In the lonely backlands of far Northeastern Brazil, life is rough. It's the poorest, driest part of the country. And very often, there's not enough water for the farmers to scrape out a living. But when the rain does fall, it's time for a party and the celebratory sounds of Forro dancing.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Nothing travels like music, and the band Forro in the Dark has taken these traditional Brazilian country dances thousands of miles to the nightclubs of New York and other American cities. The new album of the band mixes Forro, country, reggae and Japanese pop into one big dance party.

The five Brazilians and one American who make up Forro in the Dark join me now in NPR's Studio 4A. And - so how do you say welcome in Portuguese?

FORRO IN THE DARK (Band): Bienvenido(ph).

LYDEN: Bienvendo.

Mr. MAURO REFOSCO (Band Member, Forro in the Dark): Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: We're so glad that you could be with us. I gave my description of what Forro is, and I have to say I - it's not something I've run across before. So what would your description be, Mauro?

Mr. REFOSCO: Well, it's the - it's country music that has, in my opinion, has like three elements - four elements. Simple melodies, simple harmonies, a very different rhythm and, like, some funny lyrics. And which it's - makes people happy and it's danceable music.

LYDEN: So it's music that comes out of hardship the way that our cowboy ballads - do? Is that…

Mr. REFOSCO: Yeah.

LYDEN: …a corny analogy, but an accurate one?

Mr. REFOSCO: No. Yeah, it's that. You know, because I guess these people are simple. And so are we. You know, so we are like, we have a relationship to that kind of music.

LYDEN: But it goes back generations, right?

Mr. REFOSCO: Yeah. Yeah. And this is like, I guess, 18 - 1900s, you know. It's like really old style of music. It became really popular in the '40s when, I guess, Luiz Gonzaga was the reason. He was a major, like, top-top, like, radio singer. And so he popularized the style, like in a way, all over Brazil.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But it come from the northeast to the south…


LYDEN: Let's hear something.

Mr. REFOSCO: Okay. Can we play this song called "Riacho Do Navio"?

LYDEN: You may.

Mr. REFOSCO: Okay. It's a song by Luiz Gonzaga, and he wrote this song about a farm of his friend. And in this song, he states that there is a little river that goes by the farm that goes into a bigger river, then into Rio San Francisco, which is a big river in Brazil, and then all the way to the ocean. But that's the first verse.

In the second verse, he said that, if he was a fish, instead of going downstream - the natural course of the water - he would swim all the way from the ocean to the Riacho Do Navio where - because the farm is really beautiful.

LYDEN: Okay.

Mr. REFOSCO: So here you go. One, two, three, four…

(Soundbite of song "Riacho Do Navio")

Mr. REFOSCO: (Singing) (Portuguese spoken)

LYDEN: That was great. Could you please all introduce yourself, going sort of just around the semicircle here?

Mr. GUILHERME MONTEIRO (Guitarist, Forro in the Dark): Sure. My name is Guilherme Monteiro. I'm a guitar player.

Mr. SMOKEY HORMEL (Baritone Guitarist, Forro in the Dark): I'm Smokey Hormel. I'm playing baritone guitar.

Mr. JORGE CONTINENTINO (Member, Forro in the Dark): My name is Jorge Continentino. I played the pifano, a wooden flute from Brazil, alto flute and baritone saxophone.

LYDEN: All right.

Mr. REFOSCO: My name is Mauro Refosco. I play zabumba and I sing sometimes.

Mr. DAVI VIEIRA (Percussionist, Forro in the Dark): My name is Davi Vieira. I play timbao, triangle and some other percussion and some vocals.

LYDEN: Well, again, bienvenido. I'm really, really glad to have you here. And how come we know less about Forro than, say, we do about Caetano Velosa?

Mr. REFOSCO: I think, you know, there is this - once I was talking to Amir Diodaro(ph), he's like this incredible piano player and arranger, and he was talking about bossa nova because bossa nova is, like, the most well-known…

LYDEN: Right.

Mr. REFOSCO: …style of music outside of Brazil.

LYDEN: And he's very popular in the '40s.

Mr. REFOSCO: And he said, well, bossa nova is so popular that, you know, the Americans think they invent it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REFOSCO: No offense, you know, but…

LYDEN: Pretty soon we'll have invented forro.

Mr. REFOSCO: Exactly.

Mr. CONTINENTINO: And I thought Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach invented bossa nova.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REFOSCO: (unintelligible). That's what I'm talking about. No, but it was - I think Brazil was, like, so many styles, you know, and it's a very - has a big parallel to country music in here. And forro is becoming, I guess, more accessible now. It, you know, it's reaching out.

LYDEN: I'd like to ask a couple of forro basics here. My understanding is that in its most simple, traditional countryside form, there would have been three basic instruments, yeah?

Mr. REFOSCO: Mm-hmm. Zabumba, triangle and accordion.

LYDEN: Zabumba is - you've got on this wonderful - my mother was a drummer so I always think of things as snare drums. Yes…

Mr. REFOSCO: Okay.

