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Choro, chorinho, chorão

Choro is Brazilian jazz many people say. It could be true if Brazil's chorinho hadn't appeared before on the scene. After fading with the introduction of bossa nova in the '60s, the Brazilian music par excellence is getting a new lease on life. Small but aggressive recording companies are guaranteeing a place in the world for the popular and sophisticated genre.

Bruce Gilman

Great masters of music have always affirmed that it is impossible to create a modern work, original or revolutionary, without a deep knowledge of the traditions and musical legacies of our ancestors. But for all rules there are exceptions, and with choro things were different.

The birth of popular music at the turn of the century occurred in several countries and started with different proportions of the same elements: European dances (mainly polka), the specific accent of the colonizer, and the rhythmic influence brought by the African slaves. The process that generated danzón in Cuba, beguine in Martinique, and ragtime in the United States forged choro in Brazil.

Between 1860 and 1870 the pioneers of choro were playing more a repertoire of European polkas, mazurkas, waltzes, and tangos with Afro-Brazilian syncopation than a unique genre. A few musicians were manipulating the elements, changing rhythms, tempos, melodic lines, and instruments. The seeds had been planted.

Virtuoso flautist and leader of the group Choro Carioca, Joaquim Antônio da Silva Calado (1848-1873), was experimenting with a new style that incorporated improvisation and developed a dialogue between soloist and accompanists. Polka bands were initially comprised of woodwinds and horns. The clarinet was the soloist's instrument. The trumpet was in charge of the counterpoint. Calado introduced the cavaquinho and violão.

In Rio de Janeiro during the second half of the nineteenth century the flute, violão de sete cordas (seven string guitar), and cavaquinho were becoming the instruments of choice for these vanguard choro ensembles. Flute was the soloist's instrument, violão supplied the bass, and cavaquinho the rhythm. The music sounded spontaneous, almost as if the violão de sete cordas was improvising the bass line, and the cavaquinho taking liberties with the rhythm, but only one instrument unlike North American jazz soloed in choro.

Assimilating the strong influence of these virtuoso musicians who were its fundamental material, choro was officially born through the works of Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935) and Ernesto Nazaré (1863-1934). These two composers gave choro its musical individuality by utilizing rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements in combinations and proportions that were original and distinct from everything that had come before and that sounded totally different from all other styles of Brazilian music.

Chiquinha Gonzaga was educated as a classical musician and wrote not only choro but many popular styles including tangos, polkas, and waltzes. She emphasized the rhythmic aspects in her work. Her harmonies were simple, her melodies easily assimilated. With this mixture Gonzaga obtained noted success not only with choro but with her songs for the theater (at that time the main vehicle for spreading new trends in music).

Ernesto Nazaré, also classically trained, wrote with definitive harmonic and melodic sophistication. He nationalized the forms that came from abroad waltz, polka, schottische, mazurka, habanera, and tango by arranging this instrumental band music into piano reductions and also by composing his own choros for the piano. His waltzes are considered by many to be similar to Chopin's.

It is evident from his choros that Nazaré was also influenced by his musician colleagues. With Apanhei-Te Cavaquinho (I Got You Cavaquinho) the soloist improvises unpredictable riffs until he can no longer be followed by the accompanying instruments, and in Ameno Resedá the piano imitates the cavaquinho's rhythmic accompaniment.

Choro's classical form comes from the Chopin waltz and has been closely associated with Brazilian music since the early compositions by Nazaré. This ABACA form presents a leading or main theme, then a second, repeats the first, presents a third, then makes a final repetition of the first. The fusion of choro's rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements with the waltz form pleased public tastes and characterized the "involved" and "connected" nature of choro.

The people who were playing and listening to this music came to be called "músicos de choro." Interestingly, on early recordings all references to this variety of music are to polkas, not choros. Nevertheless, choro had developed into an independent genre after the turn of the century, and composers were unequivocally calling their works choros. The newborn genre, distinctively Brazilian and with particularly Carioca (from Rio) patterns of phrasing and rhythmic counterpoint, developed and passed its first decades of existence open to a tremendous variety of external influences.

But what is choro? Maurício Carrilho has said that all the best popular Brazilian music is choro. Chega de Saudade by Tom Jobim, the tune that marked the inauguration of bossa nova, is a choro, albeit a choro disguised as bossa nova. It may be played in the style of bossa nova, but it is structurally a choro.

