Samba – The Heartbeat of Brazil

Samba is the most typical, important and recognisable music of Brazil. It is common throughout Brazil, but is most frequently associated with urban Rio de Janeiro, where it developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is celebratory music, frequently identified with Carnival and the exotic, feathered dance outfits. Rio’s football grounds will come alive with samba music and dance during the 2016 Olympics.

[Image: Ian Gampon]

[Image: Ian Gampon]

The music and dance of samba originates in Africa, with its roots in the religious traditions of Angola, the Congo and Cape Verde, brought to South America via the West African slave trade. The Africans trafficked to Brazil belonged to two major groups: the West African and the Bantu people.

The origin of the word samba is uncertain. It is possible that it derives from semba, which is a popular form of music and dance in Angola, but the word semba means dance in only two Bantu languages.

One of the oldest records of the word samba appeared in 1938 in an article by Father Miguel Lopes Gama of Sacramento who was writing against what he called the samba d’almocreve, a kind of dance drama popular among black people of that time.

And according to author Hiram Araújo, who has written extensively on the history of the Carnival, samba was a name for the festival of dances held by slaves in Bahia.

In the mid 19th century, the word samba defined various types of music and dance made by African slaves. This music was from different kinds of batuque – African music and dance originally performed for specific social and ceremonial occasions. But samba assumed different characteristics in each Brazilian state depending on the cultural heritage of the Africans in that region.

Early styles of samba, in particular samba de roda, can be traced back to the Recôncavo region of Bahia where religious ceremonies were followed by informal dancing. But it was in Rio that the music and dance practiced by former slaves who migrated from Bahia became integrated with other musical genres; the polka, the maxixe, the lundu and the xote.

Modern samba developed only at the end of the 1920s, and as it consolidated as an urban and modern expression, it found a place on radio stations, spreading across hills and neighbourhoods to the affluent southern areas of Rio de Janeiro.

Initially viewed unfavourably by the middle classes because it had roots in African music, the samba, with its hypnotic rhythms, melodic intonations and playful lyrics, became hugely popular, and in turn led to the development of new genres such as bossa nova.

Black women from Bahia were seen as free, bold women. They created something of a cultural revolution in Rio, and so samba acquired its own unique character and the samba schools were born.

[Image - Ian Gampon]

[Image – Ian Gampon]

Samba schools are large organisations of up to 5,000 people. They compete annually in the Carnival with thematic floats, elaborate costumes, and original music. The schools have a strong community basis and are traditionally associated with a particular neighbourhood. In Rio de Janeiro, the schools are often linked with particular shanty-towns.

The schools focus around various events, the most important of which is the annual carnival parade. During Carnival, samba boosts the Brazilian economy by around 500 million US dollars and creates approximately 300 thousand jobs in Rio alone.

Each school spends many months designing its theme, choosing the song, building a float and rehearsing. Fourteen of the top samba schools in Rio use a specially designed warehouse complex called Samba City to build and house their elaborate floats. Samba City, or Cidade do Samba, is the size of ten football pitches!

This video shows a samba drumming band in full swing.

To find out more about the instruments and rhythms of samba music, and to learn about how a samba band comes together, check out our blog The Samba Workshop – How It Works.

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