Highlights of Musical

About the works

The Coming Decline of Frevo

Tambourine Playing in Brazil

The African Influence in Brazilian Music

Frevo Steps and Music

Art and Artists

In Terms of Music from São Paulo

A Mistaken Analysis of a Brazilian Rhythm

Scales in Brazilian Folk Music

The Indians of Petrópolis

Índios or Cabôcos of Petrópolis

Notes on Playing Marbles

Variations on the Boi

Variations on the Baião

Variations on the Maxixe







        Whether as a dance or a song – sung or instrumental – the baião has many different features, making it difficult to chart its most salient characteristics. Of course this is due to the scarcity of material from authentic folk sources, which would allow us to compare examples and determine how much variety there is.

        Recently, Batista Siqueira noted that “baião” is a corrupted form of “bailão,” or “baile grande” (big dance) [Influência Ameríndia na Música Folclórica do Nordeste, p. 72]. The author turns to Gustavo Barroso to explain how Brazilians shaped the word. This doesn’t seem so unlike the original if we consider the popular and antiquated Portuguese usages still spoken in the Northeast, which have often spread nationwide. In Portugal we find the expression “balho” to mean “baile,” for the Portuguese dances, leading to the Brazilian form that Siqueira suggests gave origin to our word for folk dance. The term may also have come from elsewhere: “Baião” is the name of a Portuguese writer mentioned in the Enciclopédia e Dicionário Internacional [Vol. X, p. 5907]. However, the word may have been adopted in Portugal subsequent to its initial use in Brazil.

        Another argument holds that “baião” is a corruption of “baiano.” Many of our most qualified scholars consider this to be the case, perhaps because the dance appears to have originated in the lundu – a form of folk music that in some cases was called lundu-baiano. “Baiano” would indicate its geographical origin: Bahia. Nonetheless, the process could have happened inversely, meaning the expression “baiano” came from the word “baião.” This is similar to the “Maneiro pau,” another folk dance form; it has nothing to do with Minas Gerais, but is how people from the Northeast refer to “Mineiro pau.” Another example would be “fardo português,” which scholars tell us historical records indicate originated in Colonial Brazil; to date no one has contested this assertion, much less provided proof to the contrary.

        One of the baião’s most distinct characteristics is its disconcerting variety, especially rhythmic, in stark contrast with trendy commercial recordings with their standardized formulas and consequent stereotyping of its key features.

        “Baião” and “baiano” are words that can be loosely applied to many different folk dance and music expressions. It is an exquisite element in the merriment of Bumba-meu-boi, which Gustavo Barroso and other writers frequently cite. However, we must ask: Are all the songs from this celebration baiões? Evidence says no, since Bumba-meu-boi has, for example, the song of the Pastorinha, the song for splitting the “dead” Boi and also the “animal’s” wake – a curious Brazilian funeral song. The merry making includes other songs as well that are not exactly baiões.

        In Maranhão, folk bands commonly play dance songs in which singers participate. When the voices pause, a solo instrument improvises variations over a harmonic base, after which the singing resumes. This instrumental interlude allows the voices to rest without interrupting the dance. There they call this instrumental improvisation baião.

        The Bandas-de-pife throughout the Northeast play their baião as instrumental music. It has a short theme on which the pifeiros improvise an infinite number of variations. I think these Bandas play a singing version of the baião also when they are energizing the dances they play for.

        Someone from Conquista, a city in southern Bahia, told me they dance the baião, but this one is similar to “tango” music. It is the “Brazilian tango,” or “tanguinho,” which has an urban version known as the “maxixe.”

        The Recife Cabocolinhos band also play the baião, but with a completely different structure. Essentially instrumental, vibrant and brisk, it is played during the manobras (maneuvers), the danced sections between the theatrical parts.

        In terms of its being “joyful,” “varied” and “fast,” baião morphed into new words referring to these characteristics. So the Banda-de-pife plays a song even more accelerated than the baião, like it comprised of variations on a theme: it is the “abaianada.” The term even found its way into Recife’s African religious groups: a certain beat [rhythmic type], when played with the austerity of some of the “chants,” is designated Moçambique. If the “chant” is less “intense” and gives the musicians some freedom, they let their rhythmic creativity and group playing spawn as many variations as the rhythmic base of the Moçambique will allow. The beat then takes the name Moçambique-abaianado or Moçambique-variado, or more simply, abaianado or baiano. The variation must accelerate, driven by the participants’ excitement. We see the very same details in the Batá-abaianado beat.