LYDEN: …she's a big percussionist. So you've got, well, I think it's like a snare drum.

Mr. REFOSCO: It's - I would say it's like - it's either a big snare drum or like a small bass drum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Play a little bit.

Mr. REFOSCO: You choose.

(Soundbite of a zabumba)

Mr. REFOSCO: And I think you have all the elements. You have the bass…

(Soundbite of a zabumba)

Mr. REFOSCO: …and the snare.

(Soundbite of a zabumba)

LYDEN: Cool. Great. And then you add to that in forro…

Mr. VIEIRA: Triangle.

LYDEN: …some triangle, easiest thing in the world.

Mr. VIEIRA: Yeah. Easiest?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VIEIRA: You're not stepped up to the plate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: In a minute, I might step up, something I can play to a couple of friends. All right. Let's hear the triangle, Davi. Come on.

(Soundbite of a triangle)

LYDEN: And then the third one, it would be an accordion. I thought I have…

Mr. REFOSCO: Yeah. Instead of the accordion, you know, because…

Mr. CONTINENTINO: I mean, not just instead of the accordion. I mean, I play the wooden flute called pifano from northeast of Brazil, which comes from the Indians. Let's play…

Mr. REFOSCO: We play something just the three of us, you know, and that's going to give you a good example of forro without guitars.

LYDEN: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Arriba. Whoop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Now, you guys have been together a pretty long time?

Mr. REFOSCO: We've been together for, like, five years.

LYDEN: And how did you all hook up with Smokey Hormel?

Mr. HORMEL: I had a bossa nova band and that's how I met Mauro. He was playing in the band, and he had played me some of the Gonzaga music. And he said, you know, I'm going to have party, let's play some of this music. So we got together, and it was just really fun. Everyone who came danced and we decided to do it on a weekly basis and…

LYDEN: And you - but you played with lots and lots of people.

Mr. HORMEL: Yeah, I was…

LYDEN: (Unintelligible) and sax…

Mr. HOMEL: Yeah, at that time when I met Mauro, I was working on Johnny Cash's last series of records. And as I got to know this music, I was really sad that I'd never had a chance to actually play any of these songs with Johnny Cash because I think he would have totally got it.

LYDEN: Let's play something and sort of dedicate it to his spirit.

Mr. HORMEL: That's a good idea.

Mr. REFOSCO: All right. This is a perfect song then. The next song is called "Asa Branca." It's probably the most well-known Brazilian song. It's, like, every little kid that start learning the piano, you know, pick ups this song because it's really simple melody and fits right on the fingers. And David Byrne wrote the English lyrics for this song, and the poetry is really beautiful.

LYDEN: And on your album, David Byrne sings it with you.

Mr. REFOSCO: Yes, exactly.

LYDEN: But you're going to sing it for us here.

Mr. REFOSCO: Well, since David Byrne is not here with us, Smokey Hormel is going to sing a couple of…

LYDEN: Okay, it's great. Okay.

Mr. REFOSCO: …the English lines.

LYDEN: Great.

Mr. HORMEL: Ready?

(Soundbite of song "Asa Branca")

Mr. HORMEL: (Singing) When I saw the land was burning like the bonfires of Sao Joao, I asked God up there in his heaven, what is happening to us now?

Mr. REFOSCO: (Singing) (Portuguese spoken)

Mr. HORMEL: (Singing) Now I live in this big city, such a long, long way away. When I hear that the rain is falling back to my home, I'll return one day. And the land will surely blossom like a grin that's in your eyes. And I assure you, my dear Rozenia(ph), I will be back here right by your side.

Mr. REFOSCO: (Singing) (Portuguese spoken)

LYDEN: I think Johnny would be very, very pleased, Smokey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: That was great. So this is sort of a song about loss. We got that from some of your English lyrics.

Mr. HORMEL: Yes.

LYDEN: And is there a little bit more in the Portuguese, Mauro?

Mr. REFOSCO: Yeah, it's a…

LYDEN: Asa Branca - what does that mean?

Mr. REFOSCO: Asa Branca is a bird that's traditional from this part of the country. And what it - the general idea of the song is the guy, you know, the worker, he had to leave and - like, migrate to San Paolo because the land was really dry, so he had to go to the big city and look for work in there. And he left behind his whole family and Rozenia, which is like the love of his life. But when the rain falls again in this dry land of the Northeast, he, for sure, is going to come back because he loves his land, and so that's the song.

LYDEN: Forro in the Dark, here with us in NPR studio 4A. The band's new album is called "The Bonfires of Sao Joao."

You can hear more of Forro in the Dark's music on our Web site, npr.org. And, hey, you'll also find a video clip of me there, trying to keep up with the triangle player on the dance floor.

Thanks guys so much, and we'll see you tonight at the club.

Mr. REFOSCO: Thank you so much for having us here.

Mr. HORMEL: Thank you.

Mr. REFOSCO: One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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