Great Brazilian Music

Forró, baião, xote, xaxado and xamego

Forró, baião, xote, xaxado and xamego are five closely related music styles which, perhaps more than any other music, have come to be associated with the Nordeste region (North Eastern Brazil) and its culture, people and history. Nowadays it’s very hard to actually distinguish one style from the other, as the boundaries between them are very fluid. This can sometimes result in confusion. Forró often works as an umbrella term, which can include all five music styles. However, “forró” may also have a much narrower meaning and refer to a comparatively modern, poppy version of the genre. In its broader sense, forró today is the second most popular traditional music style and dance in Brazil.

A very widespread myth is that the word "forró" would be a brazilianized version of the English expression “for all”. Supposedly, this would have been a reference to the forró music’s popularity, as in “music for all”, which would have morphed into the term “forró”. This is, however, not correct. The word “forró” in fact comes from the expression “forrobodó”, which was simply the name of a popular festivity in the Nordeste region, where different types of regional music and dances, such as baião, coco, rojão, quadrilha, xaxado and xote, were played, often with the region’s typical accordion – the sanfona – in the foreground. Over time, forró became the generic term for music played at these dance parties.

Today, xote is probably the most popular of the musical styles included under the generic term forró. Xote is, linguistically as well as musically, a Brazilian version of the European schottische, which became popular in Brazil during the mid 1800's. In Brazil, the European form of schottische was soon mixed with Afro-Brazilian dancing and music. During the ensuing decades xote, to some extent, was also influenced by other Latin American dance music genres, such as mambo and salsa.

Apart from xote, the other main ingredient in modern forró music is baião. The baião sound is quite similar to xote, but has a softer, more Afro-Brazilian rhythm and a more clearly defined backbeat. Baião is believed to have developed in the early 19th century, out of the lundu music of northeastern Brazil. It is quite possible that the word “baião” is simply a short for “lundu baiano” (Bahian lundu). According to the famous anthropologist Câmara Cascudo, the baião quickly became very popular and was played and danced extensively in the Nordeste region all through the 19th century. As is the case with several other Afro-Brazilian dance music styles, baião compositions often have a somewhat sad or melancholic undertone, both in terms of lyrics and melody, which probably reflects the often very difficult living conditions among the people who created and cultivated this style of music. Accordion, guitar and rabeca-fiddle soon became the most important instruments in baião. Though baião is basically dance music, it can be played both slowly and to an extremely fast rythm. While a slow baião is better suited to listen to than to dance to, the fast danceable baião could be described as mix of polka and ska in overdrive. Ever since the 1970’s, the backbeat element of baião has compelled many musicians to mix baião with reggae.

Until the eraly 1950’s, forró was hardly even known outside the Nordeste region. Then along came the charismatic singer and accordion musician Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989), from Pernambuco, and introduced the music to metropolitan Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (and thus the music spread to all other parts of Brazil). Just like so many other people from the arid and poor inland areas of northeastern Brazil's, commonly known as the “sertão”, Luiz Gonzaga in 1939 moved to the comparatively wealthy Rio de Janeiro, where he supported himself as a musician, in the city's many bars and brothels. After two years of anonymity, Gonzaga started to include forró music in his repertoire. Much to his initial surprise, this move turned out to be a huge success. The rumor of Luiz Gonzaga's “new” dance music spread quickly in Rio de Janeiro and it was not long before Gonzaga was invited to record her first album.

To further popularize baião and other forró music styles and make them more easily digestible to the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo crowds, Gonzaga and his song writing partner Humberto Teixeira decided it was best to “streamline” and adapt the music, to some extent. The duo chose to largely drop the pandeiro and rabeca-violin from their music, even though they had both been very common and basic instruments in baião music until then. Instead, Gonzaga and Teixeira opted to build their music solely on the accordion, triângulo and zabumba, to create a more direct way of emphasizing the dance friendly rhythm of forró music. The format was an immediate success with the public and those three instruments have ever since then been regarded as the core of forró music. In 1947 Teixeira and Gonzaga wrote one of the most beloved and famous forró songs in history: Asa Branca. The song's cheerful, fast and catchy baião music contrasts with the heartbreaking content of its lyrics. The song speaks about the extreme poverty and the difficult living conditions for people in dry north-eastern inlands and the homesickness of a nordestino, forced to move far away from home to find work to be able to support his family in the Northeast.

Forró certainly is a music genre with roots which go way back in history, but it remains extremely popular among Brazilians, both young and old, all over the country.

Examples of forró music

O Fole Roncou, Luiz Gonzaga, 1973
Querubim, Dominguinhos, 1981
Eu só quero um xodó, Gilberto Gil, 1973
Xamego, Fafá de Belém, 1976
Só Xote, Luiz Gonzaga, 1973
A Noite Toda, Marinês, 1996
Esperando na Janela, Gilberto Gil, 2000
De Juazeiro a Crato, Cascabulho, 1999


Statue of forró trio in the city of Caruaru.

Luiz Gonzaga, the king of baião.