Considered the most traditional of the Afro-Brazilian sounds, samba and its unmistakeable rhythms may be fixed in the ears of outsiders as the soundtrack to Rio de Janeiro and its spectacular Carnival. But São Paulo, too, has strong samba roots, with scores of sambistas documenting the transformation of São Paulo from the provincial town of the early 20th century into the thriving metropolis of today through their lyrics.
In the genre's early days, sambas laid bare the day-to-day lives of the city's inhabitants, from the newly freed slaves to the working-class European immigrants. 'Samba was always a loudspeaker for the oppressed,' proclaims Osvaldinho da Cuíca, composer, musician and one of the biggest names in the São Paulo samba scene (read our interview with Osvaldinho da Cuíca).
Over the decades, the sounds of traditional samba have evolved into a complex web of offshoot and related genres that range from choro, gafieira, bossa nova and samba rock to pagode comercial. Whatever the style, there's no shortage of places in São Paulo to get better acquainted with samba, preferably with a caipirinha in hand and – if it's a Saturday – the traditional accompaniment of a hearty plate of feijoada (pork-and-bean stew).
From old-school samba spots downtown to nightclubs in Vila Madalena and Pinheiros where samba beats pack out the dancefloors until the early hours, and further out to candelit samba gatherings in the city's working-class communities, we've brought you the best spots to plug into live samba, São Paulo style.
Bar Brahma and Brahminha
Avenida São João 677, República (3367 3601/ barbrahmasp.com)
One of São Paulo’s best-known live music clubs, Bar Brahma's interior has a somewhat faded charm. On Saturday nights, check out Brahminha, a more intimate space connected to Bar Brahma, though with its own street entrance at Avenida Ipiranga 787. Read more on Bar Brahma
Bar Você Vai se Quiser
Rua João Guimarães Rosa 241, Consolação (3129 4550/ facebook.com/barvocevaisequiser)
This samba stronghold, not far from the newly rebuilt Praça Roosevelt, helped keep the spotlight on the downtown square throughout many years of neglect. The bar opens on Friday nights, or on Saturdays from 1pm, when you can also tuck into a generous plate of feijoada. Read more on Bar Você Vai se Quiser
Cachaçaria do Rancho
Praça Dom José Gaspar 86, República (3259 7959)
This spot in the centre of town serves feijoada on Saturdays to accompany the live pagode – a subgenre of samba – played by local group Chama Nóis. Cachaça completes the scene, with over 1,000 varieties to try from. Read more on Cachaçaria do Rancho
Rua General Osório 46, República (3221 8477)
This downtown musical instrument store comes into its own on Saturdays when a half-dozen or so musicians, usually sitting in a circle at crowd level, play samba and chorinho, in an intimate, up-close-and-personal format. Read more on Contemporânea
Samba in Vila Madalena and Pinheiros
Rua Mourato Coelho 1272, Vila Madalena (3031 8927/ faveladavila.com.br)
This Vila Madalena samba club only opens on Fridays and at the weekends. The crowds pack out the dance floor, and Sunday nights can reach fever pitch when the all-female group – drummer aside – Samba de Rainha, plays a perfect-storm mash-up of musical genres. Read more on Bar Favela
Grazie a Dio!
Rua Girassol 67, Vila Madalena (3031 6568/ grazieadio.com.br)
This Vila Madalena club is renowned for its live samba but also devotes much of its schedule to MPB and the more playful samba-rock, an offshoot of samba that is danced in pairs. Take a back seat over a bite to eat, or dive straight in on the dance floor. Read more on Grazie a Dio!
Ó do Borogodó
Rua Horácio Lane 21, Pinheiros (3814 4087/ facebook.com/pages/ó-do-borogodo/)
Arrive early at this no-frills space where the queues can get big and the caipirinha-toting crowd don’t seem to mind bumping up against each other as they dance to the band’s samba sessions. A good way to warm up to a Saturday night samba session at Ó do Borogodó is with the afternoon chorinho played by veteran musicians at the nearby Praça Benedito Calixto flea market, followed by a tipple or two at one of the square's bars.
Off the beaten track samba
Away from the spotlight, samba plays an important part in bringing local communities together, particularly in some of its poorer areas. For the more adventurous visitors, a trip out to one of these samba spots can be a chance to see a less manicured side of the city, and will be made all the easier if you speak Portuguese.
Pagode da 27
Rua Manuel Guilherme dos Reis, Grajaú (pagodeda27.com)
On Sunday afternoons, in Grajaú, in the south of the city, a group of musicians called Pagode da 27 present their own compositions at an unpretentious local gathering. The crowds pick up beers and deep-fried snacks from stalls outside. Read more on Pagode da 27
Samba da Vela
Praça Francisco Ferreira Lopes 434, Santo Amaro (3106 8569/ sambadavela.org.br)
A hotspot for new samba composers, Samba da Vela is hosted on Monday nights in a cultural centre in the south of the city. A candle is lit at the beginning of the session, which continues until the candle burns out. Read more on Samba da Vela
Vila do Samba
Rua João Rudge 340, Casa Verde (3858 6641/ viladosamba.com.br)
One of the city's most frequented samba spots, this place is located in the Zona Norte – the spiritual home of São Paulo samba – and is kitted out to resemble a traditional samba school headquarters. Read more on Vila do Samba