On Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro, the streets of Lapa are alive with revelers drinking beer and sipping caipirinhas out of giant plastic cups. Music of all kinds beckons from open air bars on Rua do Rezende and Avenida Mem de Sá. But we’re here for that most Rio of all music and dancing—samba.
We started our evening at Bar do Mineiro with a giant plate of feijoada completa, traditional Brazilian soul food in the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, a once opulent neighborhood atop a hill near the city’s center that is now a mix of classes with a healthy contingent of struggling and established artists. Built in the eighteenth century, the winding cobblestone streets and Old World architecture give it a Southern European feel.
Our first stop for samba is in Mercado Das Pulgas, a crumbling mansion that now hosts a flea market during the week and capoeira and samba on weekends. The crowd is mostly local twenty-somethings coming to dance with friends or dates and sing along to songs that were written centuries ago, including ones about the historic neighborhood where they now live.
Below Santa Teresa is Lapa, where an 18th-century aqueduct now stands like a gate to the central-city borough, which can be dicey by day, but at night is as crowded as 6th Street in Austin or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Our destination is Vaca Atolada, a little hole-in-the-wall club where the owner’s son leads the crowd in samba songs.
The roots of samba are in these neighborhoods not far from the ports where a half-million West African slaves landed in the New World. And samba was popularized not long after they gained their freedom. The lyrics can range from playful and romantic to lamentations of life’s struggles, but the music is always infused with joy.
Neighborhoods and favelas take pride in their unique samba schools that build floats and design costumes every year for Carnival. The most striking thing to me is how this style of music and dancing has not only endured for over a century but remained such an ingrained part of the culture, even youth culture, across age and class barriers and racial lines.