In The Company of Greatness

by Tom on December 21, 2011

Photo from the window of Bar Semente

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I have been playing the choro style of Brazilian music now for quite some time, close to about 11 years. My interest and enthusiasm level for playing choro waxed and waned for probably the initial 8 years or so, taking lessons with Jan, playing occasionally in a local band with him and some other friends. We had fun learning new tunes, getting together to practice when we had gigs coming up, playing out in local cafes and such. This all changed nearly two years ago.

It’s Time To Get Serious

I had heard through the music grapevine about the revival of a choro workshop through Centrum, an organization housed at scenic Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington. I had been to Fort Worden for a work conference, and it is a beautiful location set right on Puget Sound. This workshop had been previously organized by mandolinist extraordinaire Mike Marshall, and he was bringing it back to PT in April 2010, accompanied by his cohorts in Choro Famoso. Naturally, I was thrilled to be able to learn from such a gifted and enthusiastic group of professional musicians, specializing in this very particular style of music that I had been studying for so long. It was an amazing weekend of camaraderie with students from near and far, those who had played choro before and those who hadn’t, with all varying degrees of ability. The culmination was an outstanding faculty concert put on by the same teachers who had spent their time sharing their knowledge and talents with us.

The following April 2011, I was the first to enroll in the choro workshop in PT, as it had been such a positive experience. Mike would not be rejoining as faculty, but his energy for the music was contagious and acted as a springboard here in the Pacific Northwest. The mandolin instructor this past year, Dudu Maia, came straight to us from Brazil’s capital city of Brasilia. Dudu is a well-known and respected choro musician in his own right, and probably even more so to Brazilians than those of us here in the States. I think what set this workshop apart from the first was the presence of native Brazilian musicians like Dudu, Douglas Lora, and Jovino Santos Neto, who grew up surrounded by this music.  The workshop and faculty concert were equally stunning, and we had such a great weekend of musical sharing. Dudu and his musical compatriot Douglas on 7-string guitar came down to Portland after the camp to play a Brazil for Japan Benefit and subsequent house concert.

As If This Weren’t Enough

By this point, I was pretty fired up and inspired to be playing such amazing, challenging music and learning from some truly great masters. I had joined forces with a couple friends to take our playing to the next level and get serious about the music we were creating. As if this weren’t enough to send my musical drive into outer space…we decided to go to Brazil.

See, there was this outside chance that Mike was going to be leading a musical tour of Rio in spring 2011 (as he had back in 2008), visiting all the historic and current choro hot spots, seeing some amazing players and immersing ourselves in the musical culture. When that trip fell through, well, the bug had already been planted and my wife didn’t take too much convincing to go as well.

We spent about 12 days in Brazil, about half of which were in Rio. And during that time, we were exposed to some truly great musicians playing choro music in its natural habitat. Lapa. Copacabana. Centro. My Carioca friends Amaro and Angela showed us some hot spots for music, such as Bar Semente in the revitalized musical mecca of Lapa (see below):

These guys are famous musicians in Rio: Ze Paulo Becker, Thiago Souza, Caio Marcio, Carlos Cesar. And here I was sitting in this tiny club with probably 6 tables in Rio de Janeiro, on a Monday night, jetlagged as hell, listening to them just. Tear. It. Up. And I felt grateful. Just grateful to be sitting there in that place and time. When they found out I played bandolim, they tried to get me to come up and sit in with them. Yeah, right! Maybe next time.

The one common thread to all these musical idols and teachers of mine is their grace and humility. Sure, they know they are awesome and can play circles around you. But they never show it. And I think that’s what keeps me admiring them and loving every minute of it.

Who are your role models? Do they strut their stuff or are they humble by nature?

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