Just be­yond Rio’s beaches lies he­do­nism of a dif­fer­ent beat, dis­cov­ers Stan­ley Ste­wart

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

BRAZIL­IANS are to a good time what the English are to queu­ing or the Ital­ians are to over­tak­ing at speed on the hard shoul­der while chat­ting on the mo­bile and eat­ing an ice-cream. They are nat­u­rals. They are party peo­ple, fa­nat­ics about fes­tiv­ity, con­nois­seurs of let­ting it all hang out. We have all watched Brazil­ian fans at the World Cup, par­ty­ing while the rest of the world bel­lows, danc­ing the samba while the op­po­si­tion shake their fists at the ref­eree.

Rio is Brazil’s ul­ti­mate party town. It not only stages the most out­ra­geous car­ni­val in the world, it has the best New Year’s Eve party, at­tended by up to a mil­lion samba-danc­ing ravers on Copaca­bana Beach. I am go­ing out for a night on the town. I have my flip-flops, my linen shirt, my baggy shorts. How wrong could things go if I sim­ply try to blend in?

Some­one has given me Ri­cardo’s num­ber. On the phone he en­thuses about the nightlife in the old Lapa dis­trict of cen­tral Rio. He of­fers to show me around. So now we are driv­ing along the Avenida At­lantica with the top down, past the great sweep of Copaca­bana Beach. Out on the sands, young men in Speedo briefs are do­ing im­pos­si­ble things with foot­balls while girls in but­tock-bar­ing thongs — known here as fio den­tal, or den­tal floss — stroll arm in arm against a set­ting sun.

It is im­pos­si­ble not to love Rio and it is not just the shapely bot­toms. The mo­ment you see it from the plane, nes­tled into its glo­ri­ous bays, your heart misses a beat. Car­i­o­cas, as the in­hab­i­tants of Rio are called, go to the beach the way the English go to the pub. Ev­ery­where you look in Rio there are peo­ple in swim­suits. It feels like a city on per­ma­nent hol­i­day.

In Rio the nightlife op­tions are man­i­fold, from in­door dis­cos in Ipanema and Le­blona and out­door dis­cos on the Morro da Urca to ladies in feath­ers at the Chur­ras­caria Plataforma and ladies with­out feath­ers in Leme. But Lapa, Ri­cardo in­sists, is the place to be.

Lapa is 20 min­utes and 200 years away from the beaches of Copaca­bana. Lapa is old Rio, built in the 18th cen­tury, Rio be­fore the beaches and the tourists and the in­ter­na­tional fame. By the 1920s and 30s, Lapa had a rep­u­ta­tion as South Amer­ica’s Mont­martre, a bo­hemian quar­ter with a lib­eral mix of low life and high liv­ing. Samba was Lapa’s sound­track.

It came to an end in the 1940s when the gov­ern­ment clamped down on the low life bit. Lapa’s de­cline was fur­ther has­tened by the flight of the mid­dle classes to se­cu­rity-con­scious sub­urbs, and then by the rise of beach cul­ture that drew vis­i­tors and car­i­o­cas away from the cen­tre to Copaca­bana and Ipanema. Dis­tracted by rock and disco, young peo­ple stopped lis­ten­ing to samba and Lapa be­came a run-down in­ner city prob­lem.

Sixty years on, samba is trendy again, as are forro and chor­inho and pagode and myr­iad other forms of tra­di­tional Brazil­ian mu­sic. Young peo­ple have aban­doned the steril­ity of rave mu­sic for the funky dance mu­sic of their roots. In Lapa, home to some of the great samba names of the past, mu­sic clubs have sprung up. Af­ter 50 years of ne­glect, Lapa is buzzing again and the neigh­bour­hood is grad­u­ally be­ing trans­formed.

But what I love about Lapa is how lit­tle it is trans­formed. In Lon­don’s Hox­ton, or in New York’s Meat­pack­ing Dis­trict, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has a way of suck­ing out the orig­i­nal at­mos­phere, leav­ing only a kind of self-par­ody, turn­ing ev­ery­thing that moves into a steel and waxed-wood sofa bar with aproned wait­ers and goat’s cheese salad. In Lapa, the vibe of the old di­lap­i­dated neigh­bour­hood is in­domitable.

We cross a square where the statue of a forgotten Por­tuguese hero, his shoul­ders spat­tered with guano, pre­sides over a dusty gar­den. Around his feet old women mak­ing lace have colonised the benches. Men in sleeve­less vests sit on the kerbs drink­ing beer while girls in shorts dance to tunes from the ra­dio in the door­way of a late-night to­bac­conist. Moul­der­ing colo­nial man- sions look as if they have not been oc­cu­pied since mut­ton-chop whiskers were in style. Shut­ters hang off their hinges. One of the man­sions is Rio Sce­nar­ium, un­usual only in that all the lights are on. A pi­o­neer in trans­form­ing Lapa’s for­tunes in the mid- ’ 90s, it sprawls over three floors. Crowded with vin­tage junk, from Bake­lite ra­dios to ’ 50s man­nequins, it dou­bles as a film prop store. On the ground floor, a samba band is pump­ing it out to a crowd of liq­uid-limbed dancers. Pun­ters gaze down from gal­leries on the floors above while on all sides packed ta­bles fill the great cav­ernous spa­ces of what was once one of Rio’s grand­est houses.

Noth­ing re­ally pre­pares you for a dance floor of Brazil­ians in full swing. In Brazil ev­ery­one dances as if they were the love child of John Tra­volta and a Ve­gas lap dancer. It is not just that they are bril­liant, that they seem to have joints other peo­ple lack, that their sense for com­plex rhythms is as­ton­ish­ing, that they swim through the mu­sic like dol­phins through a clear sea,

Mov­ing with the times: Danc­ing and Rio go hand in hand, from the city’s night­clubs and out­door dis­cos to the out­ra­geous an­nual Car­ni­val; noth­ing re­ally pre­pares you for a dance floor of Brazil­ians in full swing

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