While choro isn’t nearly as well known as its younger siblings samba, forro and bossa nova, no Brazilian musical style has proven as enduring and creatively resilient. In Brazil, a new generation is pushing the playfully virtuosic tradition into uncharted territory -- the music’s fourth or fifth renaissance over the past century. Abroad, the style is also finding an avid audience, and the East Bay has become ground zero for North American choro consciousness.
The Second Annual Berkeley Festival of Choro brings a profusion of U.S. and Brazilian talent -- to Freight & Salvage on May 2, and the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space on May 3 -- with concerts, workshops, lessons and jam sessions centering on Trio Brasileiro. Featuring mandolinist Dudu Maia and brothers Douglas and Alexandre Lora on guitar and pandeiro respectively, the celebrated São Paulo/Brasilia-based ensemble is augmented in Berkeley by special guest Eduardo Neves, a revered Brazilian woodwind expert.
“They aren’t well-known here, not like Hermeto Pascoal or Gil Gilberto, but we’re hoping that’ll change,” says Brian Rice, an Oakland-based expert on the frame drum pandeiro, a component essential to choro.
Rice co-directs the Festival of Choro with flutist Jane Lenoir, who’s also his bandmate in the Berkeley Choro Ensemble, a quartet with clarinetist Harvey Wainapel and Rio-born guitarist Ricardo Peixoto that shares Saturday’s Freight bill with Trio Brasileiro.
“We’re basically opening for Brasileiro,” Rice says. “The fun part of this concert is that we got a grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music to pay our artist fees and commission a new work by Harvey, and both ensembles will join together for the new piece’s premiere.”
Seattle’s Choroloco holds forth Sunday afternoon at the Berkeley Arts Festival after a series of workshops (and also performs in the Freight lobby Saturday before the main concert).
Marked by dizzying, breakneck runs, luscious melodies and irresistible grooves, choro is often compared to bluegrass. It does share bluegrass’s welcoming vibe, with a body of standards that serve as launching pads at jam sessions conducted in a circle where world-class artists might sit next to semi-professionals and aspiring amateurs. But choro was already in the midst of a modernist reinvention when Bill Monroe codified bluegrass in the mid-1940s.
When the style emerged in Brazil in the 1870s, more than a decade before Princess Isabel signed the law abolishing slavery in the empire, it was arguably the first New World style to combine African-derived rhythms and percussion with European forms and instruments. In the early decades of the 20th century, choro absorbed influences from jazz via one of the style’s first great composers, flutist and saxophonist Pixinguinha (1897-1973), who also played an essential role in samba’s rise as popular music.
If there’s one person responsible for introducing choro to the Bay Area, and indeed to musicians around the world, it’s Marin mandolin master David Grisman. Grisman released two volumes of classic recordings on his Acoustic Disc label by the composer, mandolin virtuoso and bandleader Jacob do Bandolim, who sparked a choro revival in the 1940s playing something of a Charlie Parker role to his friend Pixinguinha’s status as the music’s Duke Ellington. Mandolinist/guitarist Mike Marshall, an original member of the David Grisman Quintet, went on to launch Choro Famoso, a group with whom Berkeley Choro Ensemble’s Brian Rice still performs.
While Marshall now lives in Germany, over the past two decades he’s brought many of Brazil’s top young players and composers to the area, such as Danilo Brito, Hamilton de Holanda, and Choro das 3. In the East Bay, bands like Grupo Falso Baiano and various projects by reed expert Harvey Wainapel have kept choro in the spotlight.
“Mike Marshall played a real big role in bringing choro to the Bay Area,” Rice says. “Another big influence was Brazil Camp, which brings an influx of great Brazilian musicians to Northern California every summer. It’s a burgeoning genre, and not just in the Bay Area. There are choro bands in Portland, Seattle, San Diego, and Los Angeles. It’s getting popular again in Brazil, taken to new places by young composers, and we want to bring that to the community here.”