There is much debate about the origin of the name. Some feel that the name comes from the Portuguese verb chorar to cry and stems from choro's lilting melodic lines that sound like they are weeping. On Jacó do Bandolim's LP Na Roda do Choro a musicologist who wrote the liner notes contends that the term originated from xôlo, a word used by Afro-Brazilians for vocal or dance concerts. Today the term can mean a group of instruments (flute, violão, cavaquinho, bandolim/mandolin, clarinet, pandeiro), the act of getting together to play choro, or a melody in 2/4 characterized by sentimental phrases and unexpected modulations.

Choro is not only the Brazilian music which is closest to European classical, it is the essentially Brazilian genre. Developing from European forms, African rhythms, and a classical spectrum of harmony that had been modified by the early masters; choro eventually acquired its own identity. Among all the styles that come from Brazil, it is the genre that speaks most of the Brazilian personality.

Choro is Brazil. Brazilians have always known this intuitively. Europeans, Japanese, and Americans have played samba, bossa nova, even baião after Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti started to spread baião outside Brazil. But they don't play choro. Choro for them is an unknown language. Only the best instrumentalists are able to execute choro's very specific structure, extreme melodic leaps, unexpected modulations, breakneck tempos, and improvisational language a language heard nowhere else in the world. It is the music of the outstanding Brazilian instrumentalist.

Wagner Tiso, pianist and arranger for Milton Nascimento, feels that only Brazilians can play choro. Tiso said that it is not enough just to be a good technician, that much of the music being recorded today is diluted in the studio by musicians who can technically execute it but lack the depth and heart to make the performance authentic. Tiso also noted that choro is the best example of where this doesn't happen. The choro musician must have something more. This something more is what Villa-Lobos called the integral translation of the Brazilian soul in the form of music.

Choro reached maturity with Pixinguinha. He gave choro its form and orientation. The perfection of his modulations and the virtuosity of his counterpoint caused music analysts to assert that Pixinguinha was the Bach of choro. A curious comparison but one with substance. According to Radamés Gnattali, Pixinguinha was the greatest flautist of all time. At rodas de choro (choro jam sessions), he was able to improvise for hours without stopping.

Among the several groups that Pixinguinha organized was Os Oito Batutas (The Eight Masters). They spent six months in Paris during the early 1920s playing choro and maxixe (a dance ancestor of the samba). What Pixinguinha saw and heard on that trip is an example of external influences placed decisively on the head of the genre's master. When Pixinguinha and Os Oito Batutas returned to Brazil they added saxophone and trumpet to their instrumentation and ragtime to their repertoire.

Os Oito Batutas was comprised of illustrious choro figures such as João Pernambuco, the violonista and first great composer of choros for violão solo, and Donga (1891-1976) co-author of the first samba ever recorded, Pelo Telefone. This points clearly to a relationship between samba and choro that is seldom mentioned in studies about Brazilian popular music. Today recordings of Pelo Telefone are always made by choro musicians. The close relationship between the two genres is evident through music composed and played by the same musicians. Donga, Pixinguinha, Nelson Cavaquinho, and Paulinho da Viola are obvious models of the choro-samba affinity.

A similar yet more diverse connection is found in the career of Benedito Lacerda, nicknamed Canhoto. Lacerda led a back-up studio trio that accompanied recording artists in all genres of Brazilian music for over fifty years. The trio had to play rancheiras, gaúchas, cocos, emboladas, baiões (Luiz Gonzaga, the king of Baião used to play and compose choros), carnaval marches, sambas, and frevos. Chico Buarque, Clementina de Jesus, Jackson do Pandeiro, and Elizete Cardoso were among several generations of singers and composers who were accompanied by Lacerda's trio.

Paralleling this sphere of activity was Lacerda's own work composing and performing choro. Benedito Lacerda, Jacó do Bandolim, Altamiro Carrilho, Abel Ferreira, and Valdir Azevedo were principal players in the choro renaissance of the 1940s which produced the lion's share of the repertoire heard today.

In classical concert music choro has always been present. Villa-Lobos played clarinet and sipped cachaça (sugar cane liquor) with friends at rodas de choro in Rio's suburbs. Ernesto Nazaré was one of his musical mentors. Almost all of Villa-Lobos' woodwind music was inspired by choro, and his choros are extraordinary. In his orchestral work Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, the choro influence is heard in the cello playing a pizzicato figure imitative of the violão's part in choro.

Much of the same can be said in relation to Radamés Gnattali. Choro's influence is extensive in his Brasilianas, in his concertos, and in several works of chamber music. Gnattali's daily work took him even closer to choro than did Villa-Lobos'. He played with several generations of choro musicians and composed the most refined choros of all time.

