Choro-scuro: Danilo Brito brings Brazil's soul to Kerrytown Concert House


"Heitor Villa-Lobos said that choro represents the soul of Brazilian people," said Danilo Brito, a mandolinist from São Paulo who plays this form of music that Brazil's legendary composer so beloved.

The 32-year-old Brito has been playing choro -- a high-spirited, waltz- and polka-influenced music that dominated Brazilian popular music from the late 19th century and well into the 20th -- since he was a child. At age 10, he would go to music shops that hosted choro jams and would sit in with much older players, and at 19 he won the Prêmio Visa de Música Popular Brasileira, a prestigious competition that was held in São Paulo between 1998 and 2006.

As one of the leading exponents of choro, Brito is dedicated to exploring the genre's history and expanding on its compositional template, which typically includes three sections, all in different keys. "Choro continues to be played, composed, and is a living rich genre," he said.

Brito and his band -- Carlos Moura (7-string guitar), Guilherme Girardi (6-string guitar), and Lucas Arantes (cavaquinho, a small 4-string guitar) -- will demonstrate choro's lifeforce with a show at Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, April 1. We talked with the mandolinist about his musical background and what makes choro the heart of all Brazilian popular music.

Q: Did your family play instruments around the house or professionally? What kinds of instruments and music did they play? A: My father played the cavaquinho since he was a child, he was self-taught also. Many years after, he discovered the mandolin. My brother, 15 years older, also played the cavaquinho. They played Brazilian instrumental music -- waltz, choro, baião, march, frevo, samba, etc. -- always around the house, never professionally.

Q: What led you to the mandolin versus guitar?
A: I believe that my interest for the mandolin was because the main music I heard was from the old vinyl records of Jacob do Bandolim and Waldir Azevedo, who were the greatest idols of my father and brother. Mandolin and cavaquinho were also instruments that we had at home. I started playing both.

Q: Did choro develop out of polkas and waltzes from Europe?
A: It developed from the European music in general, especially polka, that arrived in Brazil, fast and dancing, and soon Brazilian musicians were playing it in a slow, melancholic manner.

Q: Is it usually instrumental or are there choros with lyrics?
A: Choro is typically instrumental. Some choros had received lyrics after they were composed, not by the composer and many times without authorization. I am against including lyrics in a typically instrumental music. Choro already has long melodies and it's complex most part of the time. Also, lyrics tell a story that conducts the feeling of those who hear it. An instrumental piece leaves each one to feel their own way.

Q: How did the choro evolve into having its distinct structure?
A: This structure is common, but choro does not stick to it. A lot of the structure came from classical music. Ernesto Nazareth, pianist, and composer, born in 1863, considered one of the pillars of Brazilian music, loved Chopin and we can hear it clearly in his compositions. In Pixinguinha's counterpoints we perceive Bach's influence. Choro is a very intense music, being cheerful, romantic, or melancholic. I believe the unexpected and constant key changing has to do with this intensity of feelings. Although choro is considered popular music, it is a very complex music that borrows from the richest parts of European classical music.

Q: Any particular history as to how a traditional choro group's instrumental combination came about? Is it something about how the mandolin, 7-string, 6-string & 4-string instruments combine harmonically? I've also seen traditional choro ensembles include flutes.
A: In the beginning of choro manifestation, around 1860, the basic instrumentation -- excluding ensembles that had instruments of big bands -- had the flute as the soloist, accompanied by two guitars -- both 6-string -- and cavaquinho. This ensemble gathers everything needed for choro playing: harmony, melody, and rhythm. The guitars playing harmony, rhythm, and counterpoints. Cavaquinho is a harmony and rhythm extension of the guitars. Pandeiro (hand drum) was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. Choro can be played by any instruments that have these features, but the traditional ensemble serves it very well.

Q: Can you draw a pretty direct line of influence from choros to the Brazilian music most folks are familiar with, such as samba, bossa nova, and MPB? Your song "Pega Ratão" has a samba-choro feel.
A: All these genres came after choro -- samba, bossa nova, frevo, baião, etc. -- this way, we can perceive clearly the connection between them. Famous composers such as Tom Jobim, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and many others had their school in choro. In "Pega Ratão," in the introduction, I played the cavaquinho role -- accompaniment -- with a rhythm very close to samba, but when I begin the melody, it has, rhythmically, choro features. It may cause the feeling of samba and choro. [But] Radmés Gnattali said that choro is the last and most perfect stage of Brazilian music.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and editor of Pulp.

Danilo Brito plays Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor, on Saturday, April 1 at 8 pm. For tickets and more information, visit For more on choro's history, Marilynn Mair's articles "What Is Choro?" and "A History of Choro in Context" are great resources, as is Brita's own "What Is Choro?" essay.