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History of Brazilian Samba

by Bob Weiner with Duduka Da Fonseca
Source: "Brazilian Rhythms for Drumset"

The best known of the many Afro-Brazilian music/dance forms is the samba. It is popular throughout the whole of Brazil; different regions foster their own variations, but all are of the samba family. The roots of samba, like those of the jongo and batuque, are in Angolan or Congolese round dance. An early version of the samba that was very common in Bahia, the samba-de-roda ("round samba"), featured many elements that are still typical of samba today, such as the 2/4 meter with the accent on beat 2, and layers of syncopated rhythms on top, played by an ensemble consisting of drums, tambourine and cowbells.
Outside of Bahia where it was born, samba took hold most strongly in the favelas or morros (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. The favelas are mainly populated by poor blacks. In the early years of the 20th century, samba as played and danced in Rio began to be recognized as a form of its own, and was referred to as samba de morro ("samba of the morros") or samba batucada. It was already a major part of the street celebration of carnaval in Rio when the first samba recordings was made in 1917. " Pelo Telefone" ("On the Telephone") by Ernesto dos Santos, known as Donga, became a big hit and samba grew into a national passion, thanks to the latest technology: radio. This was the start of what has since become a yearly ritual in Brazil of recording and promoting sambas composed especially for the carnaval festivities. Each year brings a new batch of sambas de enredo, sambas composed for a samba group -- one of the many escolas de samba -- to play in the carnaval parade/competition in Rio. These songs, which are often clever, pointed commentaries on social or political issues, are heard on the radio for weeks before carnaval begins, and the "hit samba" for the year is chosen by popular approval.

It is interesting to note that "Pelo Telefone," though known as a Samba, was also very much influenced by the maxixe, which had been the popular dance style up to that point. The maxixe was an Afro-Brazilian "take" on European ballroom dances and is to have been first danced by a man named Maxixe at a carnaval ball in Rio in 1882. By 1915 it was an international craze, although polite society tended to frown on the maxixe as being loud, wild, and shockingly sexual.

The samba as played in Rio for carnaval is marked by the absence of melody instruments. However, a single escola de samba ("samba school'" group that performs samba music and dance at carnaval) may include hundreds of drummers and percussionists, known collectively as the bateria, as well as many dancers and marchers, and elaborately decorated floats.

The samba bateria consists of the surdo or large double-headed drum played using the hand and a beater, of which there are three types: low-, medium-, and high-pitched; the repinique, a smaller double-headed drum which can also serve as the internal conductor or leader of the ensemble; the caixa or snare drum; the tamborim, a single-headed drum about 6" in diameter which is held in one hand and played with a beater consisting of several thin sticks; the cuica or friction-drum; the pandeiro or tambourine; plus ago-go bells, which are like different-pitched cowbells, and assorted types of ganzas, shakers.

samba festival in finlandThe best and most popular escolas compete each year in the carnaval parade, performing their specially composed sambas with great energy, passion and gaiety. The escolas are judged on the quality of the music, dancing, lyrics, and performing as a whole, and it is a very great honour to be declared the winner of carnaval. Also known as Mardi Gras (in New Orleans) and celebrated throughout the Caribbean and South America, carnaval originally came from Europe. It is several days of wild merrymaking which in former times, when the church's influence was more pervasive, was the last chance people had to enjoy themselves in this manner before the forty days of Lent (spiritual preparation for Easter) began.

Samba is the lifeblood of Brazilian popular music. It has flourished since the 1920's, accepting and integrating the influence of many other types of music, and producing along the way many notable singers, musicians and composers. Among the pioneers of samba were Ataulfo Alves and Noel Rosa, both brilliant songwriters of the 1930's; pianist Jose Barbosa da Silva, known as Sinho; Moreira da Silva, who performed in the style known as samba de breque ("break samba") in which phrases are "scatted" or spoken rapidly during breaks in the music; and composers Alfredo da Roche Viana, called Pixinguinha, and Ari Barroso, who wrote "Aquarela do Brasil". a famous samba. One of Brazil's important classical composers Heitor Villa-Lobos achieved success and recognition in Europe and the United States. Villa-Lobos influenced many great Brazilian musicians including Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ernesto Nazara was a classical musician that fell in love with the different forms of Brazilian popular music. He was the "bridge" between classical and popular music in Brazil, much in the same way that George Gershwin was in the United States.

 



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