Asha Henfry: “I can play soaring melodies one minute and grungy rhythms the next”

If choro was a cause, Asha Henfry would be its most passionate advocate – at least in Melbourne, where she is an integral part of the local community of musicians in love with the Brazilian genre, her sparkling flute scattering beautiful colours in various groups. As she gets ready to preach the choro gospel at the Paris Cat with her group, Tamandua, the flautist shares her experience and talks about her love of choro. Proceed with caution, though – her passion is contagious and by the time you’ll finish reading this interview, you may be at a serious risk of feeling hungry for choro.

What are you going to present at the Paris Cat?

This will be the first show the band have played since last year, so it’s really exciting to be getting back into it. The band has gone through a few changes in members over the years, but I am really happy to be introducing Jorge Albuquerque as our new member. We’ve never had a bassist in the band before, so it’s going to be a different sound which I’m really liking.

We’ll be playing a real mixed bag Brazilian of choro and samba. Mostly instrumental, but a couple vocal tunes in there also – I’m a fan of group singing!

I understand that not everyone is obsessed with choro like I am, so some sambas and Edu Lobo tunes bordering on jazz should make sure everyone is happy.

The band is comprised of three of Australia’s strongest musicians of this genre – Al Kerr on drums and percussion, Josh Bridges on cavaquinho and Jorge Albuquerque on bass. And in case you were worried about listening to too much flute [ed.note: I am not], we’ll also be featuring multi – instrumentalist Josh Bennett on mandolin. Josh is fairly new to the choro genre but is absolutely killing it and we’re so happy he could join us for this show.

Choro is a conversation. Think of chamber music in a jazz style. It is often fast, heavily rhythmic and spontaneous. Melodies will weave in and out. Our vocal numbers will be sung by Al and Josh, all in Portuguese no less. Al’s version of Cai Dentro always amazes me.

What is the Tamandua backstory?

Tamandua was first formed when 7-string guitarist Corey King (who has now relocated to France) and I started jamming in 2016. At the time, we were both, along with Al, part of Doug de Vries’ choro ensemble, Sexteto Zona Sul. We absolutely loved what we were doing with the sextet, but were playing around with some other repertoire by Hamilton de Holanda and a group whose sound I was inspired by – Cadeira de Balanco. Al and Josh have been integral in developing the band’s sound, always bringing their A game in rehearsals and performances. They really understand this music.

There are and have been many fantastic choro groups in Melbourne; Trio Agogo, Sol e Alma, Sexteto Zona Sul. We never want to compete with them, it’s a small scene and we’re all friends. It was important to us that we focus on repertoire that was different and offer a sound that was different too. I think we’ve managed to stay true to that since its inception in 2016.

What is the appeal of Brazilian music?

For me, since my discovery back in 2010, Brazilian music is king in so many ways; its harmony, rhythm, melody and lyrics seem to speak to me in a way I haven’t experienced before.

I really hadn’t heard any Brazilian music until I went to Brazil to tour with a psychedelic blues rock band. The first gig we had upon landing in Sao Paulo was on a late night talk show, Programa do Jo – the equivalent of David Letterman – and the tour was a great success. We returned to Brazil a number of times after that and although we didn’t have a lot of down time, the music of Brazil could be heard everywhere. After hearing choro, I was hooked and had prepared a few choros to try out with the resident band in a bar in Campinas the following year. When I got back to Melbourne I quickly found the local roda de choro, met Doug, Josh and a bunch of other people in th,e scene and that was it!

Choro is played all over the world. You can pretty much find a roda de choro (choro in the round) in every major city. It’s massive in Japan, Amsterdam, London, Canada, Portugal and Spain. A roda is similar to the Irish sessions, it’s inclusive yet demands a high quality of musicianship, while still being a very social event where drinking and eating amongst musicians and listeners is assumed. It is the perfect training ground for musicians, a space where they can develop their sound, improvisation and learn the tunes by ear.

What is the relationship between choro and jazz?

