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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: Carnival season is wrapping up on this Fat Tuesday and in Rio de Janeiro, Carnival means a massive party with flashy parades, floats and, of course, Brazil's own music, samba, formed by teams of hundreds of people marching in formation and competing for top honors. We're listening to the winning song from last year's Carnival.


BLOCK: Music critic Tom Moon was recently in Brazil to watch those teams, samba schools, they're called, rehearse for their big moment in the sambadrome. But he also spent time seeking out smaller, more intimate samba groups and he joins me now to talk about what he heard. Hey, Tom. Welcome back.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: And is this true? You actually had to buy another suitcase to fit all the CDs that you bought in Brazil and bring them back so that you can play them for us?

MOON: Yes. I had the panic when I was out at some of these shows that this is not going to be on Spotify. I'm not going to be able to find this in the U.S. so I would buy one and that turned into 10 and so I bought a little suitcase.

BLOCK: Well, you were exploring what you call a parallel samba universe, very different from the samba we might see on TV during Rio's Carnival. And we're listening to an example of this parallel universe right now.


BLOCK: I love the sound. Sounds great.

MOON: Yeah, it's five or six musicians. They're usually sitting around a table playing facing each other. The various names for this is samba de roda, which means samba wheel, and that refers to everyone being able to sort of see each other. There's a lot of eye contact. But it's also called root samba or samba popular. When I first heard this artist, his name is Ivan Milanez, he's a drummer, he was playing in a small club and it had this very sort of informal feeling to it.

But as you can hear, everyone's locked into it and the drummers play very spare, but everything's just sort of perfect and precise. You know, if the samba schools are symphony orchestras, these root samba ensembles are like string quartets.


BLOCK: You know Tom, I'm thinking back to a reporting trip that I took to Brazil last fall and we went to hear street samba in a neighborhood of Rio. It was called the birthplace of samba, Pedra do Sal, and there were people of all ages and colors just packed into this tiny cobblestone plaza and stretching up these twisted streets, fantastic scene, great dancing. Were you finding that all around when you travelled around Brazil?

MOON: Yes. I went there and had the exact same experience. First, I couldn't believe how crowded it was. It's not set up for a lot of performance so this happens just in the middle of all this throng of people, you almost don't even see it. The thing that blew me away, like you said about the generational mix, you would have grandmothers there just gesturing wildly and dancing and then you'd also have little young kids and, you know, everywhere in between.

I went to this one weekly performance called the worker samba. Usually this stuff happens late at night. Like, in Pedra do Sal, you show up at 11:30 and it's just getting going, right.

BLOCK: And it goes all night, right.

MOON: But they do one in the north side of Rio called the worker samba where it happens - it starts at, like, 6:00 and you pay very little money, like $5. And when I went there, I heard this wonderful guitarist leaving a root samba band. His name is Moacyr Luz.


BLOCK: The idea is a samba for when you're done with your work day and you're going to kick back a little bit.

MOON: That's right. And it does have that multi-generational component, too. I mean, one drummer I talked to there said in Brazil, we get samba in the womb and I really believe that. It's like you would see toddlers on people's shoulders, they're dancing. This was a really eye-opening thing for me, to be able to see it outside of a normal club or late night setting.

BLOCK: It does also, Tom, speak to the notion that this is a really embedded tradition in families, a huge amount of pride attached to samba and to being part of that tradition.

MOON: That's right and it goes through generations. You see young drummers whose fathers played in samba schools and a lot of them will play both the huge groups and they'll also play in these sort of small groups. There's a real sense that this is the heart of samba in Rio, that the samba schools spectacle thing is for tourists and that this is something that's more rooted in the life of the people.

But it's interesting, these musicians don't consider themselves preservationists. They're doing something that they consider to be right now of the moment kind of work. And that's how it all sounds, even when they're playing music that was written in the 1950s. I heard the work of one of the great composers of samba, this guy named Cartola, who started writing in the '30s. His music was played a lot in the streets and let's hear a little bit of one of his tunes, a classic called "Alvorada."


BLOCK: You know, Tom, as great as it is to hear this recorded music, it's got to be just a pale imitation of how vibrant and wild and energetic it is to hear live samba music. But if you want to sort of transport yourself back to Brazil, put yourself on the beach there and imagine that feeling, what's the one song that you pull out from the CDs that you brought home?

MOON: The one thing that I kept coming back to was from Bahia, which is a state in the northern part of Brazil, and it's considered much more of the cradle of African influence in Brazil and so you get this, like, really open, much less fussy kind of samba from Bahia and this group just blew me away. They're called Samba (foreign language spoken) and they're not trained singers, you know.

They reminded me of this great quote from Michelle Schaap(ph). She said music is too important to be left to the professionals and when I heard these guys, I was like, yes, that's exactly it. It's just wild, frenzy and wonderful music.


BLOCK: Well, Tom, thanks for taking us on this trip to your parallel samba universe in Brazil.

MOON: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: That's our regular music critic, Tom Moon.

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