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Brazilian mandolinist Danilo Brito returns to Ann Arbor with a new album and the history of choro at his fingertips

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 3:00pm by christopherporter

Danilo Brito

Brazilian mandolin wizard Danilo Brito is returning to the Metro Detroit area for what now annual performances in Ann Arbor (September 1 at Kerrytown Concert House), the Detroit Institute of Arts (August 30), and the GlasSalon in the Toledo Museum of Art (August 29). Brito (mandolin and tenor guitar) will be joined by Carlos Moura (7-string guitar) and Guilherme Girardi (6-string guitar).

Brito's new album, Da Natureza das Coisas (The Nature of Things), is bookended by two important works of Heitor Villa-Lobos, closing with "Melodia Sentimental" and opening with "Chôros No. 1 (Chôro típico Brasileiro)," which was composed for guitar in 1920 in tribute to composer Ernesto Nazareth. Villa Lobos grew up among choro musicians and said that the soul of Brazilian people is found in choro. Many classical guitarists play this work, but Brazilians such as Turíbio Santos play it with a distinctive verve absent in the others. Brito takes this a step further -- arranging the work for his mandolin in the lead voice with two guitars carrying the others. The bright, clarion sound of his mandolin riding the group's Brazilian drive leaves Brito thinking that it would make Villa Lobos smile. 

"Chôros No. 1 (Chôro típico Brasileiro)" sets the tone for the album which journeys through composers venerated and new. Works of Garoto and Jorge Santos are mingled with newcomers Brito, Penezzi, and Arante.

Brito's U.S. booking agency, Musica Extraordinaria, is based in Ann Arbor and its leader, Michael Grofsorean, conducted an interview with the Brazilian mandolinist. (For even more Brito, Pulp editor Christopher Porter interviewed him before his April 1, 2017, appearance in Ann Arbor.)

Q: Danilo, you chose the first track of the album to be a work of Heitor Villa-Lobos entitled "Chôros No. 1," a work he composed in 1920 and dedicated to composer and pianist Ernesto Nazareth. Why did you choose this work to perform and why did you choose it to begin this new album?
A: I chose to record this piece because I feel this composition very differently from all the recordings I’ve listened to. I have the feeling that Villa-Lobos would like to listen to my version. It is a vigorous interpretation, taking advantage of every tool available of this instrumentation and this very Brazilian manner of playing. This is the first track because it is balanced and dynamic and representative of Brazilian traditional music.

Q: I can remember you talking about Villa-Lobos and his ideas about choro. Can you refresh my memory and explain the composer's thinking about the meaning of choro in the development of Brazilian music?
A: Villa-Lobos was raised among the choro musicians. He used to say that choro is the music that represents the soul of Brazilian people. He paid tribute, in his compositions, not only to Ernesto Nazareth but to other great composers of the genre, pillars of Brazilian music such as Anacleto de Medeiros.

Choro is the first genuine Brazilian musical genre, born around 1870, the unification and synthesis of the various feelings of each race and each people gathered in Brazil. Choro was the origin of all Brazilian music styles such as samba, baiao, frevo, bossa nova, etc.

Q: Villa-Lobos recorded this work on the guitar in 1940. Did he write it for the guitar and, if yes, were there challenges for you to translate the music to the mandolin?
A: Yes, Villa-Lobos wrote it for guitar. The mandolin, of course, doesn’t have the same extension of the guitar, so I did these arrangements for my group, which has a typical instrumentation of Brazilian music: mandolin -- as soloist -- 7-string guitar, guitar, cavaquinho, and pandeiro. These arrangements gave another feeling to the compositions and exuberance, different from the guitar version.

