Immediately, I have a list of at least 10 samba spots I have to discover while I’m here. Time flies as I soak up the insider tips, and before I know it the bar is full of laughing locals, and a bouncer has shown up at the door to stop anyone else getting in.
Because this is São Paulo, a lot of the sambas are by Adoniran Barbosa, son of Italian working-class immigrants. Barbosa might be Sampa’s most famous samba son, but his heart-wrenching lyrics are popular everywhere. His O Trem Das Onze, which means ‘The 11pm Train’, is a farewell song and the unofficial samba anthem of São Paulo. It plays at closing time in almost every samba joint in the city.
Meanwhile, the lime caipirinhas and cachaças from the state of Minas Gerais flow like water. By the time the music is over at 4am, I’ve agreed to meet one of the regulars, João, the next day at a hot new samba joint.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m off to the centre of town to do some sightseeing and pick up a musical instrument. Two streets, Rua Santa Ifigênia and Rua General Osório near Largo General Osório – which previously sported
the unfortunate nickname ‘Cracolandia’, but now renamed Rua do Samba – are home to a number of music stores.
I randomly pick Contemporânea, a store full of pandeiros (tambourines) and violãos (guitars), sheet music and song lyrics. I’m in luck. Every Saturday from 10am-2pm the store hosts jam sessions of choro, a fast and often only instrumental music played mostly on cavaquinhos (ukuleles) and guitars. As the music of Pixinguinha and Jacobo do Bandolim pours over me, I forget that it’s Rio that owns the moniker “Brazilian samba-choro mecca”.
At 2pm, I grab a bus to Pinheiros for the Saturday street fair at Praça Benedito Calixto, where another choro band plays more Valdir Azevedo and Gonzaguinha. When the music ends, I move on around the corner to Saravah Bar, where my new friend João is already seated at the bar.
This stylish spot is filled with the young and the beautiful. As the silver-voiced singer takes the stage next to the band, couples dance in every nook and cranny of the bar. The atmosphere is steamy, and it’s only 6.30pm. Sara, the owner, comes over to talk. A former stewardess, she loves foreigners, and her bar is named after lyrics in one of De Moraes’ songs Samba Da Bênção in which the musician hails the important things in life (saravah).
There might be an unimaginable amount of samba joints to try out in the city, but as Rita Lee, Brazil’s greatest rocker, recently responded to De Moraes’ snub: “São Paulo is rock’s cradle.” Lee might be a little biased as she and the other members of the ’60s psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes came from São Paulo.
After so much great samba and choro in less than 24 hours, I need to pay my respects to São Paulo’s more famous rock scene. My next stop at the recommendation of one of the samba bar regulars is Café Piu Piu in the neighbourhood of Bixiga, Barbosa’s old stomping ground. This eclectic city favourite is open six days a week, and plays everything from Led Zeppelin covers to Jorge Ben Jor samba-rock tunes.
On Sunday I’m back in samba central at large warehouse Ó do Borogodó in Pinheiros, where a 10-piece roda de samba keeps me sambando until I’ve worn out my soles.
The weekend is over but I’ve barely grazed the city’s music scene. Cheap little jazz bars are popping up in the chic districts. Industrial Barra Funda neighbourhood is home to the electronic scene, as European DJs regularly fly out to play in this club central.
If De Moraes were still alive he might have added new lyrics to his song: “Sampa, saravah!”
Clubs to visit
What: Mega-live music club.
Where: Avenida São João 677, Centro (brahmasp.com).
Bar do Ciao
What: Traditional samba and choro joint.
Where: Rua Deputado Lacerda Franco 293.
What: Trendy samba bar.
Where: Rua João Moura, on the corner of Rua Cardeal Arcoverde.
When: Call +55 11 8772 7050 to check.
Café Piu Piu
What: Rock, samba rock, and Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB).
Where: Rua Treze de Maio 134 (cafepiupiu.com.br).
When: Check the website.
Ó do BorogodÓ
What: Samba bar and dance club located in a large warehouse.
Where: Rua Horácio Lane 21.
When: Call +55 11 3814 4087 to check.
When the music stops
For a city that at first sight seems brash and obnoxious – the loud traffic and landscape of skyscrapers – São Paulo is surprisingly attuned to art and architecture.
The city hosts the second largest art meeting in the world, the Bienal de São Paulo. The striking Museu de Arte de São Paulo, designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi, overshadows Avenida Paulista, and the Pinacoteca do Estado is a neoclassical building from the early 20th century. Redesigned in the ’90s as a palace, it now holds a collection of Brazilian art.
For the flip side of São Paulo’s art scene check out the Choque Cultural Gallery, which specialises in urban art. Graffiti by prominent artists has been sanctioned by the city’s government on stretches of main roads. Some of the best are on Rua 23 de Maio and Rua Doutor Arnaldo.
Parque Ibirapuera is the city’s most famous park, with an array of buildings designed by the famous centenarian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Others include Parque Burle Marx to the south (designed by the world renowned landscape artist who bears the park’s name). To the north is Parque da Cantareira. It’s a jungle environment within the city limits with great hiking trails. The best view of the city is from the park’s Pedra Grande.
Hit the beach
About an hour away from São Paulo is the built-up beach town of Guaruja. Its proximity to São Paulo has made the once beautiful fishing village an unimaginable sprawl. But beautiful Atlantic beaches, with clear, crisp waters and fabulous waves, are just to the north of this tourist haven. Check out the isolated beach of Praia Preta, a hike away from the city’s Praia Branca.
Out of town
A visit to Embu das Artes, a cobbled town 40 minutes away from São Paulo’s city centre, is the best way to spend a Sunday. One-storey multi-coloured houses, shops, galleries, antiques and the Sunday fair provide the draw.