Rio boasts a rich musical heritage, with live music as deeply connected to Rio culture as its beaches and mountains. Foremost of all is the city’s signature sound of samba, which is heard all across town, particularly in the days and weeks leading up to Carnaval. Other styles contributing to Rio’s lush soundtrack include rock, pop, jazz, Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), hip hop and forró – all opportunities to showcase the city’s outstanding pool of musical talent.

Samba

The birth of Brazilian music essentially began with the birth of samba, first heard in the early 20th century in a Rio neighborhood near present-day Praça Onze. Here immigrants from northeastern Brazil (mostly from Bahia) formed a tightly knit community in which traditional African customs thrived – music, dance and the Candomblé religion. Local homes provided the setting for impromptu performances and the exchange of ideas among Rio’s first great instrumentalists. Such an atmosphere nurtured the likes of Pixinguinha, one of samba’s founding fathers, as well as Donga, one of the composers of ‘Pelo Telefone,’ the first recorded samba song (in 1917) and an enormous success at the then-fledgling Carnaval.

Samba continued to evolve in the homes and botequims (bars with table service) around Rio. The 1930s are known as the golden age of samba. By this point, samba’s popularity had spread beyond the working-class neighborhoods of central Rio, and the music evolved at the same time into diverse, less percussive styles of samba. Sophisticated lyricists like Dorival Caymmi, Ary Barroso and Noel Rosa popularized samba canção (melody-driven samba). (For insight into Noel Rosa’s poetically charged and tragically brief life, check out the 2006 film Noel: Poeta da Vila.) Songs in this style featured sentimental lyrics and an emphasis on melody (rather than rhythm), foreshadowing the later advent of cool bossa nova. Carmen Miranda, one of the big radio stars of the 1930s, would become one of the first ambassadors of Brazilian music.

The 1930s were also the golden age of samba songwriting for the Carnaval. Escolas de samba (samba schools), which first emerged in 1928, soon became a vehicle for samba songwriting, and by the 1930s samba and Carnaval would be forever linked. Today’s theme songs still borrow from that golden epoch.

Great sambistas (samba singers) continued to emerge in Brazil over the next few decades, although other emerging musical styles diluted their popularity. Artists such as Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho and Clementina de Jesus made substantial contributions to both samba and styles of music that followed from it.

Traditional samba went through a rebirth over a decade ago with the opening of old-style gafieiras (dance halls) in Lapa. Today, Rio is once again awash with great sambistas. Classic sambistas like Alcione and Beth Carvalho still perform, while singers like Teresa Christina and Grupo Semente are intimately linked to Lapa’s rebirth. One singer carrying on the tradition of her father is Mart’nália, daughter of samba legend Martinho da Vila. Meanwhile, the talented singer and songwriter Maria Rita, whose voice is remarkably similar to that of her late mother, Elis Regina, continues to create lush innovative samba-influenced albums.

Mother of Samba

In the early 20th century, one of Rio's most momentous events was transpiring inside the working-class neighborhood of Praça Onze near downtown. In 1915 this was considered 'Africa in miniature' for the influx of immigrants from Bahia, who had been flocking to the region since the end of slavery in 1888. In Praça Onze, Afro-Brazilian culture – music, dance and religion (Candomblé) – thrived in the homes of old Bahian matriarchs, called tias (aunts). At the center of this thriving community was Tia Ciata, something of a self-made woman who rented out costumes for the Carnaval balls, worked as a healer (she was even consulted by president Wenceslau Brás, who had a leg wound that Ciata allegedly healed) and hosted large parties on Candomblé saints' days – all while looking after her 15 children. Within time, Ciata's house became the meeting point for the city's journalists, bohemians, Bahian expats and musicians. Today's now-legendary names – Pixinguinha, Donga, Heitor dos Prazeres and others – met regularly to play music and experiment with new forms, never imagining that their result – samba – would become one of the world's great musical forms. Coincidentally, this was also around the time that African Americans in New Orleans were playing the music that would later be called jazz.

