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If the hats make the men, Forro in the Dark’s November 2006 performance at New York City’s upscale Joe’s Pub had the sextet strutting before Mauro Refosco’s zabumba bass drum beat out even a single low-end rumble. The leather chapeau de cangaçeiro may look part Parisian chic and part Conquistador helmet worn sideways, but it’s the traditional cowboy/bandit hat of northeast Brazil, birthplace of forro, the music that is FITD’s raison d’etre. By wearing it, Refosco and his group (which later in the night would include chapeau-sporting guest vocalist David Byrne) guaranteed they were the sharpest dressed cats in the room, and cast the Brazilian bluegrass rumba that beckoned the audience onto the Pub’s makeshift dance-floor in a polyglot frame. It also spotlit the juxtaposition of the populist roots and traditional pageantry of the music the group performs and the hyper-stylized urban locale the band calls home, posing the question: can the country-folk dance songs of Nordeste peasants become the life of a Lower East Side club party?
Considering the sound, the band and the scene involved, it’s not hard to arrive at a solidly affirmative answer. Despite its strict beginnings as a trio form (standard instrumentation: accordion, zabumba and triangle), forro has grown malleable as it’s traveled to Brazil’s cities and beyond. While it began as music for regional dances—the word forro is attributed to either a mid-19th century mispronunciation of the English “for all” by locals headed to parties thrown by foreign railroad workers, or to the shortening of “forrobodó,” regional Portuguese for party—it has become the national down-home sound.
“The idea is even bigger than that,” says Refosco, FITD’s de facto bandleader. “You can start your own forro as long as you follow the aesthetics. It’s dance music with simple melodies, simple harmonies, and funny lyrics, but a very driven rhythm, so people cannot stand still. They have to dance to it. And the words have to be easy enough for them to sing along and relate to.”
Over the course of a century, forro’s evolved to admit new instruments such as the pifano (wood flute) and the rabeca (Brazilian violin), and specialized dances and repertoires have sprung up in response. The tradition has also incorporated modern fashion and tastes. Says Refosco, “now because of electronica, people [in Brazil] make forro with electronic keyboards. And you have forro bands that play rock ’n’ roll. So it is not just a style—it incorporates other styles into it, different forro traditions within forro.”
Which is where Forro in the Dark comes in. Despite New York City’s reputation as a cultural melting pot, the music had remained all but unexplored in the Big Apple, until 2002. That’s when Brazilian expatriate Refosco, a former member of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and a veteran of David Byrne’s band, decided to gather a few musical compatriots and play some old songs from the forro songbook as part of his birthday party at Nublu, a then-new club on Manhattan’s Avenue C. Refosco had only one stipulation for the pros he invited: “play the music, not the instrument. Some music needs big solos. But some music carries itself. Everybody understood the idea.”
The night was a hit. “Man it was so nice,” says Refosco, his face glowing with the memory. “The people were dancing, we were having fun—everybody loved it. So we decided to do it again, and it became something that we did every two weeks. Then it became every week.”
Of course, when the rotating cast of players includes guitarist Smokey Hormel, whose country-fried licks and reverb-drenched tone has informed Beck and Tom Waits’ albums, a