• Rising Brazilian Mandolinist Elisa Meyer

    Elisa Meyer Ferreira

    About the author: Dan Beimborn is the host of the Mandolin Archive, and Chief Linux mommy for the Mandolin Cafe's dedicated web server. He also plays Irish and American music on all sorts of vintage Gibson mandolins, a modern F5, a resonator tenor guitar, and a Sobell bouzouki. Sometimes known to stay on a canal barge close to London, he also calls a village near Norwich, England home. He shares a house with his wife, son, dog Henry, and cat George. Weekdays see him working on highly technical Linux solutions for a multi-national hedge fund.

    I first met Elisa Meyer in 2011, near Montpellier, France at the Mandolines de Lunel festival. I was teaching Irish mandolin that year, and Elisa was performing with her family band Choro das 3. Elisa and her father appeared in the back of the classroom one day, and they stayed after to ask questions and compare mandolins. I was quite surprised at how quickly she could pick up the techniques, until I heard the full band perform later! All of the musicians in the audience were stunned at the complex arrangements and her incredibly fast, accurate playing. During jam sessions, we swapped mandolins for a time. I was taken at how similar her Brazilian bandolim was to the sound of a "celtic" instrument, a lot of emphasis on sustain and a big round note.

    Choro das 3 has been very busy as a band, touring widely in the USA in recent years. Facebook friends began to link their videos, and I realized it was the same family I had met in Lunel. These videos chronicle the evolution of Elisa's rare talent for speed and accuracy while keeping wonderful clear tone. We got back in touch over email, and soon the idea evolved to re-introduce her and her music to the Mandolin Cafe.

    — Dan Beimborn

    Choro music is not as immediately familiar to Mandolin Cafe readers as other styles of music. How would you describe Choro music to our readers?

    Choro music is the first urban music created in Brazil, around the 19th century.

    At first it was almost a dialect, a different way of playing classical music. It started out as a more melancholy, plangent way, or a more playful and happy way, depending on the pieces! With time, Choro became a genre of its own.

    So: Choro is the mix of European folk music (waltz, polka, schottische, mazurka, etc.) and classical music. The tunes have the Rondo form {AABBACCA}. There is a main melody line, while there are other improvised counterpoints happening at same time (similar to baroque music). The 7-string guitar plays improvised bass lines (although some bass lines are part of the piece) similar to a basso continuo.

    Next you add the drums from Africans, who were here as slaves, but played their music and kept their culture and religion. Then mix in the sadness of Portuguese people and their music, the happiness of Brazilians, the tropical mood, the birds, the forests, the natives... these were all very important and influential to this genre which paints an accurate picture of Brazilian culture.

    The Bandolim came to Brazil with Portuguese people. It was the Portuguese style, it already had a flat back. In Brazil, it began to develop to a different instrument. The most important mandolin player here, Jacob do Bandolim, ordered a mandolin with a Portuguese Guitarra body. The idea was to have a mandolin that resonates very long, so it wouldn't be necessary to play tremolos all the time, except as ornament or decoration in the music.

    Elisa Meyer Ferreira

    Is the catalog of tunes mostly modern compositions, or are there a number of old standards?

    The list of tunes in the repertoire is extremely long. You can never know them all!

    It's a mature style, and each composer has so many tunes. There are also a huge variety of styles in it: choro, choro canção, samba, samba choro, waltz, polka, frevo, baião, forró, xote, gafieira, tango, etc.

    The list of old standards is endless, and mostly played at jam sessions. Of course, as with other styles of music, musicians keep composing. There are many new tunes. My group realized that many of our mentors and friends have amazing compositions, so in 2013 we began a series of albums filled only with originals composed by living composers, including me! Now we have five albums from that series, and are preparing hard at work on a new one to be released later this year.

    How did you first became interested in Choro, and how did you learn play mandolin in that style?

    My parents have a huge collection of CDs. They have all kinds of styles: jazz, rock, tango, funk, blues, etc. There was a Choro one we used to listen to. My older sisters were already playing flute and guitar, and I was dying to take part too. The triangle was my first instrument!

    They say one day, when I was little, I asked my sister to write a letter to Santa asking for a "bandolinho" (the correct word would be bandolim!). Santa had no idea what bandolinho was, so I got a cavaquinho (a Brazilian ukulele). My dad would learn children's songs by ear and teach me. Then they took me to a conservatory, where there were choro lessons. My teacher was a mandolin player, who also taught cavaquinho. One day he let me try his mandolin. I loved it! I quit cavaquinho and started the mandolin right away. I was 7 years old.

    One Sunday, we went to São Paulo, to see a choro concert. There were several choro players in the audience, and after the concert they invited us for a jam session at a pub. That was the first jam session of many for me. I only knew one tune. But I was hooked.

    The old players were very nice to me and my sisters, as if we were their granddaughters. During the jam session, when we are all sitting on the circle playing, there was no age. They were very demanding, which was good, because I learned from a very young age that the important thing is to play your best.

