Going Balloon: An Interview with Forro in the Dark

Lyra Pappin
FORRO IN THE DARK [Photo: Vladimir Radojicic]

Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark chats with PopMatters about music, keeping his cool, and Brazilian cooking.

Forro in the Dark is a band that brings not just the heat of Brazil to crowded, pulsing nightclubs -- it brings the heart. A group of five Brazilians and one American put their rhythmic spin on forró, a style of music and dance from the northeast of Brazil that is full of passion, joy, heartache, and love. Forro in the Dark have been sneaking up the radar, as their latest album, Bonfires of São Jo&atildeo, has been making waves from coast to coast. Featuring such impressive guest vocalists as David Byrne, Bebel Gilberto, and Miho Hatori, FIT Dark have become an underground sensation with people in the know. The hippest (but least pretentious) Manhattanites know that Nublu is where it's at, and every Wednesday, FIT Dark can be heard making people sweat, sway, and groove until the sun rises.

Mauro Refosco leads the band, a percussionist with an impressive resume. After growing up in a small town outside São Paolo, Mauro turned his attention to music after he let the dream of being a professional soccer play die (although his passion for the game didn't. Walking home one day, he spontaneously joined an in-progress soccer game and almost broke his ankle! Don't tell David Byrne though). Since graduating with a Master's Degree in percussion from the Manhattan School of Music in 1994, Mauro has worked with some of the most creative and innovative musicians today, including performing with David Byrne for over ten years; collaborating with Brazilian Girls, Bebel Gilberto, and Stewart Copeland; and still finding time to release a solo record, Seven Waves/Sete Ondas. But maybe the most impressive thing about this accomplished musician is his genuine warmth and appreciation for his success, evident in his utter lack of pretension or arrogance. There's a realness to Mauro that echoes the forró spirit of openness, charm, and fun.

I caught up with Refosco to discuss the rise of his band's success, how he keeps it all together, and the mystery behind the photo shoot-turned-jam session/cookout at a place known only as "The Boat".

How did Forro in the Dark get hooked up with Nublu? What was it like recording your album Bonfires of Saão João there?

I've been friends with Ilhan [Ersahin], the owner of Nublu for quite some time and he's married to a Brazilian friend of mine, so I knew him before he opened his club -- I think I had done some recordings for him. When he opened his club it was really nice because a lot of friends came by to hang out. First it was just a place to hang out, no music, just a space with some chairs, was more of a bar. But soon people started asking him, "Oh, can we play here?" So he set up a little PA, more or less how it's set up today, very, very low key, and people start sometimes you know, playing, very loose. And it became a scene then.

And then with the Forro band, well, it was my birthday in 2002 and I called Smokey [Hormel] and this other guy that knows him who plays with us, this accordion player, and asked them to play, on my birthday, some forró music. So we rehearsed, the three of us rehearsed for the party. I invited all my friends and my musician friends, and everybody came and played, besides all the other people, my friends, you know, they just came to hang, and it was a really nice party.

Everybody liked it, so we decided, along with Nublu, to do it again in a couple of weeks. And maybe after six months we had a big following, and then The New York Times came, The New Yorker, and you know, we had a name. Then we had the band! That's it.

The idea of recording there is basically the same as playing there. It's very loose because they let you do whatever you want. It was nice, you know, it was a very simple process. It's ... they don't have much of a budget to do records but they've been working hard. They have a name, because of the bands that are coming out of there, people pay attention to what comes out of Nublu.

The dance floor and the stage are pretty much the same thing at Nublu. I've seen people grab instruments and head onstage with you sometimes. Does it ever get crazier than that?

Well ... always. You know, it's kind of funny, I guess, people grab the microphone, say stupid things and try to sing. If it's a good vibe, we let it happen, but if it's a weird vibe, I just cut it off. But people dancing in funny ways, you know, expressing themselves in front of the stage, and it's right there in front of us, it's nice.

It's a great feeling, the no-stage thing and everybody's together. I think that whoever comes to see us at Nublu ... they become part of the band. That's the feeling that I guess people like, when you are, like, really inside of the band and you almost feel the sensation of almost being a musician, you're right there, you can sense it. That's a very unique feeling, and the one I guess you only get in those kinds of places.

