Rio de Janeiro is a delightful place to visit in the fallBrazilian fall, that is.
I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles.
Gazing at Rio for the first time inspired Cole Porter to rhapsodize, "It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely." Now, once again, his lyrics serve to introduce a Brazilian theme. The man had the right words for every situation. We're singing a full-throated "I Love Paris" as we stand on the beachor rather, what used to be the beachat Arpoador, watching the sea crash upon the rocks, having carried away all the sand. There's no more beach at Arpoador, but there's music, Cole Porter's and every other kind. It's Rio in the fall, when it drizzles.
In May and June airfares to Brazil are lower than at other times, and the planes are only half-full. You can stretch out on three seats and snooze or start a conversation with one of the Brazilians who are returning home from the States. When you arrive in Rio, you won't feel as though you've entered a steam bath. Don't forget to take a sweater and some socks. Rio is said to have only two seasons: Summer and Hot, but La Niña has wrought a miracle, and Rio in this fall is very much like San Francisco in spring and summer, Mark Twain's famous remark about San Francisco's summer being the coldest winter he'd ever known notwithstanding.
I'm happy to be staying in Santa Teresa. This is the San Francisco of Rio de Janeiro. Nestled on a set of hills right in the center of the city, this picturesque, village-like community boasts vividly painted turn-of-the-century houses; spectacular views of downtown, Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf, and Corcovado; several cozy restaurants and bars; and even a functioning antique bonde (streetcar) that clatters its way through the winding cobblestoned streets.
From Santa Teresa you can descend on foot to the center of Rio, to Lapa and Cinelândia, or to Glória, where my hosts do their fruit and vegetable shopping in an open-air feira. Shopping done, Santa Teresans load their bags and baskets into a bus, a jitney, or the bonde for the ride uphill. The bonde begins its journey at a station near the cathedral, runs along the top of the Arcos da Lapa (as hair-raising as any amusement park ride), and enters Santa Teresa carrying a non-paying cargo of street boys who make a sport out of jumping on and off the moving cars and hanging on. There are risks involved. In his youth, the legendary singer Orlando Silva lost part of his foot in a bonde accident. This was seventy years or so ago. The streetcars haven't changed.
My window overlooks an open space encircled by verdant hillsides, crowned by the distant statue of Cristo Redentor atop Corcovado. One of the hillsides has sprouted a mini-favela of a few houses. On another hillside and out of sight live the homeless in the open air. Across the chasm is the bonde garage and museum. Just below to the left is a red-roofed house said to have been Carmen Miranda's dwelling. Nobody can say when she might have lived there. I resolve to visit the place, but in typical carioca fashion, I never get round to it. Another thing to leave until the next trip.
Everybody in Santa Teresa owns at least one dog. At night the canine chorus keeps me awake; it's followed before dawn by a choir of roosters. After the first few jetlagged nights, I cease to hear them.
Twice a year, Santa Teresa becomes mobbed by cariocas from other districts. It happens in May and November, on open-studio weekends. Quaintness and affordable rents make Santa Teresa a haven for artists and craftspeople, and 92 of them opened the doors of fifty studios to the public at the 7thArte de Portas Abertas festival in late May (find out more at the Viva Santa website: http://www.vivasanta.com.br ).
Tourists from greater Rio and the rest of the world browse among paintings, sculptures, masks, photographs, mosaics, ceramics, paper objects, and prints. The best part may be not the studios themselves but getting to them, as many are hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac, the bottom of a long staircase, around a mysterious corner, on top of a hillock, and in all manner of unexpected places, as well as right on the main streets, which are all narrow, old, and charming.
Studio No. 41, at 234 Rua Oriente, belongs to sculptor and designer Rubens Saboya, "Rubinho." Rubinho, who's the father of several children, woke up one day with the desire to look like a woman. And he does. He's no longer married, and I don't know what his girlfriend thinks of his appearance, but Rubinho, being a good artist, knows how to do it with aplomb.
My favorite "studio" isn't an official participant in the event. It's a tiny house consisting of little more than one minuscule room. The room is crammed to capacity with ancient mementos: photographs, bits of lace, the bric-a-brac remnants of another life. On the exterior wall, little paintings are hung for sale. They are signed by Dinorah. Dinorah is as tiny as her house, an ancient and genteel woman who wears a pinafore-like dress, plays a tiny accordion, talks of the days when she lived in a palace, and offers visitors coffee-flavored hard candy wrapped in gold-and-brown paper. A Dickensian character, hers is the most recognizable face in all of Santa Teresa. Several days after the open studio weekend I'm startled to find Dinorah seated in front of me on the bus going uphill from the center. I couldn't have imagined her ever leaving the charmed world of Santa Teresa. She sits on the bus holding one of her coffee-flavored candies wrapped in gold and brown. A younger woman comes up to her and offers homage. Gentility isn't dead.
