rhythm, but it flirts with some melodies that are
European,” says Luiz Simas, a Rio-raised historian, newspaper columnist and musician who has
written extensively on samba.
In 1916, the composer Donga wrote “Pelo
Telefone” (“By Phone”) with journalist Mauro de
Almeida at Ciata’s house. The song is often cited
as the first recorded samba—though other musicians claimed to have co-written it, and other
recordings in similar style predate it.
A CULTURAL INSTITUTION
Samba continues to be a vital and vibrant part of
Rio’s local culture. Ashe was drawn to Rio eight
years ago. The 35-year-old British expat grew
up in Doncaster, England, playing big-band jazz
in youth orchestras. Now in addition to playing
samba and jazz at joints all over Rio, he runs a
social project called Favela Brass from his house
in a Central Rio favela (slum), teaching music to
local children. “When I first saw a samba circle,
the way the rhythms fit together, and everyone
was dancing…” he says wistfully. “It was magic.”
It was at Rio Carnival in 2007 where I first felt
that magic—quite literally. Hundreds of drum-
mers in the corps, or bateria, were driving a cos-
tumed cast of thousands in the Mangueira school
down Rio’s avenue-shaped stadium in the official,
competitive parade. The rhythms were palpable.
A year later I followed an all-female squad
behind a sound truck stuffed with musicians as
it trailed the narrow streets of bohemian Lapa,
in nearby Central Rio. This bloco, or free street
party, known as Kizomba, was one of more
than 500 that fill Rio’s streets during Carnival.
Thousands of fancy-dressed revelers were submerged in song, rhythm and movement.
What struck me on both occasions was the
extraordinary unifying force Brazilians found in
samba’s delicate yet forceful rhythms and frenzy
of tightly organized beats—and how effortlessly
people unleashed those swirling dance moves.
“This is part of every Brazilian,” says Ana
Costa, a Rio singer and musician who embraced
samba under her musical godfather, the composer
and performer Martinho da Vila. “Samba is more
than a job,” she says. “It is more than a musical
segment. Samba is our culture.”
Samba’s lyrics offer collective narratives on
everything from day-to-day dramas to love,
passion and betrayal. “The way you celebrate
life, the way you deal with death,” Simas notes.
“Samba has a diary aspect.”
This is evident in the affectionately barbed
observations on life and love found in the
lyrics of Noel Rosa, a troubled genius with
a deformed chin who trawled Rio’s decadent
nightlife and wrote hundreds of songs before
dying of tuberculosis in 1937, at just 26. Some
feature the malandro, a pleasure-seeking hustler
and evergreen cliché of samba lyrics and culture,
probably inspired, says Simas, by the trickery
Afro-Brazilians employed to survive in informal,
Samba classics like “As Rosas Não Falam”
(“The Roses Don’t Speak”), by the great
Cartola, are written into Brazil’s collective consciousness. Born Angenor de Oliveira, Cartola
lived much of his life in the Mangueira favela
and helped found its samba school. In the mid-
1960s, a restaurant he and his wife, Eusébia, ran
in Central Rio was a famous hangout for samba
musicians. But he only released his first album in
1974, at the age of 66, and died six years later.
Both composers would have felt at home at
tonight’s Pedra do Sal. Kaká Nomura, 32, smiles
as he switches between guitar and cavaquinho, a
smaller string instrument with a sound a bit like
a banjo. Of Japanese ancestry, he grew up in the
suburbs of São Paulo, but like most Brazilians,
samba was etched into his upbringing. “In samba,
you have to have the foundation, you have to know
the story,” he says. “You have to have rhythm.” [
Lucas Segovia, from Argentina, is a
dancer with The Joffrey Ballet. He shares
his tips for dancing the samba.
How hard is it to dance samba?
To me it came naturally. I took very few
lessons. It’s a rhythm that comes very
easily to me in my body.
How do you do it?
Relax your hips, listen very closely to the
music and follow the beat. It is not about
the melody; it is about the feeling. Samba
is a very rhythmical dance style, and it
feels very joyful and musical. If you have
ever danced waltz or ballet, you will be
familiar with this very airy feeling.
Does it feel different for different
Women are expected to move their hips
much more than men, but that doesn’t
mean men are exempt from moving their
hips and feet fast.
Core strength helps, too. You should be
very stable in your core and your back, so
you can free your legs.
Samba and other forms of Latin
rhythms are very grounded, and very
rhythmically driven dance forms. So core
strength and alignment are important for
refining the movements of samba.
“Samba is free, loose, unprejudiced,
colorful—it’s a form of prayer,” says
Rosane Lucas, Chef Concierge at the
JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro. Visit these
venues for a lively look at samba:
CACIQUE DE RAMOS
This 54-year-old North Rio samba
institution is a living legend that pays
homage to the great names of Brazilian
Rua Uranos 1326, Manguinhos,
CARIOCA DA GEMA
This live music bar in bustling Lapa is
warm, welcoming, relaxed and traditional.
Mem de Sá 79, Lapa,
Also in Lapa, this ornate “culture pavilion”
offers live music shows and multiple bars.
Rua de Lavradio 20, Lapa,
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