FORRO IN THE DARK [Photo: Vladimir Radojicic]

You are doing so much all the time -- working with different musicians, traveling a lot. How do you avoid getting stressed out? You always seem so cool and calm about everything!

Well, I'm not that cool about everything! [laughs] I lose my temper quite often. They call me, in the Forro band, they call me Mr. Gentle because sometimes I go completely balloon.

And about doing so much with so many different people, you pay a toll for that. I guess I like working a lot; I guess that's part of my being. Well, and I enjoy doing that so it's very pleasant for me to work with different people. Especially the ones that kind of give me back something.

I'm really happy that I've been working with David Byrne for so long. I think I get a lot from him, he teaches me so much. and the exchange of musicianship is amazing; he's truly a great, great, hardworking guy.

Miho, as well, Bebel Gilberto in some ways, and all the other people that I've been working with. Just recently, I did this record with Jesse Harris and it was really amazing experience as well.

Travelling is great, you meet people. But it's a very lonely process because it's like most of the time it's just yourself and whoever you're travelling with. So it's lonely in a sense that you meet people but it goes to that side of the memory that, the minute you leave them behind, you forget. Not everyone, but most of the people you met. So it's uh ... something like that.

You guys seem like you are usually having a lot of fun though. The pictures on the FIT Dark website, as well as on your MySpace page, look like they tell a great story. Your friend took them, right?

Yeah, his name is Vladi -- He's this great guy, photographer from Serbia. His name is Vladimir Radojicic. And he's a great cameraman, a very good cameraman and great photographer. You know, he's a good friend of ours, he hangs at Nublu and he loves the band, and we love him.

FORRO IN THE DARK [Photo: Vladimir Radojicic]

We needed a promo picture for the record, so I asked him if he could help us out and he said, "Yeah, yeah, sure, let's go to the boat".

And I'm like, "Uh okay, let's go to the boat!" [laughing] But I did not have an idea of what the boat was so he sent the address of where the boat was parked -- you know it's parked, in like a dock, somewhere in Brooklyn.

And I asked, "Okay, how big is the boat?" [laughing]

Because I thought it would be a little boat, like a paddling boat [laughing] and he said, "No no! It's a 40-meter long boat, the ones that people use to go fish like giant crabs in Alaska".

And I was like, "Wow that's crazy man! Really?"

And he said, "Yeah, it was a friend of mine who bought this boat".

So I asked him if there was a kitchen on the boat, and he said, "Yeah, there's a full kitchen, you can cook something."

Then I bought some stuff, I did this Brazilian stew called moqueca . We stayed the whole day there, just, like, cooking, you know, drinking some beer. I brought some tequila, we brought different clothes, played some music, brought some instruments, it was just such a cool vibe. It was a beautiful day, it was very sunny, beautiful sky, was the perfect day and the photos really captured that moment of us.

He gave us also these little disposable cameras to each one of us and told us to take pictures of our impressions, about what was going on. So it was really very instigating from him to do that, he gave us a lot, a lot to work with. And that's why the pictures look so nice.

They really do. And the food looks delicious. Want to give us a rundown for a good Brazilian dish?

The Brazilian dish that I cooked was moqueca. It's a traditional dish from Bahia, Salvador -- Bahia is a state in the northeast. It's cooked with some fish, palm oil ... palm tree oil. And coconut milk. It's really good.

So, what's next for you guys? Has it been hard to find time to work together? Are people splitting time between Brazil and New York?

No, everybody's based in New York. The five Brazilians and the extra American. There's this guy Gilmar who spends time in Germany where his wife is from. He's not much in the touring plans even though he's a brother of ours, and occasionally he comes on tour with us, he's not, like, I don't think he's committed to touring with us.

The other five of us are really committed to touring this summer. We have dates in May, June, and July [in the US and Europe] and are trying to do the most of it. We have a new publicist now that's going to be working on the summer dates as well. I think we're going to play the Montreal Jazz and Quebec Jazz Festivals and Ottawa Jazz, there is a plan of doing those. And hopefully we're going to come to Toronto as well.

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