Some years back a Brazilian musical friend stated “we are amazed to find our music here so far from home in your little village.” I laughed about someone thinking of Port Townsend as a “little village”. But the thought is apt.
In April, for the 13th time, a group of top Brazilian musicians will arrive to once again teach and perform the Brazilian music called “Choro” at Centrum. This incredibly successful workshop and concert (which has sold out every single year) represented the first workshop in North America to focus entirely on choro. The initial year, the teachers comprised of the Mike Marshall band, “Choro Famoso”. Marshall, a very famous bluegrass mandolin player, along with Port Townsend based legendary mandolin player and record producer David Grisman, had, in the early 1990s, brought the mandolin music of Jacob do Bandolim (bandolim is the Portuguese word for mandolin, many Brazilian musicians take the name of their instrument as a nickname) to North America. They reissued a couple of CDs of the best of Jacob’s work. (Jacob had died of a heart attack in 1969). This re-release was the spark that lit the fire.
Jacob was to Brazilian choro what Bill Monroe was to American bluegrass, a musician that forged new music from older forms. The son of an immigrant Jewish girl and a middle-class father, Jacob showed musical genius from a young age. He worked in a number of bands before forming his own combo in the late 40s. He was a studio perfectionist and he reworked the historical older choro music to create a new string band sound that used the songs that came out of marching bands, solo pianists, Brazilian versions of New Orleans jazz like bands of the 20s, big bands of the thirties and created a sound that included both six and seven string guitars, sometimes a Brazilian uke like instrument using steel strings called a cavaquino, and a small hand drum called pandeiro. The music he created was a new form of choro music, that persists to this day. It was extremely popular in the 50s and 60s, and after his death, a number of musicians carried it on and built on it. Jacob’s style was often blazingly fast but could also be heartbreakingly beautifully slow. He wrote numerous original hits.
Mandolin players, especially under Mike Marshall’s guidance in the Bay area, began playing it, and other musicians quickly joined in. The use of flute, saxophone, clarinet and other melody instruments which play choro added to the ability to draw in players from outside the normal bluegrass world. San Francisco also is a center of the Brazilian diaspora on the west coast and has a strong samba musical scene. Samba is the dance music that supplanted much of the 1920s choro as the 1930s began. The creation of a “Brazil Camp” in the late 90s in Cazadero on the Russian River cemented the growth of Brazilian music on the coast. A week of cultural learning on the language, the music and the food of Brazil has become a must attend for musicians learning Brazilian styles including samba, choro, bossa, Brazilian percussion, called bateria, candomble, Orixas dance and other Brazilian musical forms. The universe of Brazilian music is as vast if not more so than North America’s.
Choro was one of the original Brazilian musical forms, coming out of the late 1800s in Rio de Janeiro. An urban music, akin to North American and European musical forms of the day, with the African backbeat that differentiates Brazilian music from European “marching band” and the American blues. Choro has expanded on the world music scene in the last twenty years. Because of its complexity and use of many melodic instruments, classical players have migrated to its swinging flow, along with jazz and bluegrass players. The “roda” or jam circle is similar to the familiar North American jazz and bluegrass circles, with musicians taking turns to show off their playing.
After Marshall and Grisman launched the music with their releases of Jacob’s recordings, and subsequent recordings by Marshall with noted Brazilian musicians living in North America such as Jovino Santos Neto, Port Townsend based Steven Ruffo, Marshall and Grisman were convinced to bring choro mandolin players to their “Mandolin Symposium” in the hills above Santa Cruz in the early 2000s. There I first sat in on a class that comprised of some of the best mandolin players in Brazil, including Hamilton de Holanda, Danilo Brito and his band and Dudu Maia. What was taught at that workshop was revolutionary to many of us on mandolin in this country. We had learned our bluegrass and jazz ways of playing mandolin but had never experienced being part of a band with percussion and even horns. A great many mandolin players, including Chris Thile, who attended those early workshops, were introduced to the new musical world of choro and took it back to their cities. Marshall created a choro workbook, to easily share the music, which at the time was very hard to find. His book became the “bible” of roda circles around the country, until a later series of “white books” produced in Brazil, became available here.
