Here’s the thing about covering the music of another artist: It’s completely and totally mortifying when it doesn’t go perfectly and said musician is sitting in the venue watching the disaster unfold. This happened with Forro in the Dark on the occasion of their first live foray into the material from Forro Zinho – Forro in the Dark Plays John Zorn, the collaborative effort with the inventive, prolific multi-instrumentalist and composer that came out on July 28. Since they started playing at Nublu as an informal ensemble on Wednesday nights, Forro in the Dark, a funky, folk-friendly rock ensemble that reinterprets forro — traditional Brazilian folk music — have treated the Lower East Side spot as a gathering place, a performance space, a destination for the boisterous rhythms they produce and the groove they champion: one that never gets lost in translation. At Nublu, they tackled the musical charts for Forro Zinho‘s elaborate compositions, but they were still in the process of recording the album, and they could barely see the sheet music in the dim room. Zorn was there, and everyone involved agreed the performance — which was more or less a rehearsal of the new stuff in front of an audience — was a train wreck. When they recount it, Forro in the Dark’s Mauro Refosco and producer Jesse Harris are laughing it off.
“It was before they knew the music,” Harris explains.
“[Zorn] looked at me and said, ‘This is a fucking mess. I’m going home!’ ” Refosco chuckles, holding his hands to his face. “I think he knew we were figuring it out.”
Thankfully, the finished Forro Zinho and the marvel of a live show it inspires are more in line with the expectations the members of Forro in the Dark proudly hold themselves to. Since forming at Nublu in the early Aughts, Forro have gone on to collaborate with massive talents — David Byrne was a fan and lent his voice to their take on “Asa Branca,” a well-known children’s tune in Brazil — and recorded two albums of original, forro-infused material, 2006’s Bonfires of São João and 2009’s Light a Candle. It’s been seven years since they’ve stepped into a studio, but that changed when Harris and Refosco found themselves in Italy talking about Zorn on an off-night from touring. Refosco was out on the road with Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, and the prospect of working with Harris brought Forro in the Dark out of an unofficial hiatus and back to Bushwick, where they set about working on new stuff in Refosco’s studio space.
“Jesse told me he was doing this project with Zorn, with this big band,” says Refosco. “The description he gave me of the show was fantastic: a dream concert of a sort that lasts six hours with different formats of the band. I was intrigued by this thing, and then I heard that several bands were doing records with John Zorn’s music to celebrate his 60th birthday. I went to Jesse and said that I think we should do something — I think we’re pretty capable of taking that music and doing a forro reading of it. Jesse was into that idea and [made the connection] with John Zorn, and that’s how that record happened.”
From there, Harris, Forro in the Dark, and Zorn (he wrote two new tracks for the album) set about giving Zorn’s compositions the vibrant, triangle-tapping forro treatment. While Forro Zinho doesn’t sound like just another Forro in the Dark record — the snappy Portuguese lyrics and call-and-response choruses are noticeably absent, as the album is largely instrumental — Harris points out how adept the band was at working with Zorn’s music and leaving their mark on it. Forro Zinho goes beyond imitation and interpretation in that it’s a hybrid work that’s equal parts tribute and collaboration.
“The band definitely took the music and made it their own,” he says. “They made it sound like a Forro in the Dark album, which is what I think is so amazing about it: It’s John Zorn’s music, but it’s totally reimagined, without losing either identity. If you know those compositions by John Zorn, you’ll recognize them immediately — and yet if you’re a Forro in the Dark fan, you would think it’s just another great new Forro in the Dark album.”
It isn’t terribly surprising that the band would consider a blueprint and then draw up their own masterpiece; Forro in the Dark have built their identity on taking an established mold and breaking it to fit their vision. Refosco notes that there are plenty of New York bands that specialize in forro, but that there’s an air of authenticity to be found in the instrumentation in every outfit: The idiom typically involves percussion like the zabumba, or bass drum, and the triangle, but it also relies frequently on the accordion, which Forro in the Dark have long since swapped out for the guitar.
“For us, we kept some aspects of the aesthetics, the rhythm, the style, but we’re open [to working with] others, especially with the instruments we use,” Refosco says of Forro in the Dark’s instrumental approach. “Guitar is more of a universal instrument these days. That’s why we have a guitar player instead of an accordion player. That’s why [our music] is not traditional anymore….It’s not that we’re not open to [the accordion]; I think we’re just very direct in that we want original music that isn’t just for forro lovers. Whoever likes pop, or rock, they can come and see us and relate to us. Choosing some instruments that people identify with was our choice.”
This inclusive attitude pays off on Forro Zinho, and it likely also will on their forthcoming record of new original material, which with any luck will be released in 2016, after they figure out how to put it out. (The label that released Bonfires of São João and Light a Candle, Nublu Records, has since folded.) Until then, Forro in the Dark are stoked to be losing themselves in the music of Zorn — or, more accurately, the compositions that brought these Brazilian fusion mainstays back to life. And this time around, Zorn won’t be heading out early.