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.
Chica- chica- boom town
In Rio de Janeiro, samba is not just music. It's a religion that grabs you, shakes you to the core and--if you're lucky--never lets you go.
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