How to play?

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The following text is primarily dedicated to those who have had little contact with Brazilian culture.

Let’s begin with the cultural aspect...

Could it be that in order to play choro, you necessarily have to be born and raised in Brazil?

Of course not, just as it’s not necessary to have been born and raised in the U.S. in order to play jazz.

But certainly, in order to play choro, one should try to develop a “Brazilian soul,” which has to do with the Brazilian way of life and Brazilian culture.

Living for a period of time in Brazil and interacting with our culture and music would certainly help to foster this “Brazilian soul,” and if that’s not possible, then visiting the country and immersing yourself in Brazilian culture would also be an option.

Much has been said and is still said about choro being “the Brazilian way to play European music.” But where does that saying come from, what’s the context behind this?

A little history on Brazilian music...

As unbelievable as it may seem, Napoleon Bonaparte is actually linked to how Brazilian music came into being, or at the very least, to the rate at which everything happened. But how so?

Brazil was discovered in the year 1500 and colonized by Portugal, in contrast to other countries in Latin America which were colonized by Spain. Brazil’s colonial capital was initially Salvador (1548) and in 1763 it was changed to Rio de Janeiro. But Rio de Janeiro, despite being the capital, was a decadent city and would continue being so until the arrival of the Portuguese Court, fleeing from Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion, in 1808.

The expansion of Napoleon’s empire in the beginning of the 19th century directly impacted Portugal in 1807, when Napoleon began his invasion of the country as its Prince Regent John VI refused to join Napoleon’s empire.

Vasco Mariz, in [1], tells us that the invasion came as no surprise to the Portuguese crown. The transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil had already been planned years in advance.

So John VI fled to Brazil, escorted by the British Royal Navy. In fact, Portugal and England have a long-standing tradition of cooperation that can be traced back to 1373 with the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty, the oldest active treaty in the world. This relationship between the two nations even brought about some expressions in Brazilian culture, namely “é só para inglês ver,” which translates to “for British eyes only.”

The number of people of the Portuguese Crown that actually joined this escape trip to Brazil is still disputed. Estimates typically place the limit at 15,000 people, which would be the maximum capacity of passengers per ship multiplied by the total number of ships in the fleet.

In his book “1808” [2], Laurentino Gomes estimates this number to be between 10,000 and 15,000 people. In any case, we’re talking about thousands of people in the ranks of Portuguese society—noblemen, military, doctors, engineers, artists, musicians…people who would be responsible for forging a new trajectory in Brazilian society, and particularly in music and the arts.

But what was the context of popular music in 1808 when the Portuguese Crown arrived in Brazil?

Although no formal records exist from their inception, colonial Brazil at the end of the 18th century already had its own rhythms and popular music genres, among which the most notable were:

  • Modinha, or sentimental song, named by many as the first musical genre born in Brazil and the root of the creation of many other musical styles.
  • Lundu and Batuque: rhythms created by Brazilian-African descendants.

Upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro in March 1808, John VI found the colonial capital to be too decadent and initiated an overhaul of the city in every aspect: sanitation, street paving, new hospitals, universities, banks, military defense, the mint, the press, libraries, theaters, everything was modernized or created with the installation of the Portuguese court in the capital. As a direct consequence, the city of Rio de Janeiro underwent unprecedented changes, both urban and cultural.

John VI loved the arts and his son, Dom Pedro I, who would succeed his father as the emperor of Brazil in 1822, was a musician and composer. Musicians, new musical instruments, and new European rhythms arrived in Rio de Janeiro and were immediately accepted by society. In very little time, the city of Rio de Janeiro came to be known, according to the poet Araújo Porto Alegre, as the “city of pianos.”

Choro is the result of Brazilian musicians’ exposure to European musical styles, essentially the polka (first introduced in Rio in 1845), in a musical environment that was already strongly influenced by African rhythms, mainly Lundu (which had been present in Brazilian culture since the end of the 18th century). Just like ragtime in the United States, choro emerged as a result of the influences of musical styles and rhythms of two continents: Europe and Africa.

