Searching for the Future Samba
At first glance, searching for the samba, especially something as abstract as a “future” samba, may seem a ridiculous quest, because if there is something that proliferates Rio de Janeiro, it is samba groups. Many, perhaps even most, bars and restaurants feature at least a trio. But the truth is, many of them are pretty mediocre. Finding the real thing is as tricky as trying to make conversation with your Uber driver – almost impossible because hardly anyone speaks English in Brazil.
This is my second visit, and I am travelling with my partner Heidi, who is researching art museums for her Master’s thesis. I am doing my own thing – adding to my CD collection, finding out the state of the Brazilian live music scene for a new project of mine, and looking for an exciting act to programme for the 2019 Stanford Arts Festival, or STARTfest, as we’ve recently renamed it, “Herfsfees” proving itself too difficult to pronounce for English speakers.
This trip will take us to Salvador, the first Brazilian capitol and the “blackest” of all their cities, it being the port where most of the 3 million or so African slaves were offloaded in the bad old days. Then Rio, followed by an evening in Sao Paulo, the financial capitol.
The samba, like Brazil itself, is simple on the surface yet impossibly complex once you start scratching. It’s as much a dance as it is a style of music; it’s a beat and a step; a way of life and an escape from it. It’s everywhere, in shops, eating places, taxis and ubers. Hotel lobbies, doctor’s rooms, supermarkets and street vendor’s stalls. It’s even been a weapon of change: a movement known as Tropicalia, started by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso Gal Costa, Tom Ze and the group Os Mutantes. They were protesting the military dictatorship that came into power in 1964, and it’s attempt at controlling cultural output via censorship. The main idea of Tropicalia was to merge traditional Brazilian music with outside influences, especially the psychedelic new wave of American and British bands of the time. The Tropicalistas were also at odds with the Brazilian left, i.e. the communists, who were highly nationalistic and against Western influences.
Gil and Veloso were actively working against the dictatorship, and eventually left the country after being arrested and released. They returned after the fall off the dictator, Vargas, and Gil, after discovering Caribbean music, pioneered the samba-reggae genre. When Lula came to power, he made Gil his Minister of Culture. (Which begs the question of why we in South Africa have to put up with the endless string of disinterested and disastrous political appointees like Arts Minister Mtetwa).
Like football and the tanga, a lot of samba can be found on Rio’s famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema, especially at night in the little bars that separate the beach from the wavy pavement. You may find the next samba star there, but it’s unlikely. These samba trios, normally a guitar player, a timbao drummer and a tambourine player, seem to endlessly rehash the classical samba tunes, the words of which are known to all Brazilians. Which is fine … but no star can be born accompanied by the god-awful amplified sound pervasive along the most famous promenade on the planet.
Both the musicians and the audience don’t seem to give a rat’s arse whether they sound good or not. A weekend visit to Sacrificio, one of the most popular samba bars in Lapa, Rio’s much, MUCH larger version of Cape Town’s Long Street, proved the same. The joint is packed, admission quite high at R$20 (100ZAR), but the sound seriously sucks, despite there being more than enough gear. Yet everybody is on the floor as soon as the band starts. From the way that everybody sings along, it seems that this band too does not do any original tunes.
This is endearing and sweet, proof that the Carioca (that’s how Rio’s native population refer to themselves) love their music. But where could I find something different to the classical timeless samba that everyone seems to play? Personally, I like the idea of musical cross-pollination. I like it that you can blend hiphop with kwaito, reggae with rock, mbaqanga with jazz. Mixing the various genres of music is very much the new, if not the only, frontier of experimentation. These kind of blends must exist here in Brazil, the problem is, where can I hear it?
Samba is a blend in the first place, West African beats blended with a variety of European styles. There are many variations: Choro, a jazzy instrumental forerunner of the samba, first blended African beats with European instruments; the bossa nova, a romantic innovation made popular amongst the upper classes in the late fifties and early sixties by Joao Gilberto & Jobim (famous for writing Girl from Ipanema) and Gil (before he became politicised). The interesting thing about bossa nova is that is doesn’t have any accompanying dance steps, and was orginally purely a listening experience. There’s Axé, with it’s strong African links to the Candomblé religion; Forró, an almost gypsy sounding accordian based sound from the Northeast. Then there’s also the maracatu Afro-Brazilian carnival samba, which is a different kettle of fish altogether.
