Archives for category: Rio de Janeiro

Heavyweight champion of the world

In 1920, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opened a club called Club DeLuxe on the corner of 142nd and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York.

He is said to have gone broke. A prominent gangster called Owney Madden took over the club in 1923, re-opening it after a year. Madden, an immigrant lad from Leeds in England, had risen through the New York underworld with a reputation for violence.

Madden and business partners Big Bill Dwyer and Big Frenchy De Mange (below)

Big Bill Dwyer, believed to own the Pittsburgh Pirates

Big Frenchy DeMange

Big Frenchy De Mange

also became owners in the exclusive Stork Club, where influential gossip columnist Walter Winchell (below) held court.

Walter Winchell in 1939 Photo by Granger

Walter Winchell in 1939 Photo by Granger (

An owner in more than twenty clubs, Madden was known for his Prohibition-era business activities. He was also known for his revenge tactics and his pay-offs of City Hall.

Owen Madden

Owen Madden

From these origins sprang the musical culture which was to conquer the world, to nurture the aristocratic Edward Kennedy Ellington, and to make the name of the Cotton Club an international by-word for exotic sophistication. We should not be surprised that U.S. rappers glorify gangsta culture, or that funk in Rio is associated with organised crime. Whether they will produce another Duke remains to be seen.

To put Club DeLuxe in its setting, here’s a thumbnail sketch of the Harlem nightlife of that time, from The Harlem Renaissance by Steven Watson

God’s big tent: the cathedral from morro Santa Teresa

Surrounded by hills or morros, the centre of Rio is crammed with buildings old and new. The old testify to its former glory, the new to a resurgence of prosperity and pride. The view from morro Santa Teresa – named for its convent but known until the mid-eighteenth century as morro Desterro, the hill of exile – is panoramic.

Old Cathedral interior, also variously a Royal, an Imperial and a Carmelite Convent chapel

The Old Cathedral on Guanabara Bay is theatrical in its colours, its furnishings and its configuration, something of a pocket opera house for the pageant of royalty. A witness to Brasilian history, it has seen Royal and Imperial weddings, baptisms, funerals and coronations, and the signing of the Imperial Constitution.

Kingdom to Empire, to Republic and beyond, Brasil is still an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, so a new cathedral was certain. Protracted negotiations between Church and State secured a new site, and the modern cathedral was built between 1964 and 1976, to a design by architect Edgar Fonceca, and dedicated to Rio’s patron saint. Not to the glory of King or Emperor, but for the city’s people under the slings and arrows of poverty. Its conical form and its use of concrete remind you of Liverpool Cathedral, but its ziggurat steps are distinctively Latin American. Or is it volcanic in its shape and colour?

At the entrance to the Cathedral, cool polished concrete provides an open welcome

Inside, it’s a huge space, seating five thousand, with standing room for more. Its shape gives you a soaring echoing space – filled when we were there with recorded Gregorian chant – and a beautifully quiet and even coolness too, a welcome relief from the traffic clamouring and grinding its way past the flight of steps below the broad apron.

It is an appropriately contemplative space, a welcome luxury in a crowded city, its cool gloom a refuge and its walls a shield against the everyday.

One of four, this southern panel opposite the main entrance depicts the unity of the Church

The four coloured panels – plastic rather than glass – rise to the arms of the clear Greek cross which forms the summit’s rooflight. Visitors and worshippers move quietly about the space, not a boat-shaped nave but circular. A cool breeze plays softly on your arms and face. Calm descends.

St Francis of Assisi admonishing a dove, by Sao Paulo sculptor Umberto Cozzo

When you rise from your pew, or complete your circuit of the Cathedral, you emerge gently into the heat and light of the day, refreshed, more at peace. Whether or not you are a believer, what the sanctuary offered here is effective, leaving you a little stronger, a little calmer, a little more prepared to meet the world and all its works.

