This year is the centenary of Luiz Gonzaga. I’ve been delaying writing this post for some time now. In fact, his birthday was on December 13th and I had wanted to celebrate and write this for that day. Alas, it was not to be. Instead I did what every good forrozeiro should do while in Rio: I went to a forró in the square at Praça Tiradentes and danced with some lovely ladies to live music. It had rained early in the afternoon, so the night was warm and humid; only the die-hards came out to hear the many bands sharing the stage and paying tribute to the great Gonzaga, the King of Baião.
How can one convey the immense influence and legacy of Luiz Gonzaga in a simple web post?
Well, instead of rehashing what you can easily find on Wikipedia, other websites and in books about Gonzaga, I thought I would give you a quick breakdown and let you use your own research skills to find out more about this man. I’ve curated a bunch of YouTube videos of songs and clips that I thought might help you along the path. Take the time to discover the wonderful story of Luiz Gonzaga.
The son of an “8 baixos” accordion (diatonic button accordion) player named Januário, Luiz Gonzaga was born in arid Northwest of Pernambuco state in Brazil. He joined the army, traveled Brazil, and ended up in Rio de Janeiro. Fate took hold and a series of historical currents allowed for this man to become the reference for forró and Northeastern culture across Brazil.
At the time Luiz went to Rio, there was an influx of poorer working class migrants from the drought-stricken northern states. Although he tried to get into the Portuguese fado style, marchinhas and other contemporary music of classy Rio, it was the infectious rhythms and melodies of the Northeast that got him noticed. His showmanship made him popular. The themes of his songs, the hardships of migrant life, homesickness, and the rural life, became trendy among all the people.
Luiz was a super gifted performer and he created some important creative friendships with composers like Humberto Teixera. Humberto wrote the song Asa Branca, which became and remains the anthem of forró music and of the “simple life” back home; of nostalgia. It was with Humberto, also from the Northeast, in this case Ceara state, that they decided that the base rhythm for their songs would be the “baião.”
The era also saw radio flourish. The recorded sound was just reaching early adolescence. He signed a contract with RCA and at one point in time it seemed like Luiz was the only artist they were recording. With this, he inspired a generation. He became the de facto reference for forró and his voice was heard all around the nation. People were buying radios, and people flocked around the radio. The popular performer was also a popular marketer, endorsing many products and services from supermarkets to cars.
Here is Luiz and band in a film from 1958. Check out the cool steps when they dance the “xaxado.” This band was often playing for the Rio elites in the swank clubs and hotels of the day.
Below is the trailer of the movie The Man Who Bottled Clouds, which is about the life of Humberto Teixera, but chronicles much of a crucial time in Luiz Gonzaga’s career. (There are English subtitles; it makes for a great reference.)
But wait! I wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted here. It was not chance that made the King of Baião. Maybe there was an element of chance involved, but the man created a legacy through beautiful music, performance, an acknowledgement of the tradition and cleverness. His songs carry such a beautiful poetic tone, sometimes romantic, sometimes fun, sometimes sad, and often tongue and cheek.
This is one of my favorites, in a dubby style and a minor key, it speaks of a journey of hardship yet satisfaction at the place you have reached in life. Epic.
One beautiful anecdote I read somewhere is from when Luiz wandered into a record store in Fortaleza, sometime in the early ’70s. Luiz was really a thing of the past then, with few people in the industry paying attention to him after the early ’60s, when bossa nova and Brazilian rock became more prominent. He maintained his popularity in his beloved Northeast however, and the store owner instantly recognized him. The shopkeeper asked Luiz if he had heard Caetano Veloso’s version of Asa Branca. Luiz responded that he hadn’t. Caetano, at this point living in exile in London, included this song as the last on his record. It was a slow rendition, a strong lament of the saudade, the nostalgia, that he felt for home. Luiz cried from the emotion. The old man not even conscious of his legacy among a generation of tropicalia musicians. Soon after Gilberto Gil proclaimed that Luiz and Humberto Teixeira, the composers of his time, were “responsible for a revolution in my life.”
After that, the great Luiz Gonzaga slowly returned the the popular consciousness of the nation. He reunited with his estranged son and began touring once more. Another interesting tidbit, Luiz Gonzaga apparently said (speaking about the dictatorship era), is that music about politics is for the educated university types like Caetano and Gilberto Gil — he was just a simple man.
This is the trailer of a recent movie about the relationship of Luiz Gonzaga with his son and the burden of being the King of Baião and being from a simple rural background.
Another great moment of interview of father and son. Please learn Portuguese people, or ask someone special to help you translate. 😉
I guess at this point I should let you know about about forró. Here is a quick explanation from a previous article I wrote:
Forró is not really the music per se. It is more of an all-inclusive cultural manifestation: music, dance, party. When you dance the rhythms of forró it is usually in a pair. Style can vary between people and region but it is always fun, tongue & cheek, and sometimes safado (an implied sly sexuality). The 3 basic instruments are: the triangle, the zabumba drum and the accordion. The three basic rhythms are: Xote (pronounced ‘shótch’ and usually slower), Baião (more up-tempo) and the Arrasta Pé (quick two step).
Check more videos:
A cute animation to a famos Luiz xote about a young girl who seems ill, but really she’s just got the love bug of adolescence. Her dad takes her to the doctor, and the doctor says: “There ain’t no cure in all of medicine!”
Here is a song in the baião rhythm. It is upbeat and happy. Chamego is when you dance close, cheek to cheek often hip to hip and belly to belly, a bit jumpy and totally with no shame and a sly smile on your face: “Ai! Que chamego bom!”
This one is an arrasta pé rhythm, more upbeat and you dance side to side. This is also the beat you use in a quadrilha, Brazilian old time square dancing.
Here is one of my absolute favorites. In this one, with wicked instrumentation including a flute, Luiz, in a classic forró spoken word style, tells the story of how he returned to his father’s house after more than sixteen years living in the Southeast of Brazil. It is told in classic Northeastern dialect and cleverness. Send me a message if you want me to translate for you.
The Brazilian national news report of Luiz’s funeral in his hometown of Exu, Pernambuco, in 1989:
And finally, his classic song A Vida do Viajante, sung with his son, affectionately known as Gonzaguinha, or little Gonzaga.
Long live the great Luiz Gonzaga, O Rei do Baião!
— Alex Bordokas