Skip to content
Turning my back on the discord of the material world, I have made my way not east but south to a land where redemption is only a samba away. And just hours after touching down, salvation is already at hand. Onstage at Claro Hall, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, the kings of roots samba are dispensing the central gospel of a musical universe whose depth and vitality make L.A. radio fare seem like karaoke bleatings.
Samba is no mere music here; it's a life force. "Samba is our religion!" says Monarco, a singer and composer for the Portela samba school's Old Guard, Brazil's vocal version of the Buena Vista Social Club. "We have lunch with samba, we have dinner with samba. Samba runs in our veins."
FOR THE RECORD:
In the article "Chica-Chica-Boom Town" (Travel Issue, Oct. 16), Sugarloaf Mountain, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, was incorrectly referred to as Pico Azucar. It is Pao de Acucar. —
And somehow it's in mine too. Monarco helps me to see that this is normal, that my mother was right—there were no Brazilian babies delivered in the maternity ward the day I was born.
"Samba doesn't come from the slum; anyone who's suffered disillusionments knows where samba comes from," says Monarco. "It's a way to externalize your feelings."
A propulsive mix of African polyrhythms, hyper cavaquinhos (steel-string ukuleles) and trance-like melodies that took form in the favelas, or ghettos, of Rio, samba dances on the head of fate, overwhelming it with a delirium you can feel to the tips of your hair. I am close to certifiable about this music, which explains my demented grin as I behold the equally afflicted throng around me. The chairs no one is sitting in shake from a temblor set off by hundreds of possessed feet. Pinwheeling arms and swiveling hips swallow me in the mosh pit of an aisle. I take an elbow to the chest and a spike heel to the foot in the name of pilgrim's progress.
The show is well into its fourth hour, and Zeca Pagodinho, Brazil's top samba artist, beloved for his gravelly voice and Everyman persona, looks as though he could go for six more days. Cracking jokes and sipping his trademark Brahma beer, he's joined by the Old Guard vocalists, a septet of 70-something gents dressed in Portela colors—white shirts, slacks and sequined blue blazers. As a battalion of percussionists ratchets up the beat, a tiny gray-haired singer suddenly bolts from the line, shuffles left, right and then launches into a samba sequence worthy of 20-year-old legs.
My musical guide, Ricardo Pessanha, a Rio native and coauthor of "The Brazilian Sound," breaks out of his dance trance to lean over and yell, "That's Jair Rodriguez, one of the original members of the Old Guard—he's in his 80s. See what samba can do for you?"
It's all in the bounce. The key to samba dancing is a springing step most of us haven't done since we walked home from grade school. For an adult, it's a subversively random act of fun, an impulse to rise on one's toes above the regimented and soulless—and it symbolizes the spirit of play that animates Brazilian life, and especially samba, whose mischievous streak squeals through on the cheeky cuica, a percussion device that sounds like a kennelful of mutts in heat.
It's fall of 2004, and I've come to Rio's samba and bossa nova shrines a few months before the city's annual Carnaval, seeking not just melodic enlightenment, but also some of that bounce—that uninhibited joie de vivre issued with birth certificates here. I could certainly use it in the aisles of Claro Hall, where, even amid Pagodinho's rousing exhortations, there's too much North American plaster of Paris holding this gringo in check. I can't seem to shake a leg without feeling as though I'm doing one of John Cleese's silly walks. I have work to do before my debut on the real dance floor—at a Carnaval rehearsal with the legendary Salgueiro samba school, whose low-key 300-piece band goes by the name of the Furious Ones.
It's after 2 a.m. when the curtain comes down on a third—or was that a fifth?—encore. I stumble out to Pessanha's car, spent yet buzzing like an insomniac from my first night in Rio, a city where sleep is overrated.
To get an idea where music ranks in Brazil, you need only fly into Rio's international airport, which is named not after a tinhorn general or civic swindler but a composer, Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim, whose languid odes to life and love—"The Girl From Ipanema," "The Waters of March," "Desafinado"—put bossa nova and Brazilian music on the world map in the early 1960s.