The harmonic elaboration and polyphony of Gnattali's Suíte Retratos pays homage in four movements to Pixinguinha, Anacleto de Medeiros, Ernesto Nazaré, and Chiquinha Gonzaga. Gnattali maintained that these musician-composers were the four masters and innovators of Brazilian music. Each of the four movements celebrates one of these masters in the expressive musical language that is stylistically exact for that particular composer and in a manner that only the genius of Radamés could have created.

From the trio format of Camerata Carioca (also called Trio Carioca), with whom Radamés Gnattali worked for the last seven years of his life, through his stints with the National Radio Orchestra and with his own quintet and sextet, this leading composer of Brazilian music had in choro the fundamental material that he would employ again and again in the composition of his original works.

Trio Carioca Gnattali, Luciano Perrone (drums), and Luís Americano (clarinet) was created in 1936 by the artistic director at RCA Victor with the declared intention of translating into "choristic" language the music of Benny Goodman. At that time, the dominance of the big bands permeated the composition of choro and the performances of the top woodwind players. This points again to the conclusion that choro's development was a dynamic process open to outside influences, that it evolved quickly, diversified, and recycled information. Gnattali and Villa-Lobos proved through their work that no genre of popular Brazilian music has ever come closer to concert music than choro.

Ary Barroso, the great composer of Aquarela do Brasil , who came to the United States with Carmen Miranda in the 1940s, used to scold up-and-coming singers on his Brazilian radio program when they announced that they were going to sing a sambinha. He would tell them that it was derogatory and prejudiced to use the diminutive inha since they didn't say jazzinho, or beguinizinho, or fox trotezinho. His crying out and shaming the performer (one of Ary's trademarks) would cause the live audience to burst into laughter.

Ary Barroso felt that this term diminished the value of samba. After all, a jornalzinho was a newspaper that wasn't really important nor taken seriously. For similar reasons choro musicians did not like nor accept the word chorinho. Many felt that the diminutive was used as a shield; some choro musicians were ashamed of themselves for the music they loved to play. Eventually the term became accepted as an affectionate way of referring to the genre. Mauríco Carrilho, the brilliant musician devoted to the study of popular Brazilian music, defends this thesis.

The whole process of choro development underwent a very sensitive deceleration in the mid-1950s, and by the beginning of the 1960s choro was almost completely forgotten by the public and the media. What had happened? How was it transformed from popular music to the music of a restricted and elite group?

Many answers would fit here. The fact is that musicians like Jacó do Bandolim, Abel Ferreira, and Waldir Azevedo, did not have the means to codify and pass on their knowledge, and consequently much information was withheld. The instructional methods endorsed by some of these artists were solely concocted (without the musician's collaboration) to make money for the editors and publishers. Another fundamental point is that these top "amateur" choro musicians looked at playing and writing choro as a hobby, a personal entertainment that eventually might bring in some small profit. They didn't see professional possibilities in choro.

By the early sixties (time of bossa nova), choro had almost disappeared. It was the victim of disinterest and prejudice. Bossa nova had taken off. It had become an international movement. People in Los Angeles and Paris were singing The Girl From Ipanema. At the Brazilian consulate in Los Angeles, Vinícius de Moraes (a connoisseur of music known as the pope of bossa nova) had the interest, knowledge, and connections to disseminate the movement on the west coast.

The bossa nova was modern. It came to university stages through the hands of students in tune with the current pop culture who defended and directed students' interests. While choro was something that the old, the retired, or the lower class enjoyed; bossa nova was pushed to the fore by educated people in the universities. Besides, at that time, lyrics were as important as the music itself. Although a vocal form with lyrics written to existing choro titles developed later, it was not common. Choro became alienated.

The great musicians of choro lived in their own exclusive world. They would meet at private all-night jam sessions (saraus ) almost spiritual gatherings that were restricted to those in the choro brotherhood. Inevitably one of the musicians would bring a friend who wanted to "jam." If the new player could "cut-it," he would be accepted and would eventually bring in somebody he knew that wanted to play or an acquaintance just to listen. The saraus were almost a form of resistance to the encroaching bossa nova.

Ernesto dos Santos Donga, in a conversation taped in 1962, said that choro had a type of social organization, that a great respect of the genre was cultivated among the chorões (choro musicians), a respect that was extended also to those who were listening. He went on to say that people without talent were not admitted, and that a newcomer would have to be able to solo and to accompany other chorões or they would demolish the intruder.

