‘Only in Rio’: South Korea’s ambassador to Brazil is an unlikely samba star

<span>Lim Ki-mo recently sang at on of Rio’s most illustrious samba spots, Renascença Clube.</span><span>Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian</span>
Lim Ki-mo recently sang at on of Rio’s most illustrious samba spots, Renascença Clube.Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

Brazil’s latest music sensation grinned from ear to ear as he moseyed down Copacabana beach contemplating his unusual rise to fame.

“Samba brings me joy and makes me happy,” the 59-year-old crooner said in Portuguese, as he paused to pose for photos in the shade of palm trees.

The entertainer in question isn’t your average Rio samba star. In fact, he’s a South Korean diplomat from a very different seaside metropolis on the other side of the globe. But Lim Ki-mo, Korea’s Busan-born ambassador to Brazil, has sung his way to stardom since being posted to the South American country three years ago, with a series of viral performances in which he has belted out Brazilian hits.

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This week, Lim’s singing career hit new heights as he took the stage at one of Rio’s most illustrious samba spots, Renascença Clube, to perform with one of its top samba groups. Hundreds of samba connoisseurs threw their hands in their and danced euphorically as Seoul’s man in Brasília sang tracks by the legendary composer Adoniran Barbosa and the chart-topping combo Grupo Revelação.

“The crowd went berserk,” said Gabriel Cavalcante, the singer who invited ambassador Lim to perform with his group, Samba do Trabalhador.

Footage of the diplomat’s impassioned presentation exploded on social media with critics giving him a unanimous thumbs-up. “His performances … are filled with emotion and energy,” enthused the Rio broadsheet O Globo.

Cavalcante said the weekly jam session had hosted a who’s who of samba greats since its foundation nearly 20 years ago including Almir Guineto, Beth Carvalho, Nelson Sargento, Monarco and Arlindo Cruz. Never before had an ambassador been invited on stage.

“He was in ecstasy,” the sambista said. “[People might say], ‘Damn, this ambassador is bonkers.’ But he’s a true diplomat,” Cavalcante added of the South Korean’s soft power triumph.

Lim is not the first ambassador to try his hand at singing diplomacy in South America. The US envoy to Paraguay, James Cason, once released an album in the Indigenous language Guarani, although reviews were distinctly mixed.

Brazil’s foreign service once employed one of the country’s most celebrated composers, the bossa nova creator Vinicius de Moraes, although he was ejected by the military dictatorship before receiving a posthumous ambassadorship in 2010. Brazil’s current ambassador in London, a pianist called Antonio Patriota, makes records under the pseudonym Tonio de Aguiar. His latest album features a samba called Next Year’s Carnival performed by the samba singer João Cavalcanti.

Lim’s unlikely path to samba celebrity begins more than 11,000 miles to Rio’s east in South Korea’s second city, Busan, where he was born in 1965.

His first taste of Brazilian music came as a boy, when he heard The Girl from Ipanema on the radio. But only five decades later – after stints in China, Switzerland, Guatemala, Mexico, Argentina, the US and Jamaica – would the music-loving emissary secure a posting in Brazil.

While chargé d’affaires in Kingston, Lim offered a glimpse of his vocal talents, dressing up as Bob Marley to perform No Woman, No Cry. “It was on the front page of all the newspapers,” the ambassador said. But it was in Brazil that the diplomat found his true calling. After arriving in 2021, he developed an affection for Brazilian country music – known as música sertaneja – which reminded him of the Korean genre trot.

It was a grim time for Latin America’s biggest democracy. The science-denying far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro occupied the presidency. A Covid outbreak that would kill more than 700,000 people was running riot. “The social atmosphere was quite gloomy,” Lim said. “When I made a speech, nobody listened.”

So the east Asian envoy hatched a plan: he would sing Brazilian pop songs at events in the hope of lifting people’s spirits while simultaneously changing outdated perceptions of his own region, which generally revolved around North Korea’s nuclear threat, the Korean war and an excessively strict education system. “When I started singing, people really laughed, smiled and were happy. So they asked me to continue,” he said.

Having made headlines with his viral country performances, the ambassador dived into samba, after becoming fascinated by lyrics he considered spiritual and philosophical. Late last year he performed a song by the group Raça Negra with Rio’s samba-loving mayor, Eduardo Paes, and cavorted on stage with the singer Luiz Carlos.

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A few weeks later at Rio’s carnival he was introduced to Cavalcante, who invited him to visit the Renascença Clube. “You may sing a song,” the ambassador remembers the sambista telling him. “Oh, really?” the ambassador replied.

On Monday, the Korean diplomat made his way to the club to perform with Samba do Trabalhador, whose members include the composer Moacyr Luz and Junior de Oliveira, the percussionist grandson of the samba legend Silas de Oliveira. Lim calmed his nerves with the help of five Brazilian beers.

“[I] want the world to see Korea as a pleasant, happy and humorous country,” the ambassador said – a mission the overwhelmingly positive public reaction suggested he accomplished.

“Bloody hell,” said Cavalcante . “I don’t think there could be anything more improbable in the world than an ambassador – a South Korean authority! – turning up at a Monday samba session, drinking five beers and asking for the microphone … Only in Rio. There’s just nowhere else on Earth where this would happen.”