The first use of the term “choro” appears in the 1870’s, when flutist Joaquin Antônio da Silva Callado, considered a pioneer in this process of fusing European/African musical styles and rhythms, formed a group called “Choro Carioca.” The Maestro and Professor Baptista Siqueira [3], one of Joaquim Callado’s biographers, explains that with Choro Carioca, or simply Choro de Callado (Callado’s Choro), “and so the most unique small musical group of our country was founded. It comprised, from its origin, a solo instrument, two guitars and a cavaquinho, wherein only one of the components knew how to read music: the rest were to improvise the harmonic accompaniment.”

[1] A música no Rio de Janeiro no tempo de D. João VI, Vasco Mariz, Casa da Palavra, 2008

[2] 1808, Laurentino Gomes, 2a Edição, Editora Planeta do Brasil, 2007

[3] Três vultos históricos da música brasileira: Mesquita, Callado e Anacleto, João Baptista Siqueira, Sociedade Cultural e Artística Uirapuru/ MEC (RJ), 1969.

With that, it’s a little easier to understand our sentence that we quoted earlier: “Choro is the Brazilian way to play European music.”

European music would be the rhythms and styles that arrived in Brazil in the years and decades after the arrival of the Royal Family: polka, schottische, mazurka, waltz, tango, etc.

The “Brazilian way” refers primarily to the syncopated rhythms that were already present in Brazilian society, which came from African traditions that were significantly linked to African religions. And it is actually much more than that, this “Brazilian way” has to do with our “swing,” our malice, our spontaneity, our creativity, and many other attributes that are very complicated to explain in writing. My personal “attempt” to convey to you, the reader, a sense of what the “Brazilian way” of playing music is in written form, is in this text.

An excellent book that explores this whole universe of the history and conduct of the Brazilian musician, done entirely in interviews, is “Choro Conversations” by Julie Koidin, an American flutist who, over the course of several years, interviewed the main players in choro and Brazilian instrumental music. In her book you’ll find the personal perspectives, or as I said above, the “personal attempts” of Altamiro Carrilho, Sivuca, Paulo Moura, Hermeto Pascoal and many others on this subject.

In reading all these attempts, you might be able to have an initial understanding about this topic. But the best understanding, as I already emphasized, comes from personally interacting with the musicians in Brazil for some time, immersing oneself in the music and the culture.

But returning to our topic on the history of choro, I’d like to point out that the issues are not even fully understood by Brazilian musicians themselves. I’ve seen foreigners more well-versed on our history than Brazilians themselves. On once occasion, as I was giving a lecture in the countryside of state of São Paulo, I asked the audience where choro came from and heard the following response: “Choro was born in Bexiga” (Bexiga is a neighborhood in the city of São Paulo, known for its roots in the Italian immigration to SP).

Choro actually originated from the city of Rio de Janeiro, it is an urban phenomenon of the city from the end of the 19th century. This much has to be clear. Choro was exported from Rio to the other Brazilian states in the following years and decades, and today you can find the highest quality choro throughout all of Brazil, but its origins cannot be negated nor distorted.

What about samba, bossa nova, and other musical styles, how are they related to choro?

The recording of “Pelo Telefone” in 1917 is frequently cited as the first phonographic record of samba in Brazil and as the first milestone for samba in its rise to popularity, but it should be noted that the root of samba is directly linked to the culture and religious traditions of the African descendants in Brazil, who first arrived in Brazil in the 16th century.

Choro borrowed rhythmic elements from these traditions in order to emerge in the 1870’s in Rio de Janeiro and proceeded as an entity distinct from samba. Samba borrowed harmonic elements from European traditions in order to solidify itself at the start of the 20th century, and it continued as an entity distinct from choro.

A very similar comparison can be made with American music: the blues are directly linked to the traditions of African descendants in the U.S., much like samba in Brazil. Ragtime, just like choro in Brazil, utilized rhythmic elements from the traditions of black people, emerging in 1893. Jazz emerged directly afterward, in 1917. The blues have remained an entity distinct from jazz.

Bossa nova emerged in the 50s in Rio de Janeiro as a new idea stemming from the “samba-canção” (samba song), utilizing more complex harmonies found in jazz.

Where can I find research literature about choro?

Because the origins of choro are in Rio de Janeiro, the best options for researching the genre are found there. Unfortunately, many of the sites that feature digital archives are only available in Portuguese. The best options are:

A little more about Brazilian culture

The digital explosion that the world saw at the end of the 20th century, specifically in 1993 when the Internet was made available to the public, has made every type of information accessible to us in an immediate, comprehensive, and globalized manner.

