Improvisation is essential to music, at the heart of its capacity for innovation. Jazz has made the improvisational impulse an explicit part of its very identity as a genre, but all music is dependent on it. The moment a musician departs from the ruts of formulaic composition and interpretation is the instant in which something new may really be created. With improvisation, music is freed from habit and custom, allowed to soar, and sometimes, it recreates itself in the process. Since improvisation has become so inextricably linked to the story of jazz, it is difficult, sometimes, to recognize its mark elsewhere.
That is not, however, a problem with Brazilian choro music. It is not an exaggeration to say choro is one vast compendium of cerebral riffs, dueling instruments, and idiosyncratic talents. Choro’s improvisational identity is all the more surprising because of the genre’s relative antiquity. Some 50 years before jazz emerged in the United States, choro was already building itself on improvisational principles. It is, in fact, one of the pioneering New World forms of popular music, a genre created when urban musicians blended imports such as polkas, waltzes and mazurkas with their Africanized rhythmic affinities and melodic instincts. Before jazz, before samba and bossa nova, before even Stravinsky had been born, musicians in 19th Century Rio were testing their virtuosity playing choro tunes.
Samba may have become the original soundtrack to Brazil’s carnival, bossa nova might be the country’s most successful musical export, but choro is closer to its soul, to its essential musical character. That is the impression one is left with after viewing The Sound of Rio: Brasileirinho, a new documentary by Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki.
Released as a DVD and a soundtrack, The Sound of Rio: Brasileirinho, is as good an introduction to choro as one might ask for. It wisely avoids the trap of tying itself in knots trying to define choro. It also does not undertake a quixotic search for the form’s precise genesis. Instead, it simply showcases some of the best choro musicians active today. These, like the Trio Madeira, who open the film and play with real finesse, are part of a choro revival that began in the ’70s. The choro scene in Rio has seemingly not lost any vitality in ensuing years.
Variations on a Theme
For me, the most fascinating moments in The Sound of Rio: Brasileirinho came when choro musicians discussed the difference, as they see it, between the jazz concept of improvisation, and choro’s version. For choro musicians, improvisation is not so much something one does within a liberating parenthesis created in the music, but something in the nature of every note played, whether in the recording studio, on stage, or in the privacy of a practice session. The spirit of improvisation is encoded into the language of every interpretation. As Zé da Velha, a charismatic trombonist, says in the film: “We create as we play. One is always creating on top of something that that has already been done.”
Or in the words of Fred Dantas, another trombonist who is also a musicologist: “Improvisation is not provoked, as in: now you’re free. No, improvisation is just a variation, a subtle variation, and you return to the theme in the middle. Improvisation and the theme become mixed together.”
It is impossible to build a complete theory of choro improvisation out of these brief commentaries, but they are suggestive. I am not sure whether it is categorically different from jazz improvisation or not, but one comes away from the film thinking there is something insidiously yet radically creative in the choro style. The choro musician is always respectful of the music’s organizing principles: harmonic and rhythmic arrangement. His business is not rupture, but variation. It is as if he is constantly molding and quickening the structure of a song via his improvisational dance. He might, through the technique of counterpoint, create a ‘rivalry’ with background instruments, or an accompanying instrument, but the ultimate idea is dialogue, a discovery of the music’s potential and depth; not jousting or showboating.
Choro is as much about communication between instruments and musicians as it is about individual talent or the instrumentation itself. This is a highly conceptual way of thinking about performance, and choro’s style is notoriously difficult to put into words.
That is why The Sound of Rio: Brasileirinho - with 25 performances in all counting the extras — is so valuable. One is able to see and hear all this high-flying improvisational theory at work, whether it is in the strumming of a mandolin or a cavaquinho (a four-string instrument similar to the ukulele), the thumping of a tambourine, or the soulfulness of a clarinet solo.
One of the best-loved choro standbys is “Carinhoso”, written by Pixinguinha, a master of the flute most active in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. In the film, the song (its title is usually translated as “Tender”) is played to a packed house at an old theatre in Niteroi, a satellite city across the
mountain-ringed Bay of Guanabara from Rio. The musician, Yamandú Costa, is alone on the stage. He is a flamboyant, long-haired gaúcho from southern Brazil who plays a Brazilian seven-string guitar. The crowd sings the entire song, transported and delighted, while Costa picks out the notes.
The particularity of this characteristically Brazilian guitar is that its seven strings allow it to easily play a bass line. In his rendition of “Carinhoso”, Costa plays the bare outline of a bass backup, even as his fingers work over the frets to reproduce the melody with perfect cadences.
It is clear he is dueling musically with himself. With two hands he is reproducing the same kind of improvised musical dialogue that occurs in every choro jam session, or roda de choro. Also, simultaneously, Costa is weaving his notes around the lilting, choral singing of the audience. It is a consummate performance, and embodies the subtle, carefully calibrated
style of improvisation favored by choro.
The Persistence of Quality
Choro is commonly labeled the “jazz of Brazil”, not only because of its improvisational streak, but also due to its origins hybridizing African and European styles. Also, like jazz, choro is an instrumental genre at heart (though choros began to be sang as early as the ’40s). It is also similar in that its compositions are constantly recreated as new generations of musicians arrive on the scene with their own accents. The renderings are as important, if not more, than the compositions.
However, these rather superficial similarities fade once one actually listens to choro. Its sound is unlike anything in the jazz universe. It may be the power of suggestion, but to me, choro actually sounds a half-century older than jazz. It’s as if it is simultaneously closer to the belle époque ballrooms animated by waltzes, and the drums of the slave quarters, than any form of jazz. The ubiquity of the mandolin and cavaquinho add an anachronistic element to the sound, as if choro also had a touch of the Brazilian hillbilly in it.
It is fascinating to think that in the 1870s, the decade in which choro originated, Rio de Janeiro was still the capital of the Brazilian empire, formed when the local monarchy split from Portugal’s earlier in the century. Slavery was still legal in some forms, and Brazilian cultural life centered on the emperor’s court and a large, almost ridiculously ramified nobility. Today, of course, Brazil is a multi-party democracy, Rio is no longer the country’s capital, and racism and economic inequality have taken the place of slavery and an aristocratic caste system. Despite all these changes, choro remains vibrant, and continues to adapt and evolve.
Choro, viewed historically, is a case lesson in the importance of quality: what is good endures. Guitarist Mauricio Carrilho describes choro as the ultimate musical survivor. In a recent interview with music journalist Daniella Thompson (available on her Musica Brasiliensis website), Carrilho defiantly lists all the various threats choro has shrugged off in the course of its long existence.
“Choro has resisted epidemics, two world wars, military coups, the scorn of all our governments, and the neglect of the recording industry,” he says. “(Today) it resists the musical idiocy imposed by globalization and international cultural trash, and it will resist everything. Choro has its own parameters.”
Carrilho should know what he’s talking about. He was involved with compiling an exhaustive musical anthology of 19th century choro for Brazil’s Acari Records label. The music’s impeccable integrity is what has kept it alive all these years, and no doubt its third century of existence will be as rich as the first and the second.