bip-640

The room’s not much: just a thin storefront with strip lighting, a dozen seats around a couple of tables, photographs on the wall and fridges at the back. Show up too early – 8.30pm, say – and you might find it empty. If anyone’s here, they’re either deep in conversation at the table to the right, or they’re sitting on one of the other no-frills pavement chairs, waiting, rather awkwardly, for something to happen.

What will eventually happen – may happen, as finding any kind of schedule is next to impossible – is music. ’44 años cultivando la amistad,’ reads a sign at Bip Bip, a stubborn little bar half a block from Copacabana beach that’s acquired a legendary reputation by refusing to move with the times. Socially and culturally, sure, but musically, too; if other bars had remained as set in their ways as this one, its fame would be much less pervasive.

The garrulous chums on the table to the right appear to be musicians, their instrument-shaped bags left to rest on the table inside. However, the focal figure, the one to whom all new arrivals gravitate as they begin their good-evening greetings, turns out not to be a musician at all. A gnome-like figure who knows everyone and sees everything, Alfredo has been running Bip Bip for ever, presiding from his plastic throne at the front. Take a beer from the fridge – there are, or at least there appear to be, no other staff – and he’ll scratch a tally in his notebook. R$3 a can; pay when you’re done.

Eventually, irrespective of whether many or any visitors have gathered at the pavement tables to listen, the musicians may begin to drift indoors, unpacking guitars and cavaquinhos and percussion instruments around the table under the strip light. Then, at some point after that, someone will start to play and sing, and – the effect rather like slowly opening the curtains on a sunny morning – everyone else will gradually join in.

In European terms, it’s a session. To our uneducated and foreign eyes, however, it seems to come without the competitive streak that often defines a jazz jam or the latent sociopathy present at a fair few English folk round-tables. It’s just a room of musicians speaking a shared language (tonight, samba; other evenings, maybe bossa nova or choro), and speaking it beautifully to an audience whose presence is incidental to the whole enterprise. Musical authenticity is an elusive and nebulous concept at the best of times; but next to the supper-club glamour of the samba spots in Lapa, there’s something beautiful about the modesty of it all.

On they go, into the night, doors open to the world. As the pavement tables of tourists and locals turn over and over and over again, musicians drift in and out of the room and the conversation. They’ll be back tomorrow. Probably.

from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil