Blame it on Rio: April 07 issue

Chris Welsch discovers Samba is the heartbeat of Brazil, and manages to avoid the Carnival
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Rain fell in sheets that battered the pavement like the waves crashing on nearby Ipanema Beach. The beat was steady and slow – whush, whush, whush, whush. The taxi pulled up, slick and yellow, and my wife and I ran out of the door of our hotel, hunched against the deluge, to meet it. Inside the cab, our Brazilian friend greeted us with apologies for the rain.

Our destination for the evening was the Rival Theatre, which occupies a cavernous basement hall with an entry on a narrow side street in the Lapa District, one of Rio’s oldest, grandest neighborhoods.
Our friend, Cristina Walmsley, a carioca (native of Rio), was well-known to the doorman, who greeted her and my wife with kisses and me with a heartfelt handshake. We entered the hall, and a waitress took us to a table not far from the stage.
Shortly thereafter, Arlindo Cruz, a massive man with a tiny mandolin, sat down on a stool center stage. More than a dozen percussionists, guitarists and horn players lined up behind him and they began to play. They took up the beat of the rain and the ocean – steady, even, seductive. That was the base from which Cruz’s plaintive vocals rose and fell.
At the first note, the music lifted everyone in the bar onto their feet. Men elegantly shuffled the tidy two-step of the samba. Their female dance partners matched the beat with their feet, but doubled it with their hips. There was no self-conscious hesitation; the separation between band and crowd didn’t exist. Cruz sang, the crowd sang. The band members danced, we all danced. That is the spirit of samba.
We went to Brazil on a long-postponed honeymoon, but the reason we’d chosen the destination was for its music. One borrowed CD a few years ago has led to an obsession with the popular sounds of Brazil.
As human beings, we are often drawn to what is alien to us. My genes, and those of my wife, Silke Schroeder, came down from people who lived in the darker, colder parts of the world.
Samba, with its distinctive, floating downbeat, is a product of warm, sunny places. At its core, driven by percussion, samba has African roots, but like Brazil itself, samba is a stew of other places. From Portugal, samba gets its guitars, and an undertow of heartbreak. From indigenous Brazil, samba is infused with the soul of the country itself. Samba’s most distinctive sound is the lilt of the cuica. If you’ve heard samba, you know that squeaky cry – it sounds like it’s coming from a jungle bird of particularly iridescent plumage. The moment I heard samba, I felt a twitch in my hips and a strong pull toward Brazil.
We had a room at the Arpoador Inn, a hotel at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach. It was plain, clean, comfortable and right on the waterfront. We slipped into a leisurely carioca rhythm. We hit the beach during the day, the clubs at night, all the while accompanied by a steady samba beat, whether it was set by drums or waves or just a passerby, singing on the sidewalk.
Infrequently, we roused ourselves from sun-drenched torpor to explore Rio, a city of magnificent and miserable extremes. The dragon-backed mountains that ring the beaches serve as the majestic if unsteady foundation for the tumble-down slums called favelas that precariously cling to their flanks. Those who can afford it live on the low ground, near Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. There, on the sand, some of Rio’s extremes meet. One group tans and swims, the other rents umbrellas and sells snacks.
We did our part, watching the surf and the passing show from under an umbrella, drinking iced coconut milk and snacking on Globo biscuits, which look like doughnuts made of styrofoam. For some reason they were saltily delicious and crunchy on the beach; when we ate them anywhere else they tasted like salted styrofoam.
We didn’t want to spend our whole honeymoon in the middle of a big drunken party. So as Carnival approached, we left Rio. The sentiment was shared by some cariocas, apparently. When we told our hotel manager we were checking out for a week, he said, “Can I come with you?”
We had made reservations at a pousada (a small inn) on Ilha Grande, about 160 kilometres south of Rio. Getting there involved three hours in a private bus and another hour by ferry.
The words Ilha Grande are delicious in Portuguese – EEla GRANji, but they just mean Big Island. Until 10 years ago, it was home to a prison known as the Devil’s Cauldron and a small village where the prison employees and their families lived. Now it is my idea of paradise: a car-less isle with a few hotels and restaurants, big, empty beaches, shady jungle trails and not much to do.
Silke had spent many hours on the internet finding Pousada Asalem, and all that research had paid off. It was in an isolated spot in the jungle, a half-hour walk from the island’s only village, on a slope overlooking the bay.
There was a main house, with a big veranda where meals were served. The six rooms were built into the side of the hill above. The pousada’s chefs served us meals of fresh fruit, eggs from the resident chickens, fish from the sea. Our suite had an airy loft, a giant yellow hammock and a palm-framed view of the bay. At night, samba from the Carnival parties in the village of Abraao drifted across the bay.
On the day of Carnival, we walked into town to catch the parade. It consisted of a marching samba band of about 20 villagers followed by a troupe of 40 children in costumes followed by another 100 people shuffling along to the pounding drums and blasting horns. It lasted about a half-hour, everyone cheered and sang, and then it was over. It was perfect.
A stage had been set up on the town square for a night of pop music and dancing for the young folk. We left before the real debauchery kicked in, although we heard music and shouting in the distance until after 3 a.m. At one point I heard what I thought might be gunfire.
At breakfast the next day, Paolo, the manager of the pousada, told us we’d missed some excitement. “I was there watching from the second story of a bar,” he said. “A fight broke out. There was one police. He broke up the fight, but then the mother of one of the guys started biting him. Then that guy got mad because the police was hitting his mother. They both attacked him. Then the police pulled his gun and shot into the air, but they kept hitting on him. So he shot the guy in the foot. Then more police come and shoot pepper spray. I got some in my throat. It was a mess.”
He told the story with some concern, which evaporated the minute the story ended. He never mentioned it again, and neither did anyone else.
Still, the story echoed later in the day. We went on a hike through the jungle to a tiny beach, where we met an American woman named Bobbi Oleo, her Brazilian fiance and several of their friends. They were all from Sao Paolo, and like most of the other tourists on the island, they were refugees from the big Carnival celebrations in the cities. They invited us to join their group for lunch.
“By now you’ve figured out that Brazilians are whimsical,” Oleo said. “They change plans very easily. They say they’re doing one thing and then do something else. That’s probably why they’re happy most of the time, even though things are difficult here. They live in the moment.”
To that end she told us about the time she and her fiance were stuck in a traffic jam in Sao Paolo, on their way to a concert. A man came up to their car and robbed them at gunpoint. She was traumatized and wanted to go home, but Eduardo (the fiance) didn’t see why. “He didn’t want to let a little armed robbery ruin an evening of music.”
Rio seemed a little tired and run-down when we returned. Pieces of paper, colorful feathers and sparkly pieces of what had been very small costumes littered the ground around the Arpoador Inn.
The beach was just as we left it, and our favorite umbrella vendor welcomed us home to our lazy post by the sea. I did feel a small ghost of regret flitting through my mind. I missed Carnival in Rio: The ultimate samba celebration. There are huge samba clubs of 4,000 to 5,000 people that spend the whole year writing and perfecting a samba, making costumes and building a float for the big contest at the Sambodrome, where more than 100,000 people will join them in song.
That night we consoled ourselves to a fine meal at a feijoada restaurant. Feijoada is one of Brazil’s distinctive dishes: a hearty black-bean stew that is a staple of Carnival time. Loaded with cured beef, spareribs and sausage, it’s remarkably heavy. As we were walking home, Silke pondered, “How can people eat like this and then dance?”
Not 10 minutes later, we saw a truck coming down Avenue Viera Souto, which fronts Ipanema beach. On top of the truck was a band. Twenty drummers marched behind it. A crowd of at least 200 dancers followed, doing the samba.
The band played the same song, over and over, and as the waves of sound washed over us, our feet moved, our hips shook, and we sang even though we didn’t know what the words meant.
Bean stew, the heaviness, the impending trip back to a cold, hard place – none of that even came to mind.