View from morro Corcovado with Hipódromo da Gávea

Rio de Janeiro, named Cidade Maravilhosa by its proud inhabitants, is built in one of the great natural settings for a city – an excellent natural harbour, broad beaches, thickly wooded hills almost to the water’s edge, a lagoon, a warm-to-temperate climate, and abundant flora and fauna.

Flora on the ascent to the summit of Corcovado

A troupe of monkeys in residence in an abandoned hotel on the way to Corcovado

Rio cloudscape from the Corcovado summit

Rio pushes right up to the hills

Rio’s Centro is a poignant mix of grandeur and decay, reminding us that it was once the sophisticated capital of a wealthy country.

Centro street lighting of breath-taking splendour

Facade awaiting restoration, Centro

Plannned in 1602 as an aqueduct, Arcos da Lapa became a viaduct for bondes tram in 1896

Centro Art Deco cinema with tiled capitals

Rio’s great institutions are still in place, albeit with their roles adapted to this century.

Ex-Imperial chapel on Praça Quinze de Novembre, now a Carmelite church

Still a Carmelite hospital, with sculpture in courtyard, Centro

Other institutions adapt too – Scotland never saw a ‘kirk’ like this.

Presbyterian church at night, Rio Centro 

You may wonder where the famous sights of Rio are  – Cristo Redentor, Sugarloaf, the beaches. There are many images of them, and they ARE spectacular, but in this cidade linda (beautiful city), even the everyday and the decayed catch your eye.

One Rio institution which has resisted change is the Bar Luiz. Founded in 1887, the original building is more or less intact – only the name and the address have changed, resisting war, demolition, and renovation. (See its history at

A long day of sight-seeing draws to a memorable close in these surroundings. When we dined there, the waiter told us that the original off-white geometric floor tiles were not replaced as planned, ‘because the customers wouldn’t hear of it’. It is said to serve “o melhor chope do Rio de Janeiro”, the best glass of beer in town. Saúde!

Rua da Carioca, 39, Centro

Saturday night in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro. The street market is in full swing, stalls everywhere in the grounds of a local institution (we never did discover what it was), high above the traffic of the street. On sale are handicrafts of all kinds – lace and embroidery, wooden, metal and ceramic ornaments, clothes of all kinds and for all ages, sweet and savoury food, and above the terraced gardens where the stalls are pitched, a rudimentary bar in a large room. And visual artists.

Paintings are regularly on sale in street markets in Brasil, testifying to the strong visual sense of the Brasilian culture. In Praca Republica in Sao Paulo on Sundays, here in Santa Teresa in Rio, in Praca Benedicto Calixto on Saturdays in Sao Paulo, fine artists, amateurs and decorators jostle to attract the eye. We stop at a pitch on the corner of a terrace, occupied by Edson Louzada.

Edson Louzada’s calling card

A genial presence with curly white hair, he appreciates our attention and talks freely about his work. Pop artists – Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake – are clearly his artistic forebears. He’s a Paulistano retired from advertising to paint, and to enjoy the Rio lifestyle. Many of his works are homages to the Warhol full-face portrait, executed in the large-scale comic-book style which Lichtenstein popularised. Warhol’s portraits had a tongue-in-cheek element – photo-booth portraits, and large daubs of bright silk-screened colour, to accentuate the ‘famous for fifteen minutes’ style of his clients. In Brasil the celebrity portrait has reverted to iconic status, and Louzada’s work fits the bill. He needs to sell.

Something else attracts my eye. He has used another kind of icon. The statue of Cristo Redentor, “the world’s largest Art Deco statue”, is floating in a field of mixed-media images. Postcards, newspapers, tourist snaps and scraps of musical score draw your attention to and fro, skimming over a comic-book Cristo which both embraces and shrugs at Rio life – the hillside favelas and the richly-stuccoed ceilings of the ancien regime, the coastline lights twinkling against the silhouette of the Sugarloaf, the smooth young limbs of carnaval dancers and the handguns of youth crime (POW! really does mean POW!), yellow Santa Teresa trams and black-and-white pavements,  futebol  and  choro  music.

