Wednesday, May 13, 2020


It’s been a little while since I posted anything about rhythms from the northeast of Brazil.  The most common rhythm from this part of the country that often gets a cursory mention in method books is baião, from Pernambuco.  I’ve done a few posts on this already and have a few more in the pipeline, but today I want to chat about a very different style called frevo.

The first time I traveled to Brazil I went to the cities of Recife and Olinda, in the state of Pernambuco, which sits in the eastern most part of South America.  Not really knowing anything about Brazilian music or culture at the time I was fully expecting to hear samba and bossa nova everywhere.  Granted, we did hear some samba, as it’s pretty popular all over the country despite coming from Rio de Janeiro in the south.  But I quickly learned that there are numerous pockets of music and culture across Brazil, and Pernambuco and the northeast is a particular hotspot.  A northeastern style that is commonly applied to the drumset you may have come across before is baião.  Throughout the trip we were lucky enough to have wonderful guides from the local university who took us to hear a lot of incredible music, including baião.  One sound that really grabbed my attention, however, was frevo.  Like baião, frevo comes from Pernambuco, specifically the city of Recife, but that’s about where the similarities end.  

Whereas a typical forró ensemble that would play baião would be comprised of accordion, triangle, and zabumba, a frevo group utilizes pandeiro, surdo, and caixa in the percussion as well as a full brass and saxophone section.  This music is often played in parades, though it’s common to see frevo groups performing on a stage, or even at soccer games, similar to how you might see marching bands in the stands at a football game in the States.

Here’s what a typical frevo na rua (street frevo) would look like.  I’ll have to dig out my pictures, but I’m pretty sure I was on this very street.  You get a fairly nice shot of the percussion section just after the seven minute mark.

So, let’s take a look at the elements of a typical frevo….

Frevo’s most identifiable feature is the snare drum, or caixa.  It plays a powerful syncopated rhythm, embellished with a roll at the end of the phrase.  Supporting that is a pandeiro, which plays a persistent galloping rhythm.  And the foundation is a surdo that generally plays on beat two, though it is sometimes heard on every beat.

Although each part of the percussion section is typically played by separate musicians, it is also common to play frevo rhythms on a drumset.  A simple and effective orchestration to start with is to play the caixa part on the snare, and put the surdo part on the bass drum.

A great group to check out for this style is the Spokfrevo Orquestra.  They are the premier frevo group in Recife, and likely the world.  They play classic frevos, in addition to their own compositions, but with a lineup resembling that of a big band.  That's not terribly far from the lineup of your average frevo group anyway, but they also include the use of a drum set, wear suits, and perform in concert halls.  They also add individual solos like we would see in a traditional big band.  So, essentially they are a really tight big band, playing burnin’ frevo rhythms, with solos of hip bebop language.  It’s very cool stuff.

As you can see, the percussion section and drummer in Spok are essentially playing the traditional orchestration and making hits.  But, frevo has been incorporated into Brazilian jazz for quite a few years now, so not only is one drummer often left to play everything on his own, but in a smaller ensemble it’s generally necessary for we, the drummers, to cool it a bit. The simplest way to achieve this would be to just reach for the brushes instead of sticks.

However, whether played with sticks or brushes, the orchestration above leaves out the galloping rhythm of the pandeiro.  Try playing that on the ride cymbal or hi-hat, while playing the accent pattern of the caixa on the snare drum.  The roll is generally a pretty tight buzz roll anyway, so you can just play a long buzz with your left hand.

A quiter version along the same lines would be to play a rim click instead of the snare.  You can mimic the long sound of the buzz roll by splashing your hihats with your left foot.

And finally, we can get a little more creative with our voicings, and test our left foot independence by playing the pandeiro rhythm on the snare drum (probably best with brushes), and move the caixa accent pattern to our left foot, again splashing the hihat for the roll.

In any of these examples you could play the bass drum just on beat two, or on every beat.  Similarly, you can play the hi-hat on all the downbeats, all the upbeats, or not at all.  Here's the full sheet.  Get creative and see what other arrangements you can come up with.  Drop me a line if you'd like a PDF.

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