Forro in the dark
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Forro in the dark


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"Forro’s Northern Revival"

by j. poet

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Forro in the Dark has brightened New York’s downtown arts scene with its version of a Brazilian folkloric music largely unknown, even by many in Brazil. Mauro Refosco, the group’s founder and percussionist, says he was pleasantly surprised by the group’s success. When he came to the United States in 1992, starting a band was the last thing on his mind.
“I’d played Brazilian percussion instruments in samba bands when I was a kid,” Refosco recalls, “but I didn’t expect to go into pop music. I was playing serious classical percussion in Brazil. I came here to do a master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music.”

After graduation in 1994, Refosco auditioned for David Byrne’s InConstantMotion touring band.

“He wanted someone who could play percussion, vibes and marimba,” he says. “I’d been asking myself what I was going to do, when, or if, I went back home and had no answer. I never wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, but playing pop music (with Byrne) changed my life. I decided to stay.”
Refosco’s percussion prowess, especially on exotic Brazilian instruments, led to work with many of New York’s top artists, including the Lounge Lizards and Bebel Gilberto. He collaborated with Gilberto on the title track of her recent “Momento” CD.

“I met Bebel in ‘96 and played in her backup band,” Refosco says. “When she was recording her album, her guitar player brought in some chord changes. I came up with a melodic line on the vibes that inspired her to write the lyrics, so she credited me on the song. She’s a very generous person.”
Refosco had always loved forro (pronounced foe-hoe), but starting a forro band, especially in New York, was not part of his plan. Forro in the Dark came together five years ago, a spontaneous creation of Refosco’s Brazilian friends and one country music-loving American.
“On my birthday that year, I invited an accordion player and some other friends, including Smokey (Hormel, a guitarist who’s played with Beck, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond) to a party,” Refosco says. “Smokey had been learning forro songs; every time we met, he’d want to play me something new he’d discovered. Nublu (the downtown N.Y. hot spot) had just opened. I thought we could play some forro to celebrate my birthday. The audience went crazy, and the club offered us a weekly gig. We needed a name, and Luis Gonzaga, a forro singer from the ’40s, has a song we love that translates to ‘Forro in the Dark’, so we used that.”

Refosco wasn’t expecting the ecstatic reaction to the band.
“Even in Brazil, forro was not a widely known style,” he says. “Its popularity goes in phases. It’s a folkloric music (from the northeastern countryside. It’s working-class music and considered tacky by city people. When Luis Gonzaga became a well-known singer on the radio … there was a big boom for forro. When bossa nova came in, with its complex jazz harmonies in the ’50s, forro was considered cheesy again. Tropicalia (the ’60s protest samba of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso) brought in elements of forro and made it cool to like, but then it faded out until the ’90s. Now there’s a style called forro universidade — college forro. Students started forro bands to play at school parties, and some of those bands became quite popular. That forro revival is still going on.”
Forro is marked by complex, ever-shifting percussion accents. The basic rhythm is heavy on the first beat, sounding like a swinging blend of funk and samba. Folklorists think the style is about 100 years old.

“When poor people were building a new house, everyone from the community came to help,” Refosco says. “The floors were dirt, so they stomped on the floor to make it hard and flat. They wore wooden sandals and stayed all day long, clapping and stomping in rhythm and singing songs. A whole style developed because of that.”
On their eponymous premiere CD, now available only on iTunes in Italy, band members played covers of forro hits from the ’40s. On their most recent disc, “Bonfires of São João,” they composed half of the tunes.

“Writing and arranging comes naturally, out of what we do live,” Refosco says. “At Nublu we could do whatever we wanted, so when we play a new song, we start feeling each other out, finding our own voice to add to the basic idea of the song. There’s no stage at Nublu, so the audience is all around you, breathing on your neck and sweating on you, so the energy of the people gets into the music. When we did this record, we recorded it live. … I took the hard drive home to listen to the songs and make some edits, but I didn’t need to. It was all there. We just mixed it and it was ready.”
Rhythms that sound like samba, American country music, reggae and hip-hop float through the mix, married to the basic forro thump, but things are not always what they seem.

“There are three rhythms of forro,” Refosco says. “We use them all on our album. What you hear as reggae is called xote, which has a reggae feel. Our song ‘Limoeiro Do Norte’ uses the xote rhythm. ‘Asa Branca,’ a famous Luis Gonzaga song, uses a midtempo beat called baião. On the album, David Byrne sings his translation of Gonzaga’s lyrics. Arrasta-pé is the fastest tempo of forro. Our song ‘Indios Dos Norte’ uses it. It sounds like a polka and there may be some Polish influence in it, because the bass line is exactly what you’d play for a polka.”
Refosco isn’t sure how many Poles settled in northeastern Brazil, but that might explain why all the early forro bands used accordions.