Q: The work is often played by guitarists as a solo. I have listened to David Russell, Julian Bream, Pepe Romero, and John Williams. Their interpretations are beautiful but it seems that Brazilian guitarists such as Turibio Santos have a different feeling for the energy of the music. They have more verve. Your interpretation also has this verve. The music is light on its feet but also has delicate moments of repose. Can you comment on these aspects of interpretation? What did you aim to  bring out in your interpretation?
A: This is a good question with good remarks. Villa-Lobos was a composer that understood and represented the Brazilian soul in his composition like no other. Despite the universality of beautiful music, the brightness of the artists, and reaching a beautiful version, it is difficult to get the level of Brazilian representation Villa-Lobos put in his compositions. In order to achieve the Brazilian representativeness that Villa-Lobos had in his composition, the same kind of representation is needed at the interpretation. I can mention the recording of Brazilian singer Bidu Sayão of "Bachiana n. 5," in 1945, as one that reached this feeling. In my version, I aimed to reinforce this Brazilian feeling Villa-Lobos had.

Q: The second track of the album, your composition "Dama" feels like a calm and complementary companion to the Villa-Lobos. Is there a relationship? After the second statement of the theme, the counterpoint with the guitars sounds particularly rich before the return of the theme. How do you think about this part of the composition?
A: I hadn’t thought about this composition this way. There is, indeed, something of Ernesto Nazareth in the second part of "Dama," and since Villa-Lobos wrote "Choro n. 1" to Nazareth, is it possible to feel the connection. This composition, with this arrangement, well represents the work of my group, that is an extension of my mandolin. The part that you mentioned has three different voices at the same time and opposite direction that complement each other and integrates the composition.

Q: Who is Jorge Santos, the composer of the third track, "Pisa Mansinho"?
A: Jorge Santos was the guitarist of the world-famous solo cavaquinho player Waldir Azevedo. He was an extraordinary guitarist with a unique style, his accompaniment added a special flavor to Waldir compositions. Counterpoints in every region of guitar scale, different from the traditional Brazilian style that uses most bass region.

This song is the B-side of the 78 RPM disc of Waldir Azevedo that has "Pedacinhos do Céu" as face A, one of the greatest hits of Waldir Azevedo, that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Being part of the same disc, "Pisa Mansinho "sold as much as "Pedacinhos do Céu," but it didn’t get the same recognition and was left oblivious. The original version has trombones for the counterpoints, in my arrangement the guitars are responsible for the counterpoints in unison. I aimed to give a new verve to this beautiful composition and get to people listen to it again or, that is more likely, for the first time.

Q: What does the title "São Braz" mean? You have performed with Alessandro Pennezzi. Have you performed this piece with him? The tempo is very fast. What is the idea of work?
A: This fun polka, by Alessandro Pennezzi, has a story that he told me himself. His grandfather was having dinner when he choked on a piece of meat. The old man’s wife came in his help and gave big slaps in his back, exclaiming: "São Braz!" In Brazilian traditional belief, São Braz is the saint that helps in such occasions. The composer, very witty, wrote this song for the event. An important detail: the man survived.

Q: Does "São Paraibaiano" have something to do with the town of Paraibano in the northeast of Brazil?
A: The name of the state is Paraíba, the people that are born there are called Paraibano. My father was born in Paraíba, so he was Paraibano, my mother was born in Bahia, so she is Baiana, I was born in São Paulo, so I did this joke with the three origins I gather. I use to say that I am “São Paraibaiano.” Each state in Brazil has a very unique culture (music, food, manners, etc.), and I hope I could represent this in my composition.

Q: The gentle, slow waltz and title theme of the album, "Da Natureza das Coisas," feels as if there is a story behind its composition. If yes, please tell me the story.
A: I remember being with my mandolin in a room almost completely dark. I was very concentrated at that moment and in a moment of inspiration this piece came from a complex feeling that made me think about life, happiness, sadness, certainty, doubt, hope, in short, the complexity and simplicity of life. "Da Natureza das Coisas" means "About the Nature of Things," as I understand, the essence of each thing, each person, from the world and spiritual, without judgment, just as it is. Certainly, the beauty is above all.

