Harlem to Copacabana: Living in the Americas, Dec.30 to Jan. 2

When it comes to the theater of daily life, Brazilians may be to other Americans as James Brown was to other singers. They put on a show that would be damned hard to beat.

I’d seen James Brown play for the first time about four years ago at a Washington rock station’s Christmas concert, which featured performers young enough to be his son or grandsons. Brown blew them away. Other singers stood with their guitars and sang songs with complaints. James Brown danced and entertained. My then boyfriend, now husband David and I caught two more of his shows after that.

We went to see people waiting to pay respects to James Brown before we left for Brazil in December. The Apollo Theater on Harlem’s 125th Street held a wake for him. The line to pay respects stretched for blocks to the east and west of the Apollo.

Brazilian Innovation

The religious scenes played on Copacabana beach on New Year’s Eve were a little like a James Brown show– an intense celebration of the things that are important, love, passion and good wishes. Brazil has a religion called candomble, which mixes European and African traditions with homegrown Brazilian innovations.

Different groups set up little squares on the beach, roped off sections abut a third the size of basketball courts. The leaders of the ceremonies dressed in white. Drummers played. People waited in line for their meetings with the religious leaders, who blew cigar smoke on them, waved their hands over them and then hugged them before sending the visitors on their way.
People set up circles of candles in the sand.

There was live music from a stage including swing numbers and “New York. New York.” We walked over to the more glamorous Ipanema neighborhood and then back to Copacabana. There were people who had set up tents or the beach for groups. Parents walked with children. Groups of teenagers, well behaved and laughing, traveled across the beach.

Copacabana is lined with high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. Most of the rooms in them were lit for par ties. A hotel had a stories-long clock counting down the final hours and minutes of 2006. People gathered at the water as midnight approached. The crowd stayed even though bits of drizzle. The fireworks went on for more than 10 minutes, exploding above a beach filled with people carrying umbrellas. Brazilians jump in the ocean on New Year’s Eve and throw flowers. It’s an honor to the goddess of the sea, Yemanja (Yeah-man-jah), another figure from African religion who has thrived in Brazil David and I joined in. We jumped in the waves, going in a bit above our knees.

`Launch’ Counters

People in Rio smile much bigger than they do in the U.S. as a rule. They can be talking at a lunch counter and they have broad relaxed smiles like people in the U.S. have after a day at the beach. David and I quickly learned there were our best bets for eating during the day were Rio’s “launch” counters, little restaurants where you sit at the counter or at tables outside. More formal restaurants charge $10 to $15 for pasta and chicken dishes. For about $8 or less, we’d sit at the counter and get two sandwiches and icy juices. The meat served ranged from tasty to tough. The bread was always good, rolls similar to French bread.

Our favorite juice was acai, a rich purplish berry with ice like a thick sorbet. The people working at the counter give out spoons for people to use for the acai. We had two good dinners in Rio, both at a place near our hotel called Nova Capela, which is where we are eating in these pictures. On our first night in Rio, we ordered there what seemed to us two pricey dinners. We learned that each plate had more than enough food for two. The restaurant reminded us of Ralph’s in Philadelphia, a place with acceptable decor that puts most of its efforts into the food. On our last visit, we split a veal stew with potatoes I still remember. They were full of a rich flavor, unlike the ones I usually find at home.

Nightlife in Lapa

Our hotel was near the center of Rio, a short ride on the city´s subway from the beach. We worried that the area might be a little dicey at night.
We tried on our first afternoon in Rio to plot a well lit route through the area, called Lapa, so we could visit one of the local music clubs. That turned out not to be necessary at all. The streets filled at night. David and I would have a predinner drink at this little place, Carlito’s, and look out on an aqueduct and the street scene.

After dinner, we wound up a club charging a cover of about $7 for a good band playing Brazilian music. The club had good paintings in a folk style on the walls. Teenagers, in couples and groups, shared the dance floor with people old enough to be their parents and even grandparents. This was another time I was reminded of James Brown. It’s unusual to see people of all ages mixing at shows in the U.S.


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