By André Diniz and Diogo Cunha
The boy wearing short pants
“choro is a lively and delicious genre”
– Hey you, kid! Yeah, you there, wearing short pants! Come over here to the center of the ballroom.
Coyly, looking downward, the boy approached the small stage of Choperia Concha, in the district of Lapa.
– Yes sir, said the painfully shy boy.
– You’re always watching our rehearsals with that flute in your hands. Play something for us. We sure could use a flutist here!
The maestro said those words wondering whether the presentation would not turn into a complete fiasco. But after his friend China, the boy’s older brother, insisted on the performance, he eventually accepted. The boy promptly got his flute from the case and started playing beautifully, with improvisations and ornaments that clearly showed his level of intimacy with the instrument.
– Wow, that’s beautiful, exclaimed the maestro, still speechless. Guys, we found our flutist for the season. And he is still wearing short pants …
In 1911, at only 13, Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho, a.k.a. Pixinguinha, the greatest name in choro of all time, started to take his first steps toward his professional career.
This genre — born in Rio de Janeiro, whose form emerged from the jam sessions led around the city by flutist Joaquim Callado as late as the 19th century — found in Pixinguinha the extraordinary talent of a full-fledged artist: flutist, saxophonist, composer and arranger. The black man with a wide smile, plump cheeks and angelical soul strongly marked the paths of popular music as from the 1920s.
Son of an amateur musician, his house was known as Pensão Viana (Viana Boarding House), a large house in the district of Catumbi where bohemians would gather for overnight musical jam sessions. A lot of famous instrumentalists would come and “drop by” the “boarding house.” Pixinguinha would listen to everything very attentively and, at 11, was already fingering his cavaquinho. Soon after that he moved on to the flute. And it was one of these boarding house guests who taught him music. An ophicleid* player in the Firefighters Band, Irineu de Almeida left as legacy to the boy’s musical education the counterpoint language (a secondary melody that speaks with the main melody). Some years after that, between 1940 and 1950, already working in a partnership with the excellent flutist Benedito Lacerda, saxophonist Pixinguinha would develop all his skills and nimbleness on the instrument, consolidating the counterpoint language in the Brazilian music. Their recordings are worthy of being included in an anthology: “1-0,” “Segura ele,” (Grab him) “Proesas de Solon,” (Solon’s Skills) “Naquele tempo,” (At that Time) “Sofres porque queres,” (You are hurting because you want to) …
At the beginning of his career, in 1919, Pixinga formed with his brother China and his friend Donga [author of the classic “Pelo Telefone,” (Over the telephone) among others], the first group of black players to perform in a fancy movie theater in downtown Rio, a place until then set apart for white musicians. Os Oito Batutas (The eight jim-dandies, name of his group) would also shock (high) society for being the first group to go on an international tour, in spite of the critics received from some “racists” ready to act. During the trip the Batutas caused sensation both in Brasil and in Europe. The several ensembles led by Pixinguinha made history in the Brazilian phonographic industry: Orquestra Típica Pixinguinha-Donga, Diabos do Céu, Velha Guarda, and Orquestra Columbia de Pixinguinha.
Maestro Pixinguinha has a lengthy and high-quality repertoire. He changed the logic of choro, composing the genre in two parts. Choro used to be composed according to the rondo format (three parts). The compositions “Lamento” (Lament) and “Carinhoso” (Affectionate) are examples of the new structure that Pixinguinha introduced to the style. Pixinga composed “Carinhoso” when he was 20. The song was not a sudden hit, so he kept it in a drawer. When Braguinha, a.k.a. João de Barros, wrote the lyrics for the melody, it became one of the greatest classics in history, and it was a smashing hit in 1937, sung by Orlando Silva. By the way, another big hit Orlando recorded on the same 78 rpm was the melody also written by Pixinguinha, “Rosa.”
The unique instrumentalist would not lose to the skillful and creative arranger. Pixinguinha experienced the beginning of radio days in Brazil and started working on orchestration for the big radio stations of the time. His work set the tone for Brazilian musical arrangements, especially highlighting the percussion instruments that had recently been supplied by their original sources, samba schools.
Theses, biographies, documentaries, and re-recordings tell the story of the black man who used his art to stand out among great men in our exclusionary society. However, maybe the best definition of Pixinguinha was given by researcher Ary Vasconcelos: “If you have 15 volumes available to speak about all types of Brazilian music, you can be sure it won’t be enough. But if have room for only one word, then it’s not all doom and gloom; write quickly: Pixinguinha.”
* [an old keyed instrument in the bass range, similar to the modern tuba]
“In my opinion, Pixinguinha was the father of Choro. All the songs he wrote are wonderful. In addition, he played perfectly well. He was an outstanding person. Being next to him was a great school to me, and I have to be grateful for that experience. It was unique. He was spectacular. In my opinion he was a saint. He never said one single harsh word to anyone."
Zé da Velha – Musician, trombonist, used to be one of Pixinguinha's friends at the end of the 50s.
"In every art movement the presence of a genius is essential to make a difference, to make the great leap forward. Pixinguinha gave form to Choro, dressed popular music with his orchestrations and christened a Brazilian way of playing. He really made a huge difference"