Megwen Loveless is a social anthropologist who specializes in teaching Portuguese language through music at Princeton. Her research focuses on forró music in the cities of Recife, Rio de Janeiro, and New York; regional and national migrations; and the juxtaposition of modernity and tradition in Brazilian popular music.
Here, Loveless introduces us to the central figure in the creation and spread of forró.
If we were to distill forró music down to its most basic elements, we would be left with two fundamental characters: Luiz Gonzaga and his accordion. Luiz Gonzaga, more than any other person, has carved out a space for traditional rhythms and melodies in the history of Brazilian popular music, and his music continues to be reinterpreted in countless creative refractions across the nation and abroad.
Born December 13, 1912, into a large sharecropping family in the hinterlands of northeastern Brazil, young Luiz was a hardworking farmhand who approached all of his ventures with a charming and charismatic flair. Much to his mother's chagrin, he learned to play the accordion by poking around at the instruments in his father's atelier, and eventually began to play gigs in the surrounding countryside alongside his father. Nonetheless, he had set his sights far from his modest home early on and set off to join the army at the tender age of 17.
After a decade of military duty across Brazil, Gonzaga stayed in the military barracks in Rio while awaiting his transportation home. In the evenings, he played accordion in the red-light district, and it was there that he discovered his signature sound—forró, the music that would captivate Brazil for decades to come.
At first, he played the tangos and boleros that were popular at the time, but to only tepid applause. It was when he added a northeastern flair to the music that his instrument began to light up the room. As the story goes, there was a table of young men—also from the Brazilian northeast—who asked him to play some regional tunes that they might recognize from back home. The songs, slightly exotic in comparison to the popular music that most urban Brazilians were listening to, were an instant hit.
What set his new music apart from other contemporary fare was Gonzaga's air of rustic folklore, and perhaps more importantly, his unique and clever marketing. Early on, Gonzaga classified several of his songs as entirely new genres, such as xamêgo and baião, and by doing so carved a space for his work that would evoke a sense of nostalgic backwoods romance in his tunes. Luiz was hardly the only artist hailing from the hinterlands up north that was trying to hit it big on Rio's airwaves in the 1940s, but this marketing concept allowed him to stand out in an increasingly consumerist music industry.
His great success also lay in his special alchemy with his co-writers. More a "brainstormer" than a "finisher," Luiz often came up with ideas for melodies or lyrics, but rarely took the time to fully flesh them out. Instead, he prioritized the delivery of songs to his adoring fans and therefore dedicated his time to recording, giving interviews, and playing live shows. Behind the scenes, his co-writers would lovingly develop the music that would turn Gonzaga into a living legend. In all, Gonzaga collaborated with literally hundreds of artists, but he owes his greatest hits to partnerships with Humberto Teixeira and Zé Dantas. With them, he turned out hit after hit, easily topping the record sales he had set with earlier albums. The hit "Baião"—co-written with Teixeira—made Gonzaga a household name, and his success was solidified with more Teixeira song collaborations such as "Asa Branca," "No Meu Pé de Serra," "Juazeiro," "Qui nem Jiló," "Paraíba," and "Assum Preto." As he continued to work with Teixeira, he also brought Zé Dantas on board, with whom he wowed the Brazilian public with northeastern anthems such as "A Volta da Asa Branca," "Vem Morena," "Sabiá, "O Xote das Meninas," and "A Dança da Moda."
Gonzaga was quick to admit that his primary talent was not in writing music, but in performing; over the years, he built up a stage persona that guaranteed him a space in Brazil's musical history. After the obvious success of the "backwoods" image he adopted onstage, he continued to fine-tune his musical identity. He adopted a style of dress copied from the bandit rebel Lampião, as well as from the nomadic cowboys that wandered the thorny backlands. From Lampião, he borrowed an ornate leather hat turned up in the front and back; from the cowboys, he adopted the thick leather protective pants and cape that they wore to protect themselves from the harsh vegetation.
Not only did he simply stylize his visual presentation, Gonzaga cast himself as a country bumpkin, adopting an exaggerated northeastern accent with a particularly nasal pronunciation, a raucous laugh accompanied by mid-song exclamations, and incorrect grammar in order to identify himself with the common man of the Brazilian rural northeast.
Shortly after developing his signature fashion, Gonzaga further fortified his performance iconicity by standardizing his stage presentation into a three-piece band made up of the accordion, zabumba drum, and an oversized triangle—the very instrumentation still used today in forró performances.
The years that Gonzaga spent on stage were difficult times for his native northeast region: Unprecedented numbers of downtrodden northeasterners migrated south to escape drought and to avail themselves to industrial jobs in the burgeoning cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasília. As hundreds of thousands of these refugees flooded the cities of the South looking for work, the tunes of Luiz Gonzaga spoke to them and consoled them during their homesick anguish. The evocative tunes of Humberto Teixeira and Zé Dantas allowed the great performer to bring forth the sensations, tastes, and sounds that hundreds of thousands of nordestinos felt for their native land. Gonzaga came to symbolize everything that they had left at home and everything they longed for in return.
In essence, his music filled a special niche as it bridged the divide between Brazilian rural and urban lifestyles; the lyrics of his songs "translated" reality across these two binary nodes for audiences on both sides of the spectrum. But in 1956, a new political mood in Brazil urged modernization, and Gonzaga's popularity slowly began to decline in big urban centers. In response, he took to the road and performed on stages throughout the countryside where his music could still draw a large and enthusiastic audience. He spent over a decade performing like this until the political mood changed again in the mid-60s; a liberal youth movement rose up against an oppressive military dictatorship, and his popularity surged once again.
A generation of left-wing sympathizers had grown up with Gonzaga's music as a backdrop to their youth, and these young musicians would welcome Gonzaga back to his throne at the head of Brazilian popular music. This generation was particularly enthusiastic about his protest songs that contested the poverty and suffering of the northeastern people.
These songs became veritable hymns of protest that young artists interpreted in countless covers, bringing Gonzaga's music back to Brazilian airwaves. In some ways, Brazilian popular music had come full circle as Gonzaga—who was cited as one of the earliest and most prominent influences of many of these young performers—embraced the musical genres popular with young audiences, even recording rock hits with his new collaborators. On many levels, Gonzaga became a paternal figure of Brazilian popular music, sharing his expertise, good-natured laughter, and friendship with subsequent generations of artists.
As Gonzaga aged and grew ill, his many devotees continued to perform his hits all across the world, sharing the stage with their idol whenever possible. Even while afflicted with a slowly developing prostate cancer, Gonzaga continued touring and recording. He brought in additional accordionists when the weight of the instrument became too much for him and would still sing his timeless pieces to the delight of his enthusiastic audiences. Though he succumbed to the cancer in August of 1989, he continues to live on through his classic recordings and, perhaps even more importantly, the new generations of forró musicians that he inspired and assisted throughout his decades-long career.
Gonzaga's success as a recording artist—he wrote and co-wrote more than 300 songs and recorded more than 1,500 versions of 600 songs—demonstrates his ability to remain deeply in touch with his fan base and with the land that he represents in his music.
Indeed, over a lifelong musical journey, Luiz Gonzaga helped shape Brazilian popular music; his legacy still ricochets off the walls of dance halls across the nation.
Originally broadcast in 2005, Megwen Lawless co-produced and appears in this edition of Public Radio International's Afropop Worldwide—"Luis Gonzaga: The King of Baiao"—which profiles Luis Gonzaga.