The Bisonoric Button Accordion in Northeast Brazil
Dr. Panayotis League, Florida State University
Anyone who has ever visited Brazil’s northeastern region – particularly the states of Pernambuco, Paraíba, and Ceará – can undoubtedly attest to the overwhelming popularity of the accordion among every sector of its population. Even the most casual listener cannot help but note the instrument’s ubiquity across genres from the various iterations of forró (music rooted in rural social dance genres) and sertanejo (Brazilian country music) to pop, rock, and religious music. The standard 120-bass piano accordion is far and away the dominant voice in all of these settings, and has been for most of the last century; its expansive range and harmonic versatility are well-suited to the established turn away from instrumental dance music and towards commercial song that has marked the Brazilian music industry since World War II.
But in the rural interior of the Northeast, and in pockets of urban coastal cities such as Fortaleza, João Pessoa, and Recife, another music box still holds pride of place: the bisonoric eight-bass two-row button accordion. Popularly known as the fole de oito baixos (“eight-bass bellows”) or simply fole to distinguish it from the 120-bass piano accordion or sanfona, the instrument bears profound associations with the agrarian life of mestiço or mixed-race farmers, material and cultural self-sufficiency, and a particular musical cosmopolitanism that sets it, its music, and its practitioners apart from the dominant accordion culture of the commercial music industry. In the current political climate, where prominent members of the right-wing national government have openly disparaged the traditionally Leftist Northeast, some have begun to talk about the fole as a symbol of resistance and regional pride as well.
The fole first appeared in the Northeast sometime in the late nineteenth century, likely brought to the region by soldiers from the southeastern region of Brazil, which had a large Italian and German migrant population. The earliest button accordions popular in the Northeast were one-row diatonic boxes with two basses, a model enshrined in popular memory as pé-de-bode (“goat foot”), likely because the two outstretched fingers of the player’s left hand as they worked the bass buttons reminded locals of an ungulate’s cloven hoof. Today, one occasionally hears this denomination applied to the modern eight-bass, two-row instrument, particularly when the speaker wants to emphasize the player’s cultural authority via an “authentically” rural playing style.
These instruments – analogous to the one-row accordions popular in Cajun, Quebecois, Irish, and English folk music – are all completely bisonoric, meaning that each of the buttons on both the melody side (usually played by the musician’s right hand) and the bass side (the left) is connected to two separate sets of reeds and thus produces a different note (or, on the bass side, chord) depending on whether the musician is opening or closing the bellows. Analogous to the design of mouth organs such as the diatonic harmonica, this enabled manufacturers to produce compact, inexpensive instruments, and the back-and-forth of the bellows lent an inbuilt rhythm to the dance tunes popular among the first generations of Northeastern box players and the quadrille dancers they entertained: polkas, schottisches, marches, mazurkas, and waltzes.
In the early twentieth century, the one-row pé-de-bode was displaced by the two-row, eight-bass instrument, essentially identical in construction to the two-row button boxes commonly used in folk music throughout western Europe. Accordions made by German manufacturers such as Hohner and Koch were particularly prized, and some contemporary accordionists play these restored instruments today. These accordions arrived in Brazil tuned diatonically; like the majority of today’s European melodeons, and the button boxes manufactured in Southeast Brazil during the early twentieth century, they featured two melody rows pitched in related keys, and basses pitched to provide simple harmonic accompaniment. For example, one of the most common tunings has one row that produces a C major scale, and another that produces a G major scale, with a few accidentals at one or both ends of the rows. Such an instrument – known in English as a C/G melodeon – would thus be most suited to playing melodies and chords in those two keys. Brazilian accordionists call this afinação natural (“natural tuning”) or afinação de fábrica (“factory tuning”); this is the tuning used by button accordionists in other regions of Brazil, particularly the Gaucho musicians of the South whose musical culture is firmly rooted in their Italian heritage.
But at some point, a different tuning system took root in Northeast Brazil. Players began re-shaping the steel reeds of these instruments in order to achieve a fully chromatic tuning on the melody side, producing one row pitched in C major and one row pitched in B major, similar to the “half-step” B/C and C#/D boxes popular in Irish music today. This enabled them to expand their repertoire in accordance with changing musical tastes; for example, they could now incorporate popular sambas and the instrumental choros associated with virtuoso performers from Rio de Janeiro, which utilize ample chromaticism and frequent modulation. They were also free to explore a variety of keys by playing between the two rows, thus developing a smoother style that lent itself to the dense instrumental melodies (or forrós) which by the middle of the twentieth century had come to dominate their repertoire. This new tuning came to be known as afinação transportada or “transposed tuning,” and as it spread throughout the Northeast, talented craftsmen became known for their skill at transposing factory-made instruments.
More often than not, the most respected accordion tuners were also virtuoso performers, who literally knew the transposed instrument inside and out. The most famous of these, and the musician who did the most to promote the fole de oito baixos and its musical possibilities in the second half of the twentieth century, was Zé Calixto from Campina Grande, Paraíba. Zé, who began his musical career performing with his father at rural dances before moving to Rio de Janeiro as a young man, recorded over 30 LPs and CDs between 1959 and 2014, was a regular on live radio broadcasts for decades, and toured extensively throughout the Northeast, exerting a profound influence on every button accordionist who came after him. Zé’s fluid technique, propensity for playing in unusual keys, and unique arrangements of old dance tunes and choros alike are part and parcel of the musical consciousness of every Northeastern folista. At a recent gathering of button box players from all over the state of Paraíba, I noticed that nearly every one of the twenty or so accordionists who performed over the course of the day played a tune recorded by Zé, with his characteristic settings and inflections.