A typical first question I usually get at setbreak or after a performance is, “Are you Brazilian?” And, I have to answer “No.” The follow-up question that naturally follows is, “How did you learn to play chorinho?” These questions are usually posed by a member of our small but close-knit Brazilian community here in Portland (I don’t have actual numbers, but suffice it to say, I’m sure it’s smaller than New York, Seattle, or San Francisco!).
The story begins nearly 11 years ago after we moved to Portland. I had gone to graduate school at the University of Oregon for a Master’s in Environmental Studies, moved home to Baltimore for a contract job with NOAA, and met my amazing then girlfriend and now wife Kirstin. We decided to leave the East Coast and drive cross-country out to Portland. After relocating, I was looking to take private lessons from a music teacher, after having picked up a used starter A-style mandolin. Kirstin was flipping through the classifieds in the Willamette Week when she spotted an ad for Jan DeWeese, mandolin instructor. Hmmmm, she sounds like a good fit, let’s give her a call.
Turns out Jan was a HE, and had been teaching mandolin for years in Portland privately and at local colleges. I met with Jan and we got to talking about what style of music I wanted to learn. I hadn’t given it much thought and just kind of assumed I’d learn bluegrass, because mandolin, that’s what it’s used for, you see? We did a couple lessons playing the usual chop chords and bluegrass standards, when one day Jan asked if I was interested in trying something new. Something DIFFERENT. Something a bit more challenging. I said “sure, why not?”
And that’s how I was introduced to this thing called “choro” music. Now, Jan isn’t Brazilian either; he’s from Montana. But he had been studying this cool style of Brazilian music that had been undergoing a bit of a renaissance in the late 20th century, including some younger, up-and-coming virtuosos. Check out Danilo Brito and friends in this video below. [Just to clarify, the style is called choro or chorinho, the latter being the affectionate, diminutive form of choro used by Brazilians. The word choro is derived from the Portuguese verb chorar, which means “to cry”.]
a Brazilian popular music instrumental style, with origins in 19th century Rio de Janeiro. In spite of the name, the style often has a fast and happy rhythm, characterized by virtuosity, improvisation, subtle modulations and full of syncopation and counterpoint. Choro is considered the first urban popular music typical of Brazil.
I like to tell people choro is like a melting pot of musical styles: European ballroom waltzes and polkas, mixed with African slave rhythms and beats, and native Indian melodies. This reflects Brazil’s truly mixed melting pot population. Some people like to call it “Brazilian ragtime”, as it came into vogue around the same time as America was discovering its own form of ragtime jazz. It pre-dates samba and bossa nova, serving as a musical foundation for these later popular music styles.
So although I’m not Brazilian by birth, I feel closer to her people because of this love for the music. And I can relate to chorinho fans that listen to me play songs they grew up listening to as kids back in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo long ago. It brings me such joy giving them the ability to relive part of their childhood. In a future post, I’ll talk about how choro has continued to influence my life, as a musician and traveler.
Have you connected with others through music? How does music connect us in today’s global village?
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