Forro in the Dark: Bonfires of São João

Forro in the Dark
Bonfires of São João
Nublu Records

Forro in the Dark plays Brazilian pop music every Wednesday night at a New York City nightclub in the Lower East Side called Nublo. The group has garnered legions of fans, including some who have joined the band to sing as guest stars on the latest disc, such as former Talking Heads front man David Byrne, Miho Hatori from the Japanese group Cibo Matto, and the South American songstress Bebel Gilberto. Forro in the Dark isn’t interested in creating authentic Forro music. This album is meant for club dancing, not folk dancing. Purists should shy away from this release, but those who find enjoyment at the places on the margins, at the borders where cultural productions borrow from each other to create something new, will find lots to enjoy here.

The music, always upbeat and organic, melds from one style to another. At times, the sound evokes the lonesome sound of Appalachian country songs, Italian spaghetti western soundtracks, inner city hip hop beats, West African call and response, Asian trance, ’60s avant-garde jazz, Jamaican reggae, and other geographic and musically disparate sounds. The music is always rhythmic and rooted in the folk tunes of northeastern Brazil from where Forro originally emerged.

The six core members of the band include three percussionists, which explains the music’s heavily cadenced clatter. Mauro Refosco’s Zabumba (a bass drum played with a mallet) gives Forro in the Dark its distinctive booming beat, and he’s ably assisted by thumpers Gilmar Gomes and Davi Vieira. The group also features two guitarists, Guilherme Monteiro and Smokey Hormel (on baritone guitar and slide guitar), as well as Jorge Continentino on pifano (a Brazilian woodwind) and baritone sax. The pifano has a sound like one of those toy plastic flutes that simultaneously gives the music a kind of cheesiness, but sometimes a kind of odd depth because Continentino performs with such dexterity. His playing makes the pifano resemble the voice of some sort of tropical bird whose melodies, clucks, and whistles convey the natural longing and joy of just existing.

While all the band members contribute vocals, the instrumental tracks stand out because they are so weird and bouncy. Songs like “Índios Do Norte” and “Oile Le La” move at strange, ever-shifting tempos that would seem right at home on Saturday morning cartoon shows. While the five-minute “Lamião No Céu” that ends the disc has some shouted chanting vocals and encouraging shouts, by and large the non-verbal piece evokes a jungle dance that features lots of sultry movements and steps. One can visualize the arms gesturing in motion while the bodies flex to the different tempos. Then, after about a minute of silence, a bonus cut materializes and mysteriously continues for three more minutes at a place where the rhythm had stopped, but in a more gentle fashion. This creates a pleasant coda that eases the listener from the nonstop action the disc had provided.

But the guest stars are the hook here, and they don’t disappoint. Byrne sings two songs in English, the Forro standard “Asa Branca” — a line from which the album title gets its name — and the weirdly humorous “I Wish (Bundle of Contradictions)”. The latter tune moves to an oom-pah beat as Byrne recites a litany of grievances and non sequiturs: “I wish that I was crippled / I wish that I was glad / I wish that I had never seen / Your fucking perfect smile”. Hatori offers a Japanese language version of “Paraiba”, a ’50s tune written by Forro master Luis Gonzaga. The band provides exotic Eastern accents to the Brazilian melody. The result oddly resembles Calypso. And Bebel Gilberto softly croons “Wandering Swallow”, an old Peggy Lee recording that was originally pulled off the shelf in 1951 because of a legal squabble between Gonzaga and two American writers who claimed the song as their own. Gilberto sings the lilting lyrics both in English and Portuguese.

Bonfires of São João provides lots of enjoyable listening for those who like dance music that makes one think and dream. Those Wednesday night shows in the Big Apple must be quite the scene. For those of us who can’t make it to Nublo, this disc and our imaginations will have to suffice. There’s comfort in knowing music like this exists, but it does make one hunger for the real experience of being there. The souvenir quality of the CD limits the fun. It’s like listening to a soundtrack to a film that never comes to town. Of course, sometimes the best movies are in our heads.

RATING 6 / 10