Jobim International is an apt name, considering how many imaginations the pianist's songs have set in flight with visions of quiet nights under quiet stars, tall and tan girls sauntering along tropical shores and vistas of guardian peaks. Jobim's music is as much a geography of Rio as it is of the heart.
A long-anticipated landmark often disappoints when a travel fantasy materializes. But as my imagination collides with the sight of Pico Azucar (Sugarloaf), the giant torpedo rock jutting from Guanabara Bay, there's no letdown, only the chill of a pilgrim meeting a totemic lodestar. I pan the green velvet skyline, and there's Corcovado, the mountain with the mammoth Christ statue and star of a Jobim anthem.
The ridges loom high, tight and lush, like slopes AWOL from Bora-Bora. When the first Europeans sailed through the Atlantic's tangle of inlets into Guanabara Bay, the scene evoked the South Seas in other ways. The friendly Guanabara Indians offered the visitors exotic fruits and naked bodies, prompting more than a few salty dogs to quickly abandon ship. .
Five hundred years later, some things remain unchanged. As I begin my journey in daylight on the boulevard of bossa bliss, the seaside promenade of Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana, I need an electron microscope to find the speck of textile on a bronzed woman at a pay phone. Temptation is all around, but I can't lose focus.
Copa is the stomping grounds of bossa nova, where a movement of writers, musicians and dreamers hatched the slow-motion cousin of samba. Copacabana and the beaches and neighborhoods on this side of Sugarloaf—including Ipanema—are the Rio familiar to most of us, the glittery Zona Sul (South Zone). Hemmed in by granite ridges that snake through this city of 6.1 million, the beach district connects to the grittier Zona Norte (North Zone) and downtown Rio by tunnel.
The Zona Sul also is walled off from an obvious feature of the Rio skyline that's missing from city maps. In place of the Rocinha and Vidigal favelas, which spill down the flanks of Two Brothers mountain, the map shows blank green zones, as if they and the other favelas in Rio—one-third of the city's population—didn't exist. It's a symbol of the denial behind a surging crime rate as well as poverty in a country where 1% own 50% of the land.
But it's also a crime when fear mugs travelers before they leave the house. Down on the beach in Copacabana, the surf's up, and black, brown and white bodyboarders disappear into delicious 5-foot jade barrels. On the sand, pale-faced tourists compete for burns and whiplash as they ogle bodies beautiful. Pairs of spit-shined, uniformed police keep watch. (The show of force is a reminder to take basic precautions: Don't carry valuables, use cabs at night and tap hotel staff or locals for tips on where it's safe to go and when.)
The Coppertone heathens seem oblivious to the sacred nature of the surroundings. Bossa nova grew up in the late 1950s in the living rooms, bars and clubs of Copacabana. I spot an apartment across the street from the beach on Avenida Atlantica, where seminal bossa figures jammed at the pad of the teenage muse of the movement, Nara Leao. At another local flat, a guitar school run by two key bossa composers, Roberto Menescal and Carlos Lyra, turned out scores of acoustic strummers.
One of those guitarists was Paulo Thiago, now a filmmaker. I find him inside the ornate Rio opera house, shooting a performance by singer-songwriter Joyce for a documentary about bossa nova, "The Most Beautiful Thing." Bossa nova was a reaction to the overwrought balladry of the day and lyrics such as "Nobody wants me, nobody loves me," Thiago explains. "The [bossa artists] said, 'No, let's talk about the beach, the sea and life.' They were dreaming of a new country, a new life."
Bossa nova emerged from a minimalist blend of Jobim's classical influences—Ravel, Debussy, Villa Lobos—East Coast American jazz guitarists and the revolutionary slo-mo samba beat invented by guitarist João Gilberto. The sound's restrained vocals, an attempt to mirror conversational speech, turned the Brazilian bent for emoting on its head. When Gilberto's whispered rendition of Jobim's "Chega de Saudade" hit the radio airwaves in 1958, it was the birth of Brazilian cool.