In late 2006, Mike Marshall, Edgar Meyer and John Clayton held an invitation only workshop for advanced players at Centrum.At that workshop, Marshall introduced a number of choroes to the players there. Centrum Executive Director and bass player John McElwhee took note of the interest. John was also attending an informal jam at my house each week with players interested in choro. John, Centrum Program Manager Gregg Miller and I all hit upon the idea of producing a workshop, since none was being done in North America, besides the sideline classes at Brazil Camp. (I was on Centrum’s board of directors at the time). John decided to try it out and we filled the program in the spring of 2007, along with selling out the instructor concert at the end of the week’s classes. Mike Marshall’s band, Choro Famoso led the instruction. The late-night jamming was a huge success.
After Mike’s successful year, Gregg came to me saying that Centrum’s mission was to include the originators of the music of the Americas. He wondered if we could bring up Brazilians to teach the workshop, and who might be the right musicians for such a workshop. I was stunned, as I knew how expensive that could be. Centrum would have to expand the amount of students to pull it off and I was happy to help get the word out. I also suggested Dudu Maia as the musical director, because of his wonderful teaching techniques and flawless command of English which had garnered a standing ovation of both teachers and students in Santa Cruz. Gregg was onboard. Dudu brought along 7 string guitarist Douglas Lora, percussionist Alexandre Lora (Douglas’ brother), who were part of his trio called Trio Brasileiro. Gregg suggested adding local Brazilian jazz great Jovino Santos Neto, who played piano for 12 years with the Brazilian legend Hermeto Pascoal and knew choro along with his mastery of jazz. Jovino and his wife Luzia have lived in Seattle since the early 90s, as he has taught music at Cornish. He brings a multi-dimensional approach to the music and his wide-ranging lectures are not to be missed. Jovino has also brought world premieres of his new choro repertoire and introduced old original scores of Brazilian masterpieces that have not been performed anywhere for many decades. The student concerts on Sunday morning are rich in choro historical music.
As it became a successful workshop, Gregg suggested that Anat Cohen might be a good fit. Israeli born and trained at Berklee; she fell in love with Choro after graduation and spent six months in Rio, learning the language and living with multi-instrumentalist Daniela Spielmann, who was playing with the likes of jazz great Paolo Moura. Together they had spent many long nights jamming in the clubs.
Anat was intrigued and ended up signing up after Gregg and Clayton agreed to add her to the jazz workshop at Centrum along with the Choro workshop. Anat has been declared Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association every year since 2007 and has also been named the top clarinetist in both the readers and critics polls in DownBeat for multiple years running. Her infectious laugh and incredibly fiery playing along with her ability to teach to all levels has made her a favorite at the workshops. Anat’s participation led to her joining up and touring with Trio Brasileiro and the creation of a CD with them that was nominated for a Latin Grammy.
A few years ago, Anat recommended adding Daniela Speilmann on sax. A PhD in music along with her amazing history of performing with the greats in the Brazilian scene made her a natural to teach at Centrum.
The Pandemic forced the workshop online, and this year gathers again the musical geniuses that have vaulted Centrum into the ‘biggest little village” in North America with regards to Choro music. While new workshops have started in other areas of the country, Centrum continues to be regarded as the centerpiece of the North American hub of choro music. Out of this starting point, musical choro scenes in Seattle, New Orleans, New York, Olympia, Portland and many other locales have sprung up. Additionally, choro online groups on Facebook have brought together musicians from around the world playing this music. Bellevue, Port Townsend and Hawaii now have radio shows dedicated to Brazilian music, including choro every week, broadcasting worldwide. I run the KPTZ.ORG show, Music2DrinkCoffee2 every Wednesday.
Every April, Port Townsend welcomes the explosion of choro music nationally that a few west coast musicians and fans helped launch. Continued support by current Centrum executive director Rob Birman and the sellout performances at the Wheeler Theatre the future of this unique musical learning experience is assured. The hope is that you will treat yourselves to one of the most creative, melodic musical genres you have never heard, right here in our little village. Unfortunately, perhaps because of this article it appears as though they sold out on the day this article came out. But there will be next year!