The most famous restaurant in Santa Teresa has the exotic name Sobrenatural. It's an intimate place with exposed-brick walls and excellent Brazilian cooking. I'm told that the owner and cook is the former wife of the great sambista Wilson Moreira. I can vouch for her bobó de camarão (prawns in a thick yellow sauce) and crunchy farofa (manioc meal). Sobrenatural used to be a venue for rodas de samba (samba circles), musical get-togethers in which professional musicians perform samba classics and the audience sings along. Apparently the late-night music bothered some neighbors, who complained enough for the prefeitura (city hall) to slap a gag order on eating establishments and watering holes in the center of Santa Teresa.
But cariocas are resourceful as well as musical people, and Santa Teresa is once again blessed with a weekly roda de samba, this one located in a place far removed from complaining neighbors, at the very top of the hill. The aptly named Roda de Santa takes place at Clube Lagoinha, a "country club" that smacks more of the country than of a club. You'd expect to see the simple stucco structure with its bare-walled room in some small provincial town, but here it is, commanding a 360-degree view of the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City; Rio got its nickname from André Filho's famed 1935 Carnaval marcha). You can sit inside (the room isn't large) or on the terrace. You can drink beer and eat caldo de feijão (a meaty black bean soup) while listening to some of the best bambas (crack sambistas) of Rio. Beth Carvalho, Wilson Moreira, Délcio Carvalho, Dona Ivone Lara, Monarco, and Walter Alfaiate are some of the headliners who appear there on Friday nights.
If Lagoinha is too far for you, try the Antiquário in Lapa. This antiques shop-cum-bar hosts a very crowded roda de samba on Friday nights. The musicians are always the same, but you never know who might drop in to jam with them or to sing. The crowd drinks caipirinhasthose deadly cachaça and lemon cocktailsand sings lustily along.
The botequim (or boteco) is a carioca phenomenon. All Brazilian cities have bars aplenty, but only Rio has botequins. The great carioca poet and composer Noel Rosa immortalized this institution in his humorous samba "Conversa de Botequim," in which an impertinent customer commands a beleaguered waiter to bring him food, drink, napkin, pen, paper, envelope, cigarette, and ashtray; to shut the door; find out the football results; make a phone call on his behalf; and even to lend him money. The phone number mentioned in the song, 34-4333, is so deeply ingrained in the collective Brazilian memory that the Rio newspaper O Globo has appropriated it for its classified section, with one additional digit in the prefix (534) to allow for the passage of time.
Noel died in 1937. In the botequins of today you'll seldom see a waiter; customers step up to the counter and get their own beer. Some of these storefront establishments are nothing more than holes in the wall, with a couple of tables on the sidewalk or not even that.
The singer Marcos Sacramento is a great conhecedor (expert) of botequins. As we amble through the town, he points out the beautiful old ones that have retained their original bottle shelves and cabinetry, the primitive ones with nothing but a counter, the tiny ones, the wildly painted ones. He tells stories and writes songs about the people who work behind the counters. Marcos also likes to drink beerBrazilian beer that I, accustomed to English- and German-style brews, find watery and tasteless, particularly in this temperate autumnal climate. But happily, one can find beauty in botequins even without drinking beer. I ask Marcos to write an essay about botequins for the benefit of non-Brazilians. He just might do it (although, being a carioca, he just might not).
Everything you do in Rio takes two or three times longer than in any other place. The reason lies with the inhabitants of Rio, who never hurry for anything. No show ever starts on time. Exchanging travelers cheques at a bank is an ordeal of half an hour or more, as the employee behind the counter leisurely fills out form after form, all the while conducting an amiable chat on the phone. If you invite people for four o'clock, the first guests will begin trickling in at six. Some simply won't show up. If this behavior upsets you, don't come to Rio.
When they finally get together, cariocas kiss a lot. At any given meeting there's a protracted kissing ritual, as every person must kiss every other person present at least twice (once on each cheek). At the end of the gathering the ritual is repeated, not once but several times, because no carioca can simply get up and leave. Invariably, there's beer drinking going on, and just as invariably, someone calls for a saideira (one for the road) that postpones the departure, necessitating a fresh round of collective kissing.
Cariocas often get colds.
The composer Guinga is a rarity: a punctual carioca. We had agreed to meet at a buffet restaurant in his neighborhood at 6:30 pm. When I arrive at 6:33, he's already there, filling his plate. He greets me with a joyous "Pontualidade americana!" ("American punctuality!"), which instantly makes me feel very guilty for being three minutes late.