Music pervades every aspect of life in Brazil; accordingly, the depth and breadth of recordings is rich. Here are a few starting points for an aural expedition.
Luaka Bop/ Brazil Classics
The CD series from David Byrne (former frontman of the Talking Heads) offers samples of many artists, styles and time periods. It is an irresistible invitation to the world of Brazilian music.
Martinho da Vila
This samba legend with a deep, melodic voice developed a reputation as a master composer and singer during a 40-year career.
Marisa Monte
The Brazilian pop diva dabbles in many styles. “Universo ao Meu Redor,” a recent release, is a passionate study of samba, even if it is too slick to satisfy old-school samba fans.
Caetano Veloso
Veloso – one of Brazil’s national treasures – has spent his remarkable career moving fluidly from one style to another with the only constant his signature, lilting voice.
Jorge Ben
Another groundbreaker, Ben merged funk and samba to create a sound all his own. “Africa Brasil” remains a classic of Brazilian popular music; my favorite Ben CD is “A Tabua de Esmeralda.”

A traveler’s checklist for Brazil
Explorer Amerigo Vespucci was better suited to naming things than he was to figuring out what they were. When the Portuguese ship he was piloting floated into Guanabara Bay on Jan. 1, 1502, Vespucci wrongly believed it was a river mouth. Thus, he dubbed the place the River of January, though there is no river. Now Rio (pronounced HEE-u in Portuguese) is home to 6 million cariocas (the preferred label for Rio-ites), with a laid-back attitude and culture that is unique even in Brazil.
In Brazil, crushing poverty fuels crime in the big cities. Holdups and petty theft against tourists are not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro. Even well-traveled neighborhoods such as Lapa, where many of the liveliest nightclubs are found, are unsafe at night. Having a friend in Rio who knew taxi drivers and where to pick them up safely was invaluable. In daylight, tourist areas are generally safe. Nighttime requires more caution. Use taxis and avoid solo travel. The U.S. State Department consular information sheet is worth reading:
Don’t head to Brazil without a good guide. Lonely Planet’s Brazil guides are reliably comprehensive. If Rio is on the itinerary, read “Rio de Janeiro/Carnival Under Fire” by Ruy Castro, a true carioca. In 242 pages, he somehow manages to weave together all the disparate strands of Rio into something truly beautiful and melodic, like the city itself.