It was going to be a very short trip: into Rio de Janeiro on a Thursday, back to New York by Tuesday. The uprising that has shaken Brazil was still a month or so away, and politics was the last thing on our minds. My wife and I had never been to Rio, and we had a rather more prosaic agenda. Hers was to soak up the warmth and beauty of Rio’s beaches. Mine was to listen to music. Others can describe the glories of the beaches. Let me tell you about the music.
I couldn’t imagine visiting Rio and not seeking out Brazilian music; it would be like traveling to New Orleans and not seeking out the food. Bossa nova, after all, began in Rio, and while one consequence is that the place is crawling with mediocre bar bands cranking out The Girl From Ipanema, what is equally true is that Rio is passionate about its music. That is the case in good times and bad, in times that are tumultuous, like now, and times that are quieter. Here is where I found the good stuff.
Our first musical stop — after a day at the beach, of course — was Semente, a tiny club in Lapa, the Rio district best known for its nightlife. Semente, however, was not a tourist spot; its door was unmarked, and we might never have found it had Joana Duah, a fine Brazilian singer whom I met through a mutual friend, not agreed to take us there.
“Semente is where musicians go to hear other musicians,” she said.
The club was a hole in the wall, its one extravagance a row of decent spotlights. Semente’s owner, Aline Winckler Brufato, told me she had reopened the club in 2004, after a previous owner had shut it down, because “I love music and I wanted to work in culture.” I bought a beer and listened for a set to a serious Brazilian jazz band led by Bernardo Ramos, a guitarist who sounded a little like Pat Metheny.
Maybe 300 yards away was a very different kind of space, Circo Voador, a government-run, open-air dance hall. That’s where we headed next. Duah’s friend Hamilton de Holanda, a great mandolin player, was leading a band of all-star musicians whose goal was simple: rock the house, Brazilian-style. When he finally took the stage around 10:30, de Holanda and his group did just that, running through a series of percussive, upbeat Brazilian samba and bossa nova tunes that had even me ready to dance.
Geraldinho Magalhães, a music promoter who had agreed to be my Day 2 tour guide, had a plan. First up, a 9 p.m. concert at Oi Futuro Ipanema, a cultural center underwritten by Oi, a Brazilian phone company. Mara Freita, a singer and pianist Magalhães manages, was on the bill, but the real headliner was Daniel Jobim, grandson of the most famous Brazilian musician of them all, the late Antônio Carlos Jobim, the father of bossa nova. As it turns out, Magalhães was not a big Daniel Jobim fan. “He’s working out some Freudian issues with his grandfather,” he said. But for me, it was still highly enjoyable to watch Jobim, with that soft, reedy Jobim voice, singing his grandfather’s famous songs.
The concert over, we then raced to Miranda, a club about 10 minutes away. The great Elba Ramalho was playing, and Magalhães wanted to make sure we caught some of her set.
By far the most expensive place I visited, Miranda was modeled on Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York, according to Ariane Carvalho, 52, the owner; it even had the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the musicians, just like the Dizzy’s at Columbus Circle. Ramalho turned out to be a well-known singer of forró — a kind of Brazilian folk music. In her early 60s, flaunting her tattoos and short skirt, she electrified the audience. Halfway through her third song, Magalhães leaned over to me and said, “She’s a cross between Liza Minnelli and Tina Turner.” Exactly.