“The accordion is a versatile, international instrument,” Refosco says. “In the Americas, you find it in zydeco, Norteño, forro and gaucho, the music of the cowboys in the south of Brazil. When we started Forro in the Dark, we had an accordion player, but when he left, Smokey started playing the accordion lines on the Telecaster with an American country feel. Our other guitar player, Guilherme Monteiro, also likes country music. We were surprised how well the country feel worked with the forro rhythms.
“Davi Vieira, our percussionist, likes hip-hop and brings that element into his singing style. The samba feel is a music called choro, a rhythm played at carnaval. The sambas that we do use are played in the old-fashioned style of the ’40s. What’s amazing is that the old sambas, country music and choro all fit so well with forro. It’s like playing jazz with a second line rhythm; they’re different styles, but they fit together and make something new out of the music.” - San Francisco Chronicle

"Take me to the river Festival welcomes Forro in the Dark's contemporary Brazilian rhythms . . ."

By Andrew Gilbert, Globe Correspondent June 15, 2007

When it comes to climate, culture, and couture, downtown Manhattan is about as far as you can get from northeastern Brazil's parched and lonely backlands. Distance of any sort, however, is no match for music's seductive pull, as an insinuating groove can careen across the globe and take root in the unlikeliest of locales.

So it shouldn't be too surprising that the infectiously bouncy Brazilian style known as forro suddenly blossomed in Nublu, a hip Lower East Side nightspot that has served as an incubator for several singular bands. Combining zydeco-like propulsion, the humor and earthy fatalism of the blues, and a particularly Brazilian sense of nostalgia, forro was born in the sertao, the poor, drought-plagued interior of northeastern states such as Bahia , Pernambuco , and Paraiba .

Originally created as fuel for rural all-night dance parties, the music has found a firm foothold in the United States through the efforts of Forro in the Dark, a band launched by percussionist Mauro Refosco and several Brazilian compatriots who have also settled in New York City (though guitarist Smokey Hormel , best known for his work with Johnny Cash, Beck, and Tom Waits, is an American ringer). After the release of the band's first US album, "Bonfires of Sao Joao," on the Nublu label last year, Forro in the Dark is spreading its jazz-inflected vision of forro across the globe. The band launches its first North American tour tomorrow as part of the 28th annual Cambridge River Festival.

"Forro is about the suffering of the people from the northeast, who have a hard time finding water to survive," Refosco said from Hamburg, Germany, where the band was in the midst of a European tour. "But it's also about how much fun they have when they find water." Refosco has been a vital New York session player since joining saxophonist John Lurie's Lounge Lizards in 1997. Over the past decade he's toured and recorded widely with artists such as Bebel Gilberto and David Byrne (who both contribute vocals to "Bonfires"), Vinicius Cantuaria, Stewart Copeland, and They Might Be Giants

While he was frustrated with the limited range of Brazilian music performed in the United States, Refosco didn't intend to start a forro combo. But during a tour with Hormel's band Smokey & Miho (that's Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto ), he turned the guitarist onto classic forro stars of the 1940s and '50s, such as Jackson do Pandeiro and Luiz Gonzaga , who dressed in the elaborately stylized costumes of the sertao's cowboys and outlaws.

"I started giving Smokey some forro records, and right away he made a connection with American country music," Refosco said. "I explained to him that Luiz Gonzaga is to forro what Hank Williams is to country music. He started learning the songs on guitar, not because I asked him to, but because he naturally loved the songs."

Joined by Brazilian accordionist Rob Curto , Refosco and Hormel started playing forro tunes together informally. In October 2003, Refosco decided to celebrate his birthday at a friend's new club, Nublu, by inviting a bunch of musicians for a forro jam session. The response was so positive that the players decided to return in several weeks for another session, which soon became a regular event.

"I think it's the type of music that lets you become part of it," Refosco said. "It invites you to come in and join it, either by clapping your hands, dancing, or singing the little melodies. It's very welcoming, and I think people were a little bit thirsty for those kinds of things."

By 2005, the Nublu forro jam had turned into a weekly event that was drawing packed audiences. They developed a repertoire of original tunes and forro standards by Gonzaga and co-writer Humberto Teixeira. Rather than re-creating the traditional forro sound, the musicians incorporated various influences that preserved the driving rhythms while giving the music contemporary textures. Hormel's guitar often takes over the lead melodic role usually reserved for the accordion. But the band hasn't tampered with the essential forro rhythm section. The triangle and the small bass drum called zabumba are, in Refosco's words, "a perfect combination, the music's rice and beans."

"We live in New York City, not in the northeast of Brazil close to a mountain in the dry weather," Refosco said. "It's not the most traditional forro, because we bring in all these other elements, but we're still making people dance, and then it becomes a tradition of its own."

