I first heard of Dona Zefinha (pronounced Zeh-FEEN-ya) about a year ago. I asked an employee at a CD shop if he sold any CDs of bands from Ceará that mixed forró (and other kinds of traditional northeastern music) with rock. He mentioned four groups that were part of a short-lived movement called Movimento Cabaçal that started in 2001: Dona Zefinha, Dr. Raiz, Jumenta Parida, and SoulZé. But he told me I’d only find the CDs downtown in a little area known as the Galeria do Rock. So I went to a crowded shopping area in the centro where I entered a narrow shopping mall that sold religious books and religious-themed products. (Pretty much all the stores had the word “gospel” in their name. Gospel Bookstore. Gospel Paper Supplies. Gospel Optometry.) And between the first and second bookstore was an inconspicuous dark entryway. So I braved the corridor and ascended the cement staircase. On the second, third, and fourth floors, I found tattoo parlors, skate shops, and record stores selling obscure Brazilian heavy metal and punk albums with employees wearing studded leather wrist bands and nose piercings. I went into every record shop and asked about these four bands. In the last store on the top floor, I was told to return to the first floor where I’d find a CD shop hidden at the end of the gospel supply stores. It was there that I bought Dona Zefinha’s album from 2007, Zefinha Vai a Feira.
Here’s a t-shirt I bought in the Galeria do Rock. It might explain why none of the stores upstairs had the Dona Zefinha CD.
I saw Dona Zefinha play in December at an event called “Juventude Pelo Clima,” Youth for the Climate, hosted by Brazilian environmentalist groups Terrazul and TicTacTicTac. The concert was the night before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change, and between sets (five bands played and Dona Zefinha headlined) politicians and activists gave short speeches. A number of speakers suggested that consumerism and capitalism are to blame for global warming and that socialism is the answer to sexism, homophobia, inequality, and the climate crisis. One man said that the conference was the most important event in the history of humanity, and all of the speakers agreed that global warming and reducing carbon emissions are as much ethical concerns as they are environmental ones. I made friends with a group of kids from a local theater group who taught me to dance the quadrilha, the ciranda, and the xaxado as Dona Zefinha mixed local rhythms and instruments with funk and rock. Dona Zefinha played a set of forró pé-de-serra (traditional forró), including songs by Luiz Gonzaga, “the king of baião,” forró’s musical predecessor.
Recently, I saw Dona Zefinha, which considers itself a music, dance, and street theater group, in a show that incorporated elements of reisado (a tradition associated with the Catholic holiday of Epiphany or King’s Day and involves a dancer in a bull costume) and sapateado (a kind of regional tap dancing). They also invited a tap dancer who studied in New York to join the others on stage in a friendly sapateado versus tap dance competition.
I sat down with Orlângelo Leal, Dona Zefinha’s lead singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter, to talk about the group, their sound, and their role in the Cearense, Brazilian, and international music scenes. In the clip below, he talks about the influence of breakdancing, cartoons, Fred Astaire, Jerry Lewis, and Charlie Chaplin on his career as a musician, dancer, and actor. He also explains how regional musical traditions like cantoria da viola (here’s an example), northeastern Brazilian musicians like Luiz Gonzaga, Jackson do Pandeiro and Geraldo Azevedo, and regional poetic traditions like literatura de cordel (paper booklets with sonnet-like verses that tell news, history, and local mythology) were part of his musical upbringing.