Close to midnight, the empty streets of northern Rio de Janeiro fit in seamlessly with the cautionary discourse one had to pay attention to before travelling here. Each rua, or road, has sealed doors, barricaded gates and no one to look to for a confirmation of what this particular late-night stroll seeks — a Roda Do Samba.
Turns out you just have to follow the music.
A different realm awaits around the next bend, many universes removed from the eeriness of everything you just left behind. A mass of humanity crowds over Pedra do Sal, a small hillock that literally means Rock of Salt. Not a speck of ground is visible as people sway and swing in time to the joyous, simple beats of simple instruments.
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The cuica (horseshoe bells) and a percussion instrument simply called a triangle (exactly what it means in English) are played to perfection by three Samba artistes, some providing an alternate source of entertainment as they stumble down the slope along with a trickle from their beer cans.
Nassim Valdes, who is here from Mexico for the duration of the Brazil World Cup, is one of the many who frequently make a beeline for this musical rendezvous. “This is the most soothing way to end the night,” he says, pointing to the large number of people around who look like they know they’d rather not be anywhere else in the world, let alone Rio, at this time.
“Football in the day, Samba in the night,” Valdes puts it simply.
This Rock was once a slave market. You wouldn’t guess that as you look at it tonight, studded with everything from a portable beer-bar to salgado (snack) stands and your very own spot in the mass of harmonious humanity. But this very spot once witnessed the most terrible crimes against a discordant humanity.
Over time, however, Pedra do Sal — a mainstay of Brazil’s African roots — eventually became associated with happier times, and is believed to be the place where both Samba and the Carnaval (Rio’s January parade of revellers) originated.
A short walk away from the Rock is Avenida Presidente Vargas. as David Goldblatt explains most succinctly in Futebol Nation, Getulio Vargas was the Brazilian dictator from the 1930s and ‘40s who regularly orchestrated samba gatherings and other musical programmes in football stadiums to unleash propaganda that spoke of Brasilidade (Brazilian integralism) in most glorious terms.
The dictator appropriated the musical form of samba into officially sanctioned State tunes, a far cry from the risque music of the favelas it originally was.
In these times of Copa do Mundo 2014, there is a constant awareness of the shiny, happy face of its football organisation that Brazil has been desperately trying to portray. The cacophonic proclamations of ‘Nossa Copa’ or ‘Tudo Junto’ and posters of good-looking youth trying to draw attention away from the tear-gassed, hazy confusion of the protests against FIFA and the government register as no more than marketing gimmicks.
While some may have enjoyed the opening ceremony and the offerings of Pitbull and JLo, Brazilian composer Edu Krieger’s ‘Desculpe Neymar’ (Sorry Neymar) serves up a more accurate picture. The song, directed towards the striker, goes on to talk of how little Brazil in its current state needs the World Cup. Quite in line with one of the protest posters that reads: “One teacher is worth more than a thousand Neymars.”
“These are dark times in Brazil,” says Eduardo, one of the samba musicians (he plays his triangle better than most Spanish players) on show at the Rock. “But without going through the darkness, you won’t come to the light.” You can choose to believe him, or simply take a walk about northern Rio at night.
By: Shreya Chakravertty
(Shreya Chakravertty is a Delhi-based freelancer currently in Brazil)