Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Where to samba in Rio

Stanley Stewart heads to Lapa, the old quarter of Brazil’s ultimate party town, for caipirinhas and twirls

Nana Gouveia (C), Queen of the Drums of the Caprichosos de Pilares samba school, dances between two musicians during Rio de Janeiro's Carnival at the Sambadrome arena, in Brazil, 22 February 2004.

Brazilians are to a good time what the English are to queuing or the Italians to overtaking at speed on the hard shoulder while chatting on the mobile and eating an ice cream. They are naturals. They are party people.

Rio is Brazil’s ultimate party town. It not only stages the most outrageous carnival in the world, it has the best New Year’s Eve party, too, attended by up to a million samba-dancing ravers on Copacabana beach. I was going out for a night on the town. I had my flip-flops, my linen shirt, my baggy shorts. How wrong could things go if I simply tried to blend in?

Someone in England had given me Ricardo’s number. On the telephone he had enthused about the nightlife in the old Lapa district of central Rio. He offered to show me around.

Ricardo had been to England.

He had once spent a month in Colchester, doing English-language immersion. He was still wrestling with the demons.

“Four sunny days in the whole month,” he said glumly. “Four.” He held up four fingers. “And people said I was lucky.”

We were driving along the Ipanema Avenida Atlantica with the top down, past the great sweep of Copacabana beach. Out on the sands, young men in Speedo briefs were doing impossible things with footballs, while girls in buttock-baring thongs – known here as fio dental, or dental floss – strolled arm in arm against a setting sun.

It is impossible not to love Rio, and it is not just the shapely bottoms. The moment you see it from the plane, nestled into its glorious bays, your heart misses a beat. Cariocas – as the inhabitants of Rio are called – go to the beach the way the English go to the pub. Everywhere you look in Rio there are people in swimsuits. It feels like a city on permanent holiday.

In Rio the nightlife options are manifold – indoor discos in Ipanema and Leblon, outdoor discos on the Morro da Urca; ladies in feathers at the Churrascaria Plataforma, ladies without feathers in Leme. But Lapa, Ricardo insisted, is the place to be.

Lapa is 20 minutes and 200 years away from the beaches of Copacabana. Lapa is old Rio, built in the 18th century, Rio before the beaches and the tourists and the international fame. By the 1920s and 1930s, Lapa had a reputation as South America’s Montmartre, a bohemian quarter with a liberal mix of lowlife and high living. Samba was Lapa’s soundtrack.

It came to an end in the 1940s, when the government clamped down on the lowlife bit. Lapa’s decline was further hastened by the flight of the middle classes to security-conscious suburbs, and then by the rise of beach culture, which drew visitors and Cariocas away from the centre to Copacabana and Ipanema. Distracted by rock and disco, young people stopped listening to samba, and Lapa became a rundown inner-city problem.

Sixty years on, samba is trendy again, as are forro and chorinho and pagode and all the other myriad forms of traditional Brazilian music. Young people have abandoned the sterility of international rave music for the funky dance music of their roots. In Lapa, home to some of the great samba names of the past, music clubs have sprung up. After 50 years of neglect, Lapa is buzzing again, and the neighbourhood is being transformed.

But, actually, what I love about Lapa is how little it is transformed. In London’s Hoxton, or in New York’s meat-packing district, gentrification has a way of sucking out the original atmosphere, leaving only a kind of self-parody, turning everything that moves into a steel and waxed-wood sofa bar with aproned waiters and goat’s-cheese salad. In Lapa, the vibe of the old dilapidated neighbourhood is indomitable.

We crossed a square where the statue of a forgotten Portuguese hero, his shoulders spattered with guano, presided over a dusty garden. Round his feet, old women doing lace work had colonised the benches. Men in sleeveless vests sat on the kerbs drinking beer, while girls in shorts danced to tunes from the radio in the doorway of a late-night tobacconist. The mouldering colonial mansions looked as if they had been unoccupied since muttonchop whiskers went out of style. Shutters hung off their hinges. Cats eyeballed us from wrought-iron balconies.

One of the mansions was Rio Scenarium, unusual only in that all the lights were on. A pioneer in transforming Lapa’s fortunes in the mid1990s, it sprawls over three floors. Crowded with vintage junk, from Bakelite radios to 1950s mannequins, it doubles as a film-prop store. On the ground floor, a live samba band was pumping it out to a crowd of liquid-limbed dancers. People gazed down from galleries, while on all sides packed tables filled the great cavernous spaces of what was once one of Rio’s grandest houses.

Nobody in Colchester can dance, Avenida Ricardo declared as we ordered a Atlantica couple of caipirinhas. Standing on the edge of the dancefloor, I could see how right he was. Nobody in a thousand years had danced like this in Colchester.

