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BOOK REVIEW : Samba Quest Dances Off Beat : WHY IS THIS COUNTRY DANCING? A One-Man Samba to the Beat of Brazil by John Krich . Simon & Schuster: $22; 305 pages


What a wonderful title. In a country where the poorest 70 million live on about $500 a year each, and where the police regularly knock off homeless children, what Brazilians really get excited about is the samba.

The motive pushing John Krich's book along is to use music as the key for understanding Brazilian society--specifically, how music works "to beautify, distract, console, or entrance a modern melting-pot nation of 150 million."

Samba entered Krich's life when he was 13 with the 1964 hit, "The Girl From Ipanema." He begins his quest by talking to Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote the music, and singer Astrud Gilberto, the song's most famous interpreter.

As Krich's book progresses, it's hard to tell what his Grail is, exactly, as he continues dutifully talking to every samba master he can find. Because his American audience is largely unfamiliar with these guys, Krich has to keep describing them as the Cole Porter or the Ella Fitzgerald or the whoever of samba. Though Krich is a skilled writer and it's an accomplished bunch of musicians, without crescendo or diminuendo the sequence gets tedious.

Krich made a name for himself in travel writing with another book with a great title, "Music in Every Room: Around the World in a Bad Mood." As grouchy as its title suggests, "Music" was easier to love than "Dancing." It didn't have much structure--just one state of distress and discomfort after another--but it proved cathartic for anyone who'd ever experienced dengue fever, a bad blister, dirty sheets or sunburn on the road.

Understanding anything about Brazil is not easy, and it's always very hard to write about music, and even harder to write about hilarity, in this case the carnival. Krich partially solves the music problem by presenting a discography at the end of each chapter. Between chapters he also places his own poetic riffs, "playful tributes to various Brazilian states of mind."

Here are two not atypical lines from these tributes, and then let us move on without further comment: "Sugar Loaf is melting--two lumps, please"; and, "Sing a song of Brazil, so much more than a nut!"

Alma Guillermoprieto's "Samba," now out in paper, took a narrower view of the musical culture and was successful in achieving its more limited ambition. She lived in Rio's favelas with dancers and costume makers preparing their carnival entry: a cross between a Bob Fosse musical, a Brecht play and a Rose Parade float. Krich describes the process, but unlike Guillermoprieto he stands back from the pre-carnival hysteria.

One important point that's never clear is whether Krich can dance. (Guillermoprieto was a professional dancer before she became a New Yorker writer--a resume to die for.) We do know that Krich is briefly a hit when he does the Jerk, which he'd been perfecting since he "began imitating James Brown in junior high."

And he writes, "That I've been moved to come here--to the veritable belly button of body-land--shows just how far some of us will go to find our own body." But he didn't make an effort to learn the samba or the lambada, and he never danced with another person.

From the start, there's something brittle about the narrator that doesn't change much. He's standoffish about ecstatic experience, at one point making a snottily detached comment about losing his translator when that young woman becomes enthralled by an Afro-Brazilian religious meeting they attend. He wants to achieve a goal the Brazilians value--" Sem medo de ser feliz " -- to be unafraid to be happy--but only gets as far as valuing it.

Though "Dancing" is more smoothly reportorial than "Music," it's less engaging. Sometimes, however, the old dyspeptic flair comes through--"Without its music," he writes, "Rio is just another harried hellhole. Anytown, Third World."

For me, the following grouchy observation approaches profundity: "Isn't travel, after all, one of the few human activities where we knowingly, willingly, and continually go into situations where we're at a complete disadvantage? Where we never have enough advance intelligence or useful phrases? Travel is a prescription for awkwardness, embarrassment, and always being a step behind--our backhanded compliment to the wisdom found only through blissful ignorance."

Go on dancing, he'd advise the people of Brazil. Why shouldn't Brazilians, "retreat into a rich heritage of customs and beliefs that have nothing to do with power, progress or upward mobility? The non-linear and the non-rational offer instead a mobility of the spirit." This final note would ring with more resonance if the author and his book were not so determinedly linear.

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