Guinga is considered by music critics and many fellow musicians to be the most important composer currently working in Brazil. He released four much-lauded solo albums and (with lyricist Aldir Blanc) composed all the songs on Leila Pinheiro's prestigious disc Catavento e Girassol. He's also one of the top guitarists in Brazil. Yet this idol of many can't make a living from music. What pays the bills is his dental practice. Guinga is on the verge of fifty (although he looks considerably younger; fit and trim, he's also a crack soccer player), is happily married and the father of two daughters, and says he can't afford to buy an apartment in Rio.
The first time I met him, I didn't expect to have a conversation. Guinga is famously shy and speaks no English. I'm shy as well. I had been invited to a club where he regularly plays soccer and would have been perfectly happy simply to sit on the sidelines and watch him kick the ball. When he showed up (punctual to the minute), it wasn't to play but to talk. And when he talks about music, the words flow of their own accord (in Portuguese, naturally). Guinga's knowledge of music, Brazilian and other, is vast. He talks about his admiration for the great American popular composers: Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Cole Porter, about how so much of American music was created by Jewish composers (he is not Jewish, and I don't think he knows that I am).
Like many Brazilian composers, he admires Ravel, but also Puccini and Wagner. He loves the music of Charles Mingus, Michel Legrand, and Kurt Weill (we hum "Speak Low" together). I tell him that I compared him to Weill in an interview, and that the interviewing journalist called his music "almost classical." We muse on the musical tastes of the young, and he tells me that the writer Nelson Rodrigues, when asked what advice he would give the young, said, "Get older."
Guinga is a modern composer who adores older music. He asks what old Brazilian music I listen to and is extremely pleased when I name Ary Barroso. Guinga's father owned a complete collection of Orlando Silva's records, and now Guinga sings bits from Orlando's 1930s hits: "Página de Dor" by Pixinguinha and Cândido das Neves and "Última Estrofe," which Cândido wrote alone. Guinga compares Orlando Silva to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, suggesting that Orlando was as good as Sinatra. I perceive that he's trying to spare my "American" feelings and assure him that I consider Orlando Silva a better singer than Sinatra. Relieved, he agrees.
About American songs he says that they flow easily, whereas Brazilian songs do it the hard way, their melodies meandering all over the place. He illustrates his remarks by singing melodic snatches. He points out that American popular music is piano-based and Brazilian music guitar-based, circumstances he attributes to economics. Among jazz pianists he singles out Bill Evans. I mention Thelonius Monk, and Guinga concurs that the man was a genius, saying, "Monk played Monk, everybody else plays jazz."
No adult likes to admit to being a groupie, but I'm visiting Rio to meet my idol. It's therefore a relief when another adult whom I greatly admire, the poet and lyricist Sérgio Natureza, tells me, "Marcos is one of the greatest singers of this century. He's my idol and he doesn't know it." Soon I find that I'm but a Johnny-come-lately, the greenest recruit in a select fan club that includes the music critic and historian Sérgio Cabral (who declared after hearing Sacramento for the first time: "Finally, a singer!"); the eminent music collector, researcher, and producer Paulo César de Andrade (who lured Sacramento out of rock and into classic samba); the composer Paulo Baiano (who says, "Marcos is the best singer in Brazil, and I've known it for twenty years."); and just about anyone who has the good fortune to be around while Sacramento employs his seductive timbre.
If you know him, the opportunities are many, as he bursts into spontaneous song at the drop of a hat: at parties, in the car, walking in the street. He knows the lyrics of countless old sambas, valsas, and marchas. He breaks into Stevie Wonder songs, Cole Porter songs, French chansons, Italian opera, old TV program jingles, and Carnaval tunes from his childhood. He imitates Ademilde Fonseca, Aracy de Almeida, and Linda Batista. He improvises hilarious Spanish versions of Brazilian songs. He intones "Segura o Tchan" in the styles of Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, and Nana Caymmi. We're transfixed by his voice and charisma. He's shy and doesn't even notice.
The Lira Carioca ensemble is meeting to rehearse its next show, which will be devoted to songs from the 1920s, many of them never recorded. The repertoire was selected by the music researcher and pianist Fernando Sandroni, founder of the ensemble. The Sandronis are a distinguished family, offspring of an important newspaperman. They're also a musical family. Fernando's niece is the singer Clara Sandroni. Clara's brother Carlos is a songwriter.
Lira Carioca's previous show and disc were devoted to the works of Sinhô, the "King of Samba"also from the '20s. They're just beginning to learn the new repertoire. The rehearsal takes place at Sandroni's elegant house in Gávea. The musicians make a ragtag appearance amidst the Chinese porcelains and the burnished woods. With pauses for coffee and cake, they run through a number of songs I've never heard. The instruments are piano, flute, cavaquinho, and contrabassthe drummer isn't here tonight. The voices are a soprano (Clara) and a tenor (Sacramento).