“Corcovado”, tecnica mista, Edson Louzada, 2012

Fraud, dengue fever, politics, violence and pacification are yesterday’s news aging on fading newsprint. You may take Cristo’s gesture for a fatalistic ‘whatever’ raising of hands except that, in best comic-book tradition, top right a bright yellow aeroplane flys a banner the colours of the Brasil flag proclaiming “Basta de Corrupção!!! “Enough corruption!” Again, an artistic style which has come and gone in the West is reinvigorated in Brasil. Pop art, murals and graffiti, jazz, soap opera – they breathe new life in the Southern hemisphere.

When you ask someone here “How are you?” they reply not with a British “Not too bad” but with a Brasilian “Tudo otimo!” “Everything’s grand!” Given the optimistic energy of Brasil, perhaps they will be able to address the problem of political ethics with new vigour.

P.S. Edson Louzada can be reached at Every Saturday and Sunday evening between 6 and midnight he is at the Avenida Atlântica market on the central reservation – the calçadão – on the beachfront in Copacabana in Rio. He’s at posto de salvamento 5, opposite Rua Sá Ferreira.

Brasil is hip. Time Out London publishes a Sao Paulo edition, Macy’s New York has a Brazilian month, Rock in Rio and now ArtRio are international hits , the Forbes September 10 cover girl for a feature on “The 100 Most Powerful Women” is Brasil’s Presidenta Dilma Rousseff. It is time for Brazil to be discovered. Again.

The Impressionist view of Santa Teresa

We Flew Down to Rio and danced The Carioca in 1933. Peggy Lee sang “Caramba! It’s the Samba” in 1948. We sighed over The Girl From Ipanema in Astrud Gilberto’s accented English in 1963. US New Wave singer David Byrne produced a number of Brazilian music compilations – 1989’s O Samba is very good. It’s no accident that we know Brasil through the music of this most musical of nations.

Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, opened 1909, restored 2010

In reality, Brasil has always developed independently and prolifically. The Rio de Janeiro of the 1920s and 1930s rivalled Paris and London for sophistication, with broad boulevards, grand architecture, modern art (see Semana de Arte Moderna )

Exhibition curated by Mário de Andrade and the Group of Five, image by Emiliano di Cavalcanti

and the disposable income which made it possible, in the time of the ‘café com leite’ political settlement of coffee barons and cattle ranchers.

In the old capital Rio, Time Out tells us that “the more adventurous tourists” make their way up the hill to Santa Teresa. Rio is full of such hills, from the morro do Corcovado (Hunchback Hill) on which Cristo Redentor stretches out his arms, to the lesser-known hills which are home to the favelas – originally meaning villages – where Rio’s poor find a place to live. As in Wales, you move down to the better locations as soon as you can.

The view enjoyed from Cristo Redentor

When you take the 014 bus from Centro up the cobbled hill to the Santa Teresa neighbourhood, the ride is exciting – you feel the tyres scrabble for purchase as they slide across the granite setts. The bright yellow trams which were a distinctive feature of the area are being renovated … or has the service been withdrawn because of a fatal accident in 2011? Probably both, if the usual Brasilian story prevails. Expert at making a virtue of necessity, they are proud of their ability to find a way through (um jeitinho). And are the trams really called bondes because when they were introduced they advertised the attractions of European war bonds?

Prosperous from the foot of the hill

You look down on landmarks such as the tent-like canopy of the Catedral de São Sebastião as you ascend.

Downtown from uptown

Amid the mix of crumbling infrastructure and abundant natural growth, you notice something else.

The call of nature must be obeyed

As well as the usual Brasilian signs of enterprise – a dress-maker displaying her wares in a villa window –

Not just dummies

you see that this has been a prosperous suburb for many decades. The 1910s Art Nouveau villas are examples of their type just as beautiful as in Paris, Brussels, Palma or Montevideo.

