icon of forró was the late Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989), a native of the state of Pernambuco.
He was responsible for taking the sound of the dry countryside of his land to the rest of the country, later becoming the musical (and sometimes spiritual) godfather to well-known Brazilian musicians who later made it big inside and outside the country, such as Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and many others.
Despite all the history, forró was basically looked down upon by the most sophisticated crowd of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other southern states.
For many years (despite the respect everyone had for Luiz Gonzaga), the style was relegated to either the residents of the warm northeast or to those who migrated to the big city in search of better jobs and opportunities.
It was only after the lambada craze of the late eighties (anyone remember Chorando Se Foi?) that the forrozeiros (forró musicians) realized that they had to evolve. Inspired by the country bands of Sao Paulo, they gradually modernized their sound.
While the accordion remained, the triangles and zabumba were replaced by (or sometimes added to) modern keyboards, electric guitars and drums. The lament of the retirante remained, but words with stories of sexual innuendo and humor also appeared.
The formula worked, and all of a sudden forró was cool in Brazil. Today, you can go to your local megastore and you will find (in the international section) CDs by popular bands such as Mastruz Com Leite, Magnificos and others.
And now forró is hip in the East Village, where Forró In The Night, a group of musicians led by zabumba player Mauro Refosco has been crowding Nublu, the tiny club on Avenue C and E 4th St for about a year.
When I walked in, the place sounded Brazilian and stirred memories of times past when I lived in the warm northeastern Brazilian town of Fortaleza, where the temperature is seldom under 75 degrees.
Greg, the son of Haitian immigrants with a deep love of Brazilian music commanded the DJ booth with old records that I hadnt heard in years, while the bartender served caipirinhas (the traditional cocktail of the land) at $ 8 a piece.
There is a mixed crowd, said Yussef Sayman, one of the clubs collaborators. There are people who live in the neighborhood, Europeans, and especially musicians.
No one seemed to mind that the songs were in a foreign tongue. Some couples danced, while many others simply lounged around while following the beat with their feet as they sipped their drinks.
Although the main band is currently on vacation in Brazil (Yussef Sayman says they will be there for a month), they are being competently replaced by a band led by vocalist Karina Zambiani (who also sings with the main band). Although forró was not exactly on the menu, their blend of original songs with some covers of Brazilian classics such as Clara Nunes Canto de Ossanha were rendered with a lot of soul, and everyone (myself included) was having a good time.