“It’s so easy to start dancing”

Forró accordionist Felipe Hostins looks back at his journey to the Richmond Folk Festival.

For Felipe Hostins, picking up the accordion wasn’t even a choice.

The Brazilian’s memories of playing the instrument date back as far as memories go. “From the beginning it felt like part of my life,” he says.

His grandfather began teaching him at 3 or 4 years old, and while other kids were running around playing, he was under his grandfather’s tutelage. That sacrifice paid early dividends. “I fell in love right away,” he says. “When I was around 10, I was talking to my parents like, ‘I already know what I’m going to be,’ because I wanted to be a musician so bad.”

Hostins plays a highly danceable form of Brazilian music called forró, which is characterized by lively accordion and distinctive percussion courtesy of triangle and zabumba, a type of bass drum. His ensemble at the Richmond Folk Festival will also include the rabeca, a fiddle variant used in Brazil and Portugal.

Hostins grew up in the state of Santa Catarina, and his head start as a musician afforded him plenty of opportunities to expand his horizons. “My parents had to sign an authorization form to release me to go traveling because I was a teenager,” he remembers.

At the same time he was learning valuable lessons about life on the road — “Make sure you have a plan,” he resolved in reaction to the occasional vanishing paycheck or ride home — his heart was pulling him even farther from home. First it was a fascination with American movies, then basketball and learning English. Around the time he turned 21, despite the success he was experiencing, that interest was bubbling over. “I was in a very nice band, I had a nice job, traveling around and touring, but I was tired of that. I wanted a big change,” he says.

Hostins moved to the U.S. in May of 2015 not knowing a soul. But when you play music that has a habit of bringing people together, community is never far away.

“It’s so beautiful, the forró community,” he says. There’s an especially active scene in New York City, where Hostins settled after a short stay in Las Vegas. “It’s people from all over the world. It’s not only Brazilians. People from Asia, people from Europe — it’s part of their life. They start learning Portuguese because of that. It brings so many cultures together.”

That togetherness is quite literal when it comes to the form of dancing that accompanies forró. “Because of the triangle, the zabumba… it makes you move,” Hostins notes. “It’s so easy to start dancing with forró.”

When they’re not spinning or being spun, dancers — whether longtime partners or simply the closest fellow forró fan — interlock legs as they sway to upbeat rhythms. That closeness made forró meet-ups particularly unworkable during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Musicians everywhere faced an unprecedented threat to their livelihoods, but Hostins also saw the toll that the lockdown took on the folks he’d normally be playing for. “It was so sad,” Hostins recalls. “You could see people on social media — those people were there every Friday, every Sunday at the forró, and suddenly they had to stop.”

Some of those regulars moved online in more ways than one. Weekly Zoom meet-ups provided a temporary fix, with each dancer filling a square with the latest moves they’d picked up and a DJ providing the music. Nothing beats the real thing, though, and Hostins felt a deep sense of gratitude upon returning to interacting with in-person audiences. “It so easily can be taken away,” he says. “I’m very grateful to be back, to be performing, to be changing people’s lives in a way.”

“I play music for the connection,” he adds, “for what it can bring to people.” He’s also connecting genres. He and his wife, the Portsmouth, Virginia-born opera singer Chrystal E. Williams, founded a group called Forrópera with the aim of fostering “unity, peace, and understanding through music.”

He’s especially enthused about sharing his beloved forró in an environment like the one at the Richmond Folk Festival. “It makes a lot of difference when you are performing for a crowd that is there for the music,” he says. “I believe there’s always somebody there — you’re touching this person. You’re connecting with this person. There’s at least one everywhere you are.”

Given the open and attentive crowds that flock to Richmond’s downtown for three days each October, you can bet Hostins will find more than one this time around.

Felipe Hostins will perform at the Richmond Folk Festival on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 4 to 4:45 p.m. at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion (there will be forró dance lesson with Luciano Lima from 3:30 to 4 p.m.). And he performs on Sunday, Oct. 9 from 1:15 to 2:15 at Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion and from 5:15 to 6 p.m. at the Costar Group Stage . Admission is free. For set times, visit the festival site here.

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