Sunday, May 07, 2006

Forró in Brazil

New York Times
May 7, 2006
Cultured Traveler
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.

Sala de Reboco attracts live performances from big names in forró, and that night the performer was Geraldinho Lins, who resembled a frumpy Garth Brooks. I was soon thrilled to find myself moving (and singing along) to a song I miraculously recognized: "Amor de São João." A quick dance tip I soon picked up: remove your cellphone from your front right pocket; they don't call this dance style bate-coxa (or thigh-banging) for nothing.

The friendly vibe, the laid-back not-so-cool crowd, the faux rural feel — I was charmed. Charmed, that is, until it came time to leave and face the Brazilian club-exiting system, which has to be one of the biggest mood spoilers in global night life. Instead of the American pay-as-you-go method — which at the end of the night allows you to be dancing one minute and escaping into the night, ears ringing, the next — getting out of most clubs in Brazil requires a wait in a painfully slow line to settle the tab.

SÉRGIO GONZAGA had moved back to Brazil to help out his 80-year-old mother, Chiquinha, but not as you might expect. Still an active forrozeira herself (she recently put out an album), she was performing the Friday I was in Recife. One of Sérgio's filial duties was to play zabumba in her band.

That night, at the Pátio of São Pedro in downtown Recife, a restored cobblestone plaza around a church, I found Sérgio and Chiquinha sipping Antarctica and sitting with friends, including the prominent forró composer Xico Bezerra. Both he and Sérgio urged me to make the long trip up to the Fazenda Bom Fim, a ranch in São José de Mipibu, for Forró de Lua, or Forró of the Moon, which takes place once a month, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, which just happened to be the next day.

But first, there was Friday evening to contend with. Chiquinha, slim and elegant in a red patterned blouse, pants to match, a white vest and a white leather chapéu, sat quietly at the table. She was the first act of the night, and despite a sparse crowd she gave a spirited performance, her rough-edged voice cracking with age, booming through the square and seeping out into the colonial streets. The crowd started growing, as bikers and passers-by stopped to listen.

I left after her performance — some non-forró acts were to follow — to check out another spot, Azulzinho, a friendly, informal little place that attracted a 30-plus crowd, where I danced with a woman in a black cowboy hat and a tank top adorned with a silver star. "I was born here," said the woman, whose name was Josane. "I'm a northeasterner, and I have forró in my blood."

The next morning, I began what was supposed to be a four-hour drive north. With plenty of time to spare (Forró of the Moon ran from 5 p.m. to midnight), I took a non-forró-related detour into Olinda, the colonial town just north of Recife that is a Unesco World Heritage site. But in these parts, it turned out, forró was not that easy to escape. At Olinda's well-regarded Oficina do Sabor restaurant, the daily special was camarões no forró (shrimp a la forró) described as "shrimp with mango and passion fruit sauce perfumed with coconut milk." What that had to do with forró was unclear. But the mystery was solved as the dish arrived, shrimp pairs hooked together around the plate, a perfect crustacean copy of interlocking thighs on the dance floor.

From there it was on to the road north toward Natal, the city just beyond São José de Mipibu, and Forró of the Moon.

The festival was started in 2002 by Marcos Fernandes Lopes, a wealthy agricultural engineer, now 47, who decided to construct a forró site on his ranch. Mr. Lopes is also planning a cowboy museum there to complement the forró events.

You could tell that the event was a success just from the crowded parking lot, and festive, from the massive bonfire near the entrance. Mr. Lopes later told me that the event regularly attracts 2,000 people a month without formal advertising.

Over in one corner, a few people watched a documentary on Luiz Gonzaga; others sat on concrete-topped, brick-legged tables sipping beer and soda, taking in the full moon. Around the outer walls, couples kissed under flickering open gas lamps. As the night went on, the beer line grew shorter and the churrasco (meat-on-a-stick) line grew longer. But the dance floor, kept animated by a string of well-known forró bands, like Os 3 do Nordeste and Waldonys, was the main attraction.

The best dancers were stuck together at the thighs, moving in such unison that they looked like marionettes controlled by a single set of strings. A small crowd gathered around one young couple, named Giunelly and Luciana, who looked as though they had been practicing together for years. Inspired, I put in a few steps with Claudia, yet another Brazilian woman foolhardy enough to dance with a visiting American. We danced a few songs, and then she gave me my report card. I had the steps down, she said, but my hips were simply not feeling the zabumba. I've been called worse.

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