On Saturday night the energy of Rio filled my Mount Pleasant row house. Furniture cleared-out, carpets rolled-up, my dining room was transformed into a salon de choro; and my guests and I were treated to a concert and masterclass on this special, antecedent genre of Brazilian music.
After the first lively, toe-tapping tune, in a question-answer with the musicians, we in the audience were surprised to discover that this choro music was originally composed and played in the late 19th century. It sounded so modern, so 21st century.
Choro, which means cry in Portuguese, the band members explained, was rooted in the compositions of Ernesto Nazareth, a pianist from Rio de Janeiro, who was highly influenced by Chopin. He blended African and European rhythms to create a unique and danceable sound he called ‘Brazilian tango’, and began his career playing his pieces in cafes, at balls and society parties and in the lobbies of movie theaters.
Despite the name, choro music actually has a happy, upbeat rhythm characterized by sometimes complex syncopations, counterpoints and improvisations. Another theory on the name choro is that it derives from the term choromeleiro, which were slave ensembles hired out for parties during the colonial era.
Apparently, there’s no crying allowed in choro!
We definitely were not crying on Saturday night. Our band leader, Rogerio Souza, guitarist and master of the choro style, also a Carioca (native of Rio), had arranged all the pieces on the program, many of which were Nazareth’s (which he pronounced Nazaray).
The band, comprised of Souza on lead seven-string guitar, his protégé Edinho Gerber also on guitar, Leonardo Lucini, Brazilian-born local on seven-string bass, Andy Connell, professor of music at James Madison, and the ever-magnanimous Gigi Rezende MacLaughlin on rebolo drum, was a marvel of improvisational energy. They handled the complex, syncopated rhythms masterfully, handing the baton smoothly from one lead to the next, and filling my house (with no amplification necessary) with this happy, virtuoso sound.
The audience responded with reverence, leaning forward in their chairs, hanging like lovers on every note, and at times, unable to contain a response, ohhing, ahhing and clapping after solos to egg the musicians on. It was that symbiosis between creation and appreciation that makes one feel part of something bigger – certainly bigger than a little, intimate house concert in Mount Pleasant.
But by the last tune of the night, after a few glasses of wine and two sets of sublime choro, it was too hard to contain the energy any longer. Gigi’s drum beating, 20-strings strumming, and Andy’s horn wailing, we spectators were up on our feet, moving our limbs on my tiny dining room dance floor.
It was a tune by Baden Powell, a more modern choro composer, called Lapinha, which refers to a favela in Salvador, Bahia. The lyrics, by Paulo César Pinheiro, say: ‘When I die, bury me in Lapinha.’ In myth, Baden Powell, who died in 2000, got his wish; but in fact, as Professor Connell points out, Powell was buried in São João Batista cemetery in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro.
Catch Rogerio Souza’s choro combo on Friday night at Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel, MD before he departs for the Midwest and West Coast. You’ll be glad you did. Tickets at http://www.goldstar.com/washington-dc/events/laurel-md/rogerio-souza-quartet-tickets