I invite you to research the following subjects relative to Brazilian culture, which will help you to further comprehend this notion of the “Brazilian way” of playing music:

  • Immigration: what were the migration flows ever since Brazil’s discovery? Which regions in Brazil were involved in the process? How did each of these cultures end up influencing Brazilian culture?
  • Food and drink: what are the typical foods found in major areas of Brazil? What is “feijoada” and its origins? What is cachaça? What is a caipirinha, and how are they prepared?
  • What does soccer represent to the typical Brazilian? Why do our swing, our malice, our spontaneity, our creativity which we mentioned above, apply as much to music as they do to soccer?
  • What is Brazilian carnival? What is a samba school? What are the origins of these terms?
  • What is a “malandro” and “malandragem”? What is the “jeitinho brasileiro”? How are these connected to music, especially samba, in the past and the present?
  • What does “saudade” mean? Why does this word not have an English equivalent? What are its connections to music?

You could be asking, “But Daniel, I could spend months, maybe years, on each of these topics in order to understand everything…” I would say: not necessarily… it’s going to depend on how deep you want to delve. I’ve experimented with Google search and found adequate answers in less than 30 minutes for each subject; in other words, in about a week (half an hour per day), you could obtain a good enough knowledge of Brazilian culture before (or without) making the “dream trip” to Brazil.

The issue with the word “malice”

I asked my teenage daughters, who are growing up outside of Brazil, to read and do some research on my suggestions above. They immediately brought up this issue: “The word ‘malice’ only carries negative connotations, about doing harm to others.”

I argued that the term has other meanings, but after some research I ended up losing the argument; they were right…in American culture, the word “malice” is strictly negative, and all the English language dictionaries define it in a traditionally negative way. But in Brazilian culture, there are other connotations behind the word. Portuguese dictionaries will reveal other senses: cunning, deviousness, craftiness. These are the senses of the word that I refer to here.

Listening to choro...

More than any written text, even by the greatest masters in the subjects I mentioned above, nothing compares to the experience of listening to choro and Brazilian music directly from the source.

Just as a “picture’s worth a thousand words,” I would say that “three minutes of music is worth a thousand words.”

After gaining a basic understanding of Brazilian culture, the next step is to listen to choro, preferably performed by the genre’s pioneers and trailblazers in their original recordings. Choro Music’s own recordings and many others are certainly great, but they can never replace the originals.

But who should you listen to?

Ary Vasconcelos, a researcher of Brazilian popular music, wrote: If you have 15 written volumes to talk about all of Brazilian popular music, be certain that it is not enough. But if you only have the space of a word, then all is not lost; write quickly: Pixinguinha.

So there’s your first name. I would suggest two more: Jacob do Bandolim and Benedito Lacerda. Listening to the original recordings of these three choro masters will without a doubt expose you to the heart and soul of choro.

Where can you find and listen to these historic phonograms?

The internet is replete with sites, YouTube perhaps being the most immediate and easy to use. But if you want to truly delve deep in terms of research, the Instituto Moreira Salles website is an ideal source (again, only available in Portuguese).

Some words about playing choro by important figures

“The European phrasing that gave rise to the Choro underwent modifications as the music was exposed to dance, always adjusting itself to new Brazilian swing [...] In relation to the scores, one may say that ‘what is written is not always what is played’: each form of music has its own style, and in Choro – because it is a music with many variations, counterpoints, rich and long melodies, and rhythmic conventions that also encompassed a great variety of styles (waltz, polka, schottische, maxixe, samba, etc) within a period of more than a century - it is really difficult to summarize in a simple piece of paper the translation of all its richness. It is always important for musicians to have a broad knowledge of their repertoire to be able to feel comfortable and create based on the score that is guiding them.”

Mário Sève (flutist, saxophonist, composer and arranger), text extracted from his book Vocabulário do Choro, Estudos e Composições (Vocabulary of Choro, Studies and Compositions) (Editora Lumiar, ISBN 85-85426-48-9), one of the most complete and important books ever written about Choro phrasing.

