Samba Saved Me

For me, writing has less to do with knowing how to write and more to do with how to think. If my world is dull, my writing will be dull. But some days are like that, dull — even in amazing places, like São Paulo, Brazil. No matter where you go, the day-to-day grind will follow, all those little things that get to you when you know they shouldn’t. Long lines at the super market. Long distance relationships. Long … okay that’s all I got (I just felt that I needed to continue with the long complaint pattern). Anyways, it’s hard to write when you’ve got that plugging the mind, so I had to get it out.

Unplugged. So let’s move on. 

I’m in Brazil! Actually now I’m in a chair in the sky, but I was definitely in Brazil when I wrote that last sentence. And now I’m actually back in Austin, Texas, but I was definitely in a chair in the sky when I wrote that last sentence. (Sometimes writings take a bit to come out, alright?) Brazil is addicting. When I moved to the southern city of Curitiba in 2007, I planned to stay for a year as part of a study abroad program. To say things in exactly the opposite way they actually happened, well, Brazilians weren’t friendly at all, and it was really hard to meet people. No one showed a genuine interest in me, and they really don’t know how to let loose and hang out for hours on a street outside the bars while really crappy samba and bossa nova music glue the moments together. The daily meal of rice, beans and steak was not delicious at all, and I missed the United States so much that I did not stay for two years instead of one. What a shithole.

This was my first time going back to Brazil in almost four years, but I would be seeing it from a completely new angle than when I lived here. I would stay in São Paulo for two weeks, a place where blocks upon blocks of over 45 thousand apartment buildings stretch from horizon to horizon, and 20 million specks of life scatter about their city. Unlike some major tourist destinations, São Paulo isn’t one of those cities that comes with a pre-made list of iconic attractions to neatly structure your days around. São Paulo keeps its treasures locked away in disguise, and if you’re one of the 10 million specks who pass by each year for business, it can become especially difficult to find them. You come in, do what you came to do, and walk past the local treasure to fill your chest at home.

As one of those 10 million business lame-o’s, this trip wasn’t easy at first. Long work days left me exhausted by evening, and I didn’t know any locals to show me what makes their city tick. Determined to find the treasure, I started with the basics.

It was on a night that was already going pretty well because there was rodízio de pizza involved, which is a type of restaurant in Brazil where you sit in one spot while someone brings you unlimited slices of unlimited flavors of pizza until you slip into a coma, and then they bring you unlimited slices of dessert pizzas until you beg them to pull the plug and let you die already. It was pretty awesome. Towards the end of our group-suicide around the table, one of my coworkers sent me a message saying there was live samba at a bar in the Vila Madalena neighborhood. I’m not like the Brazilians who can go out at midnight and dance to four or five in the morning, and samba sounded like a perfect idea for any day but this one. But I’d seen so little of the local life and couldn’t let myself simply go back to the hotel/coffin. Come on, there was samba music, and “quem não gosta samba não gosta de nada” (i.e. whoever doesn’t like samba doesn’t like anything).

The bar was in a tiny crumbling hole in the wall, and looked as dark and lifeless on the outside as every building on the street, but the inside was bustling. People talking over people huddled around small tables and shared garrafas (600ml bottles of beers – very common in Brazil) until the four-member samba group pulled out their magical wands and cast a samba-trance on everyone. Yes, magical, that’s exactly what it was.

This is what it looked like.


They might look a little bored in this next shot, but they actually seemed more relaxed than anything. I’m pretty sure they were going imrov-style most of the time, since they were so expressive in their nonverbal cues to each other. They were also extremely talented musicians. That guy on the right had some pretty wild fingers dancing around the guitar, and the woman on the left made the tambourine do things I didn’t know it could do …


Then the singer came out, and the night was painted with alegria, felicidade, and all those other common words of the classic lingua franca of samba lyrics (e.g. saudadescoraçao, malandro). You can get a glimpse of Brazilian values though the words they use in lyrics, and happiness is one that comes up all the time. Search for “felicidade” on the Brazilian lyrics website, and over 248,000 songs show up in the results, and if you searching for “happiness” on, 1,000 songs show up (that seems like way too extreme of a difference to be correct, but who knows). No other type of music has the power to take me to a place of happiness like Brazilian music, and samba does it best. Damn I miss Brazil already, or I should say, I have saudades of Brazil. I wish there was a way to translate that, but there’s no way to explain saudades (consider it part of the secret handshake of language).


Of course, samba isn’t only a style of music; it’s also a style of dance, and no night of samba music ever finishes without the samba dancing. I love how a person can walk across the room and pull a total stranger onto the dance floor, bounce and spin and levitate (okay, not that last one, but pretty much) to the music, and then walk away to find someone else to join souls with for a few minutes. The most amazing part about that is that it’s safe to assume that a total stranger knows how to dance samba. Here in USA-land? No way (thank God no one invited me to a clumsy trip-fest on the dance floor). But hey, at least we can grind, right? Keep it classy, ‘merica.
This is what it sounded like.

Be mesmerized by the samba feet …

The next day was back to business for me, but that one night of samba was saturated with enough felicidade to last an entire week. It left me wondering what other treasures were hiding all around me, and it made me feel bad for the millions who walk past them and have no idea. Don’t look to hard; the answer is vibrating through the air and bouncing on the floor behind those lifeless walls, and you’ve just gotta walk in.

Forget Jesus; I believe in samba, for it has delivered me from darkness. Amen. (just kidding mom, calllmmm down … )

Love always from Planet Earth,



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