Rio de Janeiro has a reputation for its bohemians, from modernist painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti to Zeca Pagodinho, a sambista whose endorsement was once the object of a bidding war between rival beer brewers. Legend has it that Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes composed their infamous song The Girl from Ipanema on a bar napkin while sipping a draft just blocks from the beach.
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Illustrious locals tend to congregate in neighborhood bars called “botequins” known and treasured for their unlikely combination of unkempt decor and excellently drawn draft beer and simple but tasty snacks. The bar napkin story may or may not be true, but it is true that the bossa nova duo agreed on their first collaborative effort while hanging out at a downtown bar called Villarino, also frequented by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira, among others. No wonder that people in Rio de Janeiro state lead the nation in per capita beer consumption: 94.1 liters per person per year compared to the national average of 49.8.
But hanging out at the corner bar isn’t the sum of Rio de Janeiro nightlife. The city offers scores of bars, movie houses and theaters with enough diversity to satisfy any taste. Rio hosts shows in the Maracanã soccer stadium that has welcomed names ranging from the Rolling Stones to Frank Sinatra. The Municipal Theater features a regular line-up of classical music concerts, ballets and operas. Baixa Leblon is good for bar hopping. In Ipanema the region around the Rua Garcia D’Ávila offers bars and nightclubs that cater to several different demographics.
But after moving progressively south with the middle class for decades, the epicenter of fashionable Brazilian nightlife has returned to the old city center where it all started. The main concentration of bars and clubs can be found in the Lapa district, near the distinctive “Arcos,” the former aqueduct that looms with its arches in white over the neighborhood. Nearly 40 neighborhood clubs feature Brazilian music, says Plínio Fróes, who owns a club called Rio Scenarium. Most clubs welcome an eclectic mix of patrons of all ages.
Brazilian music dominates - especially samba and choro. The syncopatic beat of samba is almost universally recognized, but the melodies of samba’s erudite cousin, choro, might be less familiar. With roots in the salon dances of the late 19th century, choro emerged when original keyboard compositions were arranged for flute, cavaquinho (a relative of the ukulele), guitar and tambourine. The godfather of contemporary choro was Rio native Pixinguiha (1897-1973). “Choro was born here, in Lapa, in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Fróes. “We’re working to ensure its revival.”
Also found downtown are the gafieira clubs. The term “gafieira” was coined at the beginning of the 20th century to describe the dance halls of the city’s working class neighborhoods. Over time, the music absorbed influences, including Afro-Brazilian samba rhythms, French dance forms, Argentine tango, and North American big-band music. Gafieira is often referred to as Brazilian ballroom dance music.
The more adventurous visitors never fail to catch an “ensaio” (literally rehersal, but really more of a party) at one of Rio’s samba schools. The community-based groups that compete in the annual Carnival parade are called “Escolas de Samba,” or Samba Schools. In the months running up to the pre-Lenten festival, they organize weekly rehearsals-cum-parties in their neighborhood headquarters. They’re open to the public. Though generally located in poor districts, these places are generally safe for visitors on ensaio nights. The most accessible logistically are Vila Isabel and Salgueiro.
Rio Nightlife Links
Vila Isabel Samba School
Salgueiro Samba School
Samba-Choro - the top online calendar for live Brazilian music (in Portuguese)
Rio For Partiers - a guidebook with attitude.
Rio Botequim - a guide to Rio de Janeiro’s top down-home bars called botecos (in Portuguese).