I’m prepared to listen to anything, actually – if I can just find it. This is quite a job, believe me. Everything is in Portuguese, and meeting a Brazilian that speaks English is as hard as finding an honest politician in South Africa’s parliament. They are there, of course, somewhere beyond the back benches, but to find them you have to have the skills of a Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe…
This time, just like the previous trip, we end up travelling kilometers to clubs and venues that have either closed down permanently or are simply not open on that particular night. Sometimes bands are advertised that aren’t playing, or else they have already played that afternoon. Is it me, or is this just the way things work in this place? The live music scene, like in my own country, seems like a closed book, if you’re an out-of-towner. It’s an insider scene, and sometimes even the insider that’s in so deep he’s almost through to the other side, doesn’t know what’s going on.
But I get lucky. In one of those irritating “ten best venues you shouldn’t miss” websites, most of which you should most definitely avoid, I read about Bip Bip. I immediately fall in the love with the name. A joint called Bip Bip has to be worth it, and it is.
We’re early, of course, and the joint is still closed. Tourists usually are, because in Brazil nothing ever starts on time. The only punter is a beautifully dressed old lady sitting outside at a solitary table, dripping with jewelry and good taste, and she invites us to join her. She speaks to us in Portuguese and we respond in English. Somehow we understand each other perfectly. A crowd of locals and some tourists slowly gather, people hanging around smoking, chatting and sipping on beers.
Eventually someone arrives to unlock the metal grid door. The joint is tiny, seating maybe 15 people. We make to seat ourselves, but to our surprise the door-opener waves his finger “no”. I offer to pay, rubbing my fingers, saying dinheiro, but again, the finger wave, “no”. Right, so lets have a beer while we wait, I think. Sure, that’s allowed. Now the guy waves me toward the fridge behind the counter. The barkeeper clearly hasn’t arrived yet, and won’t be, it transpires. You help yourself, lift your drinks so that the grumpy-looking old geezer who has seated himself at the entrance can see and make a note, and you pay afterwards. I like the system. It’s, um, quite socialist. It also means there’s no staff overhead.
The musicians start arriving in drips and drabs, and sit down inside the little bar, until all the seats are taken. We, the audience, hardly outnumbering the band, stand outside. Weird, but I like it. There are a couple of rules. No talking, no smoking and no wearing of perfume, all of which apparently irritates the grumpy old geezer, who turns out to be the owner. Heidi gets nervous because she’s wearing perfume, but he doesn’t notice. You also may not clap, but you’re allowed to click your fingers. Which we end up doing many times during the evening. The band is not really a band, but a bunch of oldsters and youngsters who get together a couple of times a week to jam. They completely ignore us, the audience, the entire night. This is such a refreshing experience I want to come again soon, but no one knows when it’ll happen again.
A few nights later, we arrive back at the hotel after yet another abortive effort to find some interesting music. As I’m pouring myself a whiskey I hear some truly funky sounds drifting in from outside. It sounds like a live band, but on the other hand, the sound is sounding so good it might not be. I quickly down my whiskey and we wander outside to see were the sounds are coming from, which turns out to be a little free concert with food and bar stalls at the Leme end of Avenida Atlantica, the beautiful boulevard that runs the length of Copacabana.
Even though it’s free, the audience is tiny. And quite drunk. The band, El Miraculoso, is playing a killer mix of samba, funk and jazz, exactly the kind of mix I’ve been looking for. The audience – out of their samba comfort zone – is enthusiastic, but having trouble with their footwork, though that may just be the booze talking. Some schmangled dude finds a square broom somewhere and is playing solos on it in front of the band. I fall headlong into the music, extracting myself half an hour later, at the end of their set. It always amazes me that all a band actually needs is a responsive audience to feed from. These guys have a great sound, but no stage, no lighting, little gear and an inkling of an audience, yet they perform like stars on a big stage. Is this what Brazilian bands feed off all the time, just the audience?
I have a theory about free music, though. It comes at a huge cost – to the musicians. They’ll be paid, hopefully, by the organisers or sponsors, funders or whatever, but having no entrance fee deprives the music and musicians of currency. Let’s face it, everything boils down to value, even if you’re a socialist. Doing free concerts means there is no value attached to your performance, and audiences will behave accordingly. Next time you play at a joint which charges an admission fee, people may think you’re not worth it.
