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