How Brazil’s first cavaquinho player inspired her daughter’s passion for choro music.

While the entire world knows samba, “choro” music remains a question mark – even among Brazilians. Underestimated by the contemporary recording industry, choro is not only the “father” of samba, but also the very first Brazilian urban music genre.

Affectionately called in the diminutive, “chorinho”, the genre has also changed the history of Brazilian music when it bumped into the life of Luciana Rabello.

After falling in love with choro, the 58 year-old musician became the first Brazilian woman to play “cavaquinho”, a typical choro and samba string instrument, professionally.

Luciana’s talent and devotion for choro have inspired her daughter, Ana Rabello, to follow the same path. Today, Ana and Luciana are renowned players across Brazil. But more than a strong mother-daughter bond, the Rabellos share the dream of making choro great again.

And as one inspires the other, they dare to master the art of playing cavaquinho and challenge a pretty sexist music environment.

The first authentic Brazilian music

It all began in the late nineteenth century, when working class, mixed-raced Brazilian musicians started gathering on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

In these reunions, gradually known as “choros”, musicians played diverse European genres, like waltz, polka and schottisch. But they played it their way, and the result was anything but erudite music.

Strongly influenced by the lundu, an African music genre brought to Brazil by enslaved people, these musicians created new arrangements and a new harmonic structure to traditional European music, which gave birth to choro, an authentic Brazilian music genre.

According to Pedro Aragão, choro specialist and PhD in Musicology at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UniRio), “’Choro’ refers to the music groups; to a particular way of playing music, and, later, also to a music genre with several categories, like choro-varandão and choro-sambado. The way choro musicians played guitar, cavaquinho and bandolim was something completely new,” he says.

“Like rice and beans”

Luciana just can’t explain how she fell in love with choro. “It was like eating rice and beans everyday. I have always liked it”.

Her passion for choro was a real thing: at 15 years-old, Luciana helped found the choro band Os Carioquinhas, in 1976. Playing with seven men, including her brother Rafael Rabello, Luciana was the only female instrumentalist of a choro group for a very long time.

Cavaquinho has actually never been her dream. The instrument didn’t really matter for Luciana – as long as she could play choro music.

“I ended up as a cavaquinist because the band needed one. And that was it. I just wanted to play choro”, says Luciana, whose career includes two albums of her own compositions.

Coming from a family of folk musicians from Brazil’s countryside, Luciana and the cavaquinho got along great. So great that Ana Rabello couldn’t help following her mother steps.

“Wherever she was, I wanted to be there”

The way Ana Rabello feels about music is intense.

“I was born and choro music was already part of my life. At home, it has always been the subject. Music is work and fun, all at once,” tells the daughter of Brazil’s first cavaquinist woman and Paulo César Pinheiro, the father, considered one of the greatest Brazilian composers of all time.

For Ana, 34, getting closer to choro meant being closer to her mother.

“I always wanted to be at her side, do what she was doing and participate in the choro circles. I think I was the only one from my generation to appreciate choro that way”, she said.

Unlike what happened to Luciana, picking cavaquinho, for Ana, was a big decision. After learning piano and pandeiro – typical choro and samba percussion instrument – she has been dedicating herself to cavaquinho starting at 14 years-old.

At only 17, Ana Rabello founded the choro band Regional Carioca, where she was the only woman among five male musicians. 

The similarities between Ana and Luciana’s career are not at all a coincidence. Both have often been the only woman in choro bands, and this is deeply related to sexism in the music scene.

“By fighting for respect, I went hoarse”

For Luciana, sexism in choro is only a reflection of Brazil’s society.

As choro has developed in a context of bohemian get-togethers, which have traditionally been hosted in bars, or even on the streets, it wouldn’t go well for a “decent” woman to simply show up at a choro circle. Participating as a musician, then, sounded even more outrageous.

“The idea of women playing the choro basis’ instruments – such as cavaquinho, pandeiro and seven-string guitar – is very recent. Back in the day, you would only see them soloing, on the piano or on the flute,” says Luciana, reminding that cavaquinho has always been a female instrument in Portugal.

Holding a PhD in Music from University of São Paulo, Paula Valente says the absence of women in music is a complex phenomenon. “The disproportion among women and men is seen in all music genres, not only in choro. It cannot be explained through a simple perspective. The reasons vary from social to psychological ones,” she says.

Like Luciana, Aragão points out to the structural sexism in Brazilian society, but he also highlights the legacy of female musicians and composers from the twentieth century, such as Lina Pesce, Carolina Cardoso de Menezes, Tia Amélia, and, above all, Chiquinha Gonzaga.

Composer, regent, and pianist, Chiquinha Gonzaga confronted the traditional woman’s role in a brutally patriarchal society. She composed over 2000 pieces, including Brazil’s first Carnival song, “Abre Alas”. She was also the founder of Brazil’s first copyright institution.

“Chiquinha was the bravest. She has been through a lot. Without her, I don’t think I would have conquered what I have so far”, says Luciana, recalling when the industry wanted to transform her into a “choro music hottie”.

Although Ana guarantees she has always been respected in the music scene, there is no doubt that this would not be possible without Luciana, “I came after her. My mom is a sweetheart, but she had to learn to be rough. She needed to, otherwise she couldn’t get what she wanted,” affirms Ana.

“I feel happy to have opened doors for the later generations of female instrumentalists. But for me to conquer this respect, I have gone hoarse,” tells Luciana.

When asked about the growing movement of all-female bands in Brazil, both Luciana and Ana sound skeptical.

They agree that all-female groups are important as they stand for a political cause. However, they are afraid this might turn into an exaggeration (excluding men only because they are men), and even into a “marketable product”.

Ana prefers to fight for this space through other means. “Doing music is something that goes beyond gender. It’s about connecting to people, feeling something in common”, she believes.

Choro: a culture of generosity

To keep choro music alive, the Rabellos have been working hard since 1999, when Luciana founded the “Casa do Choro” cultural center, which hosts the world’s largest collection of chorinho music; the “Escola Portátil de Música” choro music school; and Acari Records, the first choro record label.

Although the industry has put choro music aside, they know it is a cause worth fighting for, “It’s so deep, and such a generous music genre. A choro circle embraces everyone, and everyone perceives each other. Choro makes people more human,” says Luciana.