Villa, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

Yes, there are trendy restaurants, and more established places too.

Interior of the excellent Bar do Mineiro, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

And the smart money is already here – properties are being bought and renovated, no doubt with the World Cup and the Olympic Games firmly in mind. When I took a closer look at the beautifully cast brass of this Art Nouveau door furniture, the jobbing builders came out to enquire what it was I wanted.

Door handle, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

Even the graffiti seem to have a delicate spiralling beauty, compared with the directness of the work you see in Centro. Poets come and sell their self-published work while you are out at dinner. The Saturday evening street market boasts as many fine art painters as crafts stalls.

Santa Teresa mural art, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Teresa has been a Bohemian artistic retreat for many years, a heritage of which the locals are rightly proud. How comfortably it sits alongside the neighbouring favela I could not be sure on my first visit. Sitting on the terrace of the bed-and-breakfast villa overlooking the pool, watching a troop of monkeys scamper along the roof ridge, swing into the garden trees and on up the street, I could not help but decide on a return visit to the beautiful city of which Santa Teresa offers such an alluring prospect. I’m sure I am simply the latest in a long line of admirers.

View from the terrace of the comfortable Villa Laurinda, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

Bourbon Street, the purpose-built Sao Paulo jazz club named for the street in New Orleans, calls one of its cocktails a Hurricane. Reason enough for it to be empty, but this Thursday holiday evening it was so empty that the upstairs balconies were closed. Sao Paulo is ‘travelling’, fleeing the metropolis for more scenic points – on the beach at the coast, in the mountains in the interior, to the attractions of Rio, anywhere but in the metropolis, which those who are not Paulistanos say drives them crazy. So who was there last night?

Entrance to Bourbon Street Moema, Sao Paulo

The club is a large dimly-lit auditorium, with tables on two levels on the ground floor, a dance floor in front, and upper balconies curving around both sides, supported by slim cast-iron pillars. At the back is a bar, at the front a deep stage, lit from behind through glass brickwork set into the curved back wall. A DJ plies his trade from a balcony. Lighting and sound, played a little too loud as usual, are modern and high-quality. The venue is both public and intimate

Directed to a table under the watchful portrait of Ray Charles, we sat following the patrons dancing to a Brasilian soundtrack. The lively crowd took to the floor readily, more so when Orquestra SAGA arrived They’re a biggish band dedicted to playing Brasilian dance hall (gafieira) music, fronted by Gabriel Moura, son of musician Paulo Moura (for more on Paulo Moura see ). The band is well-connected with previous generations of Brasilian musicians, playing with some of the most famous – singer Seu Jorge, percussionist Wilson das Neves, singer Fabiana Cozza, trombonist Itacyr Bocato. The name of the band? Sociedade Amigos de Gafieira.

Interior Bourbon Street Moema

The couples danced well, the women waiting to be asked by the men and occasionally dancing alone, the men squiring their partners expertly around the spacious dance floor. Many of the dancers knew each other well, perhaps belonged to a club (SAGA?), we concluded, attracted by the gafieira soundtrack. But others in the audience danced just as willingly and as well, and here too, more women than men. All ages, shapes and sizes, some of the men wearing hats inside, in the current fashion, even while dancing. Older men generally were neatly dressed down, the younger ones favouring a more working class look – jeans, and white Tshirts under open checked shirts, or perhaps a striped polo shirt. The hats may be in homage to the SAGA brand – panama hat and co-respondent shoes, though I didn’t spot the shoes.

Orquestra SAGA vocaliste Flávia Menezes

Women, on the other hand, had taken the opportunity to dress up – keyhole dresses, or off the shoulder, with laced-up backs, big hair, some also sporting impossibly high heels even for walking, let alone dancing. None more glamorous than the Orquestra’s singer, whose dress was an alluring confection of dark rose pink, the banded satin serving both to reveal and to conceal in the time-honoured way. Her singing partner Moura – fawn hat over his dreadlocks, ‘unstructured’ buttoned jacket and tie – clearly favoured the working class look.

