What is Choro?

Choro (pronounced “shoh-roh;” “cho” as in “sho” of “show,” “ro” as in “ro” of “rose” when pronounced with a Scottish accent), popularly called chorinho, is a Brazilian popular and instrumental music genre that has more than 130 years of existence. A Choro Ensemble is called “Regional,” and a musician, composer or instrumentalist is called “Chorão” (or weeper). In spite of its name, this kind of music has, in general, a very vibrant and cheerful beat, characterized by the virtuosity and improvisation of its participants. Choro represents the most typical Brazilian instrumental formation, as well as the longest-standing musical organized group within the Brazilian popular music.

The Choro Ensemble is traditionally formed of one or more solo instruments (flute, mandolin, clarinet or saxophone) and the cavaquinho, guitars and pandeiro as accompaniment instruments. The cavaquinho performs rhythms following the harmony, one or more 6-string guitars (along with the 7-string guitar) perform the harmony and the variations/modulations, the 7-string guitar acts as bass, and the pandeiro establishes and keeps the rhythm of the music. The cavaquinho, despite its limited range extension, can also be used as a solo instrument.

Choro, in its essence, is a purely instrumental musical genre. In the very few cases of Choros with lyrics we may say that a large part was written years after they were composed by the author, or even years after the composer’s death.

We could say that Choro has its historical dawn in the city of Rio de Janeiro in the early 19th century, with the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil, fleeing from Napoleon’s invasion and bringing along fifteen thousand Europeans. As a direct consequence, the city of Rio de Janeiro undergoes unprecedented urban and cultural transformations. Musicians, new musical instruments and new European rhythms reach the city and are immediately accepted by local society. Before long, the city of Rio de Janeiro becomes known, as attested by the poet Araújo Porto Alegre, as “the city of pianos.”

Choro resulted from the exposure of Brazilian musicians to European musical styles, mainly the polka (introduced in Rio de Janeiro in 1845), in a musical environment that was already strongly influenced by African rhythms, principally the Lundu, that had been present in the Brazilian culture since the end of the 18th century. Just like Ragtime in the United States, Choro springs up as a result of influences of musical styles and rhythms coming from two continents: Europe and Africa.

The first reference to the term "Choro" was made in the 1870’s, when flutist Joaquim Antônio da Silva Callado, regarded as a pioneer in this process of merging European and African musical styles and rhythms, formed an ensemble called "Choro Carioca" (Choro from Rio de Janeiro). Maestro and Professor Baptista Siqueira, the biographer of Joaquim Callado, explains that "when Callado formed the Choro Carioca, or simply "Choro de Callado," (Mr. Callado’s Choro), he organized the most out-of-the-ordinary small musical group in Brazil. Since its beginning the group had one solo instrument (the flute), two guitars, and one cavaquinho, and only one of the composers could read music: all the others would improvise the harmonic accompaniment.”

Where does the word “Choro” come from?

Among researchers, it seems that no uniform stand has been taken on the origin of the word “Choro.”

The word may have derived from the plaintive style of playing foreign songs at the end of the 19th century, and its enthusiasts started to call it “weeping music.” Hence the word Choro. The Choro Ensemble, as a group, then started to be known as Choro, as in “Choro de Callado” (Mr. Callado’s Choro).

The term may also have derived from “xolo,” a sort of ball that would gather slaves of the farms, an expression which, based on the confusion caused by its paronym in the Portuguese language, started to be known as “xoro” and finally, in the city, must have started to be spelled with “ch.”

Others argue that the origin of the term is related to the melancholic feeling conveyed by the guitar improvised modulations played in response to the principal theme (also known in the Portuguese language as “baixarias”).