São João in Campina Grande

Forró, Festival and Collective Intimacy

by | Mar 17, 2014

Photo by Panayotis League


Campina Grande, deep into the state of Paraíba in Northeast Brazil, is not a common tourist destination. Except, that is, for the month of June, when fans of forró—the Northeastern music and dance genre made widely popular by revered singers such as accordionist Luiz Gonzaga and Campina native Jackson do Pandeiro—descend on the city for what is reputed to be Brazil’s largest music and dance festival dedicated to forró in all its forms. Popularly known as the Festa de São João, after the most prominent saint of the season, the festas juninas combine the folk customs of the Northeastern countryside, such as the bonfires and dances of the summer solstice, with popular expressions of devotion to the three major Catholic saints—Antônio, João, and Pedro—whose feasts are celebrated during the June harvest. I’ve come to immerse myself in the local accordion music, with which I fell in love almost a decade ago while living in Brazil, and return frequently to observe the dynamics of the organized festival, unquestionably the event of the year in Campina Grande.

The highway from the state capital of João Pessoa to Campina Grande leads from the tropical coast, all coconut trees and oppressive winter heat, to the brejo paraibano—the cool, marshy plateau that marks the gateway to the sertão, the infamous badlands whose frequent droughts have driven millions of Northeasterners to migrate to the large urban enclaves of the southeast. The hills roll on as we climb in altitude. By the roadside, occasional billboards advertise competing brands of coffee, beer and the sugarcane liquor cachaça, with São João and forró-related themes. As we drive, my friend Flávio expresses mild surprise that I should be so interested in forró, but tells me that tens of thousands of other people, mostly Brazilian tourists from outside of Paraíba, will be making this same drive during the rest of the month. “On São João weekend, traffic on this highway will be stopped. It’ll take us two and a half hours today. In a few weeks, it’ll take eight.”

“You know, Sivuca [one of Brazil’s most ingenious accordionists and composers] was born in my hometown, Itabaiana. We’ll drive through there on the way.” He rummages around, finds a disc with Sivuca’s famous composition “Feira de Mangaio,” which describes a typical Northeastern market. “It’s just like that,” Flávio says. “Make sure you go to one.” He’s silent for a moment. “‘Itabaiana’ means ‘stone that dances’ in Tupí. Maybe that’s why we love forró.” He smiles, the morning sunlight glinting off his glasses. 

In Campina Grande, I meet up with the man who first convinced me to come here: 83-year-old button accordion pioneer Zé Calixto, one of my musical heroes. The son of a renowned local musician, Zé Calixto was born on a farm outside of Campina Grande. He began his career playing at local dances and radio programs throughout the Northeast before moving to Rio de Janeiro in 1959 to embark on a recording and performing career that would embrace forró and other styles associated with his home region, as well as the samba, choro and popular music of his adopted home. Remarkably, he did this not on the versatile and today nearly ubiquitous piano accordion, but the eight-bass diatonic button accordion, a ferociously difficult instrument that produces two different tones on each key depending on whether the performer is opening or closing the bellows. This inbuilt rhythm makes the fole de oito baixos, as the instrument is locally known, ideal for playing the rustic dance tunes with which it is mostly associated; but performing the harmonically complex choros on theoito baixos is a virtuosic feat that has become Zé Calixto’s calling card.

Zé Calixto lives in Rio to this day, making the trip back home to Paraíba every June to play for São João. With his characteristic bowler hat, impeccably trimmed mustache and warm smile, he is an unmistakable figure. It takes hours to walk a few hundred meters through the festival grounds with him, because every few paces he is stopped by old friends, fans, and well-wishers. Backstage, after a performance, one local celebrity gives him a prolonged embrace, addressing him asmestre, master, and tells me: “He’s a living legend. Make the most of having him around!”

The municipal fairground, where the festival’s official nightly events are held, is known as O Parque do Povo—“The People’s Park.” It’s an oblong maze of music stages, shops, restaurants and barracas—wicker-roofed huts selling drinks,churrasco and the numerous corn-based dishes that are ubiquitous this time of year. Independent vendors dart in and out of the crowd, offering roasted corn, bootleg CDs and light-up novelty items. The press of people is overwhelming, especially at the peak hour of 11 p.m., when the main attractions begin their shows on the big stage. Dancing, flirting, drinking and sharing cigarettes, locals mingle with tourists from neighboring states and the urban southeast; a singer tries to attract a group from Brasília, shouting into the microphone, Ô turistas, vêm cá que o forró tá bom demais! “Hey, tourists! Come on over here, ‘cause the forró is mighty fine!” 

