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Northern Brazilian Tradition, New York Style

Most of the members of Forro in the Dark are from Brazil, but they came together in New York City.
Most of the members of Forro in the Dark are from Brazil, but they came together in New York City.
On their latest album, Forro in the Dark employs the vocal talents of Bebel Gilberto, Miho Hatori and David Byrne.
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On their latest album, Forro in the Dark employs the vocal talents of Bebel Gilberto, Miho Hatori and David Byrne.

Most of the members of Forro in the Dark hail from Brazil, home of the forro music from which the group derives its name. Though they are purveyors of the Northern Brazilian country rhythms, these days the group has a decidedly New York sound.

"That's the melting pot of what New York is," says percussionist Mauro Refosco. "You can find Japanese pop, you can find reggae, you can find now forro music, and country ... so you can find out those elements in this record."

Refosco is speaking about Bonfires of Sao Joao, the New York-based band's latest release.

According to Refosco, Forro is a happy, danceable music based on four elements: simple melodies, basic harmonies, driving rhythms and funny lyrics. Those elements are traditionally performed by three instruments: a triangle, an accordion, and a zabumba, a drum pitched somewhere between a low snare and a small bass.

Forro in the Dark differs somewhat from that formula. Instead of the accordion, Jorge Continentos plays the wooden flute called the pifanos, among other wind instruments. They also add various guitars, percussion, and vocals; on their latest album, the group brought in the talents of Bebel Gilberto, Miho Hatori and David Byrne.

Indeed, Forro in the Dark is no traditional ensemble. The ensemble of five Brazilians and one American first came together in New York, and of the Brazilian contingent, most come from Southern Brazil. Percussionist Davi Viera is the only member who actually grew up around Forro.

"I grew up listening to my mom and my father singing all these songs," Viera says. "In the countryside, that's the kind of music that people listen to all the time."

Forro music often gets trotted out during the harvest celebrations around St. John's Day — which in Portuguese translates to Sao Joao. According to zabumba player Mauro Refosco, "the soundtrack to the party is forro."

But forro is at heart a traditional form, Brazil's loose equivalent to country music. The group's one American member, bassist Smokey Hormel, has worked with Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash, and hears the similarity.

Hormel says, "As I got to know this music I was really sad that I never had a chance to actually play any of these songs with Johnny Cash because I think he would have totally got it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacki Lyden
Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.