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Save The Last Dance: Brazilian samba and Rio de Janeiro

Author Tom Phillips

Samba music and dancing in Rio Scenarium.

Bathed in bright footlights on the stage of a club in Lapa, a revived bairro near downtown Rio de Janeiro, a 12-member band plays a delirious samba. The crowd, almost a thousand of Rio’s most glamorous Brazilians and best-informed tourists, is in a state of rapture. As the singer belts out the chorus, they chant along. A menagerie of instruments propels the samba, though at its core are the pandeiro, a type of tambourine, and the melodic cavaco, a four-string guitar resembling a ukulele. One band member hammers a counterbeat on an agogo bell, another a drum called a timba.

The beat picks up, and the crowd at the Clube Dos Democráticos follows the band’s lead, only vaguely aware they’re witnessing a powerful resurgence of Brazil’s signature dance—and by extension, its national spirit.

One of the world’s most sensual forms of dance music, samba—a swank precursor to the lambada—was just 10 years ago all but forgotten. After decades at the top of the charts, the form was relegated to the nostalgia bin, supplanted on top-40 radio by Brazilian rock and pop ballads. But that’s changing now, as a new generation returns to samba with fresh ears.

While the music mixes the heavy beats of African drumming with the melancholy melodies of Portugal, the dancing—a libido-fueled bump-and-grind—is strictly Brazilian. The word itself is a bastardization of the Angolan “semba,” which means belly-button bumping, and that’s as good a description of the action on the dancefloor tonight as any. On stage, a saxophone sounds a crazy warble and suddenly the singer raises his hands to end the song. The band nearly collapses. The crowd erupts in applause, which echoes outside onto Rua Gomes Freire.

It’s the night after Christmas, and the party seems like it’s just beginning. Hundreds of revelers crowd the sidewalks of Lapa, flirting and toasting the tropical evening with copas of sugar-cane rum. Crowds arrive through the night and try to squeeze their way past the less-than-democratic doorman, a scene that’s playing itself out at numerous other clubs in the area, such as Carioca da Gema, the Centro Cultural Carioca and Bar da Ladeira.

“For young musicians, Lapa is like a church,” says Thais Villela, a 29-year-old singer who is part of a new generation of singers and musicians who worship at samba’s altar. “We learn something new each day from the ‘old guard,’ who will spend the whole night talking to you about samba. Our mission is to carry on their work.”

“It used to be the last neighborhood a local would go to hear music, but it’s Bnow the place they think of first,” agrees Moyseis Marques, a young singer with a baby face. And the tourists are following suit, making the samba pilgrimage to the historic neighborood, an area once considered too dangerous to visit. What used to be a menacing, litter-strewn place lined with abandoned colonial buildings and ratty brothels is now a colorful neighborhood full of street fairs, art galleries, upmarket bars and antique shops. And of course samba clubs.

Samba was born in the early 20th century in Rio’s impoverished hilltop favelas. It became the “Brazilian sound” in the ’30s, when a government program delivered radios from the cities of Rio and Sao Paulo to the northeast hinterlands. Samba was the signature sound of those early broadcasts. Soon enough, it was one of the elements that gave this vast country its unified national identity.

“Samba is a mixture of Portugal and Angola,” says Áurea Martins, the mistress of Lapa and the most experienced female performer in the bairro, whose 45-year career is enjoying a sudden revival amid the current boom. “But it brought Brazil together.”

A young couple gets down at one of the many smaller clubs. The word “samba” means belly-button bumping.

A 68-year-old Afro-Brazilian, Martins, who in the past year has released two albums—one solo and one with her all-female group, Orquestra Lunar— possesses a diminutive stature that belies the power of her husky, emotion-packed voice. She was born in Campo Grande, an impoverished suburb in western Rio, and her singing career started during the last samba boom of the 1960s and ’70s, when record labels released songs by favela-based composers like Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho. Like Cartola, Martins became a household name, touring the country and playing to thousands of fans.

In the ’80s, samba found itself sidelined by pop, rock and pagode, a watered-down and wildly popular genre of treacly ballads. Samba venues were shuttered, and Rio’s youth abandoned Lapa, migrating to Copacabana and Ipanema in search the newer sounds, sandy beaches and itsy-bitsy bikinis.

Samba in its purest form—what aficionados such as Martins call samba de raiz or roots samba—all but disappeared.