“[...] It is always good to remember that in Choro, as by the way in the entire Brazilian popular music, the spirit of liberty and creativity are fundamental, essential elements. Both in music and in dance Brazilians have always fully expressed their inclination towards liberty. Conductor Radamés Gnattali, another very important personality in our history, says that during a rehearsal he heard Pixinguinha play the same music over and over again, dozens of times, amusing himself with the notes and improvising in such a way that, although it was always the same piece of music, each time it was a new one, and always beautiful."

Toninho Carrasqueira (flutist, researcher and Professor of the University of São Paulo), text extracted from “O melhor de Pixinguinha” (The best of Pixinguinha), by Irmãos Vitalle, ISBN 85-85188-54-5.

“To play Choro is something that comes from the soul; it is primarily a state of mind. It is a process of mixed accents derived from several ethnic groups but based on the same cultural elements, especially the European dances (mainly the ‘polka’), to which the accent of the colonizer and other influences (the Native American and the Afro American) were then added. The rhythmic differences derive from each colonizer - the French, the Spanish, the English, the German, etc. Thus when we observe maxixe (Brazil), or rumba or salsa, (Cuba) or ragtime (USA) or any and all dance rhythms, we notice that they are adaptations of the polka. In Brazil, choro, samba, maxixe, schottische, modinha, etc. prevailed (the last ones are more sentimental types of music).”

“In relation to ‘Choro de Roda’ (Choro Jam Session) (in my humble opinion), playing it means releasing yourself from scores and other dogmas that could contradict a certain state of mind of its participants – it means that you are free to improvise and include the popular ‘provocations’ to your pairs, be them of a harmonic, rhythmic or melodic nature, transforming everything into a blended union of surprises and mischief (in a good way). I have already seen a jam session with Jacob do Bandolim (with whom I learned a great deal), in which he played one of his sambas (‘Bole-Bole – Shaking the hips’)  for no less than 45 minutes, with various improvisations, one more beautiful than the other, or even play a waltz during which performance those more sensitive were unable to hide their tears. This is what I think it is to play choro, these things that we have no longer seen in the shows of new Chorões, who are more concerned about showing their playing speed – It’s amazing, I dread to think that some pseudo chorão may some day release the ‘choro-rock’ – which is not difficult. May God protect us from those thoughtless ones.”

Izaías Bueno (mandolinist, researcher and arranger)

Finally, some technical commentary

Immersing oneself in Brazilian culture and listening to the great masters of Brazilian choro in their original recordings may seem like sufficient starts in learning or perfecting one’s musical form.

What I attempt to do below should be seen more as a personal illustration of mine to hopefully help you even more in the process.

The quotes and examples I provide below are just some aspects of playing choro that I believe to be relevant; they should not be construed as a complete package.

Rhythmic aspect

The biggest difficulty that I’ve noticed in musicians that are being introduced to choro is linked to the rhythmic aspect. In my opinion, this is the most important aspect. You could be producing the most beautiful sounds possible with your instrument and have the most accurate technique, but without refining your rhythm, you’ll find it very difficult to play certain choros and to develop the so-called “swing,” or “ginga.”

The word “ginga” has its origins in capoeira, and is the name for one of the sport’s most fundamental movements. In fact, capoeria is another element of Brazilian culture that should be in your line of query (what is it? where did it come from? Try watching a video on Youtube about the “ginga” movement).

If you’ve never been exposed to Brazilian rhythms, don’t be discouraged. With a little effort and practice, you’ll be able to develop the necessary “swing” to play any choro.

Next we present you with some suggested exercises to help you improve in this aspect.

Play the following solo segments with each of the provided audio tracks. The variations on pandeiro were performed by the great musician, Jorginho do Pandeiro (Epoca de Ouro).

  1. 122 bpm
  2. 119 bpm
  3. 105 bpm
  4. 105 bpm
  5. 105 bpm
    The same rhythm now with the help of the click.

The final test that I tend to do with beginners in choro is to ask that they play Jacob do Bandolim’s “Bole Bole.”

Characteristic syncopation

Defined as a sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth note (), this is the most important rhythmic cell of choro and samba and is not necessarily always played as it is written. The musician is free to make their own rhythmic constructions and provide a balance to the choro.

