Brazilian Heroes #5 – Pixinguinha

Pixinguinha was a famous musician, who developed the choro style of music while alive in early 20th century Rio de Janeiro. The style is melancholic and was aimed at the first Brazilian urban middle class. In typically dramatic style, he died during Carnival.

Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho, better known as Pixinguinha, (April 23, 1897 – February 7, 1973) was a composer, arranger, flutist and saxophonist born in Rio de Janeiro. He is considered one of the masters of choro, which is a style of Brazilian music popular during the middle of the 20th century, and one of the forerunners of the modern urban samba genre. By the time of his death in 1973, Pixinguinha had composed some of the most important choro pieces of all time, and was a key figure on the Rio Carnival scene. Pixinguinha died during Carnival 1973, and, upon hearing of his death, his band, the Banda de Ipanema, spontaneously disbanded, with all the members losing the will to celebrate.

Choro can be described as a type of musical dialogue, blending polkas, European waltzes and afro-brazilian beats, filtered through a melancholic Latin perspective. Improvisation and circularity also featured prominently, highlighting similarities with jazz. It was the original Brazilian urban music, popular with middle-class civil servants who populated the burgeoning cities of late 19th century Brazil. By the middle of the 20th century, choro had evolved into samba.

Pixinguinha’s father was an accomplished flutist, and oversaw his son’s musical education from an early age. Pixinguinha was taught by several of Rio’s best musicians, with whom he initially practiced cavaquinho, before taking up the flute. Despite being enrolled in a well-known school for his non-musical education, the Colégio de São Bento, the young Pixinguinha claims he would still manage to skip class in order to play in ‘A Concha’, a bar in Lapa. This extra-curricular activity became Pixinguinhas first job, and his professional musical career was underway.

By 1917, Pixinguinha had recorded several compositions, and played with several musical groups. Of these, 2 songs, Sofres porque queres and Rosa, have come to be regarded as classics. As well as his musical talent, Pixinguinha was an enterprising youngster, becoming involved with Grupo do Caxangá, a group that had paraded at Carnival since 1914. As his career gathered momentum, Pixinguinha was invited to play in the waiting room of the elegant ‘Paris’ cinema, alongside the guitarist Donga, and other prominent musicians. This ensemble of musicians evolved into the Oito Batutas band (8 cool guys), and went on to receive international acclaim.

After a tour of Brazil, the Oito Batutas embarked on a tour of Paris, sponsored by wealthy socialite Eduardo Guinle. The touring band received rave reviews in Paris, and were welcomed by several members of the Parisian music scene. While in Paris, Pixinguinha bought a Selmer soprano sax, which endowed his music with more power and introduced a new sound to the classic choro line-up. On returning to Brazil, the batutas continued to play, although at a less intense pace, until, in 1928, he dissolved the band to focus on the recording of his controversial ‘Charinoso’. Some critics argued that this record was a departure from his Brazilian roots, and that the melodies had become Americaized.

It was also around this time that Pixinguinhas career as an arranger also blossomed, with successful reworkings of classic Brazilian songs into carnival marches. He continued to perform and compose his own music, particularly advancing the art of counterpoint in his saxophone improvisations, accompanied by Benedito Lacerda on the flute. In his later years, the popularity of samba-canção detracted from the joyful tones of Pinxinguinhas early compositions, while he benefited from later resurgence during the height of the Bossa Nova craze.

In 1964, Pixinguinha suffered a stroke, which left him incapacitated, and unable to play his instruments with his normal dexterity. He continued to socialise with his friends in downtown Rio until in February 1973, Pixinguinha, the father of samba, passed away while attending the baptism of his grandson.