A Brief History Of Brazilian Samba

Dancers, Sambadromo, Rio de Janeiro
Dancers at Sambodromo, Rio de Janeiro

You feel the rhythm of drums and cymbals and your feet follow the beat along with 80,000 people that enjoy the Rio de Janeiro Carnival Parade at the Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí. The experience is exhilarating. It’s the world’s greatest samba party and you’re surrounded by people dancing in flashy costumes and headpieces made of ruffle boas, feathers, sequins, beads, and fringes.

The origins of samba, however, are very distant from the glamour of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, both in spirit and geography. The history of this music and dance is a testament to a people’s will to maintain their cultural roots and artistic heritage.

The word ‘samba’ is derived from the Angolan word ‘semba’, which means ‘naval bump’ and symbolizes an invitation to invoke the favor of the gods through rhythm, song, and dance. There are at least nine styles of samba; all of them have a story to tell.

Once upon a time in Salvador da Bahia: Samba de roda

Samba is almost as old as Brazil. It was born in the engenhos or sugar cane mills in Salvador da Bahia, in the northeastern coast of the country. Founded in 1549, this settlement was the first capital of Portuguese America until 1763. The city was the country’s political center, its main seaport, and an important business hub for trading with Africa and the Far East. Since 1558, it also became the first slave market in the New World.

Here, generation after generation of slaves brought by from Western Africa, mainly Portuguese Angola, worked 18 to 20 hours per day and lived in simple mud or wooden huts. Because plantation owners preferred an all-male workforce where possible, there were many more male than female African slaves. Some owners allowed marriages between slaves (formal or informal) while others actively separated couples.

Plantation owners abided by religious prohibitions against working on Sundays and in certain religious holidays. The slaves were allowed to use this free time to grow food for their own sustenance in small plots and to participate in general cultural manifestations.

It was during these scarce slots of free time that the slaves practiced their African traditions and rituals, hidden from their European bosses, who forbid these celebrations for considering them vulgar displays. So, they met in religious houses founded by Bahian priestesses who led them through sessions of singing, dancing, clapping, and playing musical instruments around a circle.

Dancer, Samba de Roda, Salvador da Bahia
Dancer, Samba de Roda, Salvador da Bahia

This is how the first samba style – samba de roda (circle samba) – originated. Because of their historic and cultural significance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the historic quarter of Salvador da Bahia as a World Heritage site in 1985 and the samba de roda as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.

Marching to the hills of Rio de Janeiro: samba carnavalesco

Samba may have originated in Bahia, but it flourished in Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 19th century. As the new capital of the Portuguese Empire, the city attracted people from other regions of Brazil in search for prosperity. However, the peak influx occurred after 1888, when the ban on slavery encouraged former slaves and their descendants from Bahia to move south to Rio de Janeiro settling on the hills surrounding the city.

The sense of freedom spread even stronger in 1889 with the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil by the military, effectively overthrowing monarchic rule in the territory. In the midst of these conflictive times, Bahia saw the rise of a religious leader, Antônio Conselheiro. He established the Canudos community on the Morro da Favela (favela hill), named after a skin-irritating tree native to the region.

To halt Conselheiro’s growing power in Bahia, the Brazilian government sent soldiers to fight in what became known as the Guerra de Canudos (War of Canudos), which extended from November 1896 to October 1897. After winning the war, the Brazilian soldiers, who had lived amongst the favela trees, marched back to Rio de Janeiro to await their payment. But the payment never came, and the soldiers had nowhere else to go. So, they settled on Providência hill and nicknamed it Favela hill. The term favela is now loosely used to refer to the poor neighborhoods in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro.

With this increasing cultural influence from Bahia, Rio de Janeiro became the new samba hub. Escolas de samba (samba schools) were created by the communities, accompanied by percussion music and blocos (groups of dancers), who sang and danced in celebration of Carnival through their neighborhoods and nearby favelas. Samba continued to be frowned upon by the upper class and remained a private affair for many years, until in 1917 the samba carnavalesco was finally made public by Ernesto dos Santos in the song Pelo telefone (on the telephone).

Samba School Parade, Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro
Samba School Parade, Carnaval

The rise of the Escolas and world fame

Samba experienced a boost in the 1920s, when the first few escolas de samba (samba schools) were established, and the Rio de Janeiro carnival gained momentum. At the beginning, they would play samba that was freely created, with lyrics about samba itself or the reality of the musicians. This style was originally called samba de morro because it sprang from the morros (hills) surrounding the city.