Eighty percent of everything played in saraus was choro. It was a delicious opportunity to meet other choro musicians and listen to their improvisations. The sarau differed from the performance practices in other Brazilian styles. It was closer to the after-hour jams and "cutting sessions" of the American jazz tradition. There are other similarities between choro and American jazz, and it is common for people to say that choro is Brazilian jazz. Interestingly, choro's development in Brazil narrowly predated the rise of jazz in North America.

The complex anatomy of the choro is one of its strongest and most important characteristics. Choro, like jazz, has a specific nomenclature, an anatomy made of archetypes. Choro musicians are required to be not only proficient on their instruments but also to have an extended perception of "codes" and "passwords" which enable the players to combine their vision and technique to construct torrential improvisations.

The harmonic palettes of both choro and jazz were modified from the classical European tradition. Choro, however, has little use for blue notes (the lowered third and seventh degree of the major scale characteristic in American blues and jazz). Waldir Azevedo used blue notes, but he was from the Northeast and his use was intuitive. The flat seventh is referred to by some as the sétima nordestina (northeastern seventh) and is usually attributed to African influences, as are flattened thirds, fifths and sevenths in American jazz.

In both styles the soloist improvises on the theme and form of the composition. The best improvisers in both styles are those who make the best note choices, develop ideas relevant to the tune, use extensive rhythmic vocabularies, say what they have to say in the time necessary to say it, then step back. At saraus, players manipulate cunning and subtle themes to cut down and demolish any fledgling participant whose ego gets too out of hand. These codes and cutting sessions are eye-opening lessons for the players. They are similar to those lessons taken by the best jazz musicians and should not be interpreted as a negative characteristic.

At the beginning of the 70's Paulinho da Viola recorded Memórias: Chorando. He felt that the escolas de samba had become overly commercialized and bureaucratized and turned from the sambas that made him an idol to playing chorinhos. It was the beginning of choro's rebirth for the public at large. At about this same time, music critic Sérgio Cabral produced the show Sarau that brought Paulinho da Viola together with the band Época de Ouro and united the different generations of choro musicians and admirers. The choros of Paulinho brought new harmonies and projected a modern perspective that prejudicial people did not suspect were possible.

A new generation of choro admirers formed the escola Camerata Carioca under the leadership of composer Radamés Gnattali. The music was sophisticated, erudite, almost classical in nature, and played by musicians who were no longer ashamed of the choro. After all, those who know how to play, play choro. Mauríco Carrilho and Raphael Rabello were just two virtuosi of the genre who were drawn to this group.

The 1970s revival was further stimulated by musicians like Paulo Moura and Hermeto Pascoal who included choros on their recordings. The revival was also sparked by the availability of the authoritative instructional methods written by Afonso Machado for bandolim and Luiz Otávio Braga and Henrique Cazes for violão. These methods were important to choro's developmental process and may have nourished a passion for choro in Brazil's next generation of musicians.

Choro's survival today depends on its ability to conquer a space in the domestic and import CD market, the development, production, and promotion of artists, and the distribution of their work. Fortunately, some smaller companies with profound and invigorating visions of Brazilian history (Brazil CDs, World Network, Acoustic Disc) are working to secure the visibility of the genre's prominent artists. With a lot of work and minimum support from the recording giants, choro could occupy a conspicuous place in world music circles.

Some of the best chorinhos

Waldir Azevedo (cavaquinho) Ao Vivo (Continental)

Jacó do Bandolim (mandolin) Jacó do Bandolim Vol. 1 (Acoustic Disc)
Jacó do Bandolim Vol. 2

Altamiro Carrilho (flute) Revendo o Passado (Sony)

Henrique Cazes (cavaquinho) Plays Waldir Azevedo, Hermeto Pascoal (Kuarup)

Benedito Costa (cavaquinho) Brasil: Flauta, Cavaquinho e Violão (Marcus Pereira)

Paulo Moura (sax and clarinet) Mistura e Manda (Kuarup)
with Rafael Rabello

Pixinguinha & Benedito Lacerda Naquele Tempo (Revivendo)

Ailton Reiner (Bandolim) Choros From Bahia

Heitor Villa-Lobos Woodwind Music (Etcetera)

Paulinho da Viola & Ensemble Samba e Choro Nero (World Network)

Various Artists Choro é Isto (Marcus Pereira)
Bruce Gilman plays cuíca for Mocidade Independente Los Angeles, received his MA from California Institute of the Arts, and teaches English and ESL in Long Beach, California.


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