The Topsy Turvying of Traditional Brazilian Music - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Topsy Turvying of Traditional Brazilian Music

The Topsy Turvying of Traditional Brazilian Music

By Shannon Sims


This traditional Brazilian men’s folk music is getting a new life through the voice of a young woman.

By Shannon Sims

One night this March, on Brazil’s version of The Voice, a young woman broke one of the oldest molds in Brazil. Facing the judges’ backs, a young brown-haired woman in a short blue skirt braced an accordion. As she started out the first, mournful wailing notes of a classic forró song by the old master Dominguinhos, lightly singing over the heavy accordion, she rewrote the book on forró. Lucy Alves caused a sensation. 

In her late 20s, hailing from the city of João Pessoa in the northeastern state of Paraíba, Alves had until then only performed locally in a family band called Clã Brasil. But her appearance on The Voice made her an instant star. Tracking her on a night out in João Pessoa includes frequent stops for photos and autographs. Her father and manager, the man who first put the accordion in her hands when she was 16, follows close behind. 

Brazilians today are rethinking forró, thanks to Lucy Alves, in whose hands the macho accordion sings like an uncaged bird.

“Traditional forró does not get much space in the media, so it has been great to help spread the music,” she told OZY. “But I see the future as bright for traditional forró as more and more young people take up the accordion and learn about this music.” 

Thanks to Alves, Brazilians are starting to reconsider forró. No one expected to hear forró on The Voice, home of the popular and the cool. Culturally, it’s closer to the folksy expressions of Woody Guthrie. 

The performance of forró has also been traditionally led by men, by rough voices unadorned and deepened with the experience of hard living in the hinterlands. Lucy sounded more like a sweet young thing crooning Johnny Cash. The heavy accordion is also considered one of the most masculine instruments in Brazil.

Forró, pronounced fo-HO, is a distinctly northeastern type of Brazilian music. The most traditional form of forró, called Forró Pe de Serra, is performed by a three-piece band, and the music is so tightly associated with the northeast that those bands are called trios nordestinos, or Northeastern trios.

The trio nordestino is made up of three instruments: a handheld bass drum called a zabumba, the humble triangle of elementary school music classes, and, centering the trio, the mighty accordion. Although the faces of the musicians change, they are usually similar: sun-worn, labored and always male. Until Lucy Alves, that is.

The songs of forró sew together love stories with the hardship of lives in rural northeastern Brazil, where dry, brutish and hopeless described the conditions in the region for the past century, and even in some parts of the region today. Many of the lyrics are about desperation, but they’re sung to an upbeat tempo, which takes on a zydeco spirit. It’s paired with a quick two-step dance that drenches the backs of dancers in sweat on warm Saturday nights.

Brazilians today are rethinking forró, thanks to Lucy Alves, in whose hands the macho accordion sings like an uncaged bird.

While the forró masters like Luiz Gonzaga and Dominguinhos have passed away — Dominguinhos just last year — their spirit lives on in Alves.


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