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Samba central: Moving to the rhythms of Rio's Lapa district

By Joe Robinson for CNN
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0129 GMT (0929 HKT)
At last, a venue where you won't feel like the oldest thing in the room. Rio Scenarium is what happens when you combine a dance floor with a collection of more than a thousand antiques. At last, a venue where you won't feel like the oldest thing in the room. Rio Scenarium is what happens when you combine a dance floor with a collection of more than a thousand antiques.
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Rio Scenarium
Lapa's reinvention
Arcos da Lapa
Block parties
Rio's musical heart
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rio's Lapa district is home to the city's best nightlife and samba music
  • Once seedy and derelict, the neighborhood has been revitalized into a nightlife hub
  • Colorful 19th-century mansions look like they're from old Lisbon rather than modern Brazil

(CNN) -- The banner on the back wall of the old dance hall says in Portuguese: "While there is dance, we still have hope."

There's plenty of that as the crowd of Cariocas (Rio locals) shake hips and move their feet on the worn, wooden dance floor to an eight-piece band playing irresistible samba.

The cheap Brahma beer is flowing, the tables are close together and new friends are made easily.

It's a euphoric window on local life, courtesy of Estudantina Musical, a place that's been serving up happy feet on the periphery of the Lapa district of Rio for 85 years.

By the end of the night, I've met Reynaldo dos Santos, a retired businessman, who's here every Friday night.

His advice for anyone trying to improve their samba dancing: Don't worry about anyone else. Move what you can while you can and "don't have shame."

Rio's Lapa district can help you with that.

It's the headquarters for the best clubs, nightlife and music in Rio, with an emphasis on the vital rhythm that unites all Brazilians -- samba.

Walk a few blocks in this compact collection of 19th-century edifices and you'll be treated to a host of joints hopping with live music and particularly samba.

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The Monmatre of Rio

At one bar, it's an acoustic samba de roda group with drums and cavaquinho, a steel-stringed ukelele-sized instrument.

At another club, there's a lively band with a horn section doing samba gafieira, the swinging brass version of the music that fuels couples dancing.

At another, you might hear choro, a guitar-based precursor of samba.

Lapa is the historic cultural heart of Rio, where bohemians and artists have gathered through the decades.

Rio Scenarium is a nightclub in an antiques store.
Rio Scenarium is a nightclub in an antiques store.

It was once called the Montmarte of Rio, after the artist quarter in Paris.

By the 1970s it had become a seedy, derelict zone to avoid.

But as has happened in so many cities, redevelopment revitalized it into a nightlife hub.

Many of the old mansions in the area, home to Rio's wealthy until the arrival of the 20th century, have been restored and now house bars, cafes and clubs.

The sidewalks of Lapa are buzzing most nights until the early hours, with musical options ranging from the traditional -- samba, choro, forro -- to Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB), a signature Brazilian take on modern pop and rock that's produced great artists such as Caetano Veloso and Milton Nascimento.

MORE: Five-minute guide to Brazilian barbecue

More than partying ... but, still, partying

Even if it weren't a hive of music and partying, Lapa would be worth a visit.

The double decker Roman-style aqueduct, Arcos da Lapa, hearkens to the 1700s, when Rio drew its water from the hills above.

The 19th-century mansions, dressed up in a variety of colorful pastels, look like they were beamed in from old Lisbon.

Lapa feels more like Portugal than the modern Brazil of Copacabana and Ipanema.

Top music venues include Rio Scenarium and Carioca da Gema, where the best known samba artists perform regularly.

Samba grew out of a fusion of African drum circles and European marches and choro.

There are many styles of samba, and you can catch a lot of them in Lapa.

Samba chronicles the struggles of life and love, and conquers them through the joy of the music.

It allows participants to jiu-jitsu a bad day at the drop of a cavaquinho, the hyper instrument that revs samba.

Here's some of the top spots for music.

READ: Powerful flavor: Rio's incredible juice bars

Cafe Cultural Sacrilegio

Located in a renovated mansion that was once home to composer Joao Pernambuco, an associate of Brazilian musical icons Villa Lobos and Pixinguinha, and where Carmen Miranda learned the millinery trade, Cafe Cultural Sacrilegio features a great lineup of samba de roda, pagode, and choro artists on its main stage.

Eclectic and artistic, it lives up to the bohemian vibe of Lapa's roots.

On Fridays and Saturdays after the last live performance, there's modern dance music from deejays deep into the morning hours.

Cafe Cultural Sacrilegio, Avenue Mem de Sa, 81; +55 21 3970 1461

Rio Scenarium

The most famous of Lapa's clubs, and the most idiosyncratic, Rio Scenarium is what happens when someone decides to put a club in the middle of an antique store.

The esoteric nightspot is three floors' worth of antique clocks, paintings and chandeliers, reflecting the vintage neighborhood of Lapa.

Its first-floor stage and dance area host the gamut of Brazilian stylings, from rock to MPB, samba, reggae and forro.

Rio Scenarium, Rua do Lavradia, Casa 20; +55 21 3147 9000

Bar Semente

Once run-down, Lapa is being revitalized by its nightlife
Once run-down, Lapa is being revitalized by its nightlife

This cozy room near the Lapa arches was a trailblazer in the revival of Lapa.

The club helped launch some of samba's and Lapa's leading performers, from Teresa Cristina to Casuarina and Grupo Semente.

Known for presenting quality artists in an unpretentious style, Semente (which means "seed") is a reliable stop for samba and choro music.

Bar Semente, Rua Joaquim Silva, 138; +55 21 2509 3591

MORE: Brazil's thriving African culture

Carioca Da Gema

Arriving early is essential for this seminal Lapa club.

Its tiny and sells out quickly, particularly on the weekend.

Why? It offers a close look at some of the top musical talent in Brazil.

The club -- its name means "yolk of the egg" in Portuguese -- specializes in samba de roda.

Many of Rio's top samba artists perform here regularly.

Ana Costa and the queen of Lapa, Teresa Cristina, often show up to deliver a pure fix of this marvelous city's marvelous music.

The main floor is for dancing, and the few tables fill up quickly.

Carioca Da Gema, Rua Mem de Sa 79, Lapa; +55 21 2221 0043; $12-14 cover charge

Estudantina Musical

Authenticity, local color, cultural immersion -- this old dance hall on the edge of Lapa has all that and more.

Up the wide wooden staircase lies a world far from the usual tourist sections.

Estudantina caters to a clientele of working people and extended families who have been coming here for decades.

The bands are top notch, from the popular take on samba, known as pagode, to samba de roda, ballroom and forro.

Dance lessons are available.

MORE: Best day trips from Rio

Estudantia Musical, Praca Tiradentes 79-81; +55 21 2232 1149

Author of the book "Work to Live," Joe Robinson has written for numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times. He's traveled extensively in Brazil.

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