Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Janeiro in New York: The Mystery of Samba

Meet Marisa Monte, song-hunter. Though known as an international Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) star, Monte has wide-ranging interests in many forms of Brazilian music, most certainly including Samba. Indeed she displays an easy camaraderie with the senior statesmen of Samba affiliated with the Portele Samba School in Rio de Janeiro, while searching for classic unrecorded Sambas in The Mystery of Samba (trailer here), an official selection of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival which screens this Thursday at the 92 Y Tribeca as part of the Janeiro in New York film series.

As our guide to the musical legacy of Portela, Monte also gets valuable assists from samba stars Zeca Pagodinha and Paulinho da Viola, but she is the film’s primary contemporary voice, and for good reason given the warmth of her on-screen presence. Having a family connection to the school, she seems to establish immediate rapport with the veterans of Portela and in some cases their survivors. With a voice beautifully suited to the gentle impromptu a cappella duets she performs with her interview subjects, her interest in preserving these lost songs comes across as a completely genuine Alan Lomax-like impulse. Of course, it also gives her an opportunity to be the first to sing some very cool, previously unheard tunes.

Comparisons to the Buena Vista Social Club are probably inevitable with a film like this, but that is fair enough. Still, Rio’s Samba schools are themselves essentially music-based fraternal organizations, perhaps closer akin to the parading societies of New Orleans. Regardless, the old gentlemen of Samba show they can still get it done, with a party atmosphere pervading throughout Mystery. Most have roots both at the school and in the surrounding neighborhood going back decades. Seu Argemiro is a bit of an exception. Though of the same generation, he is relatively new to Portela, but fit right in when they heard his Sambas.

Directed by Carolina Jabor and Lula Buarque de Hollanda, Mystery is lovely to look at, capturing the charm and vibrancy of the surrounding Madureira neighborhood and the Portela School, with its blue and white colors. It is an elegant film, crafted with respect and affection. It screens the 92 Y Tribeca on Thursday (1/28).