The bossa of Jobim and Gilberto was my gateway to Brazilian music a couple of decades ago. I had picked up a used copy of "Getz/Gilberto" at a flea market in London, where I was living in a brownstone igloo. The sunny sounds on that vinyl, featuring saxman Stan Getz and Gilberto on a trove of Jobim classics, were part of my "psy-ops" against frostbite in a flat with no central heating. There was something strangely powerful in the intimacy of this music—happy and yet as consoling as a lullaby—and it would become a lifelong light in the gloom.
Now I'm seeing the light as the bodhisattva of bossa vocalists, Joyce, sings the Jobim-Vinicius de Moraes tune "I Know That I Will Love You" in the splendor of the empty opera house. Her voice and guitar all but levitate us in the glow of the original chill music, now enjoying a resurgence as young audiences embrace the cool tempos of Joyce, Gilberto's daughter Bebel, bossa luminary Menescal with BossaCucaNova and the "Chill Brazil" series. With her jazz phrasing and exquisite melodic touch, the composer for legends from Elis Regina to Milton Nascimento is the premier torch-bearer of the Jobim tradition. If anyone knows why this subtle sound packs such a resonant wallop, it's Joyce.
"It's because it's beautiful, elegant, intelligent," she says between takes. "Bossa nova is simple and sophisticated at the same time. And there's a longing in it. It's bittersweet. That's not a plain emotion. It's something on a higher level."
That feeling, a nostalgic longing known as saudade, is a hallmark of Brazilian music and psyches. In a land where emotions are no cause for panic, a bittersweet mood is something to linger in, not flee. Embracing life's journey while acknowledging loss, saudade draws from a deeper well than a merely happy or sad song, and it infuses bossa and samba with their evocative, hopeful vibe.
At a time of crushing social problems in Brazil, Thiago wants his film to bring back bossa's optimism again: "It's important for the new generation to know about this dream, that you can dream for a beautiful life through the music."
On another sticky October day in Ipanema, I sip my new favorite drink, guarana, a soda made from an Amazon berry, at the place where Jobim and lyricist/poet/diplomat/bon vivant Vinicius de Moraes once downed breaded cod balls, swapped quarter notes and, in 1962, watched a certain tall girl sway toward the sand a block away.
"Jobim would sit right there," says Arlindo Farias, a waiter for 42 years at the Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema Café), once known as the Veloso. In a photo on the wall, a young Farias holds a tray with drinks for the maestro and the equally beloved De Moraes.
Being Brazilian, Farias discusses his former customers with the fervor of Tony Robbins. "Jobim was a simple man and friend to everyone," he says. "He and Vinicius would always give good tips, even though they didn't have money to pay the bills sometimes. But . . . they would always come back with the money."
Legend has it that "The Girl From Ipanema" was written here, but, in fact, they wrote the world's most famous bossa nova song at home. After three years of speculation as to who Brazil's most famous girl was, the songwriters told 21-year-old Helo Pinheiro that she was the fabled sun queen, touching off a paparazzi frenzy. Today she's a grandmother from São Paulo, selling microscopic bikinis there as well as at a store next to the legendary cafe in Ipanema.
I didn't think I would be reduced to weeping at the sight of the Sambodromo, the grandstand-lined promenade downtown where the famed Carnaval floats pass by. But the tears started flowing as I sat on the back of a motorbike—the result of rush-hour car exhaust and sheer relief that I still had my kneecaps after blowing between vehicles whose drivers see themselves as Fittipaldi or Senna, Brazilian race car heroes.
During Carnaval, the earth at the Sambodromo quakes for four days as the top samba schools thunder past till dawn, 3,000 to 5,000 members strong. These neighborhood social clubs, traditionally from the favelas, pull out all the glitter for the February bacchanalia that kicks off Lent, competing for the top prize in flesh-flashing extravaganzas that are meticulously graded for song, story, marching flow, dance, rhythm and dress.