Eventually they perform a song I know: the gorgeous "Linda Flor" (Ai Ioiô) by Henrique Vogeler, Luiz Peixoto and Marques Porto, recorded by Isaura Garcia (1944), Elizeth Cardoso (1956), and Maria Bethânia (1990)the latter in a tender duet with João Gilberto. Then the group launches into a delightful bit of fluff by Ary Barroso and Lamartine Babo called "Oh!...Nina!..." from the 1927 musical revue Ouro à Beça. I tell Fernando that Sérgio Cabral doesn't mention this song in his book on Ary Barroso. Fernando says, "Cabral didn't know about itI told him." Ary was only 23 when he composed this catchy tune, and lyricist Lamartine was a couple of years younger. Fernando is kind enough to write out the lyrics for me:
Oh! Nina! [foxtrot]
Lamartine Babo; 1927)
Nina era uma pequena
Flertes tinha uma centena
Com qualquer rapaz
Nunca se apaixonou
De tanto namorar
Achaste o teu bem
Dentro do coração
Oh! Nina! [foxtrot]
Lamartine Babo; 1927)
Nina was a little one
Who was too flighty
Flirts she had a hundred
With any boy
She always flirted
She always played
Never became impassioned
With all this dating
You found your love
Inside the heart
We go to the São Cristóvão fair to see how the other Brazil lives. This is the dominion of the working class, of people who migrated to Rio from other states. You don't want to arrive too early, for it really gets jumping past midnight. As usual, you can't park your car without contributing a tithe to the flanelinha who'll look after it while you're gone. Flanelinha is a flannel rag, the type used to wipe car windows. It's also an occupation born out of necessity. In large Brazilian cities, each flanelinha has his curbside territory marked by some invisible force, and woe betide the unwary driver who parks without tipping the keeper of the curb. The one who "receives" us outside the São Cristóvão fair has two long barbecue skewers in his hand. Nothing further need be said.
The São Cristóvão fair is a Saturday night thing. People come here to eat churrasco (grilled meat), drink beer, and dance forróa sinuous two-steps-here, two-steps-there, tight couples dance from the northeast. Butcher stalls offer everything from pig snouts and exotic organ meats to whole sides of cows and sun-dried beef. Delicacy stalls offer cheese from Minas Gerais, bottles of liquefied butter, various sweets I never knew existed. CD stalls offer brega, the schmaltzy music that Brazilian radios play non-stop. I look at the people as they arrive. Some are fat, but there's not the high proportion of obese people one sees at similar events in the United States. Peanut-vending boys circulate among the tables and drop off samples. The live forró musican accordion called sanfona, a triangle, and a large drum with the onomatopoeic name of zabumbais loud, as is the chatter of the crowd. The smell of smoke and burning meat pervades the air. It'll still be in your hair and your clothes when you return to your room.
When movies ruled, Cinelândia was the night queen of Rio. Now the Art Deco movie palaces are closed, and only a few survivors remain of the numerous glittering cafés that used to dot this large square in central Rio. Traces of the old elegance are still on display, thanks to the magnificent architecture of the National Library, the Municipal Theatre (modeled after the Paris Opera), and the marble-lobbied City Hall, all located at one end of the square. The political protests of the '60s have given way to insipid evangelical music from a truck that appears to be permanently parked in front of City Hall.
Crowds still gather here at Carnaval time, but for the rest of the year, Cinelândia is primarily a book place, home to a daily book fair installed in the center of the square. New Brazilian books are expensive, but the stalls at Cinelândia sell them at a 20% discount (one stall offers a 50% discount). Among the books you can find here is a large and beautifully designed volume with photos of Cinelândia in its heyday. I pick up singer Joyce's memoirs at half-price and a used Portuguese grammar book for one Real ($0.60).
Another Rio square with noteworthy architecture is the historic Praça Tiradentes. The square and the narrow streets surrounding it are an enclave of old Rio, well worth at least one visit for a look at the city as it used to be a hundred years ago. Serious book lovers come here for a peregrination among the sebos (used bookstores) concentrated in the area. If you're interested in the history of Brazilian music, you might be lucky enough to pick up out-of-print volumes by illustrious names. I came away from one of those tightly packed, dusty stores with such treasures as No Tempo de Noel Rosa by Almirante, Aspectos da Música Brasileira by Mário de Andrade, and Sambistas e Chorões by Lúcio Rangel.
Twenty books later, I'm shopping for a tote bag at Largo da Carioca. Reluctantly I face the fact that it's time to go hometo the summer of San Francisco that is so much like Rio in this fall.
Ah! Rio, quem te inventou?
The writer publishes the online magazine of Brazilian music and culture
Daniella Thompson on Brazil and the website Musica Brasiliensis.