Polkas in Paraíba

The Many Lives of the Brazilian Button Accordion

By Panayotis (Paddy) League

Zé Calixto plays an old button accordion with a great deal of concentration.
Zé Calixto plays an old button accordion with a great deal of concentration. Photo by Panayotis (Paddy) League. 

View the photo gallery.

We pull up to the small pink house perched at the top of a steep, cobblestoned incline. It seems to float above the verdant Pernambucan hills, a jagged melody wafting from the wrought-iron bars of the exterior door. I peer out the window of the car and see an elderly man seated in a chair on the porch, wearing a crooked pair of glasses, grease-stained shorts, and an old button accordion strapped to his chest. “That’s João,” says Luizinho. The musician is playing a twisty, virtuosic phrase that sounds to me like an old choro, one of the polkas popular in Rio de Janeiro a century ago. As we walk through the door, he stands up and somehow manages an enthusiastic greeting without interrupting his practice session. He nods for us to sit—his grandson, watching silently with chin in hand, gets up to make room—and plays for another minute or two. Luizinho tells him he’s playing it wrong: “No, it goes like this.” João wags his finger of his left hand, the one pumping the bellows. “No, no, it goes up here, doesn’t it?” Luizinho grabs the instrument from him and plays the phrase in slow motion. João’s face lights up, and he snags the box back, tries again. “Ah, this one is sticking!” he exclaims, fiddling with the lowest of the inner row of buttons on the instrument’s face. He grabs a screwdriver, removes the front panel, and lays the accordion on his workbench: a few slabs of plywood, some clamps, an empty margarine tub full of files and pliers, and an electric guitar tuner. 

From his workshop in the small town of Moreno west of Recife, João Leite practices a dying profession that in its own way encapsulates much of the cultural, political, and economic history not only of his corner of Brazil but of its trans-Atlantic relationship with the European continent. He tunes and repairs accordions, particularly the diatonic button accordion known by a host of colorful names in Northeastern Brazil: sanfona de oito baixos (“eight-bass accordion”), pé-de-bode (“goat foot”), or simply fole (“bellows”). His guest of honor today, and my guide, is Luizinho Calixto, a talented performer on the sanfona de oito baixos from the neighboring state of Paraíba. Luizinho has brought me to visit João so that I can round out my current research trip by documenting the work of this rare artisan and getting a literal glimpse into the inner workings of the Brazilian button box. 

Anyone who has visited Northeastern Brazil—or the huge Northeastern migrant communities in Rio or São Paulo—has heard and probably danced to the bouncy swing of forró music, with its cheeky melodies, booming zabumba bass drum, and strident triangle marking the time. But forró’s reach extends far beyond the borders of Brazil; bands made up of expatriate Brazilians and gringos alike pack nightclubs and underground dance parties in New York, Boston, Paris, London and beyond. Regardless of when and where, at the center of this music is the accordion, a shape-shifting character that has trotted the globe since its origin.

In 1828, a Viennese organ builder named Cyril Demian patented a novel invention: a small hand-held reed organ with five keys that he named the akkordeon. True to its name—from the Italian accordare, “to sound together”—Demian’s portable device enabled musicians to play not just melodies but full chords and rhythmic accompaniment for dancing, igniting a revolution in European popular music. Suddenly, a single skilled player could imitate a whole dance band. With the subsequent Industrial Revolution, the mass-produced machine took on myriad forms. Most of these instruments were diatonic single-action accordions: instead of the piano keyboard that became the international standard by the mid-20th century, the right-hand or melody side of the button accordion features one to three rows of round typewriter-style keys, each of which produces a different pitch when the player opens or closes the bellows. The same logic applies to the bass and chord buttons on the left-hand side, used to provide simultaneous accompaniment in lieu of a guitar or piano. This design gives the performer an extremely wide array of notes—twice as many as there are buttons—on a lightweight, portable instrument. By the end of the 19th century, merchants, soldiers and sailors had taken various types of accordion not only to every corner of the European continent but to its current and former colonies. 

Brazil was no exception. German and Italian firms imported and even manufactured accordions in the country’s rapidly urbanizing south, where immigrants from these and other non-Iberian nations shaped the soundscape of the border between Brazil and Argentina. How the diatonic button accordion made its way to Northeastern states such as Pernambuco and Paraíba, where it took on an entirely different tuning and playing style, is less clear. However, local folklore attributes the instrument’s presence to the large numbers of English and Irish workers employed by the British companies that built the Northeast’s railway infrastructure in the late 19th and early 20th century. There is even a persistent myth claiming that the word forró is a corruption of the English phrase “for all,” which these railroad workers supposedly wrote on signs advertising public dances that they held for the residents of the towns where they were stationed.

These stories are so prevalent in Northeast Brazil that accordion players assume an almost biological relationship between their music and that of the British Isles. When I first met my teacher Luizinho Calixto in his hometown of Campina Grande, Paraíba, he was perplexed. How in the world had I, an American musician and researcher, had become so interested in the sanfona de oito baixos? When I mentioned that I had grown up around Irish traditional music, he and the other musicians who were listening to our conversation all threw up their arms and let out a satisfied “Aaaaaaaaa!”—as if to say, Well, of course! That makes sense. 

