By Stephanie Foden, Contributing Reporter

SALVADOR, BRAZIL – Anyone who attended the Festas Juninas that started last month is likely familiar with the sounds of forró, the popular music and dance style from the Northeast. A traditional folkloric genre, forró songs revolve around rural issues such as drought and seeking work.

A forró band, Salvador, Brazil News
A forró band performing at the São João festival in Salvador, photo by Stephanie Foden.

Forró has become widespread across Brazil since its origin dating back to the 1940s, and in recent years has become popular on an international scale. However in the Northeast, the genre is so mainstream that, for many, saying “going to the forró” just means going out to party.

Although there are many theories on how the name of the music came to be, it is said to be derived from the English expression “for all,” from the colonial times when British landowners would hold large parties inviting everyone (“for all”) who could come.

In-any-event, forró music has much to do with the geography of northeastern sertão – dry, cactus-ridden, backcountry cattle lands. Traditional lyrics often have to do with rural life issues not unlike American country music.

It is remiss to talk about forró without mentioning musician Luiz Gonzaga, who evolved the folkloric sounds through the combination of the accordion, triangle and zabumba (a type of bass drum). This set the tone for the ever-popular forró dance, which when done well can look like a cross between a fast tango and samba.

Katie Shrubb used to live in Rio and is now in Portugal where she is involved in a dance school project. She describes it to The Rio Times as: “Danced in pairs, cheek to cheek, forró is uniquely both smooth and energetic, with a traditional feel that takes you right back to the roots of the music.”

Cover of Luiz Gonzaga's 1984 album Danado de Bom, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Cover of Luiz Gonzaga’s 1984 album Danado de Bom, photo by Sony Music Brasil/Flickr Creative Commons License.

While classic forró music is based on this trio combination, different types of the genre often include other instruments such a fiddle, guitar and shaker.

In any form, it is Gonzaga who is regarded as the spokesperson for rural music throughout the rest of the country.

Born in the countryside of Pernambuco state, the musician had a rural upbringing and brief stint in the army before pursuing music. Gonzaga’s greatest hit, Asa Branca is sometimes called “Hymn of Sertão” or “Hymn of the Northeast.”

The lyrics of the song are about leaving home in rural sertão due to drought and the hopes of returning home once it finally rains. He sings of his wishes to see Asa Branca, a white-winged bird that only flies when it is raining there. Many artists have covered the famous song, including a version by American group Forro in the Dark with vocals by David Byrne of the Talking Heads.

Carioca disk jockey Pedro Abreu, also known by stage name Phasmo, often includes old school forró tunes in his sets. The DJ has spent many years living between Salvador and Fortaleza, and even when he lived in Sweden, Phasmo never went too long without playing something forró based.

“Many people disregard the rhythm because of its simplicity and repetition, but history will prove haters wrong, just like it did with other seemingly rustic genres like bossa nova, punk rock, reggae or the blues. Tom Jobim, Joey Ramone, Peter Tosh and B.B. King have shown the world what you can do with just a couple chords.”

In the Northeast forró is prolific, and even in Rio it is easy to find a venue to listen and dance to it. While samba and bossa nova may be the best-known Brazilian music genres with baile funk gaining ground, few can resist the rhythm of forró.


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