By Don Macica.
When my son was in the third grade, he came home from school one day and declared that he wanted to play the flute. Dutiful parents that we were, we not only enrolled him in the school band but decided that private lessons would be beneficial. We found an instructor through our local park district. That’s how I got to know a woman who was on her way to becoming an authority on a form of Brazilian music I had never heard of: choro. Upon hearing it, I fell in love. It’s lively and full of charm. If a well-played choro doesn’t coax a smile out of you, your life is much grimmer than mine.
My son’s maestra went on to study choro in Brazil under a Fulbright scholarship and published a book of interviews with choro masters based in part on her Fulbright research. Me? I just started adding choro CDs to my overstuffed shelves. So, when a friend told me that Choro das 3, a choro group from her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, was touring the U.S. with a stop in Chicago, my ears immediately perked up.
On casual listen, choro may not sound like Afro-Latin music, but its origins are very much the same. Choro is one of the earliest forms of urban music in Brazil. It’s beginnings in the late 19th century roughly parallel those of jazz in New Orleans, and for a while it was wildly popular. Just like ragtime in the United States, tango in Argentina and habanera in Cuba, choro was a result of influences of musical styles and rhythms coming from Europe and Africa. Brazil’s most revered composer (prior to Jobim, of course), Heitor Villa-Lobos, called choro “the true incarnation of Brazilian soul.” If it’s accurate to say that without ragtime there is no jazz, than it’s equally accurate to say the same of choro and, say, bossa nova. The driving ecstasy of samba, a more obvious descendent of African music, overtook choro in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and you could say that bossa nova, with its sophisticated harmonies, refined and internationalized samba, with a little help from jazz. Choro, however, never faded away, even if it didn’t conquer the world. Like New Orleans-style jazz, it remains an important cultural touchstone.
Choro das 3 is a family band, three sisters and their dad. If that sounds corny, it’s not, and in fact it’s almost essential to understanding the soul of the music. Choro is traditionally played in informal settings called roda de choros, where people gather to share songs and play with each other, often in people’s homes. It was these rodas that kept the music alive when it was superseded in popularity by samba and bossa nova.
Choro’s main tools are similar to other music of the Americas. Its rhythmic foundation is the pandeiro, which Puerto Ricans will of course recognize as the pandero and residents of New Orleans the tambourine. It’s played much the same way in all three cultures. In Choro das 3, the father, Eduardo, plays the pandeiro and sisters Corina, Lia and Elisa play various flutes and stringed instruments. One listen to the Brazilian bandolin will instantly bring to mind similar instruments as the Puerto Rican cuatro and Cuban laud. In the hands of talented musicians, the music can reach dizzying heights of complexity. The family band that is Choro das 3 are exactly that.
Choro das 3 hit the road on May 20 to promote their newest CD, a trip that will bring them to one of the Chicago’s best rooms, the Jazz Showcase, on July 21. Part of what makes this visit special is that, despite the fact that you can go out almost any night of the week in Chicago and hear excellent Brazilian musicians, few of them perform choro, even if, as I suspect, they know it inside and out. That’s not entirely surprising, given the wider popularity of samba and bossa nova. I have little doubt that, even in Chicago, choro is still played privately among friends in rodas.
Fortunately, Choro das 3 is coming here soon to enlighten the rest of us.
Choro das 3, Jazz Showcase, Tuesday July 21. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.