Samba is the national music of Brazil – and the quintessential sound of Rio de Janeiro. Both a musical genre and type of dance, samba has inspired festivals, food, fashion and visual arts. With its propulsive rhythm and voluptuous dance moves, samba is among of the world’s most popular music. Where better to experience authentic samba than its birthplace, Rio de Janeiro?
History of Samba
The roots of samba reach back to Africa (the name is likely derived from the African word “semba”) and the dance circles of Afro-Brazilians. In the second half of the 19th century, black cariocas (residents of Rio) working at the city’s port gathered to play music, melding the African music of Bahia with Rio’s native and foreign music to create samba.
Samba was soon embraced in the city’s favelas (shantytowns), where local samba clubs continued to innovate. These “samba schools” added the familiar percussion, propulsive rhythms and sung choruses. With the advent of radio, samba became the most popular music in Brazil and president Getúlio Vargas proclaimed it the “official music” of the nation. In the 1940’s, the craze for Latin American culture spread samba to the U.S and Carmen Miranda brought samba to the movies.
Samba has continued to develop as Brazilian artists fuse the classic sound with other music genres, creating samba-rap, samba-rock, and samba-reggae among others.
Here are my suggestions to experience superb samba in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio’s Samba Clubs
To hear terrific samba and hit the dance floor, head to Lapa, the district just south of Centro that’s home to dozens of samba clubs and bars. Rio Scenarium, billed as a “cultural pavilion,” is a Lapa institution. Carioca da Gema and Clube dos Democráticus (housed in an 1860s mansion) are classic samba clubs popular with cariocas and visitors alike. Café Cultural Sacrilégio is a Lapa nightclub that offers great live music, including frequent samba nights.
In the neighborhood of Gamboa, long-time home of the Afro-Brazilian community, Trapiche Gamboa is a celebrated club that offers superb music, as well as traditional Brazilian food and drinks.
For a truly authentic samba experience, return to its source – the Pedra do Sal. It was the parties and “jam sessions” beside this massive stone (the “rock of salt”) that gave birth to samba. Now on Monday and Friday nights “the rock” hosts rodas de samba (informal samba sessions played around a table) by local samba musicians. The square and streets at the foot of the rock are filled with music, street food, portable bars and revelers. (Note: when I attended, a rep at Rio’s TI guessed the music began at 7pm. A street vendor on site guessed 8pm. The music began around 9:45pm that evening).
The Cacique de Ramos is such a significant spot for carioca samba, it has been declared a state cultural landmark. Check their calendar (in Portuguese – you’ll need a translating web browser) for Samba de Roda (samba circles), most of which are admission free. Every Sunday they serve one of the city’s best feijoadas (traditional Brazilian meal of stewed pork & black beans) along with the great music.
Copacabana’s tiny Bip Bip bar hosts lively roda de samba sessions on Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings as well.
If you’d like to cut loose like a genuine sambanista, consider a class at Rio Samba Dancer. They offer various group classes, some combined with a Samba Night Tour. They even offer a chance to join a Rio samba school in the epic carnival parade.
Samba and Carnival
Rio’s Carnival is without question the ultimate celebration of samba and carioca culture. But if you can’t attend Carnival (or prefer to avoid the massive crowds and costs), you can still get a taste of the festival all year.
Rio’s samba schools (the local clubs that compete in the Carnival Parade) rehearse from summer until February, and you can attend their rehearsals. In addition to the legion of dancers and great live music, guests are invited onto the dance floor at the end of rehearsal.
The samba schools of Salgueiro, Portelo, Mangueira and Imperio Serrano are some of Rio’s most renowned. Check their websites (in Portuguese) for weekly rehearsal schedules. Note: the “schools” are located in Rio’s suburbs, quite a distance from the Zona Sul and without easy public transit. A taxi to and from rehearsals is highly recommended. For this reason, many prefer the convenience of a Samba School tour, which includes round-trip transport and a local guide. Rdj4u offers a well-reviewed, reasonably priced tour.
For a behind-the-scenes peek at the spectacle of Carnival, visit Cidade do Samba (Samba city) in the Gamboa district. The complex is a series of warehouses in which the top samba schools create their Carnival floats and costumes. In addition to the works in progress, costumes and floats from previous parades are displayed. There are occasional samba shows in the evening (check the website, in Portuguese). You can visit independently or Viator offers a weekly tour that includes round-trip transportation, a guided tour with information about Carnival history and traditions, and the chance to try on one of the over-the-top costumes.
Heading to Rio de Janeiro? Check out my post on savoring the city’s Carioca Culture, including music, food, art and design.