“It Came from the North!”
In the harsh, blistering backlands of northeast Brazil, a future musical sandstorm found its roots in the rural music and dance of sundried Brazilian desert dwellers. Known as the sertão region, these notorious 1.5 million square kilometres are parched to begin with, and undergo seasonal droughts every year. When the rains would finally apparate, they summoned celebration in the form of song and dance—what would become the earthy, magnetic forró.
Forró conquered all of northeastern Brazil to the point of becoming a regional icon, but the dance and music suffered disdain from those in the south. Coming from the rural backlands, it was deemed an unsophisticated past-time for country bumpkins by those who were used to waltzing across urban dance floors between mazurkas, foxtrots, and tangos.
However, the old-fashioned, good-times rhythm and dance eventually won southeastern hearts and ears thanks to the efforts of Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989), forró’s undisputed hero. He “modernized” the original forró rhythm, known as baião, and introduced it to southeastern Brazil in the 1940s, starting in Rio de Janiero. His song “Asa Branca” became an international hit, and soon following that, the whole genre of forró along with it!
Since then it has surfed waves and troughs of popularity, falling into the shadow of dances like samba and bossa nova in the 60s, and is now at the height of comeback from a revival in the 90s. Forró is featured annually in Brazil’s Festa Junina (June Festival), and according to one source is now celebrated on Luiz Gonzaga’s birthday, December 13th, as “National Forró Day” in Brazil. One of the most popular modernized forró bands today is New York City’s Forro in the Dark.
Dancing with Words
The word “forró” refers to the musical genre as well as all the dance styles it encompasses, or is used even as a general term for all northeastern Brazilian music and dance. There are two main possibilities for how this genre got its name. The first is that “forró” came from the word “forrobodo”, which means “great party” or “commotion”. Ironically, “forrobodo” itself came from “forbodó”, which was Portuguese for a dull party!
The other version evokes colonialism and society balls, when either British landowners or engineers working on the Great Western Railroad would throw extravagant parties that were advertised as “for all”, including railroad and other workers. “Forró” (“foh-ho”) was the Brazilian form of pronouncing and spelling the phrase.
Sing Like No One Is Listening
A lone sertanejo farmer plods towards the southern cities, leaving his beloved sertão of the north behind. He sings simple melodies of his hard life in the dry, dry desert, of thankless migration, going from favela to favela looking for work. All he wants is for the drought at home to pass, for the rains to return, so he can return as well; this longing, nostalgia, homesickness—saudade—is added to his song. Eventually, he weaves in other themes as well: love won and lost, passion and jealousy, romance and former lovers. It all ends up in lyric and melody, along with his simple love for the relief of dance, in word and body.
Traditionally, forró music consists of three instruments: the accordion, the triangle, and the zabumba, which is a Brazilian, hand-held bass drum. Modernization of the genre has also added keyboards, electric guitars, and/or drums to the music, but always ultimately retaining forró’s original rustic, folksy sound beneath. Modern day lyrics have also sometimes departed from the themes described above to include more innuendo or humour.
Forró is used to mean forró music as well as forró dance, and there are several variations of both, depending on time period, region, influence, and setting:
Forró pé-de-serra (forró at the “foot of the mountain”) is considered the original forró dance, and uses nothing more than the familiar accordion/triangle/zabumba instrumental trio.
Baião is a quick, 2/4 syncopated rhythm that was originally used for forró. It was this rhythm that Luiz Gonzaga “modernized” and took to the world in the mass popularizing of forró. Baião music was connected with Afro-Brazilian drumming and linked to African circle dances (“African circle dances”? hmmm…) and performed during desafios, or “poetic duels”.
Xote was the main forró dance and rhythm variation that helped increase forró’s popularity throughout Brazil. It has a slower beat, incorporated pop-rock music, and is popular among young southeastern, southern, and centre-western Brazilians.
Arrasta-pé is the final “traditional” rhythm used in forró music, characterized by being faster than the other two main rhythms, baião and xote.
Forró universitário (or college forró) flourished in the early 1990s, named for the majority of southeast Brazilian, middle-class “students, intellectuals, and urban culture brokers” who hit the dance floors to smoothened forró harmonies infused with salsa, samba-rock, and African-derived blues, but still played on traditional instruments. While the music of forró universitário does not sound very different from that of forró pé-de-serra, their respective dance styles are distinctly varied, as are the forró dance styles between northeast and southeast Brazil.
Forró estilizado is considered tacky and uncultural by forró traditionalists, stylized and electronically rendered as it is, moreover with the role of the accordion downplayed.
Other forró variations or related dances include xaxado, coco, and galope.
So You Think You Can Dance?
Forró has been described as “a mixture of ska with polka in overdrive”. Although there are numerous variants of this dance, the basic steps involve a couple dancing very close together. The man’s left hand holds the woman’s right hand as in a waltz (assuming the case of a straight couple), with the man’s right arm around the woman’s back and her left arm around his neck. At the same time, each dancer’s right leg stays in between their partner’s two legs, resulting in the African tradition of dancing with close pelvises. Forró is generally considered a sensual as well as upbeat dance.
Beyond these fundamentals, movements such as spins, fancy heel flourishes, and lifting a woman to sit on her partner’s knee entered through the influence of salsa and other Caribbean dances. Still other styles may have partners, called forrozeiro/as, slightly or much farther away from each other while dancing. Luiz Gonzaga reportedly invented a new style of forró dance to go with each release of a new hit song!
Forró and Brazilian Identity in a Transnational Setting
Every region of Brazil has its own distinct style of forró, some with different names, as well. Megwen Loveless, a PhD candidate at Harvard, describes perfectly how Brazilians’ regional identities are pronounced in the very choreography and idiosyncrasies of each forró dancer’s movements:
[W]hile forró music symbolizes the nation as a whole, Brazilians from various regions dance to it differently. Thus, forró dance styles allow Brazilians to feel a sense of national pride and belonging while simultaneously expressing regionalism and differentiating their provincial identities. Regional distinctiveness can be read through bodily expression on the dance floor, creating a lexicon through which Brazilians position themselves—and their local identities—in a transnational setting.
Couples dancing forró generally followed the style of the male lead. Pernambuco: tight, tight dancing, with thighs intertwined and nothing to embellish the grinding. São Paulo: almost sporty, with casual turns and sexy pauses and clearly demarcated shoulder space. Rio: pretty twirls that remind me of latticework on a balcony in Lapa.
Forró is a dance in which a national rhythm can find its voice in a variety of bodies. It is a performance in which regional accents play off one another. Ultimately, it is a genre in which diverse styles speak the same language, albeit with lilting cadences of difference. I’ve found that while forró music and lyrics can tell me about Brazilian national identity, forró dance elucidates Brazil’s distinctive regional identities. Taken together, forró performance can shed light on both the unity and diversity of Brazilian identity.