Q: I have listened to Garoto's recording of his "Jorge do Fusa." What feelings did you aim to bring out in your interpretation?
A: Another piece composed for solo guitar and arranged by me for the instrumentation of my group. This version has the highlight of having a tenor guitar that I use to play the solo, and, as I think, the sound of tenor guitar matches the melody, warm, tender, soft. I’ve heard, from a reliable source, that this piece was dedicated to Jorge Santos, the composer of the track "Pisa Mansinho." Garoto is one of the greatest geniuses of Brazil, he passed early when he was only 39 years old, in 1955. He accompanied Carmen Miranda, with great success, in the USA, by the way, they died the same year.

Q: What does "O Vulto de Pai Tão" mean? The tempo feels similar to "Foi Ontem" from your previous album. Does this tempo allow a unique kind of expression?
A: This has to do with the stories of Sussuarana, my father’s family farm in Paraiba, Northeast of Brazil. Pai
Tão (“Father Tão”) was the grandfather of my father, born in1868. Sussuarana is, till now, for my delight, a place full of imagination, fantasy, where the stories are told from generation to generation. My father, who knew and lived with him, used to say he was a man with a strong personality and was, truly, a wizard. He had the ability to disappear (such as Bilbo Baggins with the ring). People saw his horse, as mounted, without seeing the rider. This piece has a very specific way of playing, with rhythmic details rarely used for its difficulty and demanding skills. The rhythmic of the melody is similar to "Foi Ontem," particularly for the use of sixteenths or semiquavers, but the intonation demands a different rhythmic of accompaniment.

Q: Your voice is deeper on "Triste Saudade." Do I hear the tenor guitar? If yes, please comment on what you can express on the tenor guitar that is different than the mandolin.
A: Yes, another of tenor guitar (as "Jorge do Fusa"). This is a song that the composer Lucas Arantes, my cavaquinho player, wrote by the occasion of my father’s passing and dedicated to me. I feel that some pieces sound better with the tenor guitar, as I said, it feels, in some compositions more tender, warm. Lucas, besides being an excellent accompanist, is an inspired composer and also enlightened as a soloist in the repetition of the second part in this recording, delivering to the tenor guitar the return of the theme.

Q: Who is the "other" with the brother in "Irmão do Outro"? What is the form of this bright-spirited piece?
A: This is another typical choro with three parts, but with a fast tempo, unexpected harmonic modulations in the second part. A great groove and “street smartness”, a syncopated melody over a firm ground of the accompaniment. "Irmão do Outro," as "Brother of the Other," is in reference to São Paraibaiano because they were born almost at the same time.

Q: Near the end of the album you interpret Villa-Lobos's "Melodia Sentimental." I believe that this is a very famous and, of course, beautiful melody. Rather than I ask Google about it, please tell me about this work and what it means to you. Do you think about the poetry of Dora Vasconcelos?
A: I aimed to represent in this version the romanticism of a Brazilian serenade night. A lot of what I said about "Choro n.1" is applicable to this track: the manner of playing, etc. About the poem, I preferred to not get acquainted with it, for the lyrics to not influence in my interpretation of the melody. The lyrics in music conducts and bounds the listener to a certain understanding, in the other hand, the instrumental music let the person free to feel it, and each listener can have their own interpretation and feeling in a more illimited way.

Q: "Las Fantasías" is another fast one. Is it in ¾ or 6/8? Is it a trio? Is it a kiss goodnight for this album?
A: It is a very fast waltz played by me, in the mandolin, Carlos Moura in the 7-string guitar and Guilherme Girardi in the guitar. I rarely use cavaquinho in waltz and never percussion. The name was inspired by a Spanish painting. In a way, it is a fantasy, a dream that shall continue to the listener, even with the end of the album.

Danilo Brito with Carlos Moura and Guilherme Girardi perform August 29, 8 pm, at GlasSalon, Toledo Museum of Art; August 30, 7 pm and 8:30 pm, at Rivera Court, Detroit Institute of Arts; and September 1, 8 pm, at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor.

➥ "Choro-scuro: Danilo Brito brings Brazil's soul to Kerrytown Concert House" [Pulp, March 30, 2017]

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