The most powerful piece on the album features David Byrne singing the first English-language version of the northeastern anthem "Asa Branca" (White Wing), which describes the plight of northeasterners who long to return to their land after being forced by devastating drought to relocate to urban centers. While the downtown scene is often associated with a cool, ironic stance, Forro in the Dark brings an emotional commitment to the music that allows no space for detachment.

"I don't think the band is being ironic," writes Byrne in an e-mail. In 1991 he helped introduce Americans to forro with his Luaka Bop compilation "Brazil Classics 3." "They are liberating the genre in the same way that Gram Parsons , Lucinda Williams , and others liberated country music. They aim to hijack the spirit and make it relevant and new."
- The Boston Globe

"World Press Kit available as pdf"

Please contact us if you wish to receive the complete World Press Kit. It includes articles from Italy, France, Germany and Canada and is available only as pdf file. - Nublu Records


New Album Sept 2009 at the new record label of National Geographic, Nat Geo Music, in cooperation with Nublu Records


DIA DE RODA (2008)

ASA BRANCA feat. David Byrne
SUOR DE PELE FINA feat. Seu Jorge




If Forró in the Dark is serious about anything, it's the party. These four Brazilian New Yorkers start with Brazilian forró and end with a groove that means good times in any language or genre. With their latest EP, "Dia de Roda," the band ups the ante on their global dance party flavor. Sexy, laugh-out-loud, their unique hybrid jam is a trademark blend of country soul and urban funk. Whether singing about Rastafarianism, Robin Hood, or the Roda, in English or in Portuguese, they charge every note with a palpable energy that needs no translation. Their forró-inspired beats conjure a sonic atmosphere that draws today's jazz aficionados and techno-loving clubgoers onto the dancefloor together.

Forro in the Dark might be the Pied Piper of downtown New York pelvises. Give them half an ear, and your hips will take over and start rolling to their Brazilian roots rock. They're a little afro-beat, a little country western swing, a little dub, and all rock and roll, fueled by the insistent rhythm of forró. True to their roots, they dig ever deeper into the sounds of northeastern Brazil, while also cannibalizing other styles, drawing from all the influences available to them as artists traveling on global currents. Ultimately their music is all their own magic, spinning out spontaneous and loose, an intoxicating invitation to have a beer and find some love in the dark.

The skeleton of the band's sound is the syncopated rhythm of forró, which is familiar to Brazilians as the toe-tapping backdrop to a long workday, a folk party in the Northeast, and the sound spilling out from hip dance halls in the wee hours. The upbeat tunes contrast with the lyrics' serious themes: Forro songs romanticize the harsh and unforgiving sertão of Brazil's northeast, giving voice to the migrant's melancholy lament and the country bandit's ballad.

Forro in the Dark pays homage to this playful and emotional genre's rich history, while also thinking about the present and making party music for today's global village. Notably, they look beyond the simple accordion, zabumba, and triangle instrumentation popularized by the great forró artist, Luiz Gonzaga. Abandoning the accordion, they've added Jorge's pifano, a wooden flute from the Northeast of Brazil, Guilherme's twangy guitar, and Davi's timbau, a Bahian drum. The new additions float between the beat of Mauro's zabumba, a drum with both snare and bass pitches, and the tweet of Davi's triangle. The revised line-up takes off with a sound that straddles the musical frontier between the dusty Brazilian sertão and New York City's urban landscape. Still, they stay true to the best of forró: making a soundtrack for the hip-swerving all-night dance party from which forró music originally gets its name.

The seed of the band was born at a party for Mauro's birthday at Nublu, a club in New York's East Village, where he invited some friends to jam, forró-style. The rural dance sound was such a hit that they started a weekly residency. The band's current cast solidified for 2006's "Bonfires of Sao Joao," an addictive exploration of the forró form with downtown New York influences, featuring David Byrne, Bebel Gilberto, and Miho Hatori as guest vocalists. Forro in the Dark spent 2007 touring throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Latin America in support of "Bonfires," spreading their good vibes over the globe. They garnered critical acclaim for their innovative sound, and new audiences fell in love with their energetic live shows. On that period they still found time to record the song "City Of Immigrants" on Steve Earl's Grammy awarded album "Washington Square Serenade". Only two months after returning to New York, they were ready to go back into the studio. Since their digital only release “Dia de Roda”, they have been busy doing shows and in the studio recording the second full length album “Light a Candle” which promises cause a lot of stir. The album will be released by Nat Geo Music via their home label Nublu Records in the fall of 2009. Get ready!

For more information contact:

Record Label:
Petrit Pula at Nublu Records
Mat Whittington at Nat Geo Music

Joyce Williams at MIN Entertainment

US Booking Agent:
Lisa O’Hara, High Road Touring

European Booking Agent (except Italy):
Ariane Spiekermann at The Red House Agency


Video links:
Video Asa Branca (With david Byrne)

More videos on request.