There is ample evidence to support this belief in the connection between the musical traditions of Northeastern Brazil and the western edge of Europe. For one, forró, the dominant genre of dance music in the states of Paraíba, Pernambuco, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, and Alagoas,  clearly owes much of its melodic and rhythmic structure to the social dance music of 19th-century Britain and France. Some of the most popular forró dances are directly linked to their immediate ancestors even in name, such as the square dance-like quadrilha (from the French quadrille, the same source as the Irish “reel”) and the xôte or xôtis, descendant of the schottische (or “Scottish-style” couple dance). And the local version of the accordion itself provides another clue: most Northeastern musicians re-tune their instrument to what they call afinação transportada or “transposed tuning,” a fully chromatic setup that facilitates playing difficult instrumental music in a variety of keys. This transposed tuning is almost identical to the keyboard layout that has been popular among Irish accordionists for most of the last century. 

Whatever its provenance, the sanfona de oito baixos occupies a central, if at times hidden, position in both the history and the current state of popular music in Northeastern Brazil. The modern style and repertoire of forró were developed by button accordionists who mixed the latest Western European fashions with the modal music of Iberian origin that had been performed for generations on the guitar-like viola and rabeca (rustic fiddle). Though today the more versatile piano accordion has almost completely obscured the oito baixos in the public imagination, most of the accordionists who popularized forró and other Northeastern genres outside the region and throughout the world were the sons of button accordionists and began their careers playing the instrument. These include not only Luiz Gonzaga, O Rei do Baião (“The King of the Baião”)—who sparked an international dance craze in the 1950s and whose music has inspired such artists as David Byrne of the Talking Heads—but such seminal figures as influential producer Sivuca (who worked with Harry Belafonte and South African singer Miriam Makeba) and modern jazz icon Hermeto Pascoal (who composed three pieces for Miles Davis’ 1971 record Live-Evil).

Despite the sanfona de oito baixos’ decreased popularity, several talented musicians have dedicated themselves to not only preserving the instrument’s style and repertoire but pushing it in surprising new directions. None is more impressive than 60-year-old Luizinho Calixto. Northeastern musicians often call the diatonic button accordion este instrumento ingrato— “that ungrateful instrument”—because of the inherent difficulty in coordinating the movement of the bellows with the desired notes, a playing technique that makes even the simplest melodies challenging to play. Yet in Luizinho’s hands, seemingly impossible feats of musical expression seem natural. Earlier on the same day that Luizinho took me to visit João Leite at his workshop, I saw him perform a concert in Recife at which he played a program exclusively comprised of virtuosic frevos—march-like pieces traditionally executed at breakneck speed by mobile horn and percussion ensembles during Recife’s carnival. No Northeastern genre could be farther from the oito baixos’ traditional territory, but Luizinho’s performance was so flawless that the highly critical audience at Recife’s Paço do Frevo (“Frevo Palace”) gave him an extended standing ovation. Luizinho is also rare among current sanfona de oito baixos players in that he easily navigates other styles of Brazilian popular music, such as samba, bossa nova, and choro, and is a talented improviser.

But to Luizinho, nothing could be more natural for a sanfoneiro (or tocador de fole, “bellows player,” as Northeastern button accordionists call themselves). “Nowadays, people think that the sanfona de oito baixos can only play forró,” he tells me over a carafe of strong coffee. “But my father, Seu Didéus, played everything. Polkas, marches, mazurkas, sambas, choros, waltzes, you name it.” Luizinho’s eldest brother, octogenarian sanfoneiro Zé Calixto, confirms this. “You see, in those days, musicians were few and far between in the countryside, and before everyone had electricity, radios were rare,” he explains. “Sanfoneiros had to play everything that people asked for at a dance, and audiences were very demanding.” This training as a musical omnivore served Zé well when he moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1959, searching for work as a professional artist: when he auditioned for the Philips recording company, he impressed the artistic director by performing choro and samba, genres popular among urban audiences, and was hired on the spot—launching a recording career that has now spanned five decades. 

For his part, Luizinho manages to survive as a full-time sanfoneiro, performing at festivals and concert series throughout the Northeast, but the going is rough. “In general, instrumental music isn’t valued in Brazil,” he tells me, “and it’s harder for Northeasterners because of the prejudice we face. Promoters aren’t willing to pay us what we deserve, and audiences lose patience if you don’t play exactly what they expect.” Despite these challenges, he’s hopeful for the future. For the last few years, he has been giving sanfona de oito baixos classes through the University of the State of Paraíba in Campina Grande, his hometown, and has a dedicated core of students. His brother Zé, who lives in Rio, has also taught oito baixos to a few young carioca musicians. And, perhaps most promising, several young members of the Calixto family, including Luizinho’s son and a few of his nephews, have taken up the instrument.

Near the end of my most recent trip to Paraíba, Luizinho invited me to a gathering of sanfoneiros at the Luiz Gonzaga Museum in Campina Grande. In the courtyard, next to a statue of the King of the Baião, Luizinho, Zé, and their brother João played forrós, xôtes, marches, and choros with members of the younger generation, taking occasional breaks to drink coffee, eat steaming hot corn, and tell stories about the instrument and its old masters. During one of these lulls in the activity, as someone fiddled with a sticky button, I thought again of João Leite at the top of that narrow street in Moreno, and about his twelve-year-old grandson, who sat silently, watching and listening, during my visit. I imagined him stealing into João’s workshop late at night and trying his hand at tuning the steel reeds of an old sanfona, scraping at them with a file, matching them to get just the right slightly out-on-tune buzz. Perhaps one of these Paraiban sanfoneiros-in-training, now learning to navigate the ins and outs of the bellows and buttons, will take an instrument to him someday for an adjustment, and they’ll sit on that porch in a friendly argument over a phrase from an old choro

Panayotis (Paddy) League is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology at Harvard University, where he researches traditional music, oral poetry, and dance in Northeast Brazil and the Greek diaspora. He frequently performs on the fole de oito baixos with Forró Zabumbeca (www.zabumbeca.com).