Sep 10, 2017

Review: "Choro: A Social History of a Brazilian Popular Music"

Since this blog is primarily aimed at jazz players, I am guessing that some readers may have some familiarity with choro, others perhaps not. Choro is a Brazilian musical genre that - like jazz - began to take shape in the late 1800s, evolved stylistically over the years and through several periods of popularity, and continues today. It has always involved an element of improvisation, and incorporates Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Choro as performed today may take a form that is traditional (that is, retrospective to some earlier period in its evolution), or may take a more modern direction.

Here is Anat Cohen and the group "Choro Aventuroso," with a modern take on the 1937 standard by Severino Araujo, "Espinha de Bacalhau":

Although this book came out in 2005, I had not gotten around to it until just now: Choro: A Social History of a Brazilian Popular Music, by Tamara Elena Livingston-Isenhour and Thomas George Caracas Garcia. It's a well-written and well-researched account of the origins of choro and its evolution over the last 150+ years, with particular regard to the place of the genre in Brazilian culture, including a discussion of the role of historical Brazilian attitudes towards race and popular music.

The book is meticulously organized, which makes a review pretty easy. Here are the chapter titles, with a few comments on the contents:

1) Introduction

An overview of the book. Describes the defining features of choro in terms of style, melodic characteristics, bass, rhythm, and spirit ("malicia").

2)  Race, Class, and Nineteenth-Century Popular Music: The Modinha, the Lundu, and the Maxixe

These were the musical antecedents of choro. The modinha, a sentimental song genre, contributed lyricism to Brazilian popular styles, and contributed the basic instrumentation to choro: the "terno" of guitar, flute, and cavaquinho. The lundu was an African-influenced rhythmic dance and music style; the maxixe was a popular dance and music style that began in the 1870s. "Some believe the maxixe to be the link in the stylistic continuum between the old lundu dance and the modern urban samba."

3) The Roda de Choro: Heart and Soul of Choro

The "roda de choro" is a informal gathering to play music - a jam session - a tradition that began long before choro reached the "respectability" of recordings and radio broadcasts. The roda de choro is still an essential part of the choro ethos. A quote from Villa-Lobos biographer Vasco Mariz: "The chorão [choro devotee] had a deep feeling for spontaneous improvisation. He would put his entire soul into playing. He had a true religious feeling for the cult of choro, in which one lives to play, compose, and sing."

4) From Plantation to the City: The Rise and Development of Early Choro in Rio de Janeiro (1870-1920)

Many black musicians received musical training as slaves, in order to serve in plantation bands, which were a status symbol for the owners. After Brazilian emancipation in 1888, former slave musicians moved to the city, combining their talents with city musicians. It was in this period that the music and the term "choro" developed. Although many musicians today believe that "choro" derives from "chorar" (to cry), the authors believe it derives from "choromeleiro," a type of ensemble in colonial Brazil.

In Rio de Janeiro, choro developed as a middle-class music. "The middle-class aspects of choro practice were order to be able to buy an instrument, whether, flute, cavaquinho, or guitar, one had to have at lease a modicum of disposable income. Secondly, the locations where choro gatherings took place were characteristic of middle-class dwellings and venues..." In this environment, choro developed as a primarily instrumental music, based on the form and harmonic structure of the polka, played by terno-type ensembles, wind bands, or piano. Early published choros were called "polca serenata" or "polca ligeira"; the first use of the term "choro" in published music was in 1889. This chapter includes sections on several of the most important figures in early choro: Chiquinha Gonzaga, Ernesto Nazaré, and others.

5) From the Terno to the Regional: The Professionalization of Choro

The terno, a trio of flute, guitar, and cavaquinho, was the original core choro ensemble. With the advent of silent films (requiring theater musicians), followed by recordings and radio, professional groups were formed. Choros were written in a more technical style, to show off the virtuosity of the musicians. Groups were larger (this was the period when the pandeiro and seven-string guitar came to be a standard part of the ensemble); these groups were called "regionals." The career of the legendary choro composer and bandleader Pixinguinha began in this period, c. 1915. Under the regime of dictator Gétulio Vargas (1937-1945) choro was encouraged and promoted by the government, particularly on the radio, to instill a sense of national identity and pride.

6) The Velha Guarda in the New Brazil: Choro in the 1950s and 1960s

"Velha guarda" means "old guard." As American and American-influenced music increased in popularity in Brazil in the 1950s, choro came to be regarded by the general public as a music of the past. Bossa nova emerged in the late 1950s as a music of "modernity." In the 1960s, increasing social awareness led to an increased interest in "samba de morro" (samba of the favelas) and other "roots" music. "Choro is conspicuously absent from the cultural resistance movement even though it had been strongly accociated with Brazilian nationalism since the 1920s." The authors give several reasons for this: that "as an instrumental genre, choro could not serve as a vehicle for protest lyrics"; that as a middle-class music, "choro was not associated with an oppressed class of people"; that "the Americanized style and instrumentation in the late 1940s and 1950s had come to be viewed as mainstream music without political value."

At the same time, however, "velha guarda" figures such as Garoto, Jacó do Bandolim, and Waldir de Azevedo were pushing the choro genre towards "increasing professionalism," and adding new compositions to the repertoire.

7) The Choro Revival

The 1970s saw a return of popularity of choro among young musicians and listeners, including rodas de choro, and competitions with awards. The military government of 1964-1985 played a role in supporting the choro revival; as a mostly instrumental music, choro did not have a protest content. The authors discuss the nature of musical revivals generally, and why a choro revival came about at that point in time. This choro revival ebbed in the 1980s.

8) Contemporary Choro

"By the late 1990s, choro had rebounded with a force that still shows no sign of weakening." This chapter considers stylistic trends, choro publications, pedagogy, choro on the Web, and choro abroad. A description of then-current (2005) activity presents a snapshot of the revival at the time of the book's publication.

9) Choro and the Brazilian Classical Tradition

The Brazilian classical music culture before the 1920s looked to France and Italy for a stylistic model. Beginning in the 1920s, Brazilian composers began to look to their own rich national musical traditions, including choro. Co-author Thomas Garcia is a guitarist and Villa-Lobos scholar, and Villa-Lobos' work is covered in some detail.

If you are interested in learning more about this music, I highly recommend Choro: A Social History of a Brazilian Popular Music. Click on the link, and you can order it from Amazon. It's been especially valuable to me, since I don't read or speak Portuguese; I haven't seen a better English-language book on the subject.

Far more importantly, though, you need to listen to this music. The history of recorded choro is on Youtube, and plenty of great contemporary performances. Here are just a few tracks, to get started:

A broadcast featuring some great players, playing Jacó do Bandolim's "Noitas Cariocas":

A backyard party, with Romualdo Costa (sax) and Leo Lima (accordian) playing "Espinha de Bacalhau":

Yamandu Costa and Dominguez, playing Pixinguinha's "Lamentos"

A classic video - Armandinho with the group Epoca de Ouro, playing Jacó's "Assanhado"