• Brad Loving – Ode to Samba

  • I went to The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan to see Caetano Veloso and Teresa Cristina perform a few weeks ago. For those not in the know, Caetano Veloso is a giant of Brazilian music – one of the founding musicians of the Tropicália movement from the late ’60s. He has continued to write and produce music ever since. Teresa Cristina is less well known. I was introduced to her music many years ago on my first trip to Brazil. I have many fond memories of that trip, and seeing Teresa perform again after so many years made me want to write a little bit about my introduction to samba. Part of what compels me to write about it is that it seems difficult to do so. I’ve tried countless times to tell friends about my experience of going to see various samba bands around Rio, and I always felt as if I came up short. I’m hoping that by taking the time to write about it, I might do justice to the experience.

    I’d say most of the music that I spend time listening to nowadays has some antecedent to my college years in Texas, but this is not the case with samba. I don’t recall hearing much Brazilian music during that time. After graduating and traveling a bit, I moved to Chicago, where I got exposure to some bossa nova and Tropicália. Befriending a Brazilian neighbor and seeing Tom Zé perform with Tortoise, along with the tedium of a 9 to 5 gig, were somehow enough inspiration to get me on a plane to Brazil in 2002 for the first time. Suffice to say, I really didn’t know much about Brazil.

    I found myself alone in a hotel room in Copacabana with a Lonely Planet Rio travel guide, and not much else to go on. On my first night there, I went for a walk around the neighborhood and came across a tiny bar (maybe 15 chairs in the whole place) called Bip Bip. There was a little group of musicians seated around a table with the rest of the bar clientele gathered around. It was a relatively subdued set of acoustic music, and everybody seemed to know the lyrics to all the songs. A charming side note, nobody was allowed to clap after the songs because the bar was situated in the middle of a residential block. Things were kept to a strict whisper (claps replaced by snaps) by the somewhat authoritarian proprietor. The music was beautiful, and it felt as if I had graciously been invited into someone’s living room. I was hooked.

    A couple nights later I went back to Bip Bip, and after the music started to wind down, I tried to strike up conversations with a couple folks, but nobody spoke a word of English. There was a little poll that went around, and it was determined that someone named Ana spoke English. She was pulled away from another conversation to act as the official translator, and I was grateful to have a means of communicating with those around me. I don’t recall what else was said on that night, but I do remember asking about where I might hear more music. It’s hard to describe how lucky and pivotal meeting Ana was – she had a wonderful grasp of the current music scene in Rio as well as the history of Brazilian music. I asked her to write up a list of artists and venues to explore. Then, over the next week or so, list in hand, I tried to take in all that Rio had to offer.

    A few nights later, Ana took me to a club called Carioca da Gema. It was significantly larger than Bip Bip but still fairly small. It had a small stage, a large dance floor, and tables around the periphery. The band got underway with maybe eight or ten people on stage, each on a different small traditional instrument (guitar, drum, tambourine, cuica, etc.) and Teresa Cristina up front on a microphone. It quickly became apparent that everybody on stage was an incredibly capable musician as they launched into what would turn out to be three- or four-hour set of music.

    I should probably confess that my memory can be a little rose-colored. That being said, I’d like to posit that this time in Rio was utterly glorious. It turned the way that I listen to and appreciate music on its head. It’s difficult to describe what distinguishes the samba bands I heard around Rio from what I had heard before. There’s the obvious component of artistry – mastery of a form by musicians who fed on each other’s expertise. There’s the canon of samba itself, a rhythm that harkens back to samba’s African roots in tandem with Portuguese melody and poetry. And of course, there is also the importance of context. Everybody in the club was dancing and singing along, many if not most lubricated with cachaca and cerveja. The music is incredibly social at its core and built for dancing your ass off. With all of that, I was lifted to a musical plane that I didn’t know existed. It felt as if every single pleasure center in my brain was firing off simultaneously – something akin to: “This is a perfect moment, and it is somehow being sustained by these musicians. This is what humans are meant to do.”

    And dammit, as much hyperbole as I can throw at you – it still doesn’t capture it. All I have is a scattershot of impressions trying to articulate what it was like to be part of something that is simultaneously so ephemeral and concrete. It’s also tough to try and make a case for something so subjective. And it feels arrogant to try and claim that moment. I was just a witness.

    I have traveled to Brazil three more times since that first trip. On my third trip, I ended up staying in Brazil for five months. I was there for Carnival and got to see samba on a much (much) larger scale with the massive parades of the samba schools. I also saw Teresa Cristina perform many more times, and she was always superb. I have countless other memorable musical experiences, everything from going to crazy baile funk parties to intimate nights of exquisite acoustic guitar in Minas Gerais.

    The only caveat (and this brings me back to the other night at The Town Hall) is that samba doesn’t travel particularly well. As sublime as Teresa Cristina was the other night with Caetano Veloso and the masterful guitarist Carlinhos Sete Cordas by her side, it was just a faint glimmer of her in that original context with an entire bar dancing and singing along. Perhaps it is because samba is a such a social music and needs that energy? I don’t know, but I do know that I can’t wait to get back. I hope I can that find that exalted place once again.


    I’ve included an archival mix I made after that first trip to Brazil.  Please enjoy.

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