Capoeira é Dança, Part 3: Forró

24 03 2008

Forró dancers and musicians having a good time!“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.

Partially modernized forró music band

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.

Party Mix

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.

Forró dancers adding twist to their style

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.

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Capoeira é Dança, Part 2: Puxada de Rede

6 02 2008

Although I have never seen puxada de rede performed before, I was enchanted as soon as I started reading about it.  Perhaps it was the idea of theatre exalting the real, of the supernatural convening with the natural, or of beauty growing out of tragedy, but something about it hooked me (pun not intended).  I hope you feel the same!

Tradition and Necessity

A fisherman throwing out a net 

Puxada de Rede, like many traditional Afro-Brazilian dances, is marinated in legend and folklore. Unlike other dances such as maculelê, however, the “original” puxada de rede is still a true-to-form way of life today.

Named for fishermen’s “pulling of the net”, puxada de rede is a dance as well as a “folkloric theatrical play” evoking the lives of traditional fishermen in Brazil. More specifically, the dance/play is a tribute to both the sea and the fisherman’s work in Bahia, where both have figured and continue to figure tremendously into the region’s lifestyle. Fishing by puxada de rede (the method) is one of the most important means of sustenance in Bahia, and commonly seen along the Northeastern coast of Brazil, due to the large amounts of xaréu fish that migrate to the warmer waters there between October and April each year. (“Xaréu” is both a common dark meat fish and the name used for several species of fish in the Atlantic Ocean.) For this reason, puxada de rede is also sometimes known as “puxada de rede do xaréu” or “xaréu hake”.

The ritual of puxada de rede is a legacy with a line thrown back to the period of slavery in Brazil—or rather, the period right after slavery. According to one source, former slaves had difficulty finding jobs in the labour market, and so they made their living at sea; Bahia, apparently, was the first place to see this happen. Today, puxada de rede represents an ever more significantly renewable resource in Brazil, upon which thousands of families depend.

In the Hands of the Goddess

Performance of puxada de redeAfter reviewing a myriad of sources and videos, it appears that the puxada de rede can be performed with a choice of emphasis on one of three concepts: the death of a fisherman who went out to sea at night; acknowledging, entreating, and thanking Yemanjá, the Goddess of the Sea, while celebrating the aquatic windfall she has provided; or the actual process and ritual of puxada de rede itself. Elements of all three are found in the following popular legend, on which most performances of puxada de rede are based:

One night under the full moon, a fisherman went to fish at sea, in order to feed his family. He kissed his wife goodbye. She had a bad feeling about her husband going to fish at night. She warned him and told him of the dangers of fishing at night. Nevertheless, the fisherman left the house, despite his wife’s tears and children’s scared faces.

The fisherman went to sea and took with him the image of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of Sailors). He went with his fellow fishermen and God’s blessing. Hours before the fisherman was supposed to return, his wife waited for him on the beach. She had an odd vision. She saw the fishing boat return with the fishermen on board. They were very sad, and some of them were in tears. They then got off the ship. In panic, the woman realized that her husband was not there. The fishermen told her that he had fallen off deck into the darkness of the night. They could not find him in Yemanjá’s waters.

In the morning, when they pulled the net that was in the ocean, they noticed that they had caught much less fish than they expected, yet the net was heavier than usual. Once the net was on shore, they realized that the missing fisherman’s body was in the net. Everyone became very emotional and desperation took over those who were present.

They proceeded to hold funerary rituals for the fisherman. They carried his body on their shoulders because they could not afford a coffin. His companions and loved ones took his body to his eternal resting spot.


Gone Fishing

Performance of puxada de redeThe actual process of puxada de rede takes place every year in Bahia, flanked with music, rituals, poetry, festivities, and religion. It begins with fishers and their families preparing the xaréu nets, which crisscross rolls of strong, resistant wire with about a thousand metres of rope. Wearing short trousers or shorts and straw hats, groups of fishermen throw the net into the sea at the start of chanting, commanded by the “Master of the Sea”. (One source describes a “Master of Land” as well, who coordinates everything with the “Master of the Sea” and team generals.) The nets are then trawled out in large, heavy rafts that form a semi-circle in order to entrap the migrating, spawning fish. At this point, possibly fishermen go out in canoes and dive under the water to see how many fish have been caught.

Again at the Master’s signal, the bona fide puxada de rede begins—ritual, synchronized movement of bodies pulling the fish-laden net knot by knot out of the sea. The fishermen’s wives and families, meanwhile, sing and clap along the beach in order to fortify the spirits of those involved in the puxada de rede. Finally, the fish are secured, collected, and cleaned, followed by celebrations and thanks given for the catch.

Water Ballet

The dance/theatre version of all of the above transforms hardship, physical labour, and grief into a sublime ballet with the “resonance and poetic power of opera”. Work and joy are united through “force, power, and vitality” in body, along with music, ritual, and poetry in mind, all of which progresses in rhythm with the rolling, watery sphere of Yemanjá. As for the music, puxada de rede is executed to a slow atabaque beat. Song lyrics invoke Yemanjá for protection and abundance, as well as praise and thanks for the goddess. Both sad and joyous, the songs also convey the “natural beauty and daily struggles of the fisherman’s life”.

Puxada de rede is another traditional dance with acommpanying festivities in Brazil

With the development of technology in the fishing industry and otherwise, some say that the traditional puxada de rede has been reduced to a single, thin stripe of its former rainbow of tradition. Without ritual, songs, choreographed steps, nor the “charm and magic of the past”, puxada de rede may now occur on a much smaller scale than before, and also among fewer and smaller populations in Bahia. If this is true, then it makes the dance of puxada de rede all the more meaningful, as a both a tradition and the vivid memory of one.

Click here for a list of puxada de rede song lyrics

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