The music and dancing both excellent, there was an infectious warmth about the occasion which made you wish for more of the same, not just as a ‘preservation’ event but as a regular night out, not only booked for a night when the bar was likely to be otherwise empty, but as popular as in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1930s in which gafieira arose.

House band at Estudantina in Rio de Janeiro, where the gafieira revival began in the 1980s

The Brasilian Museum of Naive Art in Rio de Janeiro is an overlooked little treasure house at the foot of the hill – Corcovado – on which the statue of Cristo Redentor stands with its arms spread wide. A pleasant villa beside the rack rail tram terminal for the journey to go up Corcovado, it sees a tiny fraction of the visitors to the statue. But it is very much worth a look.

Tiled veranda floor, Museu Internacional de Arte Naif do Brasil

To be sure, Corcovado is a visual delight. You can see why Tom Jobim’s jazz standard  spotlights it. The views of Rio from its heights are breathtaking.

Rio de Janeiro at the feet of Cristo Redentor: “Que lindo … “

Rio’s natural setting and its flora and fauna are memorable.

On the steps to the Corcovado summit

Monkeys in residence in an abandoned hotel on the way to Corcovado summit

The paintings in the museum, though not always well lit, are a fascinating international cross-section of naive art.

The British representative work

They range from works which take their cue from the high art tradition

Married (casada) Couple

to more lyrically abstract pieces,

Iracema Arditi, Azulzinho (Little Blue),1972

from the documentary

The Australian contribution

to the quirkily poetic.

Eve Vic, Suriname, Cuidade com a cobra (Beware of the Snake)

But whether they portray animals or people, at work

Market, Kenya, 1996

or at play,

House band at Estudantina – not playing musica Brasileira the night we visited

they do what all good art can do:

View of Rio, detail

they transform the way you see. Truly worth a look, if you’ve already made the journey to or from Corcovado’s more well-known art work.

World’s largest Art Deco sculpture

Life imitates art. Tourists photograph themselves in the same pose at the summit

Lunch at the Bar da Dona Onça on the ground floor of the iconic Copan building in Sao Paulo Centro. Being Saturday, lunch is feijoada, a black bean stew with various cuts of pork – rib, sausage, crackling, ear – and traditional accompaniments like farofa (toasted manioc flour to sprinkle on top), rice and pickles, as well as more unusual accompaniments like banana, mild chili and orange segments, which work well with the heavy fatty cuts of pork. The decor is a stab at period edgy (not original) which works quite well.

Interior of Bar da Dona Onca

But the star of the show is the Copan building, which you see as you approach through traffic, a wave in a sea of rectangles. It’s a huge edifice, 30 storeys at least, with room for 5,000 residents in apartments of various shapes and sizes. Undergoing refurbishment, it’s a recognised architectural landmark by a world-class architect – Oscar Niemeyer – though I have some sympathy with the Paulistano view that “like everything he did, it’s good for taking pictures, but lousy to live in.” (Regina Rheda)

The Copan Building by Oscar Niemeyer from street level

The district around it is full of architectural interest, from the circular tower of the ex-Hilton Hotel …

A hotel, once

… to detailing like this op-art tiling on the alley-way entrance of a neighbouring building.

Down the alley to the neighbours

But the Niemeyer is the Oscar-winning star turn. Gradually abandoned as a central business district and prime residential address in the 1960s, in favour of Avenida Paulista for business and the Jardims for home, it still has the presence to impress, like the Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói in Rio de Janeiro.

Beautiful setting, startling space-age building, Niteroi

That building looks striking, but it doesn’t work well as a museum – awkward entrance, especially when raining, an exterior gallery with blinding reflected light over the water, and artificially-lit gloom in the circular interior – and you ask yourself what the sinuous shape of the Copan means for the internals of its apartments. This is bravura architecture, playing to the strong visual sense of the Brasilian culture, and able to be railroaded through without the hindrance of the cautious UK planning system. Here, function follows form. It says something for the aesthetic sense of Brasil’s elite – not to mention their social awareness – that these are iconic buildings. It’s undeniably and impressively beautiful, and a welcome change from the rectangular.