But samba is a daily experience in Rio, something you can taste more intimately at a fraction of the cost at clubs, bars and samba schools. I weave on from the Sambodromo through narrow streets and past working girls hanging out of balcony windows to the colonial Lapa district, a hub for thriving samba clubs such as Carioca de Gema. I pop in to the Rio Scenarium, where I find a converted antiques store jammed with artifacts and a hopping dance floor.
A couple of blocks away, I practice my bouncing up a flight of stairs to another dance venue. Inside a spacious second-floor studio, Nucleo de Dança, I'm soon learning a new mantra: "Chica-chica-boom. Chica-chica-boom."
Ivani Peixotoda da Silva is counting out the samba beat with an old line from Carmen Miranda, Brazilian diva of the '40s, hoping to stimulate a sense of rhythm in her partner. At barely 5 feet, the slight brunette has a challenging assignment, steering a 6-foot-4 greenhorn around.
She nudges me a few steps forward, then backward, then into a left turn that results in a head-on collision. For obvious safety reasons, we split off from the other couples, ranging in age from teens to 50s.
Before the trip, I had boned up on a few steps at West L.A.'s Café Danssa, a Friday night samba hotbed. But that's all solo dancing. This is couples samba, double the bouncing and timing considerations. Luckily, Da Silva is patient; she started formal dancing only eight months ago. "It was always my dream to dance," she tells me. "It makes me so happy, and I've met so many great people."
We repeat the steps a few times, very slowly, then I locate the bounce and we have liftoff. We sweep around the studio, united by the spring in our steps. Lifting my eyes from the death stare at my feet, I see my partner smile approvingly. I laugh like a Brazilian at how sweet it is to lower the chica-chica-boom on gravity—of all kinds.
Absolutes in other parts of the world—time, laws, age—are conditional in Rio. What the Brazilians like to call "flexibility" drives some people up the wall, but it's the wellspring of their improvisational culture. The impulse to bend and blend created bossa nova, samba and the mix of those forms with rock, folk, jazz and pop known as MPB, or Musica Popular Brasileira, which ranges from icons Gilberto Gil to soul-samba alchemist Max de Castro, Bebel Gilberto and cross-pollination diva Marisa Monte, one of the nation's top artists.
Monte, whose father directed the Portela samba school, spices her albums with sambistas such as the Old Guard, and has helped the veterans connect with young listeners and revitalize their careers. "They are all masters. I learned a lot from them," she says, "not only in terms of music but in behavior. They have ethics, which is something beautiful nowadays."
Samba emerged in the favelas in the early 20th century as African drum circles and dances mixed with marches and guitar-based choro music, among other influences. It's a collective music, which is the source of its power, Monte says. "Samba is a way to celebrate life . . . together. It's not something you just watch. It's an experience. You go to sing and dance, and that's very good for people's souls. You get lighter, happier."
The next night, I'm on my way to lose weight. I weave by cab through the north of Rio to the Salgueiro samba school's rehearsal hall. The graffiti count jumps on dilapidated, low-slung buildings. Young men loiter in packs, no doubt striking deals. The drug trade, along with the illegal lottery, is the de facto economy and shadow government in the favelas. Both bankroll many samba schools. Turf battles are common. Not long ago, the head of the Salgueiro school, gambling kingpin Maninho, was assassinated.
I've been assured that Salgueiro's show is safe for travelers. "Nothing to worry about," says Pessanha, as we push through turnstiles into a hangar-like room where people, stages and neon-lighted booths are emblazoned in Salgueiro's red-and-white colors. It's after 11 p.m., and the whole neighborhood is on the move—parents, kids, young hipsters, couples and senior sambistas. I feel as if I've crashed a family gathering, but the collective elixir of samba soon immerses me in the tribe.
The opening salvo from the Furious Ones hits the building with the force of a runaway road grader. This 50-piece bateria, or drum section, is the core of 300 percussionists who power the Carnaval show for Salgueiro, one of the most storied of Rio's 14 main samba schools. The bateria director is a riot of waving arms, as a mob of cuica players barks out a canine cacophony and bass drum surdos boom into my kidneys.
