Samba is the great soundtrack of Rio. It plays all across town, but if you're looking for its heart, you'll probably find it in the bohemian neighborhood of Lapa. In this neighborhood, addictive rhythms spill out of old-fashioned dance halls, drawing music lovers from far and wide. Samba also takes center stage during Carnaval, where percussive beats and singsong lyrics are essential to the big fest.
Need to Know
There’s always something going on in Lapa, though many clubs are closed on Sunday and Monday. Typical opening times are from about 8pm to 1am during the week, and till 3am or 4am at weekends.
When to Go
At weekends Lapa packs in huge crowds, and many people come for the festive ambience on the streets. If you plan to visit a samba club on a Friday or Saturday, go early to beat the lines and have a few backup options just in case.
Cover charges typically range from R$20 to R$50, and women generally pay less than men. Often a portion of the charge covers drinks. As with other clubs, you’ll be given a consumption card to keep track of your drinks, which you’ll pay for at the end of the night.
Lapa is still scruffy around the edges, so keep your wits about you. Stick to well-trafficked streets, be mindful of pickpockets in crowded areas and leave valuables at home.
- Visit Rio (www.visit.rio) Lists samba venues and upcoming concerts.
- Rio Carnival (www.rio-carnival.net) A decent website for checking times and reading up on other Carnaval-related activities.
Gafieiras (dance halls) have risen from the ashes of the once-bombed-out neighborhood of Lapa and reinvigorated it with an air of youth and song. After years of neglect, Lapa has reclaimed its place as Rio’s nightlife center. In the 1920s and ’30s it was a major destination for the bohemian crowd, who were attracted to its decadent cabaret joints and gafieiras. Today its vintage buildings hide beautifully restored interiors set with wide dance floors.
Inside you'll find some of Rio's top samba groups, playing to crowds that often pack the dance floor. The clubs' nostalgic decor adds to the appeal, and even if you don't feel like dancing, the music and the festive crowd set the scene for a great night out.
Samba de Mesa
On Friday night Rio's samba community congregates in front of the faded colonial facades of Rua do Mercado under a canopy of tropical foliage to play samba da mesa (literally, 'samba of the table'). On the worn cobblestones, a long table stands, altar-like. Around it the musicians sit and the crowd gyrates, paying homage to their favorite religion. Samba da mesa in Rio today is a grassroots movement of musicians and appreciators passionately committed to keeping their music on the street and in an improvised form.
This form of samba typically involves a table, at least one person playing a cavaquinho (small, ukulele-like instrument), an assortment of tambores (drums), and any number of makeshift instruments such as soda cans, knives and forks that will make a rattle. The standard of the music can be outstanding, and it's not uncommon to catch sight of a samba bamba (big-name samba performer) keeping the beat for the group or belting out one of its tunes. Depending on which bohemians have blown in for the night, you might even catch a duel, in which two singers pit their wits against each other in a battle of rhymes. It's a challenge of the intellect, and the topics include everything from love to poverty to the opponent's mother. Even if you speak some Portuguese, you probably won't understand the slang or the local references, but the delight of the crowd is infectious.
Street samba has taken a battering from the commercialization of music and space, the rising popularity of funk in the favelas (slums, informal communities) and the police clampdown on 'noise pollution' in public spaces. However, for those still interested in a little piece of bohemian Rio, there are several established places that support free, improvised street music. On Friday nights Rua do Mercado and Travessa do Comércio near Praça XV (Quinze) de Novembro in Centro attract a younger, radical-chic set. On Sunday and Thursday nights, Bip Bip, a tiny bar in Copacabana, caters for hard-core sambistas (samba singers). If you're around on December 2, Dia de Samba (Samba Day), you can join the samba train bound for Oswaldo Cruz with the rest of Rio's samba community. The musicians disembark in the dusty backstreets of this working-class suburb, which is transformed every year into a labyrinth of makeshift bars and stages that host a 24-hour marathon of samba da mesa.
Impromptu street gatherings in Rio are more elusive at other times and finding them can sometimes be challenging. But it's an unforgettable experience when you do discover one. There are few fixed places for these parties, and they move from one week to the next. Lapa, in particular Rua Joaquim Silva, generally has something going on, but if not, keep your ears open for the unmistakable sound of the samba bateria (percussive-style samba) – follow that sound and you will find a party. Heed the local etiquette: ensure you don't talk over the music; don't use a camera with a flash; and don't sit down unless you're a contributing musician.
In preparation for Carnaval, most big samba schools open their weekly rehearsals to the public, starting around September. An escola de samba (samba school) is a professional troupe that performs in the grand samba parade during Carnaval. Schools typically charge between R$10 and R$30 at the door (admission can go upwards of R$50 as Carnaval nears), and you'll be able to buy drinks. These are large dance parties, not specific lessons in samba (although you may learn to samba at some of them); they're fun to watch and visitors are always welcome to join in. Confirm that there's going to be a rehearsal before you visit.
Keep in mind that many samba schools are in the favelas, so use common sense and consider going with a carioca (resident of Rio) for peace of mind. It's best to take a taxi. Mangueira and Salgueiro are among the easiest schools to get to (and the most popular with visitors). All schools get incredibly packed as Carnaval approaches.
Given samba's resurgence, it's not surprising that there are several places where you can learn the moves. You can also find places to study forró (dance accompanied by the traditional, fast-paced music from the Northeast) and other styles. A dance class is a good setting in which to meet other people while getting those feet to step in time.
A few good places to learn:
- Salgueiro Wonderfully festive, well-located samba school.
- Rio Scenarium Touristy, but still a fantastic setting for live samba.
- Clube dos Democráticos Long-running club with first-class musicians.
- Bip Bip Copacabana gem famed for its samba de roda (informal samba played in a circle).
- Pedra do Sal Twice-weekly outdoor samba jam sessions in a historic locale north of Centro.
Best Live Samba Outside Lapa
- Trapiche Gamboa Atmospheric music club in Gamboa with addictive samba beats.
- Renascença Clube Open-air celebration in Andaraí that draws samba fans from across Rio.
- Fuska 2.0 Fun neighborhood gathering spot in Botafogo.
- Cariocando Head to Catete on Saturday for live bands and feasting on feijoada (bean-and-meat stew).
- Casa do Choro A renovated Centro concert hall where you can catch samba as well as choro (a musical relative of samba).
Best Samba Spots
- Carioca da Gema Long-running favorite, especially on Monday night.
- Fundição Progresso Top sambistas and much more in a massive industrial space that was once a foundry.
- Lapa 40 Graus Dance to samba and play pool, all in one multistory complex.
- Vaca Atolada Small, brightly lit bar with a lively samba de roda most nights.
- Sarau Great people-watching on the outdoor plaza with live samba and forró groups in the background.
- Beco do Rato Low-key and welcoming spot; there's never a cover charge.