If I were to ask you to imagine the concept of ‘Brazilian music’, chances are that you’ll drift to the streets of Rio, thinking of carnival on colourful streets, with hard beats and the sounds of tambourines and whistles in the air. Generally speaking, you’re likely to think of samba. Ask a Brazilian, however, and they may talk about choro instead. Pronounced “SHOH-roh”, this more traditional strand of music has been described by Heitor Villa-Lobos – possibly the finest South American composer of all time – as the “true incarnation of Brazilian soul”.
Our representative for choro today is Jeremy Shaverin, the cavaquista of the award-winning band Alvorada, who are the second act in the 2019 SOAS Concert Series. Jeremy plays the cavaquinho, a small four-stringed Brazilian guitar, which earns him that exotic tag not often afforded to other children of North London. When looking at images of Alvorada, I’m struck by the way they sit in a sort of circle when they play; as if they’re huddled around a table, with the look of acoustic musicians adding some life to a cafe.
“That’s a roda,” Jeremy explains. The ‘r’ sounds more like a ‘h’. “This circle, this look is part of the choro genre. It’s created by people playing around bars and tables, and it allows us to see each other when we play. We don’t want a drummer at the back; we want and need to be able to see each other.”
It all looks very stripped back. “The way we present ourselves is something that naturally comes out with the music. Samba is a Brazilian cousin of choro; full of energy, with less focus on musical perfection. Choro, in comparison, is more finesse, more grace.” Jeremy searches for a good metaphor. “A samba group doing a photo would be quite informal. Choro is more formal.”
We’re understanding choro to be a sort of formal, organised variant of Brazilian music right now. This, however, is not quite the case. “The people know the tunes, but the way they play it is totally improvised.” Outside of music, the idea of collaborative improvisation can be difficult to process, but we can see it in full flow when you watch impromptu jam sessions. This concept appears to be fundamental to choro. “Someone will start playing, and then someone else will take over. It’s live, it’s interactive, and it’s playful. It’s almost like…you’re pushing each other out of the way. But nicely!”
Watching the video for the band’s single The Artful Dodger, you can see this in action. Flutist Rachel Hayter and clarinet player Andrew Woolf seem to take it in turns to carry the melodies; you can even see the two almost check to see if the other is about to play, so that they know when to stop. The roda is a charming set-up, and one definitely suited for intimate venues – “there’s a certain liveliness to small venues like that, that feeling of being crammed in” – but surely, it can’t translate to a bigger stage, say, a lecture theatre with just under 300 seats?
“We don’t want to ‘overperform’ when on bigger stages, so we try and replicate the atmosphere of nobody watching. In the case of SOAS’ lecture theatre, we’ll be a bit more spaced out, but we’ll still be sat in a semi-circle, so we can all see and play off each other.”
You may have noted that we’re talking about a band that plays fundamentally Brazilian music, but the band members named so far – with all due respect – do not have names that sound particularly Brazilian. Jeremy, Rachel, and Andrew are joined in Alvorada by Luiz Morais, who plays the 7-string guitar, and Alua Nascimento, who plays the pandeiro, a sort of tambourine. What you get is a nice blend of South America and Europe.
“We’ve all come from slightly different places, as you’ll have noticed. Alua and Luiz grew up in Brazil, and naturally ended up playing choro. Alua’s actually the latest in a long line of musicians in his family,” Jeremy says. “The rest of us all come from North London, and found our own way to choro. I improved with the cavaquinho when I lived in Brazil and played in processions for 2-3 years; Andrew played in a big carnival samba band; Rachel’s flute teacher as a child was Brazilian, and he gave her choro tunes to play.”
According to Jeremy, there are only around 10 professional choro players in London. Five of them form Alvorada – leaving me to privately express some pity for the five that didn’t quite make the cut when the band formed in 2016. I’m a little confused – if choro is a genre that relies on improvised collaboration, how did the band members play it before Alvorada was formed?
“We all played choro in London, individually, but together. You just play together.” Jeremy explains. “We all knew each other for some time, and we thought, rather than only relying on improvisation and having a spur of the moment thing, that we should work on more complex things, and we solidified the band.”
Alvorada state on their website that they’ve drawn influences from the UK, as well as other areas of the world. As we saw with Seby Ntege, cultural influences can enhance a sound; but for a genre that prides itself on representing authentic Brazil, is dilution not a problem? “So we come together, and are very respectful of everything that came before us, but we’re not afraid to add in what we know. You should only add to the canon when you understand what came before. We played 100+ choros together before we changed the formula.”
And as for the new formula?
“All of us bring elements from our musical histories. Andrew brings jazz influences – he studied jazz at university – Rachel plays a lot of folk, I play the cavaquinho more aggressively than is usual in choro, and that’s to do with my background as a percussionist, and my time playing samba. Initially, we wanted to prevent our backgrounds influencing our music…but we’ve actually gone the other way!”
And how do the Brazilians feel about that? “It’s been received really well. They love it – they really enjoy the fact that English people have paid respect to an authentic style. It’s very common for people to play music “as they play it” in this or that country. We’ve made an effort to understand, and now we’re doing our own thing.”
It’s an approach that has served Alvorada well. Their last performance in the UK sold out, while the group won the Latin UK Award for Brazilian Act of the Year, and the Focus Brasil Award for Best Musical Group within the last month. They’re clearly connecting with the essence of Brazil – a remarkable feat, for this writer, considering the diversity within the band. “Brazil is something special,” Jeremy effuses. “Over there, they have the ability to enjoy life, they don’t take anything too seriously.”
Jeremy refers to the disastrous 7-1 loss that Brazil endured against Germany in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup – widely considered the nadir for a proud footballing nation. “I watched it in Brazil, terrified that the locals might think I was German! After five goals, the Brazilians said ‘screw this’, started playing samba, making jokes about the game, and were dancing within an hour. The Brazilian soul is a playful one.”
A comment about the Brazilian soul feels apt coming from a choro musician. “It sounds like a wonderful place,” I say.
“Oh yes,” Jeremy laughs. Luiz and Alua loved it so much, they moved to England!”
Tickets for tomorrow’s performance at the Brunei Gallery can be found here.