Our Voices from Latin America festival—November 8–Dcember 11–kicks off tonight when international superstar Gilberto Gil returns to his musical roots with an evening of forró, the infectious dance music from Northeastern Brazil.
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.
She has written introductions for us to the music and its central founding character, Luiz Gonzaga.
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.
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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.
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.
Related: Voices from Latin America
Related: Voices from Latin America: Brazil
Related: Voices from Latin America: Forró