Pricoli Filho must greet before he gets to the other side of the court at the Unidos do Peruche samba school. One is the mestre sala, or master of ceremonies, whose hand he will grasp. The other is the girl carrying the samba school’s official flag, the pavilhão, who he will kiss on the cheek. But he will first kiss the flag and press it to his forehead. ‘Samba is a passion and a tradition,’ Pricoli explains.
Pricoli is now on his third term as president of the Unidos do Peruche. It is one of the many deeply traditional schools in the city, and was founded in 1957 by sambistas tired of trekking downtown to play. For many paulistanos, the North side of the metropolis is a little-known outpost; but for aficionados, this is São Paulo’s musical heart. Welcome to the samba zone.
‘Rio de Janeiro had an earlier start in samba, but composers in São Paulo write beautiful songs. The tradition is strong,’ says São Paulo samba musician and composer Joãozinho Carnavalesco. Musically, samba is a fusion of African rhythms and European melodies that originated in Bahia, but exploded out of Rio in the early 20th century. Culturally, it’s deeply rooted in Afro-Brazilian traditions – and that’s why today samba is so strong in the Zona Norte. In the 20th century, São Paulo’s Afro-Brazilian community settled on cheap land near the River Tietê, near tributaries like the Mandaqui. Black culture has thrived on this side of the city ever since – and with it, samba.
‘The drumming was always strong around here, and so they decided to make something for themselves,’ says musician Marcelo Desidécio, or Cecéu, who lives in the Zona Norte bairro of Casa Verde. And today eight out of the biggest 22 schools in São Paulo’s Carnival are located in Zona Norte.
But Zona Norte isn’t only home to samba schools and musicians. There are also the afoxés – cultural societies linked to Afro-Brazilian religions like candomblé. Two afoxés open São Paulo’s Carnival and bless the avenue to ensure the good will of the orixás – African demi-gods. One is the Filhos da Coroa de Dadá, from Zona Norte, another is Iya Ominibu, run by Joãozinho Carnavalesco, who spends much of his time in Zona Norte. The introduction of afoxés to Carnival had a positive impact, says Joãozinho. ‘Since we started to do the parade, fights at the Carnival have stopped,’ he notes.
Afoxés stem from the traditions of black slaves, who took advantage of Carnival’s permissiveness in the 19th century to express their culture and beliefs. ‘We rescued this tradition in the 1980s,’ says Gilberto Ferreira, president of Filhos da Coroa de Dadá. Every year, 800 afoxé performers open São Paulo’s Carnival parades.
Today, as São Paulo looks enviously at Rio de Janeiro and the international reputation its samba schools and carnival enjoy, Zona Norte samba schools are investing in improving their ‘samba courts’ to encourage tourists, foreigners and Brazilians. There are clean bathrooms, cabins, pocket shows, and even valet parking and disabled access.
‘Zona Norte is a hotbed of sambistas, but it’s still not known for it,’ says Carlos de Almeida, the director of Tourism for the Independent League of Samba Schools (Turismo da Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba de São Paulo). ‘But I believe that one day we’ll be able to have a Carnival just as good as Rio de Janeiro, if we work hard.’
Musicians come from all over the city to play in the many North Zone samba bars. Cecéu, and other sambistas, such as Eduardo Joaquim, aka Dadinho, gather on Saturdays at the Bar do William to play together. Former musician William Lagatta opened his bar in his garage six years ago. ‘My youngest musician is 76 years old,’ says William proudly. ‘They come here to play freely, because they can’t do it anywhere else.’ It’s a simple joint, like many in the region, but popular with families who get a dose of samba and chorinho here, before heading off elsewhere.
Nearby is the bar Vila do Samba, where the musicians play as the crowd whirls and spins around them. This live ‘samba in the yard’ club pulls in 4-500 people on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for ‘roots samba’ – samba de raiz – accompanied by beer, feijoada or churrasco. Founded in 2006, Vila do Samba attracts artists like Leci Brandão, Sombrinha and Fundo de Quintal. Even on a Saturday afternoon, the crowd is well-dressed: the men look sharp, the women wear heels, and the dance moves are fast and furious. ‘It’s almost an obligation to play “roots samba” here, because we’re surrounded by samba schools, and they let us put their official flags on our walls,’ explains Victor Regoraci, one of the bar’s four owners, who circulate, chatting to clients.
Just a few blocks away is Casa da Bisa. Here the crowd prefers the more populist pagode offshoot of samba. Owner Paulo Kliamca brings in young musicians to play at Saturday’s feijoada and pagode sessions. The building still has its original 1950s façade, and its garden is shaded by fruit and loquat trees, and full of the scent of jasmine. Casa da Bisa closes around midnight. But like the rest of Zona Norte’s grassroots samba joints, Casa da Bisa brings something special to the North side. ‘People come from all over São Paulo,’ says Kliamca. ‘They like the homely feel of the house that used to be owned by my grandmother.’