A hulking beauty

It makes a thought-provoking comparison with what was built 25 years later in Rotterdam: striking and futurisitic, but on a smaller scale, and reportedly more user-friendly. What can Brasil do in the same vein? The next few decades will be interesting …

Architect Piet Blom’s tree houses, 1982

The art of graffiti is in rude health in Brasil, certainly in its two main cities. Nothing like an exhaustive survey follows, just a few snapshots, but the variety is astounding, as is the quality. Free street art has never looked so good!

Sometimes you just glimpse it from the car as you go past …

… and sometimes it’s built to the same scale as the skyscrapers.

Sometimes the image uses its architectural setting …

… or the setting can simply provide a bare surface …

… whether buildings or street furniture …

… or simply a wall. A cartoon style predominates, but …

… artists also use complex visual textures, and play with the setting’s colours.

P.S. Here’s the same wall five months later. Same spidery line, same integration with surrounding colour. Subject: Christmas tree?

Near Largo da Batata, December 2012

Near Largo da Batata, December 2012

This excellent piece on Rua Riacheulo in Rio uses an effective mix of styles …

… while this one in Rio’s Santa Teresa sticks with simpler graphics, and ignores setting.

Even at night under artificial light …

… and perhaps being a group effort …

… (reading right to left) …

… the impact is memorable.

It may have been there a long time but …

… when you go past again, it’s worth another look.

The malandro or bad boy is a recurring figure in Brasilian culture, an anti-hero who lives by his wits, on the edge of the law. His standard costume is a white suit, collar and tie, and white Panama – ironic, and smart. Here he is in Rio street art near the Arcos viaduct – which you can see in the painted background – wearing a sardonic grin.

Malandro, Arcos, Rio centro

Malandro, up close

And here he is in the Museu Internacional de Arte Naif do Brasil, at play in the carnaval.

Carnaval malandro

In this photo on the back of David Byrne’s excellent O Samba compilation (Luaka Bop / Sire 9 26019 – 2, H Armstrong Roberts Inc) he’s a singer. I haven’t seen him in Sao Paulo yet …

Singer, O Samba (Luaka Bop 9 26019-2) back cover

Samba composer and carioca da gema Noel Rosa pursued the lifestyle and feted the role in his work. There’s a sweet side to this character – listen to a Rosa choro (Ione Papas, Ione por Noel, Dabliu Discos DB 0084) Choro mp3 and I can’t help but smile – though the illegality has a darker side, of course. How much of this bad behaviour (malandragem) and the related ducking and diving (jeitinho) is in response to the corruption in Brasilian society to which everyone alludes? Or IS it the corruption?

Updates on the changes occurring in Rio for the Games and the Cup at Julia Michaels’ blog give you reason to hope – she’s an American carioca with an axe to grind about it.

Keeps turning up in Brasil, the goddess of the sea; here she is as a mermaid in the Museu Internacional de Arte Naif in Rio, at the foot of Corcovado, where Cristo Redentor above spreads his arms wide.

Mermaid, papier mache, Museu Internacional da Arte Naif, Rio

Inside the Cristo Redentor statue, a shrine to Nossa Senhora Aparecida, patronne of Brasil, expectant mothers, newborn children, gold, honey, beauty, rivers and … the sea.

Banner, Restaurante Sobrenatural

And here she is (twice) in the excellent Rio fish restaurant Restaurante Sobrenatural.

Shrine to Iemanja, Restaurante Sobrenatural

Altar, exhibition on Mario Andrade, Museu Afro-Brasil, Sao Paulo

Blog followers may recall that she turned up at the Sao Paulo exhibition about Mario Andrade in a previous post.

%d bloggers like this: