Searching for the perfect samba beat
Head to Democráticus in Lapa for an adrenaline-fulled night of samba music and dancing. (John Maier Jr/LPI)
Few cities are as deeply connected to its musical heritage as Rio de Janeiro. Imagining Rio without samba is to picture the tropical city without carnival, without its famous samba schools and parades, to erase the country's most vibrant nightlife district and its best-loved musicians from past and present. Not to mention, samba's absence would have dramatic implications on the course of music history, since so many Brazilian styles (bossa nova, tropicália, MPB) that came later were built on the house of samba.
Immigrants from Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil, played a major role in shaping the city's soundtrack. In the early 20th Century, the working-class neighbourhood of Praça Onze near downtown, became a hotbed for Afro-Brazilian culture. Old Bahian matriarchs, like the famed healer Tia Ciata, hosted huge musical gatherings, where singers and songwriters experimented with new forms - never imagining that the sound to emerge would one day become a great legacy of Brazilian music. (Coincidentally, this was also around the time that African-Americans in New Orleans were playing the music later known as jazz.)
If samba is the soul of Rio, its heart is undoubtedly Lapa, a rough-and-tumble district on the edge of downtown that is home to dozens of old-fashioned samba clubs and music-filled bars. An upper-middle class residential area in the early 1900s, Lapa later fell on hard times and became a red-light district in the 1930s, its taverns and brothels the stomping ground for a broad swath of Rio society - artists, politicians, bohemians, intellectuals and malandros (con men). Today, Lapa attracts an equally diverse mix of cariocas (Rio locals) - rich and poor, favela dweller and condo-owner alike - all drawn to the old-fashioned gafieiras (dance halls) and the electric sound that crackles over these battered, rhythm-filled sidewalks.
Samba clubs have come and gone, but one of Lapa's mainstays is Carioca da Gema, a pioneer among music bars to the area when it opened back in 2000. This small, warmly lit space attracts some of Rio's best samba bands - like Teresa Cristina and Grupo Semente, who play here regularly. It is also one of the few reliable places open on Monday in Lapa.
A few blocks away, Democráticus remains a top destination for its lovely setting and spacious dance floor. It is set inside a beautifully restored 1867 mansion - follow the sounds (and the snaking line) up the marble staircase to a high-ceilinged room with a long stage packed with musicians. Even lovelier, but perhaps overly popular with foreigners is Rio Scenarium, a sprawling three-story space decorated with antiques.
Lapa of course is only one part of Rio's great music scene. Other hot spots among samba-philes include Trapiche Gamboa near the port, a charming multilevel space known for its high-quality samba and welcoming crowd. In Copacabana Bip Bip attracts a festive gathering to its roda de samba sessions (informal samba played around a table). The "bar" is little more than a storefront with a fridge packed with beer, though most of the action happens on the tree-lined sidewalk in front.
Take care when walking around Lapa as muggings still occur; it is safest on weekend nights when numerous visitors fill the streets. Taxis to and from Copacabana and Ipanema, where many accommodations are found, cost about R$25 one way. Admission to most samba clubs runs R$12 to R$25.
Most of Lapa's lodging options are of the pay-by-the-hour variety. Santa Teresa, just uphill from Lapa, has better options, including Castelinho 38, a charming colonial guesthouse with doubles from R$220.
Regis St. Louis is co-author of Lonely Planet's Brazil travel guide.