Dona Francisca band
Dona Francisca band

No one knows exactly how the northeastern Brazilian musical style known as forró got its name, but the rootsy accordion-driven sound, once disdained by Brazil’s sophisticated south as the music of taxi drivers and maids, has earned a global following. In the East Bay the leading purveyor of forro is Dona Francisca, a talent-laden six-piece band that holds down Ashkenaz’s First Saturday Forró Party (9 p.m., April 4). The band returns to Ashkenaz on May 2 and also performs at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on Aug. 16, the first time the room will feature an open dance floor.

Launched about a year ago, Dona Francisca was born out of the embers of two excellent ensembles, Forró Brazuca and Kata-Vento, which both fell apart when the Brazilian musicians at the center of the projects decided to move back home. “There were two broken Brazilian bands in the Bay area and eventually we decided to put the pieces together,” says Dona Francisca flutist/vocalist Rebecca Kleinmann, who had played in Kato-Vento, a band dedicated to the original music of guitarist Carlos Oliveira, who returned to Recife a few years ago.

Rebecca Kleinmann of Dona Francisca.
Rebecca Kleinmann of Dona Francisca.

Kleinmann and her flute and percussion partner in Kata-Vento, Sonia Caltvedt, initially joined forces with Forró Brazuca’s essential rhythm section tandem of São Paulo-born Paulo Presotto on triangle and Rio de Janeiro-born Chris Thomas on zabumba, a bass frame drum. At first they played brief sets of three and six tunes. As they expanded their repertoire they added a bassist and accordionist Diana Strong, a highly versatile player known for her work in the folky instrumental band Babes in the Woods the and the contemporary klezmer combo Red Hot Chachkas. With the addition of bassist Izzy Wise, the band eventually settled on the moniker Dona Francisca.

“The name changed a bunch of times,” Kleinmann says. “Eventually Chris and Paulo choose Dona Francisca, which is great because it refers to the Bay Area and also the wife of Forró Brazuca’s accordion player Francelino Alves, who loves to dance. It’s become this sort of personality, an emblematic figure, any woman who’s into dancing forró.”

There are several stories about the origins of the term forró, including its derivation as a compression of “forrobodó,” which means a rumpus or a crazy party. My favorite story, often related by Gilberto Gil (who introduced a new generation to the forró standards of Humberto Teixeira and Luiz Gonzaga on the soundtrack to the popular 2000 Brazilian film Me You Them) is that British railroad engineers working on the Great Western Railway near Recife in the 1880s would indicate that weekend dances were open to the public by posting a sign “for all,” which morphed into forró.

While initially it just meant a dance party, forró came to encompass an array of northeastern rhythms and dances played by small combos with three essential instruments, the accordion, zabumba and triangle. Though often seen as rustic music, forró became the sound of millions of poor Brazilians displaced from the semi-arid northeastern interior, or sertão, who had settled in cities from Recife to São Paulo.

The music’s towering figure was Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989), who came to fame in the 1940s in Rio with a series of hits like the Afro-Brazilian “Baião” and “Asa Branca,” a song about devastating drought that has become the unofficial anthem of the northeast. While widely popular through the 1950s, Gonzaga’s music fell out of style with the rise of bossa nova. But championed as a genius by Tropicalia founders Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa in the late 1960s, Gonzaga came to influence a new generation of Brazilian musicians.

Dona Francisca draws deeply from Gonzaga’s songbook “and we also play originals,” Kleinmann says. “We have a few pieces where we’ve taken Brazilian pop tunes and turned them into forró.”

Even before she moved from Southern California to the East Bay in 2009 Kleinmann was already deeply enmeshed in the Bay Area’s Brazilian music scene as a regular participant in Dennis Broughton’s California Brazil Camp, which brings some of the greatest Brazilian musicians to the Russian River for intensive music and dance workshops, classes and jam sessions. But it was her experience in Brazil itself that made her a lifelong convert.

“The people were so enthusiastic and generous,” Kleinmann says. The attitude of camaraderie between musicians was overwhelming. You’re my friend now. Come stay at my house and meet my family. I like the harmonies and the rhythms and I like dancing forró myself. I actually first got into it through being at a forró and dancing all night. I’m still learning things from the different dances and rhythms.”

While Kleinmann is best known for her work in Brazilian contexts—she celebrates her third year leading a weekly “Brazil and Beyond” gig at Senegalese venue Bissap Baobab in San Francisco next month—she a consummate collaborator who works in an array of styles. She introduced her new flamenco-influenced quartet at Piedmont Piano on April 24 with Spanish pianist Alex Conde, Mexican drummer Marlon Aldana, and supremely versatile bassist Daniel Fabricant.

“When I lived in LA had a quintet for a long time,” she says. “After being a sideperson in a lot of different ensemble, I’ve been itching to start my own group.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....