Candlelit Samba

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Why you should care

Sometimes all it takes is a will and a candle to help culture flourish.

Monday nights, on the south side of São Paulo, a nominal five reais will get you access to a performance of samba in its purest form. Each week, musicians gather around a small table, in the middle of which sits a candle — a vela. With the spark of a lighter the candle is lit and the samba begins. As the wax drips, one composer after another stands up, handing around lyrics to the samba he has written, which the crowd of about 100 then dutifully sings along with. The energy is one of joy and smiles, of players and listeners alike being soothed by a raw, no-frills musical outlet that can be hard to come by these days.

At the helm is José Marilton da Cruz, better known as Chapinha, a small white man with a bouncing energy, leading the crowd in the sing-along, with swinging arms, clapping hands and a broad smile. Back in ’86, he started the samba in his neighborhood bar as a way to offer an outlet to local musicians. “During the dictatorship, you couldn’t walk with an instrument in your hand, much less play samba, as it was seen as something Black.” His became the first samba bar in the southern part of the city. Ten years later, the drug trade and its accompanying violence forced him to shut down. But by 2000, in a moment in which the city lacked cultural spaces, he started up the modern version of Samba da Vela, a gathering of musicians playing stripped-down roots samba, called samba da raiz.

The samba is now a famous one, featured in all the guides, attracting tourists and locals alike.

“Before this kind of samba agonized and disappeared, we wanted to draw in the traditional samba composers and help it flourish,” he says. Today, he counts more than 100 communities in São Paulo as offshoots inspired by Samba da Vela. Nelson Papa, one of the composers who often appears at Samba da Vela, says the weekly meeting is a lifeblood for him. “It gives my music a place to fly. Otherwise, it’s just stuck in a cage, in my head.”

And though the concept is simple, and the spot is a pricey, long, traffic-snarled cab ride away from the center of the city, the samba is now a famous one, featured in all the guides, attracting tourists and locals alike. He’s even drawn in Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who was in Brazil for a show in Rio and flew to São Paulo in pursuit of Samba da Vela. “Come Monday evening, that red bald head was here,” remembers Chapinha with pride.

But why Monday night, and why the candle? Monday nights are the only night musicians are off from their regular bar gigs, and free to experiment. As for the candle, Chapinha says that some of his co-founders discussed a variety of options to keep the samba from running late into the night, as sambas are wont to do. He suggested a kitchen timer. “But tick-tick-tick — that’s annoying.” Another suggested a live cock to crow. “And if he doesn’t sing?” Then another suggested the candle. “And when it goes out, the samba’s over.” Today the light lends a quiet drama to the gathering as it burns for about 2 1/2 hours.

Afterward, soup is served — the destination of those five reais — and following an exchange of high-fives, the musicians pack up, leaving behind an empty room in southern São Paulo, where seven days later, the samba will swell again.

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