After the earliest musical creations, the performers gathering at Tia Ciata's went on to make records, and samba's popularity spread like wildfire across the city. They came first through the working class and, after initial resistance, on into the houses of the wealthy. Samba continued to evolve throughout the next few decades as it was adopted for Carnaval, yet the songs developed in those early years would live on (many are still played), and laid the foundation on which so much of Brazilian music is based today.

The Dance Halls of Old

If you're interested in Brazilian music and dance, shine up your dancing shoes and head for some of Rio's old-school-style dance halls, known as gafieiras. Originally established in the 1920s as dance halls for Rio's urban working class, gafieiras nowadays attract an eclectic combination of musicians, dancers, malandros (con men) and, of course, the radical chic from Zona Sul. Modern and sleek they are not. Typically held in the ballrooms of old colonial buildings in Lapa, the locations are magnificently Old World. Bow-tied waiters serve ice-cold cerveja (beer) under low, yellow lights and, while the setup initially looks formal, give it a few rounds and it will dissolve into a typically raucous Brazilian evening.

Before gafieiras were established, Rio's different communities were polarized by their places of social interaction: opera and tango for the Europeans; street choro (romantic, intimate samba) for the Africans. Responding to a social need and in tandem with the politics of the time, gafieiras quickly became places where musicians and audiences of black and white backgrounds alike could mix and create new sounds. Through the gafieiras, the street-improvised choro formations became big-band songs and a new Brazilian sound was born. The best and oldest dance halls are Democráticus, attracting a young yet fashionably bohemian crowd on Wednesdays, and Estudantina Musical, which has a much-loved night of revelry on Tuesdays.

The standard of dancing is outstanding in Brazil, so expect to see couples who would be considered professional in Europe or the US dancing unnoticed across the polished floors. While just about anything goes in Rio, it's an opportunity for the cariocas to dress up a little, so you will see quite a few dresses and smart shoes. Don't be intimidated by the other dancers. Unlike in Buenos Aires, where the tango is for experts only, Brazilians are pretty relaxed about newcomers dancing. For those traveling solo, gafieiras are fantastic places to meet some intriguing locals and learn a few steps. Dance around the edge of the dance floor with the rest of the dancers to get a closer look at how the dance works – if you are a woman, you won't wait long before someone asks you to dance. Alternatively you can take a lesson and perhaps meet some fellow beginners to dance with. There are a number of places where you can sign up for a group or private lesson.

Carmen Michael

Bossa Nova

In the 1950s came bossa nova (literally, new wave), sparking a new era of Brazilian music. Bossa nova’s founders – songwriter and composer Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and guitarist João Gilberto, in association with the lyricist-poet Vinícius de Moraes – slowed down and altered the basic samba rhythm to create a more intimate, harmonic style. This new wave initiated a new style of playing instruments and of singing.

Bossa nova’s seductive melodies were very much linked to Rio’s Zona Sul, where most bossa musicians lived. Songs such as Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’ and Roberto Meneschal’s ‘Rio’ evoked an almost nostalgic portrait of the city with their quiet lyricism.

By the 1960s, bossa nova had become a huge international success. The genre’s initial development was greatly influenced by American jazz and blues, and over time, the bossa nova style came to influence those music styles as well. Bossa nova classics were adopted, adapted and recorded by such musical luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz, among others.

In addition to the founding members, other great Brazilian bossa nova musicians include Marcos Valle, Luiz Bonfá and Baden Powell. Bands from the 1960s like Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 were also influenced by bossa nova, as were other artists who fled the repressive years of military dictatorship to live and play abroad. More recent interpreters of the seductive bossa sound include the Bahian-born Rosa Passos and the carioca Paula Morelenbaum. One band that brilliantly blends bossa nova with electro beats is BossaCucaNova. Their latest album, Our Kind of Bossa (2014), feature veteran singers like Elza Soares and Maria Rita.

Tropicália

One of Brazil’s great artistic movements, emerging in the late 1960s, was tropicália, a direct response to the repressive military dictatorship that seized power in 1964 (and remained in power until 1984). Bahian singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil led the movement, making waves with songs of protest against the national regime. In addition to penning defiant lyrics, tropicalistas introduced the public to electric instruments, fragmentary melodies and wildly divergent musical styles. In fact, the hero of the tropicalistas was poet Oswald de Andrade, whose 1928 Manifesto Antropofágico (Cannibalistic Manifesto) supported the idea that anything under the sun could be devoured and recreated in one’s music. Hence, the movement fused elements of US rock and roll, blues, jazz and British psychedelic styles into bossa nova and samba rhythms. Important figures linked to tropicália include Gal Costa, Jorge Ben Jor, Maria Bethânia, Os Mutantes and Tom Zé. Although tropicália wasn’t initially embraced by the public, who objected to the electric and rock elements (in fact, Veloso was booed off the stage on several occasions), by the 1970s its radical ideas had been absorbed and accepted, and lyrics of protest were ubiquitous in songwriting of the time.

Rock, Pop & Hip Hop

MPB tends to bleed into other genres, particularly into rock and pop. One artist who moves comfortably between genres is Bebel Gilberto (the daughter of João Gilberto), who blends bossa nova with modern beats on jazz-inflected bilingual albums like All in One (2009). Another heiress of Brazilian traditions is the Rio-born Marisa Monte, popular at home and abroad for her fine singing and songwriting. Mixing samba, forró (traditional, fast-paced music from the northeast), pop and rock, Marisa has been part of a number of successful collaborations in the music world. Her brief collaboration with Arnaldo Antunes and Carlinhos Brown resulted in the fine album Tribalistas (2003).

Other notable young singers who hail from a bossa line include Roberta Sá, whose last album, Segunda Pele (2012), features elements of bossa, jazz, and even reggae. From the Fernanda Porto (whose music is often described as drum ’n’ bossa, a blend of electronica and bossa grooves – check out her 2009 album Auto-Retrato). The expat singer-songwriter and performance artist Cibelle incorporates a mix of pop, folk and Brazilian sounds in her lush (mainly English-language) recordings like those on The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves (2006). She came to prominence as the main vocalist on Suba’s noteworthy album São Paulo Confessions (1999). With a host of Grammy nominations to her name, Céu has many fans both at home and abroad. She has recorded three albums over the last seven years, creating dreamlike melodies with elements of tropicália, samba, reggae and jazz. Her latest, Caravana Sereia Bloom (2012), is a colorful work with songs inspired by a road trip across Brazil. Her first album, the self-titled Céu (2007), is still considered her best.

Brazilian hip-hop emerged from the favelas of Rio sometime in the 1980s, and has been steadily attracting followers ever since. Big names such as Racionais MCs first emerged out of São Paulo, but Rio has its share of more recent success stories. One of the best on the scene is Marcelo D2 (formerly of Planet Hemp) impressing audiences with albums like A Procura da Batida Perfeita (2003) and A Arte do Barulho (2008). Better known to international audiences is Seu Jorge, who starred in the film Cidade de Deus and performed brilliant Portuguese versions of Bowie songs on Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic. His best solo work is Cru (2005), an inventive hybrid of hip-hop and ballads, with politically charged beats.

Many top hip-hop artists hail from São Paulo. A few names to look out for include Emicida, a youthful rapper admired for his cutting improvisational rhymes. Check out his funk-laden single ‘Triunfo,’ one of his early breakthrough songs, or his collaboration with MC Guime on the antipoverty hit ‘País do Futebol.’ Yet another Paulista, Rael de Rima is a fast-rapping lyricist with a strong sense of musicality, often performing with guitar and a full back-up band. The MC Criolo tackles themes like urban violence, police brutality and racism, which has made him a hit in the favelas. Following the release of his debut 2011 album, Nó na Orelha, he’s earned a growing number of admirers. The carioca rapper MV Bill is a man with a message. His songs focus on youth facing the ever-present threats of drugs and violence. He’s even written a book (Falcão – Meninos do Tráfico) and created a network of youth centers in Rio that offer kids who might otherwise be on the street classes in dancing, music and art. One emerging new artist from Rio is Fabbio Brazza who blends rap with samba (an unlikely combo) with surprising success in songs like ‘Samba de Rap’ on his 2014 album Filho da Pátria.