In the 1930s, the Brazilian government began offering subsidies to the escolas de samba that depicted patriotic themes in their performances. This changed the modality of the parade competition and brought about the emergence of samba de enredo (theme samba), as the preferred style for the carnival. During the parade, each samba school performs one song, which must be especially written for them and be different every year.

This decade marked a milestone in the history of samba, as record labels began to reproduce the most famous songs and play them on the radio. This gave rise to renowned performers such as Ismael Silva, Mário Reis, and Carmen Miranda, who made samba popular worldwide and charmed audiences in the United States during the 1940s.

Ary Barroso with Walt Disney, Rio de Janeiro
Ary Barroso with Walt Disney, Rio de Janeiro

In 1939, Ary Barroso composed the famous Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolors of Brazil), highlighting different aspects of the country’s traditions and natural beauty. It was featured in the 1942 Disney film Saludos Amigos (Greetings Friends), which was commissioned by the United States Government as part of its policy to improve relations with Latin America. Over the years, it became sort of an anthem and it’s still among the 20 most recorded songs of all time. It also contributed to the general perception of samba as the national music of Brazil.

Mid-century revival: Bossa Nova and Samba canção

During the 1950s samba acquired a slower and more romantic sound. This gave rise to the subgenre known as samba canção (samba song), which emphasized melody over rhythm. Its lyrics were also more sentimental, talking about loneliness, love, and relationships. Although it was heavily influenced by other popular genres, it maintained the samba beat with the drums.

This style gave way to the bossa nova movement, which reinvigorated samba and expanded its international reach. Performers fused the melodic and vocal aspects of samba canção with the richness of American jazz harmony. Songs like Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema) and Mas que nada (No way!) became hits in the United States through successful English versions recorded by Stan Getz and Herb Alpert, respectively.

The 1960s came with mixed trends in Brazil. On the one hand, the relocation of the country’s capital from Rio de Janeiro to its current seat in Brasília in 1960 was a symbol of modern times. On the other hand, the overthrow of the national government in 1964 brought about a military rule that lasted 21 years and is associated with both political repression and rapid economic growth.

As a result, during the 1960s bossa nova experienced a divide. One current continued the original romantic musical movement and catered mostly to Brazil’s upper class. The hall of fame of singers and songwriters included Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Sérgio Mendes, Toquinho, Gilberto Gil, Elis Regina, Gal Costa, and Vinícius de Moraes.

A second current, known as canto livre (free song), focused on political protest. While staying true to bossa nova’s musical style, the lyrics to these songs spoke of the need for freedom. Their message had to be veiled, however, to avoid censorship. One of the most noteworthy representatives of this trend was Chico Buarque, mainly known for his famous 1970 single Apesar de Você (In spite of You).

Songwriter Jair Oliveira
Songwriter Jair Oliveira (Source: Instagram)

Freedom to sing and dance

With the end of the military rule, in the 1980s, Brazil changed and so did the samba. Up until 1983, the samba parades of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival were held along the main street of Avenida Presidente Vargas, with bleachers built on both sides each year.

Motivated by the country’s greater economic growth and increasing tourism, its organizers developed ambitious plans for a new and permanent venue. They had two main objectives. The first was to provide a facility that would ensure safety and comfort for tourists, while the second was to increase revenue through tickets.

As a result, the Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí was designed and built in only 110 days by world-renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer, who had previously collaborated in the construction of the United Nations Headquarters in New York and Brazil’s new capital in Brasília. It was inaugurated on March 2, 1984, just in time for that year’s Carnival. This milestone marks the beginning of the largest samba show in the world as we know it, with its flashy costumes and catchy tunes.

The popularity of samba led to many variations. One of the most significant in the international arena was its incorporation into Ballroom dancing competitions. Although it was originally a solo dance, nowadays it’s a fast-paced style performed with a partner, incorporating elements of the waltz and tango.

Samba continues to evolve with time, reinventing itself, and embracing contemporary influences that even include short breaks filled in by rap verses in the samba de breque (break samba). Outstanding current performers include Seu Jorge, largely considered a renewer of Brazilian pop samba, and Jair Oliveira, who is known for fusing classic samba and bossa nova with soul, funk, and electronic music.

One thing samba will never lose is its inherent optimism and uplifting rhythm; the same that pulled former slaves through harsh times in the engenhos of Salvador da Bahia and keeps inspiring people all over the world. In the words of the great Martinho da Vila in his song Canta, canta minha gente: “Sing, sing, my friends; leave the sadness behind; Sing strong, sing loud; life will get better.”

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