Forró, a music style from Brazil’s Northeast, may be declared part of the country’s intangible heritage by 2020. The National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage, Iphan, is conducting a study to identify this form of expression, which, in addition to music genres, is linked to festivities and traditional social interactions that take place to the sound of instruments like the accordion, the zabumba, and the triangle.
The initiative was welcomed by musicians like conductor Marcos Faria, son of singer Marinês (1935–2007) and godson of “King of Baião” Luiz Gonzaga (1912–1989). In his opinion, numerous groups and artists who describe their music as forró actually combine cumbia and zouk, from South American and Caribbean countries.
“They’ve taken our name. We were deprived of the title and cast under those music styles with Latino features,” he said. What took place, Farias argued, was “undue appropriation.”
Iphan’s Intangible Heritage Department Director Hermano Queiroz said the recognition will make it possible for “vulnerabilities, risks, and the need for positive promotion to be mapped out.” “The purpose of the recognition,” he said, however, “is not to provide its narrative with authenticity.” There are many narratives in circulation: “Cultural heritage is dynamic,” he declared.
The main concern, Queiroz added, is not to ascertain exactly where forró was born. “The root is not the main issue. The title of intangible heritage makes room for intercultural dialogue between several forms of expression,” he argued. Iphan’s research “will survey all perspectives and narratives about this intangible asset and enable musicians from different locations to meet and understand that, despite being spread all over the country, they are brothers.”
Even the word’s etymology is discussed differently in different narratives. Conductor Farias pointed out that songwriter and instrumentalist Sivuca (1930–2006) argued that forró stems from the English phrase “for all.”
The term is believed to have been coined as long ago as the 19th century as a result of the influence of British workers at railway facilities and weaving factories in the Northeast. “More cotton was produced in Campina Grande than in Liverpool,” Farias quoted Sivuca as saying.
The word’s history was revised in the 20th century. Some argue the term arose during World War II, in the city of Natal, capital city of Rio Grande do Norte—a state that received 10 thousand US soldiers at the time. This is the version seen in the film For All: Springboard to Victory (1997), by Buza Ferraz and Luiz Carlos Lacerda.
Ethnomusicologist Carlos Sandroni, the professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) in charge of the research with Iphan, does not adhere to this version. In his view, the word "forró" “to mean a popular party with dance, music, and drinking,” has been around since the 19th century.
Sandroni notes that “the 1912 edition of a dictionary includes the headword 'forrobodó.' In the next edition, there are 'forrobodó' and 'forró.' By all accounts, the latter is short for the former.” Philologist Evanildo Bechara believes 'forrobodó' comes from 'forbodó,' a Galician word.
Geography and history of music are said to further debunk the connection between "forró" and "for all." Sandroni advocated the theory according to which forró was born away from the coast of Natal. The original roots may lie further into the country in the Northeast, in the backlands of Pernambuco, Paraíba, and Ceará states.
The king of baião and the melting pot of genres
Sandroni also argues that “forró has become an expression of the people of the Brazilian Northeast, of how to identify as a Northeasterner, along with other characteristics and values.”
“Little by little, the meaning of the word "forró" shifted to designate not just a specific genre, but a number of genres, like xote, xaxado, arrasta-pé, and quadrilha, in addition to forró itself,” he went on to explain.
Chief in Sandroni’s melting pot of genres is Luiz Gonzaga’s baião. The specialist mentioned the central role played by Gonzagão in the 40s, when Northeastern culture was asserting itself. “The baião is an enterprise deliberately embarked upon by Luiz Gonzaga and his partners Humberto Teixeira [1915-197], José Dantas [1921-1962], and others in this early stage.”
Farias says that even how musicians are positioned on stage for a forró show is Gonzagão’s doing. “The bass from the accordion is low, so the triangle, which is high, must be right beside it. On the right-hand side, where the solo is, which is high, must be the zabumba, low, in order to counterbalance. He was very particular about that,” he revealed.
The three instruments are European in origin, Sandroni pointed out. “Does that mean it’s European music? Of course not. Music is much more than the instruments. It’s what you do with the instruments,” he said.
“The accordion is obviously European.” The same can be said of zambumba, even though common sense identifies it as an African drum. “As a matter of fact, you find this assembling and tying style in the Iberian Peninsula,” he added. The same happens with the triangle, “known in Portugal as ferrinho.”
Before forró, other forms of musical expression were recognized by Iphan as intangible material, like capoeira, carimbó, cavalo marinho, frevo, jongo, marabaixo, maracatu, samba de partido alto, samba de terreiro, samba enredo, samba de roda, tambor de criola, and the bell tolls in historical Minas Gerais state.