When you think music of Brazil, you think samba and bossa nova. But choro, a less familiar genre, arguably has a greater claim to being Brazil’s national music than either of those. Choro (pronounced “shoro”) is the oldest of the three, with references going back as far as 1860, while samba dates to the beginning of the twentieth century and bossa nova to the 1950s.
Choro is to Brazil what ragtime is to the U.S. And just as ragtime receded—with occasional resurgences in popularity—after it helped to give birth to jazz, choro similarly faded when samba came along, regained popularity in the 1930s, and waned again when bossa nova came to the fore. Like ragtime, choro is a mix of two disparate strains of music, European and African—the harmonies and structures of classical music, and the rhythms and syncopation of the music brought by slaves to the Americas. It is a virtuosic instrumental music, with the technical demands of classical and the improvisational elements of folk music. With the rising interest in world music in the 1990s, choro gained fresh fans—and a new generation of musicians.
One of the brightest stars of that new generation is mandolinist and composer Danilo Brito who, at the age of nineteen, won the Premio Visa de MPB, one of Brazil’s most prestigious awards. Brito is a lifelong student of choro, with a vast repertoire ranging from the works of the masters of the form—Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth, and Jacob do Bandolim–to his own compositions, which continue to expand the tradition. He is a wizard of his instrument, capable of both metronome-defying speed and, by brilliantly varying the rate of his right-hand tremolo, deeply expressive phrasing–both essential elements in playing the constantly shifting rhythms and tempos of choro. His right hand is a blur, sustaining a remarkably even tremolo on the top strings while simultaneously playing a moving bass or melody line on the bottom strings–a trick guitarists accomplish with three fingers and the thumb of the right hand and which Brito manages with just the single plectrum he holds with index finger and thumb.
Brito, who has been coming to tour in the U.S. for the past decade, is teaming up with a new partner this year. Guitarist Joao Luiz is, like Brito, a native of Sao Paulo, though he now lives in Brooklyn. Luiz is a founding member, along with Douglas Lora, of the Brasil Guitar Duo and has performed internationally both in that duo and in other chamber ensembles, including with Yo-Yo Ma, and was nominated for a 2016 Latin Grammy. In conjuntos (choro ensembles), the guitars and cavaquinho (a small four-string ukulele-like instrument) and pandeiro (a small tambourine-like drum) typically accompany the mandolin. But in this duo, Brito and Luiz will share both the lead and accompanist roles in their arrangements of classic choro waltzes, pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and their own compositions.
Choro means “to cry” in Portuguese but, paraphrasing Brito’s words in translation, “It is not necessarily melancholy or sad, it can be happy. What it always is, is an intense feeling.”
Danilo Brito and Joao Luiz will perform at the Kerrytown Concert House on April 28.