My First Samba

For some reason I've always loved Brazilian music even though I'd never been to Brazil until last year. It can't be the lyrics—I don't speak Portuguese—so it must be the plangent idiosyncrasy of the voices of the country's great singers (Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento, Maria Bethânia, and Ivan Lins, to name a very few) and, of course, the rhythm. So when I had the chance to visit Rio de Janeiro, what I wanted to do most was listen to music…but authentic stuff, not what's usually served up to tourists. Fortunately a writer friend of mine in Rio named Fábio Sombra is also an excellent musician. He insisted it be samba.

These days the best samba clubs are in the Lapa neighborhood—not a place for the innocent traveler. So Fábio became my guide and took me to a club called, auspiciously, Carioca da Gema. "Cario- cas" are what the native Rio de Janeirans call themselves. Gema means "yolk." The expression da gema means "tops," "very best," "genuine article." The act scheduled for that night was a scratch group of great musicians assembled by legendary guitarist Paulão 7 Cordas.

The first thing you notice about an authentic samba band is the amount of percussion. That evening there was one guy on surdo (a big bass drum that provides the essential beat), another on mini conga drum, two tambourinists (forget everything you know about this instrument—it is a virtuoso in samba), and a man on snare drum who also played other instruments. From time to time the conga player picked up the cuíca, a drumlike instrument that makes the characteristic eek-eek-eek sound that can be heard behind the thunder of the big drums. Added to that were two guitarists—one playing the cavaquinho (similar to a steel- string ukulele) and Paulão on a seven-stringer. The singer, Richah, was dressed in a white suit.

The second thing you notice is that there is no attitude. The band shuffled almost diffidently onstage; their clothes, apart from Richah's, were nondescript, workaday. They sat down, tuned their instruments and just started to play.

This form of traditional samba is multivoiced and heavily, hugely rhythmic. The surdo thudding out its bass rhythm was palpable. Everybody danced—the urge to move to that beat is irresistible.

During my week in Rio Fábio took me to two other clubs in Lapa, and at one I saw, among others, an amazing young singer named Teresa Cristina with her band Grupo Semente, destined to be the next huge samba star. But my first night at Carioca da Gema remains imprinted in my memory. The seriousness with which the musicians played seemed to me to symbolize their sincerity and motivation—not so much about fame, money, acclaim, ego-tripping; it was simply the music. Exhausted and exhilarated, I stepped out of the club onto the Avenida Mem de Sá, a shabby street of crumbling 19th-century townhouses, and was carefully steered by Fábio past makeshift sidewalk bars, midnight grills (known as cat barbecues, for obvious reasons), and the 24-hour car-repair workshops and on into the warm Rio night, where eventually we found a taxi. I had heard true samba—samba da gema—and my musical landscape will never be the same again.

William Boyd, winner of the Whitbread award, has a new novel out this month, Restless.