Rio without samba simply wouldn't be Rio. It may have endured some steep peaks and troughs in popularity, but the genre is alive and kicking, as essential an ingredient as the sun and the sea. Carnival is its most obvious annual celebration, but it can be heard seeping out from streets and bars almost every night of the week, from the halls of Lapa to residential squares in any given neighbourhood and while to the newcomer it might appear that samba is everywhere, to get the most out of what there is on offer a certain selectiveness is well rewarded.
For authentic Brazilian sounds the first stop is Lapa, on the edge of Centro and marked by the iconic white arches of its ancient aquaduct. Thanks to the now-thriving music scene, the once down-and-out neighbourhood is again full of partygoers samba-ing to its pulsating beat every weekend. If you can't wait that long then get off to an earlier start with a visit to Carioca da Gema (Rua Mem de Sá 79, 21 2221 0043). Truly a gem any night of the week, the Thursday samba with local favourite Moyseis Marques is hard to beat and a great introduction to the sound.
While smaller clubs offering a roda de samba (where informal gatherings of musicians jam together, usually perched around a central table) line the streets, another of the Lapa heavyweights is Democráticos (Rua da Riachuelo 91-93, 21 2252 4611). The now-faded glamour of the ballroom inside is brought to life by truly expert dancers showing off their moves to the live bands holding both stage and crowd with the same effortless grace. Round the weekend off close to the famous arches in Semente (Rua Joaquim Silva 138, 21 2509 3591), with a Sunday samba courtesy of singer Elisa Addor, but bear in mind that given the club is about the size of a modest living room, the crowd outside is sometimes bigger than the throng inside.
Lapa may have easily the highest concentration of samba sounds at any chosen moment, but there are gems to be found elsewhere too. Bip Bip bar in Copacabana (Rua Almirante Gonçalves 50, 21 2267 9696) hosts samba nights on Sundays and Thursdays (if enough musicians show up), with the talented 'band' members occupying the only table in the tiny bar forcing the crowd out onto the pavement. The officious owner looks on, shouting down anyone who dares to talk while he strains to listen to his dear musicians, but while he certainly shouldn't be crossed, his bark is rather worse than his bite.
Quite possibly the most charming venue of them all, Trapiche Gamboa (Rua Sacadura Cabral 155, 21 2516 0868) is an old-style samba hall close to the docks in Centro, a temple to the Brazilian beat five nights a week and one of the last truly genuine and untouched of the music's abodes left in Rio. Its location close to Pedra do Sal (Rua Argemiro Bulcão 38, 21 9528 5060), the celebrated Monday night get-down, marks this corner of Centro as an important, if somewhat hard to reach, bastion of the sound.
A well-kept secret for those on a tight budget, free concerts featuring distinguished musicians are held at the nearby Centro Cultural Light (Avenida Mal Floriano 168, 21 2211 4515), in Centro, and even if it’s not carnival time, there are rehearsals at samba schools almost all year round that the public can attend where entry is reasonable and beer cheap. Mangueira (Rua Visconde de Niterói 1072, (21) 2567 4637) is one of the most popular, and welcomes non-locals with open arms as does Salgueiro (Rua Silva Telles 104, 21 2238 0389, but the majority are in the north of the city so sometimes a hefty taxi ride is required. At least a plate of feijoada will likely be awaiting you, just don't overload on the stew if you want to stay nimble enough to dance, or at least tap your feet along to the pounding drums.
When all is said and done, however, one of the simplest and most delightful ways to absorb the sound of the city is, as it was no doubt originally conceived, in the open city air on a balmy night. Head to Praça São Salvador in Laranjeiras from sundown on a Saturday (or during the day on most Sundays) and watch the square fill up with a diverse crowd of all ages dancing and drinking along to the local legends.