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 as well as regional / national migrations and the juxtaposition of modernity and tradition in Brazilian popular music.
Here, Loveless provides us with an overview of the history, development, styles, and cultural role of forró.
While generally framed as a traditional music that represents Brazil's rural past, forró (pronounced faw-HAW) is actually a dynamic style that has been transformed over the years and has developed into several different genres in both rural and urban settings. Its infectious tunes and syncopated beats of forró have led David Bryne to describe forró as "a mixture of ska with polka in overdrive," and Gilberto Gil calls it "the most important genre in Brazil after samba." Hailing from the northeast region of Brazil, forró is perhaps the most emblematic music from a region famed for its diversity of musical talent and resources. Its infectious sound and exhilarating rhythms form an intimate backdrop for a series of popular partner dances, in which couples swivel around one another in sensuous embraces. In fact, in the past decade, forró has become one of the most popular genres of Brazilian dance music, eagerly consumed by crowds of diverse racial, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds.
Forró began in the 1940s as a baião rhythm adapted by Luiz Gonzaga from musical patterns of his youth in the Brazilian northeast. A light two-step, the baião is notable for the syncopated play between the bottom and top surfaces of the zabumba drum. On top of this is another percussive layer of the triangle, produced by ringing out a steady sixteenth note with the clanger in the right hand while opening and closing the thumb of the left hand to accent the up beats. The accordion provides the melody as well as bass accompaniment and generally dominates the small stage on which the three musicians play. The accordionists always stand and exert massive amounts of energy pushing, pulling and bouncing the bellows for a very lively performance. The three instruments—zabumba, triangle and accordion—form the basic musical triad from which most forró is produced, though more modern bands may add additional percussion (shakers, scrapers, drum set), an electronic bass guitar, and other melodic instruments such as fife or fiddle.
The name itself can be misleading, as forró can refer to any number of things: a music genre, a group of northeastern rhythms, a dance style, or a party or club where northeastern music is performed. Forró is in fact all that, and more. Within the designation forró are several fast rhythms (such as xaxado, and arrasta-pé) and slightly slower and more romantic rhythms (like baião, xote, and xamego) in addition to various other sub-genres that are sometimes included in the forró canon. To make things more complicated, forró musicians and audiences divide the genre into several different styles (see below).
Traditionally, forró music and dance parties took place in temporary outdoor lean-tos much like a North American country hoedown, and were largely driven by amateur musicians. These parties were often rural celebrations and drew dozens of people from a radius of several miles, often on foot. Many of the dancers—and often the musicians as well—who frequented these parties were under-educated sharecroppers out to meet girls, to have a few drinks, and to have a good time. Even today, people revel in stories about the elevated drunkenness and the violence that regularly exploded between patrons at these famed parties. Indeed, the association of forró with peasant and lower-class populations has been a major feature of the music until very recently, a quality that is both derided and celebrated amongst fans of the genre.
These days, forró is available in any number of clubs, bars and festivals in and outside the major cities of the Northeast. Though performances occur regularly throughout the year and new albums are released with relative frequency, the biggest season for forró continues to be the São João festival in June, when hundreds of bands play over a period of three weeks.
Forró music, like much of Brazilian culture, is fundamentally social. Compared to other music and dance venues, forró draws a relatively diverse crowd. It is generally a relaxed atmosphere where women and men dance together and couples exhibit very little competition. The dance floor fills up quickly, inevitably leading to collisions and stubbed toes, but the dancers continue whirling in time to the music, nearly oblivious to everything but the syncopated thumping of the zabumba that they mimic with their lower bodies.
Over the decades since its debut, forró has slipped in and out of style, experiencing waves of extreme popularity and periods of lapsed esteem, though its core "traditional" listening audience has remained quite steadfast. That is to say, forró has gone in and out of style regularly in major urban centers, but the support of lower-class rural listeners has never waned. Since the 1990s, there have been increasingly diverse and interesting fusions of forró, rock, lambada, axé, heavy metal, funk and other regional musics, as generations of musicians continue to tap into the raw potential of Gonzaga's work.
The most traditional iteration of forró is called pé-de-serra, or "foothills" forró. This style is generally played in close approximation to the three-piece band Luiz Gonzaga first popularized, and often relies on a relatively small canon of songs—nearly all made popular by Gonzaga. Most audience members are familiar with the melodies and lyrics of the songs and enjoy repeated listening and dancing to the same hits.
In the southern cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília, and Belo Horizonte, the mid-1990s saw a major wave of forró which in fact grew into its own genre of forró: universitário. This "university" forró, named for the type of listeners who embraced it and made it into a popular style, shares much in common with forró pé-de-serra. The rhythms and main percussive backdrop to both genres are similar, as are the major-chord melodies and harmonies—and some musicians refuse to differentiate the two types of forró. However, the newer universitário genre adds several—often electronic—musical elements, which include keyboards, drum sets and bass guitar. And even more importantly, the latter style—as is clear from its name—is produced for and by middle-class white educated Brazilians in the university circuit of Rio and São Paulo. Thus, these two forms of forró differ slightly in sound but greatly as social indicators.
Another type of forró arose in Ceará (in Brazil's northeast) a few years later. This style, dubbed forró estilizado, or stylized forró, dispenses with the accordion and instead incorporates keyboards for the main instrumental line, along with drum sets and bass guitar for accompaniment. In addition, stylized forró features a stage full of female dancers, usually in matching skimpy outfits, dancing choreographed movements along with the music. Although disdained by most pé-de-serra and universitário fans, this style of forró has proven to be extremely profitable, as it is marketed to a mass audience of young lower-class Northeasterners who regularly fill stadium theaters to take in live performances.
A final panorama of forró cannot easily be located under a single banner and does not have an official name. It is largely an outgrowth from the mangue movement out of Recife which meshed traditional Recife percussion with global genres such as punk, rock, hip-hop, and ragamuffin in order to create a novel genre with equal parts local and global sounds. Hugely successful, this music ushered in a cultural renaissance, which is still enriching forró sounds in the Northeast. This "post-mangue" forró often features the rabeca fiddle as a melodic element in place of or in addition to the accordion, and includes experimental amalgams of rhythms of the forró complex with international sounds and beats.
These diverse styles of forró have one thing in common: a name that most foreigners struggle to read and to pronounce. And yet Brazilians love to tell the tall tale of forró's "foreign" etymology. Urban myth has it that forró is how Brazilian workers pronounced the "for all" dances sponsored by an English railroad construction company operating in the Brazilian northeast. Other versions of this story owe it to U.S. soldiers stationed in bases in the northeast during World War II. More likely it in fact derives from the word "forrobodó," which referred to a party that involved drinking, dancing and above average fracas.
Whatever its name, whatever its style, forró will have you out of your seat in a matter of minutes. The reverberations of the zabumba drum can now be heard from rural Pernambuco to outdoor shows in Rio to underground clubs in New York City. Forró plays as a soundtrack to decades of Brazilian history, and it is poised to play for decades more as globalization brings its unique sound to the rest of the world.