    After three years, I quit the conservatory, and realized the jam sessions were the way if I wanted to learn choro. So for like 10 years, my parents would take us on Saturday to São Paulo, and we would play at different jam sessions, from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 a.m. the next morning!

    Elisa Meyer Ferreira

    Are your techniques commonly used by other Brazilian Choro players, or did you invent or adapt things for the mandolin?

    My techniques were developed by receiving tips, observing others, listening to old records, by Jacob do Bandolim, Garoto, Luperce Miranda, etc.

    I never practiced exercises on mandolin (only on my first three lessons, I did some picking exercises), I always practiced tunes. Each tune has its challenges. Every week the old musicians would challenge me, surprising me in the middle of the tune, or suddenly speeding up, this kind of thing.

    Sometimes I have to adapt tunes for mandolin, since some composers wrote for piano, flute, cavaquinho and guitar.

    Were there any particular musicians or mandolin players who were very strong influences to you in the early days? Any modern musicians?

    Well, as for every bandolinista, Jacob do Bandolim was (and is!) a big influence. His phrasing and swing, his ornaments, improvisations, all the subtlety in his playing.

    I was lucky to grow up surrounded by a couple of amazing mandolin players. They were perfectionists, which boosted the level of my playing and technique. My two main mentors were Milton More and Danilo Brito. Milton who has a more playful modern style. He was very picky and gave me lots of advice and tips. Danilo Brito plays in a more traditional way, with a beautiful tone and clarity, and perfect technique. I would meet them every week, listen to them, and play for hours.

    You mention learning entire tunes at a time instead of practicing scales, chords, or other basics to build on. Is learning entire tunes with all the tricky parts the normal way to learn Choro? Is each tune treated as a unique thing, or are there a lot of common phrases and components? When you were small, did you work on just one tune at a time until you had it completely mastered?

    Yes, I would learn one tune, usually by ear from an old recording, then I would play this tune along the recording until I could play it from top to bottom without stopping.

    The next step would be to play at the jam sessions, where I would receive some tips from older musicians.

    I would only start learning a new tune after I got very comfortable with the previous one. In my early years it would take very long for that, but with time this period got shorter.

    In the beginning, the most important thing was to be able to play clearly. I would work on my phrasing, and learn the tunes by heart. Later, I started to study classical piano, which helped me with harmony, counterpoint, and scales. The piano really opened my mind for music, and helped me understand my mandolin playing much better.

    I realized it's not essential to study exercises and scales to be able to play. Studying scales helps you understand the tunes better and deeper, and helps you to improvise.

    I met an amazing mandolinist named João Macambira. He couldn't read music, and never studied formally. He was the best improviser, and the most original mandolin player I ever heard. I believe people who are struggling in the beginning phases of mandolin should just play it. Listen to it and play. Leave the understanding and thinking for later, now just enjoy the music itself.

    Choro das 3

    Choro das 3 is a family based band composed by three sisters: Corina (flutes), Lia (7 string acoustic guitar), Elisa (mandolin, clarinet, banjo and piano) and their father Eduardo (pandeiro).

    Choro das Tres

    Choro das 3 Discography

    • Impressões - 2017
    • Choro Tree - 2015
    • Boca De Goiaba - 2014
    • Summer Days - 2014 (solo piano)
    • Boas Novas - 2013
    • Escorregando - 2012
    • Meu Brasil Brasileiro - 2008

    What makes a Portuguese or Brazilian mandolin unique? The sound is very bright and articulate. Have you seen American mandolins that have similar sounds to your own preferred instruments?

    Well, I've noticed from comparing it to other mandolins around the world, that the Brazilian mandolin resonates more than the others. This is essential for a good "bandolim."

    I also think it is louder, specially if it's an old bandolim made of Brazilian rosewood. The sound is brighter than American instruments. It has a very particular tone, which changes according to the instrument, wood, luthier, time of the year it was made, etc.

    I tried many American mandolins, and I really liked some of them. Mostly I liked the ones with arched top, oval hole, made from spruce, cedar, and maple. I enjoyed playing Celtic style mandolins, the tone was pretty and it was a joy to play.

    I also really enjoyed playing a National resonator mandolin. It sounded almost like 12-string guitar, and it was very comfortable to play. It was a 4-string, and I thought it would be great for big jam sessions with many players. It's louder and brighter than mandolin.

    Elisa's Manoel Andrade Bandolim

    One thing I've noticed in your playing is that there are often some very fast passages where each note is picked very clearly. Is there anything about your own instrument that helps you hit those fast parts?

    Not really. Actually, I feel like Brazilian luthiers nowadays are more about achieving the perfect tone and sound than ease of play.

    I've been wanting to buy an old Brazilian mandolin, which usually has both qualities, but it's rare to find one for sale!

    The truth is that there's no perfect mandolin, there will be always something that you would like to change. So what we do is to continue trying and buying new ones (which is fun, heehee)!

