What is forró, and how is it taking over the world?

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2020-06-26
PUBLISHED ON  2019-01-02
Luiz Gonzaga, one of the foremost musicians and main promulgators of forró into the modern era. Illustration by Johanna Thomé de Souza.

We’ve put together this little guide to address the questions of both newbies and confirmed, lifelong forrozeiros alike.

A few expert dancers and musicians were consulted, the interviews were originally for an article published in a Time Out Brazil guide back in 2011, and an earlier version of this piece was also published by Tipsy Pilgrim.

What is Forró?

A simple music and dance style from the Brazilian hinterland (the Northeast) that’s on a brazen streak through hotspots around the world (Paris, New York, Barcelona, Tokyo, Moscow…).

How Do You Pronounce “Forró”?

The correct pronunciation is: foh-HO. That double-R sounds like an H in Portuguese. And do make sure to stress the last syllable hard. Yes, it’s a bit of an uncomfortable mouthful for non-lusophones.

Those who love forró, play it, and dance it are known as forrozeiros (foh-ho-ZEY-hus).

What is forró music?

The classic forró band is a trio: an accordionist/vocalist, a triangle player and a percussionist with a bass drum strapped to their belly. The lyrics often decry a beautiful woman who is not returning the singer’s affections, and the melodies are much sillier than you would expect for such a sensual dance infused with lyrical melodrama—in the end, this is party music, music for dancing, drinking and flirting.

What is Forró dancing like?

Those who don’t know forró take a gander at the dancing and then compare it to salsa, lambada, bachata, zouk, reggaetón, samba de gafieira, foxtrot and even polka. But no, forró is not salsa (etc.)… The dance can certainly borrow steps from any of these, but they have nothing to do with forró’s true origins.

In its “original” version in the Northeast, forró was and mostly remains a music of the working class, whose most basic danced incarnation is a two-step side-to-side shuffle.

But like anything in life, what fun would it be if we couldn’t find a way to make forró more complicated?

What is forró universitario?

In the past decades, as forró dancing moved out of the Northeast and down to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and then in the world beyond Brazil, it has morphed into something more complex, taking on some twists and turns seen elsewhere in salsa and samba de gafieira, while still maintaining its sensual fire (forró couples typically move together as one, coladinhos — fused cheek-to-cheek, belly-to-belly and thigh-to-thigh). The newer, snazzier version of the dance is known as forró universitario (university forró, from the places it was first danced) and to many Northeasterners it is nothing short of an abomination.

Here’s a couple from a dance school in Belo Horizonte, Pé Descalço, showing off moves from their unique take on forró universitario at a festival in Stuttgart.

Marinho Braz, a forró instructor from Rio and one of the early developers of university forró, refutes this, noting that any dance is always a mix of the styles that came before it. In an interview, he argues that the last fifteen years of changes have made “forró more forró-ish than the original forró” — that is, the changes have brought forró into its own as a genre. Braz says his personal goal has been to transform the simple country dance into something as complex and beautiful as samba de gafiera (if this is unfamiliar, think of the elegance and presentational flair of tango, but on a Brazilian beat).

Is forró easy or hard?

Ahem. Do you want to get us in trouble?

Most serious dancers say that forró in its basic form is much, much easier to get comfortable with than other couples’ dances. (This is part of the reason it has been expanding so quickly.)

“It’s easier to learn than salsa,” says Zeu Azevedo, a forró composer, singer and accordionist. He plays a Sunday gig at Guanabara in London, where dancers can do a simple jump-start class at the beginning of the night. Azevedo says that by the end of the evening, everyone, even the newbies, are dancing. “Even children can dance forró,” agrees Fernando Cavaco of Orquestra do Fubá.

And since the classic, “true” forró is so simple, there isn’t the pressure that salseros and tangueros sometimes feel to sport a vocabulary of presentational, show-off moves. Though university forró has developed its own set of crazy turns and acrobatics, good forró dancing is more about an internal moment between dancers, not the outer appearance.

The goal, according to Paris-based forró dance instructor and event organiser Marion Lima, is a dance style that is “warm, affectionate, open to everyone, and gostoso” — a word used with great enthusiasm in Portuguese for both the delicious, and the deliciously sensual.

Forró thus invites a decidedly laid-back following. “What I love most is its unpretentiousness,” Lima says. “It’s not a ballroom dance, but a street dance. Everyone can dance forró, at any age, and in their own way.”

What is forró casino?

Marinho Braz has also been on a mission to develop and promote “forró casino”, which is danced by couples in a round and will look familiar to those who’ve danced salsa in a rueda. Braz expects forró continue to grow in popularity as it becomes more complex. “In ten years forró is going to be where salsa is now” in terms of worldwide popularity, Braz says.

What is the forró dance craze doing to the music?

The growing interest is not only pushing world venues to sponsor forró nights, it’s leading Brazilian expat musicians in big international cities to specialize in the music in order to meet the demand.

One of the most interesting of these ex-Brazil forró groups is the Paris-based Orquestra do Fubá. The band has put out three albums of original compositions that reinvent forró as a delirious pastiche, folding a bit of funk and jazz into something new, high-octane and definitely danceable. But this would never have come about had there not already been such a demand from dancers. The band’s vocalist and cavaquinho player, Fernando Cavaco, told me he came to Paris to study the anthropology of music, and while he played informally with friends, it was the demand from dancers that pushed them to organize as a a group. (Although now these haughty superstars rarely play. Boo!)

In this, Cavaco also sees a lot of opportunity for the popularity of forró to continue to grow. “It does have its ebbs and flows,” Cavaco says, referring to volatility forró has already experienced as a recurring fad in Brazil. “But it will always, always exist.”

Where is the best place to dance forró?

Everywhere. The world’s best forró dancing can be in an impromptu party on the beach in Rio, a street party in the Northeast, a London nightclub, a summer festival in Stuttgart, a park in Moscow, a fête on a bridge over the Seine…

That the little beat of forró can animate a crowd of Parisians at sundown on a bridge overlooking the city of light is a great testament to this dance’s voyage from the dusty hinterland of the northeast of Brazil. But whether danced in the sands of the northeast, a brash London nightclub, or with the Eiffel tower twinkling as a backdrop, the dance’s true calling has remained the same: to be simply gostoso.

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