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The Samba of Golf

Gavea, my second golf stop, is nestled in a paradisal valley surrounded by gigantic granite domes from the highest of which paragliders take off and float down over the course to the beach. Some of the most interesting and talented people in Brazil live tucked away in Gavea's exuberant greenery, including the throaty samba singer Maria Bethania, whose compound is just off one of the fairways.

The golf course was built on an old coffee plantation in l921 by a group of British expatriates who were putting in Rio's lights, power and tramway. The Brits had already introduced soccer, which the Brazilians have made their national game and at which they've won the most World Cups. Fourteen years ago, I played the course with the son of one of Gavea's primordios, or founders, a jovial chap who wore a deerstalker and sat on a shooting stick muttering "bugger" after he topped his drive, and was right out of P.G. Wodehouse although he had only been to England a few times in his life. The course is magical and muito acidentado, as one player put it—very capricious, with a jumble of little knolls known as pirambeiras, and deep tree-filled gullies that if you go into you're dead. It's a beautiful bower, not unlike Bel Air in Los Angeles. There's a cave on the way up to the ninth tee that an escaped slave used to live in.

That night I took a cab to Lapa, the old Bohemian quarter that is one of the places where the samba originated, and where Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus's l959 movie with its immortal score by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Luiz Bonfa, was shot. It was this movie that made me, like many I know, fall in love with Brazil, fifteen years before I even got there. The Carioca da Gema club had live samba and was packed with undulating couples. Revelers had come down the long stairs of the adjacent moro, or shantytown, and were dancing and cooking in the street. Scantily clad transvestites smoked and posed under the street lights. Lapa was hopping.

A few days later I flew north to Salvador, the state capital of Bahia, the most African part of Brazil, where the musical impulse is strongest. There I hung out with my old friend Arto Lindsay, an American who grew up in Brazil and who is an important samba composer and interpreter in his own right and also produces many of the big names of MPB (Musica Popular Braseleira, Brazil's incomparably sophisticated popular music), including Marisa Monte and Vinicius Cantuaria. Lindsay's neighbor is Carlinhos Brown, who is probably the greatest living exponent of Afro-Bahian music. Lindsay and his Brazilian wife took me to Pelourinho, the old colonial quarter. It was Tuesday night, when Pelourinho is at its most animado. The steep cobblestone streets were full of voluptuous mulatas samba-ing to marching drum bands, and festive groups of friends. A singer named Geronimo was giving a concert on the cathedral steps. Nordestinos, cowboys from the hinterland in leather sombreros with turned-up brims, were singing mournful ballads and accompanying themselves on accordions, triangles and mandolin-like cavaquinhos.

From there I rented a car and drove down to Ilheus, where Jorge Amado grew up and set most of his novels celebrating the sensuality of Bahia, such as Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. The road was full of deadly potholes and the drive took five hours. (You might want to fly to Ilheus then rent a car there for the rest of your journey down the coast.) An hour south of Ilheus is Comandatuba, which Golf Digest named the best golf course in Brazil in 2003. It was designed in l998 by Dan Blankenship, the American expat who is establishing himself as the Robert Trent Jones of Brazil. Each of Blankenship's courses is better than the last, and he is only forty-four years old.


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