Forro in the Dark makes people dance like they forgot they could. They sweat, stomp, roll their eyes into the backs of their heads and don’t stop for hours. For the past four years, they’ve packed their home base and birthplace at Nublu well beyond capacity every Wednesday night, with lines stretching out onto Avenue C during hailstorms and blizzards. When a band makes you feel like this, you keep coming back.
On the surface it seems simple. Forro in the Dark plays music lacking overt complexity. Brazilian pop. Songs for the people. One story goes that their namesake genre may even have taken its name from a mispronunciation of the English phrase “for all”. When the northeastern Brazilians who invented the music said it, it came out sounding like “Forro”.
In its most known form, popularized Luis Gonzaga, Forro is played by a trio. The instruments are the zabumba (a bass-y drum played with a mallet), the triangle (like you played in elementary school), and the accordion (like an accordion). Of course, no tradition is an island. Forro has sprouted many branches. “In Forro any instrumentation is possible. There are ensembles that go from just an accordion trio, to ensembles with drum machines and electric guitars, to ensembles that are just people stomping their feet, clapping their hands and singing in unison. In the end it’s all serving the purpose of helping people with their feelings,” Mauro Refosco, the leader of Forro in the Dark explains. He should know all about that. He and the band’s own unique version has been helping people have a good time since his birthday in 2002.
That’s how the whole thing started. A birthday party. Mauro threw a party at Nublu, invited some friends to play, and it drove people wild. Two weeks after his birthday, the band came back. The long-standing Wednesday night residency was in full swing.
Initially Forro in the Dark was rooted in the more traditional versions of the genre, but after playing so frequently at on the Lower East Side, and with many members of the band going on the road with artists ranging from Enrique Iglesias to Tom Waits and Beck, the band took a different approach. They shed the accordion and grew into a percussion-driven, guitar-, wind- and vocal-accented band. Without adding electronics or removing the essential emotion of the music, Forro in the Dark updated a genre that was entertaining people in Brazil over a hundred years ago. They brought it up to a form that can make today’s jazz aficionados and techno-loving clubgoers step out onto the dancefloor together.
Bonfires of Sao Joao, Forro in the Dark’s first album on Nublu Records, shows the range clearly. “Indios Do Norte” opens the album like a Spaghetti Western chase scene, with Guilherme Monteiro’s guitar twang dueling Jorge Continentino’s pifano, a breathy flute. Two songs later they stretch into feel-good territory, with David Byrne making a guest vocal appearance, singing his own English version of “Asa Branca” – the standard by which all Forro bands are measured. Their rendition is a permanent smile of a song, raising the bar for any who follow. The grin changes to a yelp, when one of Forro in the Dark’s percussionists, Gilmar Gomes, dices his near-MCing through "Que Que Tu Fez", a boiling dance track. The rest of the album spans the breadth of Forro history. Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori joins the band to sing “Paraiba”, a Japanese version of a Luis Gonzaga song originally recorded in the fifties. And on the album’s sublime climax, Bebel Gilberto joins the band to sing a version of “Wandering Swallow”, a song originally released by Peggy Lee in 1951 but quickly pulled off of shelves because of a legal battle between Gonzaga and two writers who based it on his original composition, "Juazeiro”.
In Forro in the Dark’s simplicity, there’s nothing they can’t incorporate. Whether they’re playing Forro in its most basic form or versioning it into an amalgamation, their sound conveys organic sincerity. Bonfires of Sao Joao takes the band beyond the danceability they’re know for and into the world beyond, poising them for something bigger, something for everyone.
Forro in the Dark is Mauro Refosco on Zabumba and Vocals; Gilmar Gomes on Percussion and Vocals; Davi Vieira on Percussion and Vocals; Guilherme Monteiro on Guitar and Vocals; Jorge Continentino on Pifano, Baritone Sax and Vocals; and Smokey Hormel on Baritone Guitar, Slide Guitar and Vocals