From the sky, the western hemisphere’s largest metropolis is relentlessly urban. Down on the ground it is dizzying in its density. Smog squats on a horizon jagged with high-rise towers and favelas. Traffic-filled avenues lined with vast mock-marble shopping malls veer off into tiny dark alleys. Prisons ringed with razor wire are strung along a 16-lane highway. São Paulo – or ‘Sampa ‘ as locals know it – is pretty much all concrete.
Jardins, the district where I am staying, provides a sort of refuge. The ‘gardens’ of its name are not entirely ironic and there are leafy avenues lined with intimate boutiques, perfume shops and salons. To shake off the long-haul hangover, I stop at a café aromatic with the smell of roasting beans and breakfast on a thick espresso, tangy orange juice and couple of tiny, cheesy doughy rolls called pão de queijo. This is rich, white, middle-class São Paulo – everyone looks like a model, shops in swanky malls, and tries very hard to be chic and European.
A São Paulo friend of mine, Brazilian musician Max de Castro, has given me a piece of advice: ‘To experience my city you have to know people...People here find out what’s happening through relationships.’ I decide to escape from Jardins and head out into the city.
Vila Madalena is the city’s village, its bohemian heart. Quirky, bright red clogs shaped like VW Beetles sit in the window at Ronaldo Fraga, alongside a tropicália of brightly coloured frocks. Neon-orange alleyways are covered in acres of bright, organic graffiti.
Small bars and live music venues are always the best places to meet the locals in Brazil. It’s the weekend and though it’s only 7pm, the streets are buzzing. I breeze through a venue called Ó do Borogodó where a septuagenarian samba band is playing; it has a great atmosphere but is too noisy for conversation. My next stop is an intimate little place called Tocador de Bolacha, where classic samba, bossa nova and rock discs adorn the walls. In the back room there’s a band playing chorinho – a kind of Brazilian ragtime – and the tables around me are lively with an eclectic crowd made up of people of all ages, from stoned students to swinging 60-year-olds.
I am adopted by a group of twentysomethings, including Mauricio, who tells me I need to hear – and dance to – some forró (pronounced ‘four whore’). So we leave for another venue, Bambu. It’s packed with a young, hippy crowd spilling out from the spit-and-sawdust bar area into the little tropical garden out back. But we go into the front room where a band beats out a kind of desert jig on accordion, triangle, guitar and booming zabumba drum. This is forró which, Maurício tells me, is Brazil’s most popular dance. His friend Paula grabs my hand and pulls me on to the dance floor. I bop from side to side and swirl with the rest while sticking as close to her as underwear.
Until a few years ago the neighbourhood of Consolação was home to rats, sleazy strip bars, streetwalkers and curb-crawlers. The streets are still an untidy mix of rundown shop fronts and go-go clubs with heavy-set bouncers at the door but now, alongside them, a jostle of hundreds of young Paulistanos down bottles of ice-cold Bohemia beer at rickety metal tables and makeshift street bars, before joining lines to enter fashionable bars, clubs and pounding venues. The longest is outside Studio SP – a concert hall reached through a little door off the neighbourhood’s main thoroughfare, Rua Augusta.
A series of acts whirr past in a fuzzy cachaça haze. A band called Trash Pour 4 offer bossa nova reworkings of kitsch classics such as Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’. Then come north-eastern Brazil group Mombojó, who thrash out energetic rap rock powered by piledriver maracatu rhythms. The crowd goes wild, and soon I’m sweating and heaving among them. Mombojó leave us with the anthemic punk post-samba tune ‘A Missa’ and everyone’s ushered into the humid street. It’s 3am. But the night is apparently not over. My crowd – or galera as they say in Brazil – confers in lilting Portuguese, and then turns to me. ‘You like samba?’ asks Maurício. ‘Sure,’ I say. A cab takes us to the Aldeia Turiassú ballroom, a warehouse-sized space with two 30-metre-long bars, fronted by a vast stage bathed in rich golden light and backlit in crimson.
As we arrive, everyone is clapping and jumping up and down in frantic anticipation of the band, Banda Glória, who begin to trickle nonchalantly on to the stage. Trombone, sax and trumpet, keyboards, drums, percussion, bass and guitar start to make idle chatter. Finally the singers emerge – an effortlessly Brazilian Curtis Mayfield with a wiry frame accompanied by a sultry looking beauty dressed in black. They strike up the most vigorous, funky samba I have ever heard. It’s a heaving pit of writhing bodies and soon I’m sweating litres of caiprinha.
As I return to my hotel the smoggy sun rises over the concrete and the gutter of a river I see from the cab – and another São Paulo wakes for work. There’s a continent of faces, hardly surprising in a country whose borders could contain Australia with space left over for France and Germany. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed suits in black saloons speed to offices even though it’s Saturday.
African-Brazilians from the north east pull hand-carts laden with recyclable cardboard and drinks cans. When my taxi stops at a red light an Amerindian tries to sell me a sarong stamped with the Brazilian flag – the iconic yellow sun on rainforest green, emblazoned with he motto: ‘Order and Progress’. Not in São Paulo, I think. Here it’s all about the unplanned ‘now’ – an eternal celebration of the present, lived joyously and to the full, with hardly a glance back at that monstrous urban sprawl.