Here is part B of Ernesto Nazareth’s choro, “Nenê” (transposed to the key in which Jacob plays):

Try playing the above segment on your instrument.

  1. Nenê

Now listen to Jacob do Bandolim’s rendition:

  1. Nenê
    Jacob do Bandolim

The same part played now by Evandro and his Regional:

  1. Nenê
    Evandro and his Regional

Here is part B of Ernesto Nazareth’s choro, “Matuto.”

Listen to the performance by Benedito Lacerda (for now, let’s ignore the various other alterations he makes in the melody and pay special attention to measures 4 and 12).

  1. Matuto
    Benedito Lacerda

What can we deduce from these masters’ performances of characteristic syncopation?

  • That they are frequently played as triplets ()
  • That they frequently occur with anticipations, in which the characteristic syncopation’s eighth note is transformed into a sixteenth note, and the first note of the following bar is sped up and incorporated into the final sequence of three sixteenths and connected to the first note of the next bar.

Here is what Jacob do Bandolim plays, simplified and approximated. Take a look at the detail of the speeding up to which I refer, in bars 1, 2, 3, and 6.

  1. Nenê
    Jacob do Bandolim

Evandro uses the tool of anticipation to the extreme. See how his rendition looks:

  1. Nenê
    Evandro and his Regional

It’s important for you to have references in your musical and rhythmic vocabulary on the implementation of characteristic syncopations (another reason why you should often listen to the original recordings of the great choro masters) so that you can construct your own interpretations.

Utilizing ornamentation

It’s very common to use the techniques of glissandos, trills, mordents, flutter-tonguings, appoggiatura (especially in octaves) and other types of ornamentation.

Play the segment below of the choro “Castigando” by Dante Santoro, in the form in which it’s written. Now note, in this recording by Dante Santoro himself, that in the first 30 seconds you’ll find:

  • glissandos (b.3 and b.4)
  • trill (b.5)
  • flutter-tonguing (b.8)
  • appoggiatura in octave (b.12)
  • embellishment (b.14)
  • trill (b.15)
  • multiple staccatos (b.16)
  1. Castigando
    Dante Santoro

© 1960 Irmãos Vitale S/A Ind e Com

Of course, in the end, how and when to use these ornaments is all a matter of personal style, but one thing is certain: all of these tools, if used with discretion, can give your musical interpretation a certain shine, or, if used too often, they can have a negative effect on your audience.

A little on improvisation in choro

The great flutist Altamiro Carrilho had an interesting and notable opinion in regards to this aspect of choro: “I love to improvise! I don’t play the same musical phrase twice; each time I play it’s a different phrase.” ( This quote by Altamiro Carrilho relates not only to the soloist, but to each member of a choro regional. But what’s the meaning behind his saying that “each time I play it’s a different phrase”? To the soloist, a lot of improvisation in traditional choro is based on variations in the rhythmic division of the melody and the use of ornamentation (glissandos, appoggiaturas, mordents, and flutter-tonguings, typically), which tend to occur in few bars and in the repetition of parts (after each part’s theme has been exposed as was originally written).

Nothing impedes the soloist from using improvisation on top of the chords (or any technique typical of jazz improvisation) and in long stretches of the song, but this is not common in traditional choro, which tends to favor discretion in improvisation, allowing the manifestation of the beauty and complexity that are characteristic of choro melodies.

In relation to the other instruments of the choro regional, the 7-string guitar constantly improvises its bass in the melodic counterpoint (baixarias), the 6-string guitar and cavaquinho improvise rhythmic variations in performing the chords, and the pandeiro seeks to avoid monotony in its beat pattern (often even to the point of becoming bothersome to the player) with their “turns” and rhythmic variations. Both the soloist and the regional as a whole, then, seek a balance in the execution of the piece, avoiding any of the following extremes:

a- Neither calling too much attention to oneself by improvising long stretches of each part and repetition, which sometimes defaces a choro,

b- Nor falling into monotony in one’s performance from start to finish without any rhythmic variation, changes in octave or dynamic, or addition of ornaments or improvisations over the chords.

Let’s remember that a typical choro takes the form AA BB A CC A, and as musicians, we want to avoid playing three repetitions of part A and each of the repetitions of parts B and C without any variation of any kind. This is especially relevant for the soloist.