        The aforementioned derivations were probably already in use in the last century: Mário Sette [Arruar, p. 170] documented a “modinha abaianada,” published in old Recife.

        Here we should note the joyful bell ringing of the Recife churches, called… “baião.” The word in this sense is used less and less, primarily by the actual church staff. Note that it was the Negros of the Maracatus that used to perform this function in the Catholic temples of the Pernambuco capital, which explains the similarity between these rhythms and the percussion of the Maracatu.

        So we have seen the diversity in the musical expressions called “baião” or “baiano,” all characterized by joyfulness, variation and liveliness.


  Yet the “baião” has another very important meaning: the beat the northeastern singers play on their violas between partners’ singing. Its simplest form consists of the bass strings merely suggesting the basic rhythmic-harmonic structure. At other times they create melodic fragments, like an interlude. Both of these contrast the melody of the voices. Luiz da Câmara Cascudo questions whether these baiões of the viola players could be “descendents of the preludes and postludes the Greek rhapsodists used so the singing of their epics would not become monotonous” [Vaqueiros e Cantadores, p.142]. The qualified scholar did not address key features that could have facilitated the comparison and shed light on the important question. Let us look: In antiquity poetry had already developed tremendously in comparison to music, which only served to underscore the rhymes. Later, still in distant history, instruments appeared that could be called “bordões,” such as bagpipes, musettes and others of that type, which produced low, prolonged, invariable tones. As new resources came along, melodies evolved and scales were developed that historians call the “Greek system.” Parallel to these developments, the accompanying instruments began interspersing intermediary sounds between the sung melodies [which we hear even today from some viola players], giving an elementary variation like the “variants” the researcher observed in the material compared. This was also found later in the madrigal. With accompaniment, the ritornellos – short, repeated interludes separating the sung passages – emerged. With each step toward more complete expression, music became richer, adding new resources to its inheritance.


        We see all this in the music of violeiros from the Northeast: the way of singing, valuing the poetic more than the musical; the insistent low tones, repeated [not prolonged] and invariable, played on the viola’s bass strings; and the brief instrumental interlude sometimes performing the ritornello. These – the bass strings and interlude – characterize the baião-de-viola; the modes of the Medieval Greeks, and not uncommonly the soft primitive variations [or “variants”] accompanying the vocal melody. Obviously these characteristics took on a life of their own in Brazil; strictly speaking the traditional terminology does not apply, but I have used it to facilitate comparison.

        Luiz Cascudo says that “rojão” is a synonym of “baião” [referring to the baião-de-viola]. He clarifies that the “desdobrados” [developed?]  baiões “are good for dancing.”

        There is another form of baião-de-viola in which the musician produces a characteristic and rhythmic sound on his instrument [on the upbeat, with the tips of his fingers].

        If one of the singers plays rabeca – a primitive violin – the baião is played on it, adapting the melody to the rabeca’s own resources.

        Those unfamiliar with the style may consider the violeiro’s rudimentary way of playing the baião-de-viola to be relentlessly monotonous. But it is actually a variation, made to contrast the voice. This gives the rhythmic segment its own distinct expression, both because it is instrumental and because of its insistent bass strings, providing counterpoint to the vocal timbre and diverging from the melodic line carrying the poetry.

        So the word “baião” and its derivates – at least in the examples cited – mean 1) “joy” “variation” and “liveliness,” and 2) “interlude,” since it alternates with spoken lines in Bumba-meu-boi, the maneuvers of the Cabocolinhos and with the singers’ poetry.

        Some of the baião dance forms I saw are extremely lively and require considerable dexterity. The music, as we have seen, is so varied that any conclusion at this point would be premature, although we can outline some of its more constant characteristics. Poetry leaves room for many formal combinations about many different subjects.

        In my view, “baião” in all its multiple forms is so widespread in the Northeast that in terms of diversity it is comparable to folk expressions like “samba” and “batuque,” which are found throughout Brazil. What a shame that radio today does not give it more airtime and ignite a much needed urban music renovation.