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    Around the World in 80 Songs: Brazil

    My New Year’s resolution for 2009 is to keep myself entertained. And, I ask you, what could be more entertaining than launching a worldwide exploration of music together? We’ll be starting our tour in South America—specifically Brazil, because I have a special place in my heart for all things Brazilian.

    Befitting such a large and geographically diverse country, the musical styles of Brazil run the gamut from Bossa Nova to Rap to Metal. But my favorite style, not just of Brazil, but of any music anywhere, is Samba.

    Samba, out of the tradition of Carnaval (the Brazilian Mardi Gras), is well-known for its breakneck pace, wild percussion, and, of course, the dancing. In Rio, Samba Schools compete for the Carnaval title in lavish parades where the women wear most of their costume on their heads, covering up their bodies only in the most strategic locations.

    Think of a samba school as a sort of community organization. Originating in the favelas, or shanty towns, of Rio, each samba school brings together the residents of a neighborhood to build floats, create costumes, write music, and learn choreography, all with the hope of winning the Carnaval title.


    A little further north, up the Atlantic coast from Rio, is Salvador da Bahia. Where Carnaval in Rio focuses on samba and the competition, in Salvador, the musical styles are Axe and Samba Reggae, a style popularized by Olodum, a group founded in 1979 that also doubles as a community organization, music being as integral to the fabric of Brazilian society as food and water.


    Batucada is basically samba for percussion. If you close your eyes and let the drums take over, you’ll be transported. You won’t need a partner. You won’t even need sustenance. You might find yourself in a crowded nightclub or in the middle of a street filled with Carnaval revelers. You won’t care. All you’ll need is to keep dancing.


    Stepping away from Carnaval is hard. The music stays in your head and in your heart. I have an Italian friend who says that the music of Samba makes her a little sad. I think it’s because she knows that eventually it will have to end and she’ll have to return to reality, where the music doesn’t always play.

    But there are 51 additional weeks in the year, and Brazilians simply can’t live them without music. Here, Caetano Veloso and Roberto Silva, two giants of Brazilian music, share the stage for a much more subdued Samba.


    Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) is Brazil’s version of urban pop and encompasses whatever is being played on the airwaves. Here’s a song called “Bandeira” by Zeca Baliero, a popular MPB artist.


    I have yet to hear a Brazilian musical style, or even a song, that I don’t enjoy. Just don’t ask me to translate the lyrics because my knowledge of Portuguese is limited to profanity. I’ll leave you with one of my all time favorites, “Magdalenha” by Sergio Mendes. I doubt you’ll be able to stop yourself from dancing.



    Thanks for posting this, O. For anyone headed to Rio for Carnival, don't just watch the parade; be in the parade by joining one of the samba schools (escolas de samba). It's incredibly fun and one of those "best things I've ever done" experiences. You'll learn the dance steps and the song with an exuberant crowd at a practice session a few days before the event. It's almost as fun as the parade itself. Don't worry if you don't understand the words and mess up half the steps. At the parade, everyone's having too much fun to care.

    I had a Portuguese speaking friend who helped us to enroll directly in the Salgueiro school for around $150, including the costume. If you lack such a friend, you can also go through a tourist agency, but it's probably more expensive. If you google the various schools, you may also find one with an English website. Unfortunately, few Brazilians speak Spanish, but they think that Spanish speakers understand them and pepper them with rapidfire Portuguese anyway.

    But if you're looking for the famed hedonistic Carnival balls, don't bother unless you know someone. Any of the balls you're likely to find will be touristy, expensive, and/or lame. I've heard that Salvadore is the place to go for crazy parties, but that was a few years ago.

    I should also note that with the exception of parade, Rio isn't the best place to be during the holiday because everything is closed. So if you plan to see the countryside, I recommend doing that during the holiday and coming back for the day of the parade.

    Finally, Brazil is certainly worth a visit any time of year. The culture is welcoming, the history is fascinating, and the geography is beautiful. For weekend trips near Rio, be sure to visit the lovely beaches of the still underdeveloped Ilha Grande and the historic colonial town of Paraty.

    I'm attaching the following pic with some trepidation, but whatever. Deadman says I'm shameless.

    Didn't I see that on the rack at Syms?

    Nice pants! What is it with you and orange?

    I can't comment from direct experience on carnaval in Rio because I went to Salvador. And it was the absolute best time I've ever had. In Salvador, there are two parade routes, one through the upper city and one through the lower city, and the parades run from about noon until about seven the next morning. At noon, they start up again. There's aren't floats in Salvador, just bands. The bands ride atop double-decker buses with speakers blaring. Each bus is surrounded by a huge rope, carried by a bunch of people. Inside each rope is the band bus, the bathroom/first aid/beer bus, and about a thousand people, all dressed alike (your t-shirt is your ticket to get under the rope). So, you follow your bus around for the six hours it takes to complete the route, dancing all the while. And kissing. There's lots of kissing. Strangers kissing strangers is big Salvador Carnaval tradition. I mostly avoided eye contact, because that seemed a little bit strange to me, but I was blindsided on the last night. It was weird.

    When you're band is done for the night, it's not time to go home. It's time to dance in the streets as the other bands go by. We'd get home between six and seven, sleep for four hours, walk a block to the beach, spend the day in the sun, and return to the parade route for the next night. 

    We stayed a few days after. The energy in the city after Carnaval ends is completely different, but it gave us the chance to wander around and take an island cruise through the Salvador bay. Brazil is unbelievably beautiful and the people are warm. I felt absolutely at home from the second I stepped off the plane.

    In fact, if John McCain was our PE right now, I'd be putting my affairs in order for a move south. It was my escape plan.

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