De São Paulo ao Ceará (from 1974)
This article describes an instrumental album of forró pé de serra by hotshot accordionist Zé Paraíba, who has recorded dozens of albums. It came from my friend Tchêras’ collection and was transferred at his house at one of our extended sessions of conversation and music. This is a good record for conversation, especially if you are lucky enough to have a friend as solid as Tchêras, with whom I can hang out with for hours and never get bored, without the need for any alcoholic lubrication. And without the engaging conversation, a record like De São Paulo ao Ceará usually necessitates a drink or two, because twelve tracks of instrumental forró is an awful damn lot. I recommend invoking your inner DJ and pulling out a few tracks for your mix tape, party, or rug-cutting session, because LPs like this are not necessarily meant to be listened to from start to finish. In fact while editing some of the blemishes out of the vinyl, I began thinking about how João Donato started out as an accordion player and hated it. He once said that if there is music in hell, it would be an orchestra composed entirely of accordions, and where no one is allowed to sing. (Actually I am not sure if he ever said that, I may be making that up.)
But with that caveat, this is in fact solid pé de serra, or “traditional” forró, and at any São João party worthy of the name you will find an instrumental ensemble like this, although the presence here of guitar and cavaquinho is often optional. In cities in the Northeastern interior, pé de serra might still be an integral part of São João but it is also frequently segregated onto a separate stage from the more popular electrified forró estilizado (modified or stylized forró) of groups with classy names like Garota Safada. Now, on principle I make an effort not to dismiss entire genres or subgenres of music based on classist or elitist biases. It is all too common a sight to find a middle class member of the university set preaching about the real popular culture and how those uneducated and poor people in the small town just don’t know what’s good for them and go on listening to that brash, vulgar and impossibly-loud forró estiliazado, “music of low quality” (the phrase is música de baixa qualidade, with “quality” having a distinctly classist ring). The paternalistic attitudes behind those kind of sentiments need to be questioned. That being said, I am still trying to find some redeeming musical qualities and examples of forró estiliazdo because I generally find it to be god-awful and unappealing, although the best bands are definitely capable of coming up with a catchy tune now and then. So catchy that they are blasted out of car trunks on every street corner from São João until Carnaval, inescapable soundtracks that you hear in your sleep in spite of yourself, like an infernal accordion orchestra except substituted with synthesizers equipped with accordion and brass patches, requiring deep hypnosis to yield a cure.
Putting aside the elitist paternalism of the universitários regarding “the masses” and what they should be listening to, there are legitimate concerns about preserving the old-school pé de serra. In the first place, it is not as if there needs to be an either-or choice: although there might be some who regard it as “old fashioned,” and in my experience many cannot identify an old song with its composer or singer like a generation or two before them, most of the audience that goes to an electric, stylized forró show would also dance to a good traditional pé de serra band if given the opportunity. And therein lies the crux of the issue – opportunity. There is a lot of money to be made off of the slick electric forró bands mounted on the backs of huge sound trucks (trios eléctricos) and typically adorned with scantily-clad dancing females. There is not so much money in pé de serra.
In the world of big events, the more traditional styles often depend on state subsidies and arts funding to maintain visibility, although on the local level you can find neighborhoods or church parishes pooling their money to hire a local forró band to play for a family-oriented São João. I have never gone to commemorate São João in the city of Caruarú, where it holds a record in the Guinness Book for the largest outdoor celebration or concert, because I think I’ve become slightly agoraphobic over the years (a very un-Brazilian trait, mind you). But the tension between “traditional” and “modern / stylized” forró has been a hot topic there over the last decade. Elsewhere in Pernambuco, some of the most “traditional” music during São João can be found in Recife at places like Sítio Trindade and the Pátio de São Pedro, free performances that would not be possible without the robust system of cultural subsidies in place there, while in the small towns of the interior – the “source” of much of this cultura popular – the municipal governments are swayed by kickbacks and corporate sponsorship money to allow these gigantic trios eléctricos to set up in their town and rattle windows with their trucks loaded with subwoofers. For whatever reason, in Pernambuco the majority of these touring groups come from Ceará and the music they play is heavily influenced by styles made popular in Bahia like axê and calypso.
When you talk to local musicians or music fans over the age of 30 in these small towns, you are likely to hear someone express that their traditional celebrations (like São João) are being “colonized” by this stuff coming from outside their borders, and that there is a need to preserve their raízes or roots. However the flipside of this argument is that these trio eléctrico bands have adopted remarkably successful business models that allow them to exist as self-managed entities. Although some do get quite a bit of radio airplay in the Interior, and exposure on television, these styles are by and large not dependent at all on record sales (their fans are more likely to buy pirated copies of their albums on the street), but subsist by relentless touring. The more traditional acts, as well as innovative / artsy / hybrid artists that cater to the university crowd, have depended largely on the aforementioned arts funding and state subsidies to stay visible, and as a result have often suffered from meager renumeration or payments that show up so late as to leave a lot of people hungry. (It is common for artists to be left waiting up to six months to a year to receive payment for one of the city- or state-sponsored presentation during Carnaval.)
So in a sort of ironic twist, more and more independent “high-brow” bands and artists are beginning to look toward corporate partnership to fund mini-tours. This seems to be often presented as some kind of novel idea about “sustainable” art, but the more candid artists will likely admit that this model was pioneered by these “low class” bands years ago, instead of being left suckling at the teat of the benevolent state, a situation that can be just as unstable as the free market when you consider how much depends on the patronage systems of local political bosses.
I’ve strayed a long way from Zé Paraíba. But I guess the digression can still be relevant, because back in 1974, only a few years into the Disco É Cultura incentives that the military regime put into the phonographic industry, this kind of good-time party music was still of relatively little consequence in the cultural hierarchy. Although forró pé de serra had briefly been so fashionable in the 1940s and ‘50s as to become a new kind of “national music” embraced as widely as samba, it was overtaken in the marketplace by the bossa nova craze and went through a period of relative obscurity. Northeastern composers and a handful of “traditional” singers had become de rigeur again starting with the “engaged” musical theater Show Opinão and later with the Tropicalistas trotting out tunes from Luiz Gonzaga, the king of baião, and Jackson do Pandeiro (the king of rhythm!), whose careers underwent a second wind. Samba giants like Clara Nunes or Elza Soares included forró and baião in their repertoires. Some forró artists began to play in the upper-middle class Zona Sul of Rio for the first time in their lives, where they performed in theaters rather than dance halls, in big “shows” that employed directors and set designers. (This close relationship with the theater, particularly with Música Popular Brasileira from the ‘60s onward, merits a whole other article or maybe a book.) Other singers like Ary Lobo or Marinês had more modest careers in this era. The unique Dominguinhos, a student of Gonzaga’s and his natural heir on the accordion, featured prominently on some of the biggest-selling albums of top-shelf MPB in the seventies, but the records released under his own name only garnered a cult following.
Forró had become another tonal shading in the palette of Brazilian musicians and composers, a fonte or well to be dipped into for inspiration, but rarely an end in itself. Then there were the regional conjuntos like Trio Nordestino and their fans who never really went away, and virtuosos like Zé Paraíba, always ready to drop into the nearest São João party and play for a receptive public. As much as I like to champion the idea of a symbiosis between the acts of listening and dancing, this type of instrumental forró is really better suited for getting up and moving than for sitting down and critically listening. Most likely, Zé Paraíba’s records were an appendage to his live performances, a physical souvenir to help spread the word for the next time he played in your town. This album may not rock your world, but it will move your feet. Or torso if you are into chair-dancing.
Chris Estrada writes for the Brazilian (and other) music blog Flabbergasted Vibes.