Nothing really prepares you for a dancefloor of Brazilians in full swing. In Brazil, everyone dances as if they were the love child of John Travolta and a Vegas lap dancer. It is not just that they are brilliant, that they seem to have joints other people lack, that their sense for complex rhythms is astonishing, that they swim through the music like dolphins through a clear sea – it is not just all that. To see Brazilians dancing is to see how sex would be if they set it to music.

All over the world, in unlikely places such as Japan and Colchester, people attend samba classes as an innocent pursuit, a bit of exercise, a way to meet new people. I have seen samba classes advertised in church halls, in school gyms. But samba is only innocent if you are not doing it right. In Brazil, samba is so erotic it is eyewatering.

Ricardo was gone in an instant. A young woman in a very fetching pair of jeans was already grinding her pelvis with bewitching rhythm on his upper thigh. I ordered another caipirinha. I realised that I was not going to cut it. The sort of free-form do-your-own-thing kind of arm-waving, feet-shuffling stuff that passed for dancing in Colchester would be laughable among this lot. I felt I had fallen into one of those nightmares where you are about to go on stage at the Royal Opera House in spite of the fact you don’t know the opera, haven’t been to rehearsal and can’t sing a note. I decided on a low profile. I hid behind a vase of flowers.

But eventually an Amazon spotted me through the lilies and swooped. My merit as a partner was that I was one of the few men in the place who was almost as tall as she was. She was not to know that it would be my only merit. Before I knew what had happened, she had me in an arm lock in the midst of the jiving crowds. A moment later, she was doing things I generally only see behind closed doors.

I tried to rally, but it was at this moment that the caipirinhas began to kick in. All around me now were couples who seemed to have stepped from the stage of Come Dancing. Their hips were a blur of syncopated rhythms. They were moving their feet in a way that would require an algebraic equation to express accurately. I had the sense that the dancefloor was beginning to part, the way it does in movies. But the parting was not for some spectacular couple. It was so that everyone could get a better look at the gringo apparently trying to swat flies with his flailing arms while tripping over his own feet.

Mercifully, it didn’t last long. I was dumped back behind the vase before you could say two-step, while the Amazon twirled away with a more suitable, if rather shorter, victim.

A moment later, Ricardo arrived in a sweaty, tousled state. He looked as though he had been getting jiggy with a combine harvester.

“Let’s go,” he said. “Where?” I asked. “Another club,” he said. “Where the real dancers are.”

Four of the best clubs in Lapa

These all have live music and serious dancing. All are closed on Sundays and some on Mondays as well. Most serve food. Entry charges range between £3 and £6.

Rio Scenarium (20 Rua do Lavradio; 00 55-21 3852 5516, www.rioscenarium.com.br ) is a great place to start. A big place with a big heart. People of all ages.

Carioca da Gema (79 Avenida Mem de Sa; 21 2221 0043, www.barcariocadagema.com.br ) was one of the first clubs to bring samba back to Lapa. More mature crowd.

Clube dos Democraticos (91 Rua do Riachuelo; 21 2252 4611). An 1867 ballroom now transformed by a young and enthusiastic crowd.

Centro Cultural Carioca (237 Rua Sete de Setembro; 21 2252 6468, www.centroculturalcarioca.com.br ). Stripped-brick walls and huge windows create a modern industrial atmosphere. A place for serious aficionados.

Travel brief

Getting there: only British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com ) flies direct from Heathrow to Rio, though it makes a stop in Sao Paulo; from £387.

Where to stay: the Copacabana Palace hotel (00 55-21 2548 7070, www.copacabanapalace.com.br ) is the best in Rio and is opposite the beach. Doubles start at about £180. There are no decent hotels yet in Lapa itself. However, neighbouring Santa Teresa, a more residential quarter, has an excellent association for bed-and-breakfast options, known as Cama e Cafe (21 2221 7635, www.camaecafe.com.br ), which features more than 50 properties. Prices start from about £45 for a double with private bathroom.

Tour operators: The Ultimate Travel Company (020 7386 4646, www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk ) can arrange tailor-made tours throughout Brazil. A four-night stay in Rio, with flights, accommodation in an ocean-view room at the Copacabana Palace, breakfasts, private transfers, and a hang-gliding flight over Rio, costs from £1,444pp. Or try Steppes Travel (01285 651010, www.steppestravel.co.uk ) or Trips Worldwide (0117 311 4400, www.tripsworldwide.co.uk ).

Dance classes: you may want to polish your technique before you go. In London, check out the Paraiso School of Samba (020 3291 2391, www.paraisosamba.co.uk ).

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