Every Monday and Friday on the well-known Pedra do Sal, the rock-carved stairs in central Rio de Janeiro, a table is set for musicians who come, sit down and begin to play. And thousands of people around the steps, join in and form a happy, pulsing crowd.
In the past, slaves abducted from Africa carried sacks of salt from the ships that brought them, to the salt market at the top of the stairs.They drew strength from the melodies and musical instruments they had brought with them.
In 1916, in a flat on Praca Onze, close to Rio’s former slave neighbourhood, musician Donga and journalist Mauro de Almeida satdown to write a song.
They could not have guessed that they were making history in the process: Both men turned samba music, which until then had been passed on from one musician to the next, into a globally acclaimed genre.
On November 27, 1916, the composition entitled “Pelo Telefone” (over the telephone) became the first samba song to be officially recorded by the National Library in Rio.
Although the debate persists about samba songs that may have been recorded earlier, “Pelo telefone” is considered to mark the genre’s official date of birth and its 100th anniversary is set to be marked by concerts, tours of related sites and music workshops.
The song caused a sensation at the 1917 Carnival with its simple lyrics. It is about a police chief telling someone else, “over the telephone,” about the crazy life of Rio residents, the “cariocas,” and how it sometimes looks like a game of roulette.
While the original samba sound was characteristically black, it evolved in white beach side neighbourhoods like Ipanema, where it incorporated elements of jazz and reggae to become Bossa Nova (literally, “new trend”). The film “Orfeu Negro” (Black Orpheus, 1959), about Rio and its culture, won the Academy Award for the best foreign language film a year later.
Brazilian music in general, and Bossa Nova in particular, dominated dance halls and music charts around the world for several years, until the emergence of The Beatles.
The genre helped inhabitants of colder climates quench their yearning for the beach, sunshine and love.
Brazil is currently immersed in a deep recession and almost half the members of Congress are embroiled in scandals.
However, Rio’s music and its stories of heartbreak that portray life in the contradition-filled metropolis prevail.
The opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games in Rio featured icons of Brazil’s music scene, and supermodel Gisele Buendchen strolled through the Maracana stadium to the iconic sounds of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The song, with its countless versions, has become a symbol of Rio, and its composer, Tom Jobim, even lends his name to the city’s international airport.
According to legend, Jobim and the poet Vinicius de Moraes were sitting at a bar in Ipanema, enjoying life, when the beautiful 17-year-old girl Helo strolled by. The teenager entranced the bar’s customers, and both musicians grabbed their pens.
They wrote the music and lyrics on the paper table cloth.
Helo, who carried the Olympic torch ahead of the Games, became “The Girl from Ipanema,” the “Garota de Ipanema” in Portuguese: “Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking and, when she passes, each one she passes goes ‘ah’.”
There is also a life-size bronze statue of Jobim on the beach, near the bar.
The 1962 song became a symbol of Bossa Nova, while singers like Joao Gilberto attained global acclaim.
A lot was the result of improvisation and many careers were born in places like the 50-year-old garage bar Bip Bip, on Copacabana Beach. Every evening, Alfredo, the bar’s host, sits on three plastic stools piled on top of each other and waits for the musicians.
When they finally arrive, they sit at the table and begin to play.
Complete strangers hum and dance together, although clapping is only allowed with one’s fingers, so that the neighbours do not complain.
In Rio, this courtesy is as remarkable as a day at the beach that doesn’t feature samba music.