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.
Our host had told us there was “a good record store” around the corner from the apartment in Copacabana where we were staying. He wasn’t kidding. Called Bossa Nova & Companhia, it was a bossa nova lover’s paradise, with CDs, books, old photographs and memorabilia of every sort.
Even the store’s location, at the corner of an alley called Beco das Garrafas — Bottle Alley — was a touchstone for bossa nova fans. In the 1950s, Beco das Garrafas had been home to three clubs where Jobim and the other bossa nova innovators first unveiled their sleek, sophisticated music.
Today, the alley is a sad sight: two of the former clubs are locked shut and the third is a strip club. Better to look at the black-and-white photographs of Bottle Alley hanging in Bossa Nova & Companhia.
That evening, I was the sad sight. My first stop was Triboz, a small club dedicated to my favorite music, jazz. Daniela Spielmann, a terrific Brazilian soprano and tenor saxophonist, was leading a quintet that included Cliff Korman, an American jazz pianist who lives in Rio and has dedicated his life to Brazilian music.
Before the set began, the club’s Australian owner, Mike Ryan, 65, stood up and gave a little speech.
“Triboz was started for people who want to internalize the music, and get up the next day feeling a little better in their souls,” he said. “Therefore, I ask that you not speak during the music.” Clearly, my kind of place.
I loved Spielmann’s infectious playing and I should have just stayed put. But there was so much more music to hear! Mart’nália, a well-known Brazilian singer, was at Circo Voador, and at Fundio Progresso — a huge concert space just behind Circo Voador — a popular samba band, Casuarina, was celebrating the release of its new CD.
Around 10:30, I headed to Circo Voador. I waited until midnight for Mart’nália to begin before finally giving up and going to Fundio Progresso, only to discover that Casuarina hadn’t started either. The band began its set around 12:45, and while it was fine, and fun, my heart belonged to Spielmann. I made my way back to Triboz — where she was on her last song. “It takes a while to get used to the fact that nothing starts on time here,” Korman said when he saw me. Sigh.
A steady drizzle made the beach a no-go, so instead we went to Rio’s beautiful Botanical Gardens. And what do you know? There I found a museum dedicated to “Tom” Jobim — as Brazilians call him — complete with video clips of some of his TV appearances. My wife and I sat mesmerized as we watched him sing a long-ago duet with Frank Sinatra.
That night someone told me about a concert being given by Maria Bethânia, a big Brazilian pop star. Though my wife had had her fill, I went to the concert hall, bought a ticket from someone hawking an extra, and had a classic rock concert experience.
I still wasn’t ready to let go, though. By 10 p.m. I found myself back where I began: at Semente, listening to a fabulous young samba singer, Julio Estrela, fronting a five-piece band. The quiet of Thursday was gone; Semente was packed with young musicians who were playing, listening, singing, dancing — having fun. Many had brought their instruments, anticipating a late-night jam session. I toyed with staying, but decided that would probably not be wise.
On Monday, I emailed Semente’s owner, Brufato, with a few small questions I needed answered for this article.
“Tonight, we have another special night with Brazilian instrumental music played by Zé Paulo Becker,” she replied, ignoring my mundane queries. “It will be great if you could come.”
It pained me to tell her that I couldn’t be there. I had a flight to catch.