Busking is different. Late one evening in Salvador, after watching a mostly unsatisfying touristic dance and music show at the Museo de Folklorica in the historical centro, we follow the sound of urgent drummimg through the maze of cobbled avenidas and find a mesmerizing show of a carnival troupe performing in the street. They play with verve and energy, even though they’re static. I am quite happy to drop R$50 into the bucket that makes the rounds.
This style of drumming kind of confuses me, because it seems military, but the origins are clearly African. There are three or four different drums, ranging from snares to large bass-type drums played flat. The result is a rousing polyrhithmic conversation between the various drums, led by a lead drummer who also seems to conduct the band. At his signal the bass drummers lift their huge drums with one foot, and chuck them arms-length into the air, down they come again, and with the next beat up goes the mallets, twirling high into the air, while the front drummers sway rhythmically. No one misses a beat. It’s like a drum solo played by 12 drummers, each song lasting about ten minutes.
Made popular by the activist drumming group Olubum in the eighties, to ensure equal access to the Bahia Carnival for Afro-Brazilians, these groups – or blocos, as they’re called locally – have become very popular with the Salvadorians, and can number in the thousands. But it sure ain’t samba… or is it?
It dawns on me that the Carnival is the driving force of a large part of the music scene. The literally hundreds of small samba outfits are directly linked to the Carnival, which takes place in all the big Brazilian cities, with Rio being the largest and most popular amongst turistas. For a week, the entire country comes to a standstill while Brazilans get their rocks off, consume huge amounts of alcohol and make babies.
But the preparation for the carnival starts months ahead of the parades, when the various blocos have song-writing competitions to decide the musical theme of the year. Anyone can enter, and that’s your chance to launch a musical career. With unemployment in the millions, there are one of two ways a slum-dweller can elevate himself – football and samba. So, between carnivals, these bloco-muso’s ply their craft on the various platforms available to them. Feels to me there’s a lesson for us South Africans right ere in our BRICS backyard.
Back in Rio, I pop into Arlequim, which hosts live samba-jazz shows on Saturdays. Alas, their CD section has all but disappeared, and along with it, the live shows. The owner, a sad-looking Carioca, blames the economy and Temer, their president who recently pulled off a political coup. So I riffle through the remaining racks of CDs and come across a group called Naçao Zumbi, or Zombi Nation.
I’d heard of them before. With a singer/songwriter called Chico Science, these guys started an exciting counterculture movement they called Mangue Bit, a reference to mangrove trees and the binary value of a bit, which later morphed into Manguebeat, probably a result of English-speakers trying to make sense of the admittedly confusing imagery.
Influenced by James Brown, Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow among others, their music fused rock, funk, and hiphop with maracatu and other traditional rhythms of northeast Brazil. What the Sex Pistols and The Clash did for rock, and Tropicalia did for the sixties generation, Naçao Zumbi’s Mangue Beat did for Brazilian music a few decades later. It was a heady protest against the Brazilian government of the nineties, and they became really big, two of their records going gold. After Chico Science died in a car accident, the band floundered, but self-corrected, and still exists today. I have their latest CD in my hand, and I am definitely going to buy it. But it ain’t samba either…
I love the wild, sexy carnival samba sound as much as I do the soothing romantic strummings and off-key vocals of the bossa nova. I hear tunes on my various Uber drivers car systems, keeping them calm in the hectic Rio traffic, but they often don’t seem to feature on Shazam, though all the classics do, of course.
I’m beginning to realise that my search for the future samba is a wild goose chase. It occurs to me that perhaps its role is to remain true to its classical self while subtly infiltrating all Brazilian music so that, eventually, the samba is omnipresent, like a sensual, fleet-footed God, to remind Brazilians of their Brazilian-ness, for evermore.
My mind goes back to Sacrificio, and the three girls in their early twenties doing a bar-stool samba in front of me, not able to hold back on the pre-show groove coming through the speakers; and the party of old timers seated to my left, who can still dredge up that almost forgotten feeling of being irresistable as they confidently do some sensual samba steps. Age – and race – are of no consequence to the samba, and that is truly remarkable. It brings all Brazilans together, makes them equal, and I wish, fervently, that we had such a thing in my divided and polarized country.
© Carsten Rasch 2018
Published in Medium 2018