Choro predates jazz with the first known choro group being formed in 1870 in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a street music that fuses afro Brazilian rhythms with European styles of the waltz, polka and mazurka. Like jazz, it is constantly evolving, living, breathing. Improvisation takes a different approach in choro, it’s entwined within the form, harmony and melody. The improvisation or variation takes place in every note as opposed to “Okay, now it’s your turn to improvise.”

During my studies at WAAPA I never envisaged myself auditioning for orchestras around the world and jazz improvisation never came that easily to me. Choro sits somewhere in the middle – the perfect blend of beautifully written melodies, complex harmonies with the freedom to be as spontaneous as you see fit.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I’ve had a few highlights, but touring Brazil was a life-defining moment for me. It has led me on a path that my classically trained, WA-country-born self would have never imagined. Moving to Melbourne has obviously also played a massive part in that. So I guess I could say that my career highlight has been finding choro – gosh I sound like a preacher! I get to play with the best people, who are not only INCREDIBLE musicians but are also genuinely supportive and lovely people who have become dear friends, and I get to be part of a worldwide community that are so excited to share music with each other.

What is your greatest aspiration?

I am always aspiring to be true to myself in everything I do and I plan to never stop learning!

Your performance is part of the Paris Cat ‘Diva Month’, a celebration of women in jazz. How has your experience, as a woman, been?

Jazz has always felt like a bit of a boys club, but I have never directly experienced its effects. I also play an instrument that seems to be considered a very feminine (or “pretty) instrument – blurgh! – despite the fact that the majority of famous flautists throughout history have been male. Women in choro are also under-represented, but I have always felt very welcome in the choro community, both here in my home town and in Brazil. I have often found myself as the only woman in a band of men which has been fine because all the men I play with are absolutely lovely, but it would be nice to play with women more regularly. That just might be something I have to seek out myself.

How did you choose the flute?

I played every instrument under the sun growing up – piano, piano accordion, drum kit, guitar, voice, saxophone – but it was the flute that always stuck. I found it easy in the beginning and managed to do well regardless of practice. Since then, I’ve never really contemplated doing anything else!

I’ve never considered myself as one of those musicians that can’t live without their instrument, yet I feel deep gratitude and joy when I am expressing myself through music. I feel at times my instrument has both hindered me and benefited me. The flute has had its fair share of negative and comical connotations and perhaps not taken seriously, but on the other hand it is often seen as a unique sound in music outside of the classical realm.

I have always loved the versatility of the flute and pride myself on being a flute player that can play in many different contexts and with the right sound for the situation. I can play soaring melodies one minute and grungy rhythms the next.

Who are your heroes?

When my amazing high school flute teacher gave me the album Aqualung by Jethro Tull, I thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard. I still find inspiration in Ian Anderson’s playing. I often use his recordings to show my flute students and it always gets a reaction.

I am also inspired by Hermeto Pascoal and his music – his playing and writing seem to pour out of him so effortlessly and naturally. Also flautist Carlos Malta has done amazing things with the traditional Brazilian bamboo flute, pifano.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

In this show I really want to draw from my recent experience in Brazil. I spent a month in Rio playing choro everyday, having lessons and soaking up the incredible musical culture the city has to offer. My time there gave me so much energy for continuing what I do and believing in it. Choro in Rio is very much alive and the energy catches you and whips you up into an uncontrollable frenzy. I first heard one of our newest tunes Deixe O Breque Pra Mim by Altamiro Carrilho in Rio played my Australian/Brazilian friend Annalisa Viera in a roda at the Casa do Choro and the memory has stuck in my mind.

Whenever I play that tune I can transport myself back to Rio with Annalisa, Antonio Rocha, Mauricio Carrilho, Paulo Aragao, Dudu Oliveira, Victoria, Fred and the rest of my friends there and the inspiration comes rushing back. I want to keep that memory alive as long as I possibly can.

Asha Henfry and Tamandua are playing at the Paris Cat on Sunday 18 November