    My mandolin was a present from a friend and luthier called Manoel Andrade. He had the Brazilian Rosewood at his shop for around 20 years. It's a very old wood, and very dark, which makes the tone wonderful. He did an experiment, building a bandolim with a wider body, imitating a Portuguese guitar. I loved it. It's perfect to play slow tunes, Brazilian waltzes, fado, among other things.

    Impressões (Impressions)

    Impressions, from 2016, the latest recording by Choro das 3, original artwork by Elisa Meyer.

    Choro das 3 is a family act

    Choro das 3 is a family act. At what age did you start performing together in public? What were things like in the early days compared to now?

    In beginning we would perform just one or two tunes together at jam sessions. We would sit in at bars and restaurants where musician friends were playing. When I was 9-10 years old, we were called to play a private event for the American Consulate; it was our first paid performance!

    I think the biggest change is that when I was 7 there wasn't all this internet media work, and now it's all about that. And it's the same in some ways, because I still have fun playing music and composing.

    Elisa's Composition Floreio

    Tell us a bit about your newest recordings, I understand you have been featuring recent compositions?

    Yes, we've been recording originals by us and by friends. At least one album a year. Our most recent album is called Impressions. It has several different styles of music we like, such as chamamé, forró, musette waltz, gafieira, and we play them with our own impressions/interpretations.

    What are your personal goals as a musician? What styles and pieces have you been working on most recently?

    I have several goals. Musically, there are so many things I want to study and learn. As a composer there's also so much to learn and improve, and I really hope to consolidate my work someday and be recognized for it. I'd like to have a tune book written down for posterity. I hope my group, Choro das 3 continues going and spreading this music we love so much to people who like it, and to those who have never heard of it before.

    Sister Corina on flute with Elisa

    Elisa Meyer Ferreira

    We understand you also teach music lessons. What are your thoughts on how to be a good teacher?

    I believe teaching is an important part of a musician's life. I think it's very important to keep passing to others what someone once shared with you. I also find I really learn a lot when I teach.

    My interest on teaching started when I realized my learning process on mandolin was unique, and I really want to explore that with my students. I believe a good teacher is the one who motivates and inspires his or her students. I can't let my students forget the joy and fun of playing. Once a person has fun playing, it all will come eventually! I learned to play the mandolin by playing tunes and working on them. Nowadays, I like to find pieces from different genres that have challenges for me, and I work on them. It's hard work, but good work.

    Does being a teacher help your own performances?

    It helped my playing in a certain way. I started to notice in more detail the things I do and didn't know I was doing. I have to understand them to explain to my students. Ornaments, for example. I learned to play them, but never paid attention to them. I just play them. Until students started to ask me how and when I play them!

    What can you tell us about your newest album? Where can we go online to hear more and see more of your videos?

    The newest album is called Impressions. It's our impressions about different styles of music we recorded, such as chamamé (kind of music from the south of South America), musette waltz, forró, gafieira, choro, old jazz, etc.

    We have several guests, accordion, surdo (big Brazilian drum), tuba, harmonica, and a small brass band (two trumpets, sax, trombone). All the tunes are originals never recorded before, composed by me, my sisters and friends. I also painted the cover of the album!

    Gear Details

    Elisa's mandolin is a bent Spruce Sitka Spruce-topped Brazilian-style mandolin with Rosewood back and sides.

    She uses Brazilian Rouxinol Strings and a Dunlop Ultex .73 pick. She keeps the action 3.3mm over the 12th fret.

    The instrument is custom, with a wider body than many other Brazilian Bandolims to make it more like a Portuguese Guitarra (including sides blended into the heel).

    She adds, "The only thing I don't like about it, and I might change it, is the size of the neck. It's a bit too wide for my left hand."

    Additional Information

    Comments 29 Comments
    1. bbcee's Avatar
      bbcee -
      I just bought "Impressões", and it's just so effortlessly graceful.

      Hoping they are planning on a European tour soon!!
    1. mmukav's Avatar
      mmukav -
    1. V70416's Avatar
      V70416 -
      "Quando Me Lembro" REALLY gets to me. Such great musicianship from "choro das 3".

      LOVE them! The whole family is so talented!

      PS:Elisa also plays a tenor/plectrum(?) banjo very well besides the other instruments mentioned.

      Interesting that another great mando player,Andy Statman plays clarinet,as does Elisa.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the one-year anniversary of this marvelous interview put together for us by Dan Beimborn!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary today of this great interview by Dan Beimborn. Elisa will be teaching at the inaugural Choro Camp New England June 24-30.
    1. Tim Logan's Avatar
      Tim Logan -
      I just discovered Elisa Meyer Ferreira. I am absolutely flabbergasted. WOW!!!!!
    1. Bill McCall's Avatar
      Bill McCall -
      She’s a great piano player too, and she also did the graphic design for their last CD. A wonderfully talented woman.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      She gives lessons, too. Here's her current ad: https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/158119#158119

      Delightful lady for sure.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the 3 yr. anniversary of this feature.