By Andrew Gilbert
If the unseasonable weather has you longing for a tropical respite, the quickest route from Berkeley to Brazil runs right through Casa de Cultura on San Pablo Avenue.
For the past few months the stellar choro ensemble Grupo Falso Baiano has hosted an informal jam session, or “roda de choro” from 3-5 pm every first and third Sunday of the month. A convivial scene with food and drink, the roda offers an opportunity to soak up the infectious grooves and alluring melodies that have kept choro vibrant for more than a century.
The seeds for Falso Baiano were sown about eight years ago when reed player Zach Pitt-Smith introduced seven-string guitarist Brian Moran to choro, a virtuosic instrumental style often compared to bluegrass. They were playing in a jazz sextet, but the challenge of mastering choro’s intricacies seized their imagination, and, with the addition of percussionist Ami Molinelli, they launched Falso Baiano as a trio (taking their name from Geraldo Pereira’s classic song “Falsa Baiana” or False Bahian, playing on the fact that none of the musicians hail from Brazil).
The band expanded to a quartet when they met mandolin player Jesse Appelman at Brazil Camp in Cazadero.
A fusion of European musical forms and African rhythms, choro was born in the 1870s, several decades before jazz. Originally an umbrella terms for several different styles, including polkas, waltzes, and schottisches, choro evolved when musicians freely adapted these European forms with African rhythms and percussion instruments like the pandeiro.
The music’s modern conventions were codified in the early 1920s by Pixinguinha (1898-1973), who was also a seminal figure in samba (Brazilian musicians have often moved easily between the genres).
Throughout the last century, the style’s popularity waxed and waned, and every generation seemed to experience a choro revival, most spectacularly in the 1940s when mandolin virtuoso Jaco do Bandolim, reed master Abel Ferreira and cavaquinho great Valdir Azevedo created a tremendously sophisticated body of tunes. More recently, musicians like Paulinho de Viola, Paulo Moura, Rafael Rabello and Hermeto Pascoal have expanded the genre, often adding elements from jazz.
Rather than focusing on the choro cannon of Bandolim and Pixinguinha, Falso Baiano keeps in real by exploring everything from classic sambas by Cartola to jazz-inflected tunes by Hermeto Pascoal and Guinga.
Click on the Grupo Falso Baiano music player for a taste of their music. Casa de Cultura is at 1901 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.