Choro, Brazilian music par excellence

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.

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

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


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


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.
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

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
, 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,
(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


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


Ary Barroso, the great composer of Aquarela do
, 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

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

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

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

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


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


Some of the best chorinhos

Waldir Azevedo (cavaquinho) Ao Vivo

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

Jacó do Bandolim Vol. 2

Altamiro Carrilho (flute) Revendo o Passado


Henrique Cazes (cavaquinho) Plays Waldir Azevedo, Hermeto

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

Paulo Moura (sax and clarinet) Mistura e Manda


with Rafael Rabello

Pixinguinha & Benedito Lacerda Naquele Tempo

Ailton Reiner (Bandolim) Choros From Bahia


Heitor Villa-Lobos Woodwind Music

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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