Every city has its time – Paris in the 1930s, New York in the 1970s. I think the city for this time is Rio de Janeiro.
I felt this intensely in a small samba club (known as a gafiera) called Carioca da Gema in the throbbing neighborhood of Lapa, once Rio’s red-light district in the first half of last century. The name of the club means Carioca (a person from Rio) to the core. A samba revival began there, in 2000, in a faded, two-floor old mansion. The rest of Lapa is like that, and every weekend there is like Mardi Gras now.
When I was at Carioca da Gema three weeks ago, a friendly and personal crowd packed in on a Wednesday night, and the band of Moyseis Marques played three sets. Everybody danced and sang along; the busboys, all older men, clinked glasses at moments in the song necessitating a clap; and young and old happily mixed on the dance floor, next to the low-rise stage. Tables dotted the perimeter, but few people sat down.
What was striking was the friendliness and lack of pretense and self-consciousness. An elder besuited man, surely in his seventies, approached women a third of his age, and showed them a few moves. It was funny and kind of inspirational. I couldn’t dance the samba a lick, at least initially, but I didn’t feel embarrassed about this. It was as if we were all in the same boat, there to have fun and laugh and tap into something unique. Later, I’d get knowing smiles from people on the dance floor, telling me that I had at least picked up a few steps.
By the final set, nearing two in the morning, I was able to sing along with the smaller group of survivors, and I had pushed my way to the front of the dance floor. I didn’t want the night to end, nor did anyone else there. When it did, I knew I had found a place where life sparkled.
For more thoughts on my trip, here is an article I wrote about the business side of Brazil’s ascendancy. I plan on writing other stories on other aspects of life, culture, and travel there, not to mention something on Carioca da Gema.