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Saturday Diary: Music and money make a jangling noise when Rio's sambistas go by

Saturday, November 23, 2002

By Peter B. King

The first thing we heard was the thumping of a drum. Then, as the music got closer, the two tambourines announced themselves, and the banjo and the singing. Finally we could see the players in the restaurant's open doorway: four sambistas oozing music and rhythm, and grinning from ear to ear.

   Peter B. King is a copy editor in the Post-Gazette features department (pking@post-gazette.com). 

The band was playing on the streets of Rio de Janeiro for tips, and they had stopped to woo the Friday night diners at Garota de Ipanema, the bar/restaurant where Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes wrote "The Girl From Ipanema" in the early '60s. Through the restaurant's open sides, one tambourine player bopped a customer lightly on the head with his instrument. The other, who wore a T-shirt that proclaimed, in English, "Ju-jitsu is my life," executed a fancy tambourine filigree over a diner's plate.

When the band members saw me, with my eyes as bright and astonished and transfixed as if that Ipanema girl in her prime had just asked me for my phone number, they stepped inside the restaurant, where one guy handed me a tambourine and signaled to me to tap along.

I had heard what's called samba pagode on record plenty of times at home, but never live. That first time, the music hit me like a ton of bricks. It was obvious that this middle-aged American guy felt every drumbeat in his heart and his wiggling hips.

Somehow this mattered to me -- for the players to understand that I "got" what they were doing. They were artists as well as entertainers, and I am sure the music-making was more to them than just a job. I myself have played guitar for tips on occasion, and I know that the applause is appreciated as much as the money.

Nevertheless, the smell of money was in the air, not to mention a whiff of race and class. One of the guys turned his tambourine upside down, gesturing with his other hand for contributions. The money came -- someone dropped in a 10-real note. I dropped in a five-real note, which I thought was pretty generous, whereupon the musician upped the wattage of his smile and pointed at the 10-real note in a bid for more.

Because I come from the most powerful nation in the world, my dollar was worth almost four Brazilian reals. We were throwing their currency around like Monopoly bucks.

And you couldn't escape the fact that almost all of the diners in the restaurant were lighter-skinned than the four sambistas, who, at the end of the night, were most likely headed back to one of the shantytowns, or favelas, where samba flourishes. Slums climb the steep hillsides of Rio, sometimes right up against luxury condos and hotels.

I remember a little boy, maybe 8 or 9, tagging along with the samba group, selling some kind of candy that looked like Life Savers. He was as practiced at charming an audience as the older guys -- his little face struck a wistful pose out of one of those TV appeals where the announcer begins: "Eight-year-old Melanie lives in a shack." I thought he was the child of someone in the group, and I didn't think he needed a tip of his own.

Brazil's recent presidential election was in full swing during my stay, freighted with a sense of urgency. The choice between the two front-runners -- the centrist Jose Serra and the eventual winner, the leftist Lula da Silva -- seemed stark.

The names, faces and even the jingles of the politicians vied relentlessly. On the beach in Rio, vendors of mango juice and suntan oil wore caps or T-shirts identifying their presidential preference. So did the teams for futevolei -- volleyball played with feet, chest and head but without hands.

You could watch a boat chug by advertising a candidate, then look up and see a plane trailing a banner.

The same samba that serenaded the tourists also fueled the political machine. Cars and trucks and floats blared tunes repeating the names of this candidate and that, as well as their ATM-style numbers to be punched into Brazil's computerized voting machines. I found myself singing a couple of jingles over and over.

The crucial issue in the election came through loud and clear in every newspaper and magazine -- how best to give the vast numbers of Brazilian poor a chance for a better life.

So I felt a pang of guilt, a little knee-jerk liberal conscience, if you must, and a need to tip the street musicians, and tip them well. In fact, I tipped everyone well in Brazil -- even though tipping is less the custom there than it is in the United States.

About an hour after the first samba group had come to the Garota de Ipanema, a second band appeared. They were good and they worked hard, but the diners had already been combed over once and were a little less free with their money.

I gave their tambourine player another fiver. Then I saw a little boy, about the same age as the first one, with a lollipop in his mouth, looking cute and holding out a shoe box. I reached into my pocket again and gave him 50 or 75 centavos.

Pretty soon this group was gone. I went back to my barbecued beef, my Brahma beer and the conversation of my Brazilian and American friends.

A few minutes later, the first boy was back -- alone this time, making me think that perhaps he was not under the wing of one of the adults in the samba group after all. He started in again with those wistful, wide-eyed grins, staring at each of the customers in the restaurant, but, I thought, staring at me most of all.

By this time, I was starting to feel like maybe I had done my part, and a little bit like a rube besides. If I reached into my pocket a fourth time, would the other diners look at me with scorn? Would they think I was about to bring a cacophony of competing sambistas down on the restaurant, like ants to a picnic? All the tipping in the world wouldn't be enough to solve the problems of this beautiful but troubled land. So how much was too little, and how much was too much?

The kid disappeared soon enough. It was time for dessert, and then a stroll along the ocean on chic Avenida Atlantica, and then back to the hotel. Only I haven't stopped thinking -- where did he sleep that night?

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