Travelers may know São Luís, Brazil, as a destination for colonial architecture, but to reggae fans, this port city of 1 million is the place to go for dancing in the streets. Throughout the year, towering speaker systems, or radiolas, pump music into the tropical air at neighborhood dance parties.
Reggae first arrived when residents of São Luís tuned in Caribbean radio stations as a way around the strict censorship of concerts and broadcast music during the military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Inspired by the political reggae they heard, local musicians started experimenting with the new sounds. One of the most influential groups to emerge was Tribo de Jah (God’s Tribe). Formed in 1985, the band blended Jamaica’s offbeat rhythms with the faster tempos and zabumba (bass drum) of native Brazilian forró folk music. Tribo de Jah has been known to play the city’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration. If you are in town for the holiday, keep your eye out for their name on flyers promoting the party. To experience São Luís’s reggae scene, head to the city’s historic center, where DJs and bands play in front of giant radiolas at nighttime weekend events. Afterward, walk to the nearby Roots Bar on Rua da Palma. Ask for a beer served bem gelado (ice cold) and join the youthful throng swaying to the music of such local heroes as Capital Roots. Southeast of the city center, in the working-class Forquilha neighborhood, catch a show by neo-reggae singer Dub Brown at the nightspot Choperia Gaúcho. If someone grabs you to dance, be prepared to interlock knees with your partner.
Photo by Luiz Frota. This appeared in the December/January 2010 issue.