Rock has its promoters, though it enjoys far less airtime than samba. Rio gets its share of mega-rockers on the world tour. It also has a few homegrown talents. The group Legião Urbana from Brasília remains one of the all-time greats among rock lovers. The band (which folded shortly after the death of lead singer Renato Russo in 1996) enjoyed enormous success in the 1980s and early 1990s, and has sold over 15 million records. Raul Seixas, Skank, O Rappa, Os Paralamas do Sucesso and the Rio-based Barão Vermelho are other essential names.

In other genres, indie-rock favorites Los Hermanos were a top band that created catchy albums before breaking up in 2007. Check out Ventura (2003) or Bloco do Eu Souzinho (2001), one of the seminal pop-rock albums of its time. Vanguart, fitting somewhere in the folk-rock genre, are also a group to watch. Their self-titled debut album (2007) channels samba, blues and classic rock.

Rio Playlist

One of the world’s great music cultures, Brazil has an astounding array of talented musicians. A list of our favorite songs could easily fill this section, but we’ve limited our highly subjective pick to 25 songs from 25 different artists.

  • ‘Canto de Ossanha’ – Baden Powell
  • ‘Soy Loco Por Ti, America’ – Caetano Veloso
  • ‘Alvorado’ – Cartola
  • ‘Samba de Orly’ – Chico Buarque and Toquinho
  • ‘Flor de Lis’ – Djavan
  • ‘Aguas de Março’ – Elis Regina (written by Tom Jobim)
  • ‘Hoje É Dia da Festa’ – Elza Soares
  • ‘Sou Brasileiro’ – Fernando Abreu and Mart'nália
  • ‘Namorinho de Portão’ – Gal Costa
  • ‘Quilombo, O El Dorado Negro’ – Gilberto Gil
  • ‘Desafinado’ – João Gilberto
  • ‘Filho Maravilha’ – Jorge Ben Jor
  • ‘A Procura da Batida Perfeita’ – Marcelo D2
  • ‘Novo Amor’ – Maria Rita
  • ‘Carinhoso’ – Marisa Monte (written by Pixinguinha)
  • ‘Travessia’ – Milton Nascimento
  • ‘Ultimo Desejo’ – Noel Rosa
  • ‘Besta é Tu’ – Novos Baianos
  • ‘Panis et Circenses’ – Os Mutantes
  • ‘Acenda O Farol’ – Tim Maia
  • ‘Garota de Ipanema’ (Girl from Ipanema) – Tom Jobim
  • ‘Aquarela do Brasil’ – Toquinho (written by Ary Barroso)
  • ‘Velha Infância’ – Tribalistas
  • ‘Não me deixe só’ – Vanessa da Mata
  • ‘Felicidade’ – Vinicius de Moraes

Brazil's Favorite Voice Tom Phillips

One of Brazil’s best-loved musicians still active on the scene today is Gilberto Gil, a Grammy Award–winning singer and former minister of culture (from 2003 to 2008), who wasn’t averse to singing a few songs following a meeting at, say, the World Economic Forum in Davos. The pop star made an unlikely government bureaucrat, considering his musical beginnings as an engajado (activist). During the 1960s he spent two years exiled in London after offending the dictatorship with his provocative lyrics.

A household name for decades, Gil hails from the northeastern state of Bahia. Born in 1942, he was raised in a middle-class family near Salvador. His career as a troubadour began in 1965, when he moved south to São Paulo with another Bahian musician, Caetano Veloso. Between them they were responsible for tropicália, an influential though short-lived cultural movement that blended traditional Brazilian music with the electric guitars and psychedelia of the Beatles. Years later Veloso even recorded a Tupiniquim (an indigenous group in the northeast) tribute to the Liverpudlian rockers – called ‘Sugar Cane Fields Forever.’

Over the decades Gil has notched up hit after hit, morphing from quick-footed sambista to poetic balladeer to dreadlocked reggae icon.

Since the release of Louvaçao in 1967, Gil has recorded dozens of albums, including Kaya N’Gan Daya, a tribute to his idol Bob Marley. He’s shared the stage with many performers over the years, even playing with the former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan (on bongos) in New York.

Though he’s slowed down in recent years, the slender 70-something-year-old still performs, as he did at a 2012 concert on Copacabana beach, which he headlined alongside Stevie Wonder, attracting over 500,000 fans.

Tom Phillips