In the mid-’90s, however, the beginnings of a revival began to stir via jam sessions—known as rodas de sambas—at a hipster restaurant near Lapa called Sobrenatural. The raucous sessions were organized by a local musician called Galote and soon attracted hordes of kids eager to recreate samba’s golden era.

“It was the only roda de samba in all Rio,” recalls Edu Krieger, 32, who discovered samba in Sobrenatural. Today he’s one of Brazil’s best-known young composers, writing for singers such as the Grammy-winning Maria Rita. “It was the meeting place of many people who today work in Lapa.”

The roda then spread from Sobrenatural to a tiny backstreet bar called Semente, in the heart of Lapa, on Rua Joaquim Silva.

Brazilian samba impresario Aline Brufato purchased Semente in 1996 and immediately promoted the club’s rodas. Young musicians flocked to the club, and a cult following persists to this day (comparable to those surrounding the now-closed CBGB in New York or The Roundhouse in London). “After the Sobrenatural, Semente was the place,” says proprietor Brufato. “Even today, it is an open stage for musical experimentation.”

Countless new sambas are written every week at Semente, songs born in the early hours of the morning over ice-cold beer and scribbled down on napkins. Drop in virtually any night of the week and all the unmistakable signs of the samba renaissance are there: A rousing beat blasting onto the street, and elegant couples swinging sensually across the smoke-clogged dance floor.

The new virtuosos of samba call this their spiritual home. Brazilian guitarists Yamandú Costa and Zé Paulo Becker and French violinist Nicolas Krassik can be found there on any given night.

“I always say that Semente was my cocoon,” says Villela, who began singing on Semente’s cramped stage and now performs in Lapa’s larger clubs. “The masters learned their trade here and came out as beautiful butterflies.”

Every Friday, Brufato runs the biggest samba night in town (called Semente da Música Brasileira) at the Clube dos Democráticos. And numerous smaller clubs have bloomed among the storefronts: Estrela da Lapa, Bar Mofo, Mal do Século, Parada da Lapa. “For a long time there were only two samba clubs in Lapa,” Martins says. “Today there are more than 20.”

All that bumping of bellybuttons has had a profound effect on this once-depressed area, spurring economic growth and bringing in investment. Millions of private dollars have been been spent restoring the crumbling 19th-century town houses and colonial buildings that were abandoned during samba’s dark years.

Lapa’s red light district and homeless, knifewielding scamps are now gone (mostly), and the zone is one of the hottest real estate grabs in Rio. Upmarket bars, restaurants and hotels seem to open every other week. The streets are well-policed; crime is negligible.

New hotels, office towers and luxury condominiums now crowd the skyline here, replacing most of the seedy no-tell motels and ramshackle worker dormitories. Top restaurants are opening, like the popular Pizzaria Carioca da Gema, where revelers gather and fortify themselves with pizza and sizzling Brazilian steaks before heading out to dance. The luxurious Hotel Santa Teresa offers pleasant jumping-off point for a caipirinha-fueled local night out.

Semente, a Lapa mainstay, is where the new samba resurgence was born.

The prosperity is spreading to neighboring bairros as well. Praça Tiradentes, just east of Lapa, is now infected by development fever.

“This area used to be like an antiques shop,” says Plinio Fróes, the owner of Rio Scenarium, one of Rio’s best-known samba clubs. “Now the samba attracts politicians, intellectuals and playwrights alike.”

Fróes believes this is just the beginning. He recently bought three more buildings in Lapa and plans to open a convention center and another samba club. Two new hotels, run by Ibis and Formula 1, recently opened in the square. The expansion seems endless, and it all really began with the rodas at the humble Sobrenatural. The beat goes on.

It is a Friday night on Avenida Mem de Sá, one of Lapa’s main thoroughfares, and the pounding sound of the timba drums and the pandeira filters from half a dozen samba clubs, each packed to the rafters with Rio’s sweaty new samba lovers.

Inside one club, two women prepare to mount the stage to serenade a packed house: Martins, the smiling, enduring doyenne of classic samba, and Villela, an avatar of the nova geração or “new generation.”

“It is an exchange,” says Martins. “True Brazilian music will always exist.” With that, Martins lifts her delicate frame from her barstool and sweeps back towards the stage for her final set of the night, her trademark black beret pulled tightly over her hair.

“Samba might agonize,” Martins says, quoting a famous samba lyric with her customarily cheeky smile. “But it will never die.”

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