My first night at the Parque, a Saturday in early June, rain is lashing down in a fury, soaking everyone to the bone and choking the gutters with rivers of froth. Aside from the floor in front of the main stage —where couples are blissfully dancing to the Forró Fest songwriters’ competition, drenched clothes stuck to their skin, bodies stuck together—the open spaces are occupied only by people scurrying from one dry place to another or by scattered revelers too happy or drunk to care about getting wet. It’s a different story altogether under the roofs of the palhoças, the small covered stages that dot the fairgrounds and feature small local groups, usually the traditional trio of accordion, zabumba (bass drum), and triangle, playing old-fashioned forró pé-de-serra (“foot of the mountain” forró) for partner dancing. Tonight, the palhoças are islands in a sea of pounding rain; but nobody’s dry inside. Sweat pours down dancers’ backs, drips off the accordion player’s forehead, and bounces off the head of the zabumba every time the drummer pounds the bass side in drops that glisten, a scene framed against the light from a beer advertisement (É São João, eu já tô preparado/se xote ou xaxado, com Skol tá combinado—“It’s São João, I’m ready/no matter what the dance, it matches with Skol”). 

Near the center of the fairgrounds, next to the booths of the various local radio stations broadcasting the festival, is a towering three-story replica of a June bonfire, cartoonish in its hugeness. Nearby is a sign discouraging the public from lighting the incendiary balloons that are a symbol of the feast of São João, immortalized in numerous topical songs. Even neighborhood bonfires, a friend tells me, are on the way out; swayed by the municipality’s heavy promotion of hugely popular bands performing nightly at the Parque do Povo, people have stopped organizing their own smaller-scale parties with traditional music and games. “The old quadrilhas,” once danced at these parties, are now performed on stage. These dances, in which groups of couples perform various figures on the dance floor in response to a caller’s instructions, are descendants of the quadrilles that became wildly popular in 19th-century Europe and cousins of American square and contra dancing. “You’ve seen all those groups performing them, haven’t you?” I have; teams of young men and women from various towns and parishes, colorfully dressed in exaggerated versions of festival costume, compete against each other daily in highly choreographed routines. “Well, hardly anybody knows how to dance that stuff anymore unless it’s all planned out ahead of time.” True, the whole month I’m in Campina Grande, I see dozens of performances of quadrilhas, but not a single spontaneous one at a social dance.

The quadrilhas are at the center of another feature of São João in Campina Grande: direct competition with the analogous festivities held in the rival city of Caruarú, the self-proclaimed “Capital of Forró” to the south in the state of Pernambuco. Campina Grande promotes its festival as “O Maior São João do Mundo,” (the biggest São João in the world); Caruarú, known for the quality of its artisan handicrafts and the many forró musicians that call it home, opts for “O Maior e Melhor São João do Mundo” (the biggest and best). The one-upmanship between the two cities, which compete for the substantial seasonal tourism around São João, is meticulously covered in the local press. Last year, Caruarú set the record for the largest quadrilha (377 couples dancing at once); this June, Campina Grande responded with a vengeance, putting together a group of 628 couples. They were counted, the newspaper article assures readers, by a group of independent observers. This fascination with the collective is also manifested in one of the most striking features of São João in Campina: the casamento coletivo or mass wedding, in which hundreds of couples are joined together in matrimony on the day of Santo Antônio to the sound of a twenty-member accordion orchestra.

The São João festivities are clearly the economic lifeblood of Campina Grande and the larger region, and this is especially true for musicians. Some groups play up to 30 shows during the month of June, tripling or more their usual monthly income. This year the prefecture has hired 139 forró trios to play everywhere from the Parque do Povo to gas stations, pharmacies and grocery stores throughout the city—even to welcome every plane that lands at the local airport during the peak weekends. 

But not everyone delights in what the large-scale, organized festival has to offer; with the massive crowds and alcohol consumption, problems have moved beyond the normal pickpocketing, with several stabbings and a shooting marring this year’s event. “Forget the festival. Come to my house on São João’s eve,” my friend Jorge urges me. “I do it the old way, with a bonfire, good music, and all my friends: it’s the Parque do meu Povo” —the Park of my People. 

When I leave at the end of the month, I’m shown off by a pair of peerless forrozeiros: my last stop is the twin statues of Gonzaga and Jackson, forever playing their duo of accordion and pandeiro (tambourine) by the city’s old reservoir, steps from the Parque do Povo. Colored flags wave at me in the winter air, the smell of roasting corn and dancers’ sweat on the breeze. I leave the window down and turn up the radio, broadcasting live from O Maior São João do Mundo

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Panayotis (Paddy) League is a doctoral candidate in Ethnomusicology at Harvard. He received a 2013 DRCLAS Summer Research Travel Grant to conduct research in Paraíba, Brazil. He is an active performer of forró and other Brazilian, Greek and Irish music on button accordion, fiddle, and a host of string and percussion instruments. 

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