The sweet rhythms of Brazilian choro music certainly tickled my dancing fancy as I listened to the band Sambossa rehearse. But space around flute player Gordon Giedt’s kitchen table was tight, and I had to content myself with foot taps as they poured out an older style of Latin jazz that’s as easy to listen to as it is hard to play. Giedt’s flute, clarinet and saxophone flirted over David Sackman’s seven-string guitar and Lawrence Drummond’s mandolin. Dan Krynytzky’s accordion filled in the spaces with a European cafe vibe, while Francine Joy and Steve Hayward kept everything moving forward with complicated, multirhythmic percussion played on traditional and modern hand drums, shakers, triangles and a snare drum and high hat. It has a distinct, pina colada tropical sound, if they served pina coladas in European cafes.
Choro, mercurial, complex and challenging, is a traditional music of Brazil that predates the more famous bossa nova and samba by over 100 years. Choro developed in the mid-1800s from blending European dance music – often polkas and waltzes – with Afro-Brazilian rhythms. While it’s said that the first choro musicians were actually barbers (enslaved Afro-Brazilian barbers were evidently expected to entertain their customers as well as groom them), by the late 19th century, choro music spread not just to upper-class soirees and dance halls in Brazil, but around the world as well. It was popular in the first half of the 20th century, until rock and roll eclipsed it (as it did many styles of music) in the 1950s. Fortunately for music lovers, choro had a revival in the ’70s that has lasted to the current day.
As the band played, I wanted to wriggle and glide at the same time, so infectious was the music. Giedt said that’s because Brazilian choro music never stands still; all the parts are constantly moving as each instrument takes up a strand of the woven sound. The insistent gentle beats, all conversing together, nudge you to move. It makes you want to dance, even though you might not know the original “naughty” maxixe dance of the 19th century that spread with choro, or the samba or tango. You can’t help it; your hips want to swing when this music plays.
Giedt’s syncopated melodies circle joyfully like swallows flying in the treetops. He loves the music because it’s such a joyful sound.
“Even though the word choro means ‘to cry,’ it’s sort of a happy sound,” he said. “It’s the reason I like it so much. There’s joy on everybody’s faces. The music grabs you and makes you feel happy.”
Percussionist Joy agrees.
“I know the word choro is supposed to mean ‘to cry,’” she said, “but to me it doesn’t sound sad at all. It’s warm and happy and bubbly.”
She provides that buoyant sound on a traditional drum called the pandeiro, a round frame drum that may look like a tambourine but has a few important differences: the metal jingles around the frame edge are tighter than on a tambourine, and the drum head is tunable for a deeper voice to mimic another drum called the rebolo.
“You want a contrast between the brightness of the jingles and the depth of the skin,” she said.
She holds the pandeiro in her left hand as her right hand dances over the drum skin, her fingertips, thumb and heel of her hand rapping out complicated sets of rhythms in bass and treble tones while the jingles ring out bright and crisp as sparkling wine.
The percussionists aren’t the only members of the band who provide rhythm; Joy said that she’s always listening to the melodies and the rhythmical patterns played by the other instruments. These layers of syncopated percussion, melody and countermelody, all playing with different rhythmic emphasis, create a complex musical texture.
Like Joy’s pandeiro that plays bass and treble at the same time, Sackman’s seven-string guitar has a dual role in choro music.
“The guitarist doesn’t just strum chords,” Giedt said. “The guitarist is really the bass player.”
Sackman gracefully keeps the bassline walking while at the same time he strums out complicated rhythmic melodies that seem to converse with Giedt’s flute.
The counter lines, called baixaria, played by Sackman, Drummond and Krynytzky, have the curious effect of voices speaking under the lead melody player, making musical comments and arpeggios of support.
“There’s a lot of counterpoint,” Giedt said. “It’s almost like a call and response. It’s not so much that they’re in competition; one will stop and the other will start. But there are some counter lines that are almost as important as the melody in terms of being recognized.”
Although traditionally choro blossomed in all-night music sessions called rodas (ah, musicians; they’ll play all night long if you let them!), it’s a difficult folk music to play.
“The melodies are pretty intricate,” Giedt admits. “There are a lot of notes. As the melody player, I’m constantly working on my scales to play the songs as quickly as they’re supposed to be played.”
The band doesn’t limit itself to choro; the members play a variety of traditional South American music, including Argentine tangos. But choro, sweet, saucy, happy, bubbly and supremely danceable, is their obvious favorite.
When I asked percussionist Hayward why he liked choro, he said, half joking, “It’s like pouring sugar in your ear.”
He’s not wrong. In a musical era where everything seems to include hard-driving drums and wailing electric guitars covering late-20th century rock and roll, the sweetness of Brazilian choro is a remarkable change of pace. It’s music that calls for a glass of white wine and a warm evening. Just make sure you have enough room to dance.
Sambossa performs at Brice Station Vineyards at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 21, as part of the free Music in the Parks series presented by the Calaveras County Arts Council.