The World Accordion to Rob: Rob Curto founded Forro for All to spread the gospel of riotous Brazilian hoedown music and to get paid to play the squeezebox.
This Ain't No Samba
Forro for All brings a raucous taste of Brazil to the Attic.
By Andrew Gilbert
David Byrne got the party started back in 1991 when he introduced Americans to forro with his Luaka Bop compilation Brazil Classics 3.
The accordion-driven style has been simmering in the United States ever since. Forro for All, a leading force in spreading awareness about the insistently grooving musical form, brings the fun to the Attic this Sunday.
A bouncy Brazilian style that combines zydecolike propulsion, the humor and earthy fatalism of the blues and a particularly Brazilian sense of nostalgia, forro was born in the sertão, the poor, drought-plagued interior of northeastern Brazil. Originally created as fuel for rural all-night dance parties, the music has found a firm foothold in the United States ever since percussionist Mauro Refosco, a frequent collaborator with Byrne, started a regular forro jam session at a hip downtown nightspot called Nublu. Accordionist Rob Curto was part of that original scene and spent several years in Refosco's band Forro in the Dark.
But in 2005 Curto decided that he wanted to launch a project that hewed more closely to the music's roots, and he founded Forro for All, a hard-driving collective that recently released an eponymous CD. "I wanted to do my own thing," says Curto, a New York native of Italian decent who also tours widely with the luminous Mexican-American vocalist Lila Downs. "I wanted to focus on the more traditional accordion styles of the music. Forro comes out of the difficult lives of the people of the northeast, and while it's joyous and celebratory, it often talks about hard times and suffering."
Forro for All tours as a four-piece combo featuring São Paulo–born Pedro Ramos on vocals, triangle and the diminutive, four-string guitarlike cavaquinho; Mike LaValle on electric bass and seven-string guitar; and Brazilian percussionist/drummer Rogerio Bocatto. The group first gained a following with a series of regular gigs at SOB's (Sounds of Brazil) and lately performs at the Brooklyn cafe Barbes. The band's repertoire includes classic pieces by forro stars such as Dominguinhos and Luiz Gonzaga, who popularized the style in the 1940s with his catchy tunes and showmanship, dressing in the elaborately stylized costumes of the sertão's cowboys and outlaws. But most of the Forro for All book is made up of original material inspired by the traditional sound.
"A lot of the vocabulary comes out of the classic style," Curto says. "But there's always a twist to it. We're really into creating arrangements that go somewhere else. I've been listening a lot to the great young mandolin player Chris Thile, the way he takes bluegrass and does something else with it, though it's still bluegrass."
Curto started his musical career as a jazz pianist, though he never quite fit into the straight-ahead New York scene. Growing up he listened mostly to pre–World War II jazz styles (as well as contemporary rock and pop), rather than bebop and other modern jazz currents. Interested in various roots music forms, he became a popular accompanist among singer/songwriters, which led him to the accordion. But he really became smitten with the instrument after hearing zydeco legend Buckwheat Zydeco playing on a New York street.
Early on Curto connected with trumpeter Frank London, a founding member of the Klezmatics. Though steeped in klezmer, the party music of Eastern European Jewry, London draws on a wide array of styles, particularly jazz, blues and Balkan influences. "Working with Frank opened up a lot of ideas," Curto says. "The way I approach forro is from the standpoint of a player who's listened to a lot of different accordion music: Celtic, tango, musette and Scandinavian styles. I want to create a big sound—and I'm also inspired by Jimmy Page. Not that I think I sound like him, but he's an influence."
Determined to study Brazilian music from the source, Curto made a series of long trips, settling in the capital, Brasilia, and hanging out in the northeastern city of Recife ("Going to carnival there changed my life," he says), learning Portuguese and studying with masters such as Arlindo dos Oito Baixos. "When I came back here Mauro and I started playing at Nublu, and the rest is history," Curto says. "It's an exciting time, because there's a lot more going on here now, partially because we started playing the music here."
FORRO FOR ALL plays Sunday, Aug. 26, at 7pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 adv/$15 door. (831.460.1800)
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