The Best Books for Discovering Rio De Janeiro's Rich History

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God | © Touchstone
Dancing with the Devil in the City of God | © Touchstone
Photo of Sarah Brown
19 September 2017

Rio de Janeiro is a multifaceted city, crime and poverty just as important to its history as ethnic diversity, music and beaches. Trying to unravel these varied relationships is complex and is an endless source of fascination for both travelers and scholars. To get beneath Rio’s surface, reading is a good start. Here are some of the best books for understanding Rio’s incredible history.

Culture Is Our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro by Damien Platt and Patrick Neate

This book provides context of the issues in the favelas by unveiling the story of AfroReggae, an organisation using cultural events and music to fight the growth of crime among the youth in some of Rio’s toughest favelas. Founded in 1993, its main aim is to provide opportunities for children in Vigario Geral favela to stop them getting involved in drug trafficking. Activities such as promoting black culture, international tours and even record deals have been effective and provide a gripping story about the culture and life in some of Rio’s most fascinating communities.

Culture is Our Weapon | © Penguin Publishers

Hard Times in the Marvellous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro by Bryan McCann

An interesting and significant part of Brazil’s history is the military dictatorship that took place within this lifetime and how it impacted the change and evolution in Rio’s society and favelas. Hard Times in the Marvellous City details the history of Rio from the end of the 1970s onward, looking at how reforms failed and how the drugs trade rapidly expanded. It also paints a strong image of what life was like in this transition and how this political upheaval is still affecting society today.

Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro by Bruno Carvalho

This book reviews various sources to unravel Rio’s history and its significance in shaping the Brazilian culture, especially from a global perspective. It tells the story of how Rio has evolved throughout the eras, moving from an age when it was known as ‘the Jewish Neighborhood’ and ‘Little Africa’, to becoming the ‘New City’. Throughout these periods, Rio has had a significant impact on writers, visitors, social scientists, artists and musicians, becoming the symbol of samba and Carnival. The book reflects on Rio’s past, just as the city is on the cusp of a new transformation thanks to significant recent events such as the 2016 Olympics.

Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro | © Liverpool University Press

The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil by Chris McGowan

A city defined by Carnival, samba and the birthplace of some of Brazil’s most inspiring and celebrated musicians and songs, understanding Brazilian music is one of the keys to understanding Rio de Janeiro. This book explores Brazil’s rich music including the history of the country’s famous genres, the notable musicians and their global impact. It also looks at how female singer-songwriters grew in popularity and became prominent figures in Brazil’s music scene. Using photographs and an in-depth review of music genres, readers will begin to understand the significant role music plays in Rio de Janeiro and how it shaped Brazil’s culture.

The Brazilian Sound | ©Temple University Press

Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1945-1988 by Michael George Hanchard

The slavery years are one of the most significant periods in Brazilian history, contributing to ethnic diversity and shaping important aspects of the country’s culture. This book explores the racial inequalities that exist in Brazil, drawing from recent data that shows large gaps between black and white Brazilians in terms of education, social support and health. It touches upon attempts from Afro-Brazilians to gain equality and how the white elite use status and power to suppress such movements. The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo provided documents and interviews for this book that illustrate the divisions between whites and blacks that exist in Rio de Janeiro and other cities in Brazil.

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink by Juliana Barbassa

This book details more recent history by looking at the struggles Rio de Janeiro faced as the 2016 Olympic Games came to the Marvellous City. Written by a Rio-born writer, the book describes a city once raging with poverty, crime and corruption, and how it overcame a chaotic time and underwent an unprecedented change to host the Olympic Games. Drawing from accounts of local people, the book sheds light on Rio’s culture and reveals the enormous societal changes and efforts that the city made to accommodate what would become one of the largest events Rio has ever hosted.

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God | © Touchstone

Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro by Enrique Desmond Arias

This book presents a nine-year study that researched the violence in urban Rio, exploring the relationships between favela gangs, important leaders and the state. It taps into the complexity of the problems in the city by revealing how criminal webs are tightly woven into society and are so deeply embedded that they become hard to identify. Using a series of interviews and observational studies, the book shows how crime in Brazil and Rio has been able to grow to multi-million dollar empires thanks to ties and collaborations between criminals, drug lords and politicians. Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro offers a fascinating glimpse into an underground network that has the power to shape the direction of Rio and Brazil.

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