Mandolinist Brito merges past and present

Danilo Brito

When Brazilian mandolinist Danilo Brito recorded his first album in 1998, he wasn't sure whether he would have a future as a professional musician. After all, not many 13-year-olds know what they want to do when they grow up.

Even at that young age, Brito had begun to master choro, a popular Brazilian music genre known for its syncopation, counterpoint and acoustic instrumentation. He learned its techniques by watching his father play, listening to old vinyls and playing with choro artists at informal gatherings. After performing with fellow Brazilian Nailor Azevedo at Spoleto USA four years ago, he returns to the festival on May 25 with his own ensemble from Sao Paulo. Angela Zonunpari interviewed the artist, who is now 29, about his music, career and upcoming performance.

Q: How were you introduced to choro?

A: I started playing because of my father, an amateur musician who had gathered a lot of knowledge about Brazilian music by the time he was 50, when I was born. He also inspired my brother to collect old LPs. So I grew up in a very musical environment. There's even a recording of a 5-year-old me playing the mandolin. I never took classes and I learned everything by listening, and developed my own technique of playing.

Q: What is choro?

A: Choro is authentic Brazilian music. It's born out of European classical music with a mix of African rhythms. There are some rules, or parameters, that must be present in a piece in order for it to sound as choro, but this doesn't mean that this music is stuck in the past or repetitive. The composer of choro has a lot of room to develop a unique style and create original beautiful pieces. The rules were developed as tools to have more effectiveness in technique and in transmitting emotion.

Choro is typically instrumental, and most traditional ones have three different parts. The harmony and melody can be very surprising, and each part can modulate a lot. The tempo can be very slow to very fast and is related to different emotions. Despite the origin of the name [meaning "to cry"], choro music can be very bright. In this matter, there is no predominant style of it being romantic, dramatic, playful and so on.

Q: How does improvisation in choro differ from that in jazz?

A: Choro pieces are usually short, about three minutes. But of course, there are longer and shorter ones. The melody is long and elaborated, and that is why improvisation in choro has a role completely different from the improvisation in jazz. The melody improvisation is usually left for the repetition of the part, when the original version has already been played. It is also left to the soloist to decide - if he's compelled and inspired by the moment or emotion. The richness of the melody is enough, and there is no problem if the improvisation does not happen at all or is limited to small variations.

Q: What can people expect from the performance?

A: I want the audience to hear choro the way I play at home. It has to be artistically true to what I feel. They can expect 100 percent honesty from my music and the authentic style established by great composers like Pixinguinha, Jacob do Bandolim, Luperce Miranda and others. For someone who has never listened to choro, I can, with confidence, say that one can expect a lot from this genre. The variety of rhythms and tempos, the beauty of melodies and of interpretation, the warmth of the emotions, the richness of details, always surprises the listener - even an old acquainted one like myself.

Angela Zonunpari is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University. This interview was conducted with the help of translator and Brito's manager, Maria Silvia Braga.