The Bar from Brazil

Of the many charms that characterise the Barrios Brasil and Yungay to the west of downtown Santiago, few are as renowned as Café Brazil on Avenida Cumming. A rickety, atmospheric place in the heart of the city’s Bohemian quarter, the cafe is a local landmark and one of Santiago’s most unique bars. With walls plastered with posters of bygone festivals and demonstrations, leftist iconography of Salvador Allende, Victor Jara and Che Guevara, and the scrawled musings of years of patronage, it is home to a mellow atmosphere, nightly live music, good food, and generous measures of pisco, all of which combine in a truly authentic and vibrant venue.

 Cafe Brazil (Photo by Nick MacWilliam)
Cafe Brazil (Photo by Nick MacWilliam)

Café Brazil’s origins are rooted in the strong left-wing traditions of the area. It started life in 1990 as a fast food and cerveza joint in Plaza Brasil, but soon became popular as a venue for political meetings and discussion due to a lack of alternatives in the area. This was the year the Pinochet dictatorship ended, and until then, those of socialist or radical persuasion had been unable to openly express their political ideologies. The cafe started attracting students, writers, artists, musicians and free-thinkers, and gradually developed into a centre for left-wing politics and counter-culture.

 Chorizo Salvaje (Photo by Nick MacWilliam)
Chorizo Salvaje (Photo by Nick MacWilliam)

As its reputation soared, it outgrew its home and moved around the corner to larger premises on Avenida Cumming, to a building previously headquartered by one-time presidential candidate for the Communist Party, Gladys Marín, which had been shared by other affiliated political organisations, and was commonly known as "la casa del pueblo." It remains there today and is typical of the slightly shabby but charming buildings that typify this part of Santiago.

Live music is very much integral to the spirit of Café Brazil. Andina and folklore musicians, as well as other indigenous musical styles of South America, are particularly welcome thanks to these genres’ strong reflections of the continent's artistic heritage. There are also regular poetry nights, dance classes, theatre workshops and discussion forums. This cross-appeal has allowed it to grow into a Santiago institution and it is now widely regarded as one of the city’s liveliest and most distinguished locales. Regardless of political persuasion, this is what a bar should be: music venue, meeting point, cultural and community centre, and workshop.

 Juan Ayala (Photo by Nick MacWilliam)
Juan Ayala (Photo by Nick MacWilliam)

The importance of Café Brazil in the local community was underlined by the recent staging of a festival in Plaza Brasil to mark the twenty-first anniversary of its founding. The event featured a whole day of live music and stalls with a healthy mix of families, punks, the elderly, teenagers and dogs coming out to celebrate the cafe and highlight the wide esteem in which it is held by its neighbours and supporters. In the chilly afternoon sun, the packed plaza enjoyed the rowdy cumbia rhythms of Chorizo Salvaje and a stirring solo set from Juana Fe frontman Juan Ayala, whose energetic performance was a fitting tribute to the musical significance of the cafe.

As Santiago’s alternative scene inevitably modernises and grows more commercial, it is refreshing that venues such as Café Brazil remain true to their heritage and thrive as a result. Its popularity proven by the longevity that has just seen it turn twenty-one, it’ll be no surprise if it’s still going strong two decades from now. Just don’t expect there to be too many changes.

Café Brazil
Avenida Ricardo Cumming 562 (with Catedral)
Tel: (56 2) 698 2196
Metro Cumming (Line 5)
http://cafebrazil.cl/

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