School officials plow a corridor through the crowd for the dancers. First up, the flag bearers twirl and jackknife through, then a troupe of shimmying kids and a wing of shaking grandmothers known as Baianas, symbolic of Carnaval's original creators from Bahia. The crowd roars at the arrival of the feather-topped dance queens, or passistas, whose biomechanical talents are a course in physics. A blur of chocolate thighs and gold 4-inch heels, they demonstrate their multi-tasking acumen—hips, arms, shoulders and blazing feet a frenzy of independent operations.
Clutching lyric sheets, the throng breaks into Salgueiro's Carnaval theme song. In samba everyone is a background vocalist, everyone's in the band, everyone's a featured dancer. And that includes me. I plunge in with the kids, grannies and young studs. The plaster's gone, and the mind that created it. The body's in charge now. My feet are springs, my arms like Gumby's. Locked inside the bateria and the collective euphoria of my brethren, I bask in the sole-stirring whirl of a pilgrim awakened.
Dancing Through Rio de Janeiro
Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Brazil is 55; the city code is 21. All prices are in U.S. dollars and have been converted at an exchange rate of 2.2 Brazilian reals to $1. Room rates are for a double for one night. Samba club prices are the cover charge. Meal prices are for two, food only.
Getting there: From LAX, direct flights (stop, no change of plane) to Rio de Janeiro are offered on Varig. Connecting service (change of plane) is provided by Delta, American, United, Varig, Continental and Lan.
Where to stay: For value and location, try Parthenon Flats/Top Apart, 95 Rua João Lira, Leblon; 2511-2442, fax 2511-2442, http://www.accorhotels.com.br . A one-bedroom apartment with kitchen is $100 a night, including a buffet breakfast.
A good mid-price choice is Hotel Sol Ipanema, 320 Avenida Vieira Souto, Ipanema; 2525-2020, fax 2247-8484, http://www.solipanema.com.br . Standard rooms: $120; deluxe: $145.
At the top end, on the beachfront, is Sofitel Rio de Janeiro, 4240 Avenida Atlantica; (800) SOFITEL or 2525-1232, fax 2525-1200, http://www.accor-hotels.com . Doubles from $200.
Clubs/Samba Bars/Restaurants: Estephanio's, 130 Rua dos Artistas, Vila Isabel; 2570-5421. Great local samba bar. $5.
Carioca da Gema, 79 Rua Mem de Sã, Lapa; 2221-0043. Samba on Fridays and Saturdays. $5.
Academia da Cachaça, 26G Rua Conde de Bernadotte, Leblon; 2529-2680. Featuring 100 brands of cachaça, a Brazilian liquor. Cachaças, $1.70 to $12.95 per drink.
Rio Scenarium, 20 Rua do Lavradio, Lapa; 3852-5516. $6 to $8.
Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema Café), 49A Rua Vinicius de Moraes, Ipanema; 2523-3787. $6 to $15.
Nucleo de Dança, 14 Rua Visconde de Rio Branco, Lapa; 2221-1011.
Recommended CDs: Find the latest Brazilian CDs at http://www.thebraziliansound.com .
Bossa nova: Getz/Gilberto, Joyce's "Astronauta," Rosa Passos' "Amorosa," Celso Fonseca's "Natural," Tom Jobim and Elis Regina's "Elis & Tom."
Samba: Zeca Pagodinho's "Acustico," Velha Guarda da Portela's "Tudo Azul," Fundo de Quintal's "Ao Vivo Cacique de Ramos," "Samba Social Club," "Home of Samba."
MPB: Marisa Monte's "Rose and Charcoal," Mart'nalia's "Pe Do Meu Samba," Max de Castro's "Orchestra Klaxon," Caetano Veloso's "Livro."
For more information: The Brazilian Tourism Office, Brazil Information Center, 2141 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., Suite E-2, Washington, D.C., 20007; (800) 727-2945, www.braziltourism.org.
Joe Robinson is a Times staff writer. He also spins bossa and samba tracks for "Brazilia," a radio station on VH1.com.