A Taste of Brazil in New York

ArticleBruce ChadwickComment

One of the most memorable and delightful parts of Brazilian culture is its rich and distinctive musical tradition. Rhythms from Africa blend with more lyrical styles from Iberia and Southern Europe to create a delicious delightful mix of sound and sensuality that is loved all over the world. Foreign tourists who visit Brazil return to it over and over again, nostalgic for its rhythm and sway. Similarly, Brazilians living abroad often seek to connect with each other over the sounds and dances of home.

Brazil, of course, is most famous for samba, the quintessential rhythm of Carnaval. But Brazil is much more than samba. There are dozens of other musical styles that compete for one’s ear:  Bossa-nova, the mixture of a samba rhythm with jazz-like sensibility; Forró, a country dance from the northeast; Chorinho, a more classical instrumental style capturing laments of love and travellers longing for home; Funk, a Brazilian answer to rap that draws in elements from the 1970s funk movement in the US. On top of this, Brazil also sports its own styles of rock and pop music (MPB – Música Popular Brasileira), which tend to be less machine-produced and formulaic than US pop styles.

An international city like New York is wonderful because it provides the opportunity to experience the music and ambiance of a Brazilian night without having to endure an actual nine-hour flight. Here in New York, there are two main ways to enjoy a taste of Brazilian music: for one, there are a number Brazilian restaurants that host Brazilian bands for entertainment; alternately, many non-Brazilian locales sport a” Brazilian night” for those needing their Brazilian music fix.

Another way to enjoy the music is to follow the many local Brazilian bands and singers that play around town. And, of course, New York attracts some of Brazil’s biggest talents—Ivete Sangalo, Roberto Carlos, Daniela Mercury, for example—when they travel and tour abroad.

Restaurant options have the advantage of complementing musical fare with Brazilian food and can make the feel of the meal that much richer and complete. One reason Brazilians are loved around the world is that they prize the ability to enjoy life on many levels, and food is no exception. In New York, these restaurants are typically delicious and enjoyable, but one generally does have to pay for the experience. While the prices are not necessarily excessive for the quality of the food and entertainment, these places can be hard to do on the cheap.

Both Churrascaria Plataforma and its sister restaurant Churrascaria Tribeca have large spaces and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. It isn’t necessary to order a full meal to enjoy the music, since it can be appreciated equally from the restaurant’s bar. On restaurant row, restaurant Brazil Brazil has music every evening Wednesday through Sunday, while Via Brasil, on 46th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue, generally has live music on Saturday nights.

Restaurants generally go with the bossa nova genre, perhaps with a little bit of traditional samba and MPB sprinkled in. This is in part because bossa nova’s close relation to classical jazz just fits a New York/Brazil fusion. Bossa and light MPB also work better in most restaurants, as they can fade into background music when necessary and won’t drown out customers’ dinner table conversations.

Miss Favela restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and S.O.B.’s restaurant/nightclub in Manhattan’s West Village are two places that don’t worry about customer conversations and just let the music get loud. These places can be great fun for those who want to dance. It isn’t uncommon to find people dancing between tables and up close to the musicians. S.O.B.’s has a long tradition in New York, as well as music every night of the week. However, one does need to check the schedule if you want a Brazilian night, as S.O.B.’s features other Latin and African rhythms. Saturday, however, is typically Brazilian, and Sunday offers a bossa nova brunch.

Miss Favela in Williamsburg is more consistently Brazilian and attempts (successfully) to create the look and feel of a Brazilian “boteco,” or neighborhood bar. The food is tasty and the drinks are strong, though the prices—while not astronomical—are certainly not suitable for a Brazilian favela. The music is very authentic and it can be hard to navigate around when everyone is up and dancing; it’s usually just easiest to join in. Samba and Forró dominate here, with live music on the weekends and sometimes on weekdays too. Note to partygoers: Miss Favela does not accept credit cards, although there is an ATM in the back.

Brazilian nights in non-Brazilian venues can be equally satisfying. The Zinc Bar on 3rd street, just south of Washington Square Park, is one of my favorites. On Saturdays, Marianni Ebert sings her sultry bossa-jazz fusion in the relaxed and comfortable bar, spiced up with bits of samba, forró and baião. On Sundays, Cidinho Texeira follows up with some of his more modern Brazilian Jazz.

The Caulfield, on 27th Street between Park and Lexington, looks like any ordinary bar and eatery but every Sunday night it hosts live forró music and dancing. Violinist Eliano Braz and vocalist Liliane Araujo play infectious rhythms that can make one seriously ponder the attractions of settling down with a spouse and raising seven-to-nine children out on the Brazilian sertão (Brazil’s semi-arid countryside in the northeast). On crowded nights, it can be challenging to maneuver among all the whirling “forrozeiros,” but it is fun to watch, whether or not you decide to jump into the fray. Forró’s steps loosely resemble a mixture of salsa and swing, but with a rhythm all of its own. And for those who thought the triangle was a musical instrument reserved for kindergarteners, forró musicians will open your eyes. While the live music at the Caulfield  tends to be Forró, visitors also get a mix of samba and MPB during band breaks.

In the Village, Café Wha on McDougal Street still has a Brazilian Night every Monday, where Carlos Darci and his “Brazooka Band” have played with special guests after 10pm for years.  Increasingly, Café Wha has billed the music as forró, but there has always been a healthy mix of MPB and samba. Given that Tuesday is a workday, it can be surprising how full the aisles are with dancers and just how late the party can go.

For New Yorkers wanting to learn to dance forró, samba, and the partner form of samba, known as samba de gafiera  (occasionally called “brazilian tango”), Marizete Browne and her school at have become a prominent fixture in New York’s Brazilian community, teaching Brazilian music and dance and creating a positive and accepting group for both Brazilians and foreign Brazilophiles. Moreover, Samba and forró dancing are excellent calorie burners. And, accompanied by happy music and life-affirming people, they can be excellent antidotes to the challenges of shorter days and cooler weather in winter.

Everyone needs to spend some time in Brazil at some point in their life in order to put themselves in touch with sheer joy of being alive. But for those of us in New York who are impatient and can’t quite manage to pack up and go tomorrow, there are at least some options for music, dance, and food that can keep us going until the opportunity arrives.

Illustration by Julio Granados.