By Harold Emert

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The average tourist or even new resident who believes Rio is merely a beach city with gals in bikinis and carnival is missing the caviar of local life: its rich culture.

But I guess cultural "caviar" is not for everyone's taste although with time it can be acquired and loved.
Cultural “caviar” is not for everyone’s taste although with time it can be acquired and loved.

From my perch in a tropical version of Miami in Manhattan (which is how I see my neighborhood of Copacabana), I run into almost every day busloads of tourists who make the routine schedule of getting to know Rio de Janeiro from Sugarloaf to Christ-on-the Mountain to the Hippie Fair to a quick tour of outlying Barra de Tijuca.

And then there is the weekly pack of wolves who sit at the same cafe on my block having an American breakfast as they google for or ogle the pretty gals and line up dates for an adventurous evening. The faces change weekly but their motivation is always the same: sexual tourism.

And to think just around the corner from their cafe is the still unfinished Museum of the Image and Sound which the municipality built to replace what was formerly a mating nightclub for one-night-stands called “Help”…

These tourist images come to mind because I find it so sad that visitors don’t often get to see, hear, or experience the part of this sometimes Marvelous City which I have come to love: its rich cultural life.

But I guess cultural “caviar” is not for everyone’s taste although with time it can be acquired and loved.

Philosophy on the Beach

I write this after attending a lecture on the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard at a kiosk on the Leme beach (opposite the Hilton hotel) on a lovely Saturday morning. The project “Filosofia na Praia” (Philosophy on the Beach) is celebrating its first year and Saturday’s lecture – not far from half-naked gals in bikinis sunning themselves, coconut juice vendors, and tall palm trees – drew a standing room audience of over sixty people.

Among the enthusiastic and attentive spectators were some of the elite members of Carioca society – a former ambassador, a retired judge, the head of a local cultural institution – as well as retired teachers, housewives, and perennial students like your correspondent.

I discovered Filosofia na Praia while taking a leisurely walk on the Leme beach boardwalk.

The locale is not too far from a statue of Ary Barroso (who wrote “Aquarela do Brasil”) and in the same tranquil Carioca neighborhood where one of the most famous Brazilian writers of the 20th century, Clarice Lispector, used to walk her beloved dog Ulysses or go sunbathing on the beach.

Past lectures on the beach have been about Clarice, Greek philosopher Socrates, and numerous other subjects which one would think would face empty chairs on sunny beach days. But the project continues to grow.

An observer can only hope that future lectures will include written transcripts in English, French, and/or Spanish for tourists.

Villa Lobos and Tom Jobim

Besides attending lectures on the beach philosophy in a city better known for Carnival, samba, and soccer, I believe that visitors and residents should be encouraged to visit the Villa Lobos Museum in Botafogo honoring Brazil’s most famous “erudite” composer.

And small but appropriate museum in Tom Jobim’s name adorns Rio’s Botanical Gardens grounds and is also worth a visit.

Visiting either site is like spending an hour or two with the musical geniuses. You get the chance to see Tom Jobim’s piano, Heitor Villa Lobos’ guitar, baton, even his cigar – and to browse through the manuscripts and historical photos of both composers.

Villa Lobos’ widow Mindinha (which translates to “pinky,” as in finger) managed a cubicle initially set up to honor Lobos at the Ministry of Education building in downtown Rio (projected by the great Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier) when I first came to Rio. She was a gracious and vivacious person who kept Lobos’ music alive with annual festivals and who greeted visitors with gifts of books and recordings of the genius’ compositions.

Eventually, a museum was built on Sorocaba street in Botafogo to justly honor one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

Considered second only to Villa Lobos, the memory of composer Francisco Mignone (1897- 1988) is still kept very much alive by another dedicated widow, Josefina Mignone, who is rumored to be 97 years young and still an active pianist.

The still unfinished Museum of the Image and Sound which the municipality built to replace what was formerly a mating nightclub for one-night-stands called "Help"...
The still unfinished Museum of the Image and Sound which the municipality built to replace what was formerly a mating nightclub for one-night-stands called “Help”…

She runs a small concert hall on the tenth floor of 774 Barata Ribeiro street in Copacabana (Cantagalo on the Metro) where free concerts are held every two weeks, always featuring Mignone’s works. A larger space and/or museum would be a worthy tribute to Mignone, a versatile composer of piano works, operas, ballets, and tone poems, whose musical creations were played by Richard Strauss, Toscanini, and Leonard Bernstein.

Speaking of music, are there many cities in the world which name their (international) airport after a popular composer (Tom Jobim) or various condominiums with the name of Heitor Villa Lobos, composer of the famous “Bachianas number 5” for soprano and cello orchestra? And let us not forget the many Brazilian buildings named after Picasso, Portinari, and even Chopin.

Musically, the city is also alive with almost daily free concerts at 12:30 pm with “Música no Museu,” headed by Sérgio Costa e Silva. The local wing of New York City’s Blue Note in the Lagoon area features local and international jazzman. And “choro” (literally “cry”) music is played Sunday mornings in the Flamengo area.

Visual arts

For tourists and residents with enthusiasm for the visual arts, Casa Laura Alvim and Museu da República (Museum of the Republic) have been displaying works of young Brazilian sculptors which have enriched a quiet weekend. Strangely enough, or perhaps due to publicity only on Friday on Rio’s O Globo, such worthy exhibits by local talents have been drawing relatively few visitors.


As for movie theaters, my favorite is the Cine Jóia in Copacabana, which is literally a jewel for non-commercial prize-winning films, and the lesser known one downtown at the Caixa Econômica building (near the Carioca metro station), which has shown Russian and Marx Brothers films.


The theater is not always understandable to a non-speaking visitor. Some years ago, I attended a topnotch production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” worthy of off-Broadway at the CAL student theater in Laranjeiras.

The Gávea shopping center is, strangely enough, Rio’s answer to Broadway with numerous theaters featuring some of the nation’s finest actors. I miss Wednesday matinees at a Broadway theater in New York – the closest local version can be found in downtown Rio at Teatro Ginásio on Friday afternoons. Last year, I saw a delightful Brazilian version of “The Visit of the Old Lady” by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt with the inimitable Brazilian actress Denise Fraga.


Finally, taking the electric trolley car in downtown Rio, I can’t guarantee that a visitor will view anything like the Met, Whitney, or Guggenheim museums, but the cultural center of Banco do Brasil (CCBB), the Art Museum of Rio (MAR), and the Museum of Tomorrow are Rio’s cultural caviar with a panoramic view of the Guanabara Bay which rivals any tourist picture postcard in the world.


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