Great Brazilian Music


The birth of Samba
Of all Brazilian music styles, samba is undoubtedly the best known. Both abroad and in Brazil, samba has become a symbol of the Brazilian nation and its people. Samba, as we know it today, is an urban music style that arose in the early 1900’s in the slums (favelas) of Rio de Janeiro. However, an older, more stripped down and more African form of samba, which today is called "samba de roda", has existed in the state of Bahia for several hundred years.

The samba of Rio de Janeiro has its roots in old popular music styles called lundu and jongo and Afro-Brazilian music and dance (“batuque” and “rodas de capoeira”) from Bahia. The word "samba" derives from the sensuous Afro-Brazilian dance called “semb” or “umbigada”. The heart of Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century and early 20th century lay in the extremely run-down neighbourhoods around Cidade Nova, Praça XI and Central do Brasil, mostly populated by descendants of black slaves, many of whom were “immigrants” from Bahia. Because of the very high proportion of Afro-Brazilian residents in these neighbourhoods, the area was soon nicknamed “Pequena Africa”, (“Little Africa”).

A focal point for the earliest samba gatherings in Rio de Janeiro was the house of a group of black women from Bahia, popularly known as “Tias Baianas” (“The Aunts from Bahia") at Praça XI. As a tribute to the Tias Baianas and the Bahian roots of the samba music, it is still mandatory for all samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, during their carnival performances, to have a section that consists of older, black women dressed in the white, lace-fitted folk costumes of Bahia. That is the only constant and never changing section of the modern samba schools (or “blocos” as they are called), which parade during the carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Apart from that, the imaginative and colorful costumes and themes of the carnival samba parades vary wildely from bloco to bloco and change from year to year. Today's world-famous samba stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the Sambódromo Darcy Ribeiro, is fittingly situated in the middle of what once was “Pequena África”.

The original Rio de Janeiro samba form, which first appeared in the city during the early 1900’s, today is known as samba de morro, or samba de raiz. “Morro” means “hill” and is an allusion to Rio de Janeiro's slums, which are typically located on the hill sides. “Samba de raiz” means “root samba”. In its basic form, samba de morro consists of one, often improvised, verse sung by a solo singer, which is followed by a chorus sung by a choir.

Though samba started as an all Afro-Brazilian affair among the poor, the white and more affluent middle class in Rio de Janeiro soon also became fascinated by the exciting rhythms and samba dancing. It didn’t take all that long before the Afro-Brazilian carnival and samba traditions were incorporated into the middle-class carnival, although some of the African and sensual elements were toned down, to better fit the ideals and values of the middle class.

The early samba composers and singers remained anonymous outside the slums and their work was seldom even written down. But when the middle class had embraced the samba music, the names of the most important carnival samba composers became known among a wide middle class audience. The first samba ever to be recorded was Donga’s big carnival success Pelo Telephone, from 1917. During the 1920's, largely as an adaptation to the then new radio media, samba music continued to evolve in an increasingly europeanized and “tidy” direction. The songs were becoming ever more radio-friendly, clearly emphasizing melody and song over percussion and rhythm. The most common format for a samba song became a brief instrumental intro, followed by a verse and a chorus, accompanied by a choro band. This resulted in the surge of an entirely new kind of samba, the samba-canção, much slower and more melodic in nature, than the original samba de morro. The theme of a samba-canção is virtually always romantic boy meets girl story and the tone is often somewhat melodramatic. Samba-canção became very popular among radio listeners, and went on to dominate the repertoire of Brazilian radio during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. This period in Brazilian music history is now widely known as the Era do Rádio (the Radio Era).

The first samba star
The first real samba star, that is the first samba artist who thanks to radio became a national celebrity in Brazil, was Sinhô José Barbosa Silva. Sinhô was born into a quite artistic family in Rio de Janeiro in 1888 and at an early age he learned to play guitar, cavaquinho, piano and flute. Sinhô’s family were not from the slums, but the young Sinhô was fascinated by the Afro-Brazilian music in these districts and was a constant guest at Tias Baianas' musical parties in Pequena África. Sinhô began writing his own songs and soon became known as a very talented samba composer. As such, he was one of the musicians who contributed the most to the popularization of samba outside of Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Sinhô was nicknamed “O Rei do Samba” (“the King of Samba”), partly because of his popularity as a singer, but also as an ironic allusion to his arrogant, diva like and vain personality. The lyrics in Sinhô’s sambas revolve around everyday life in the big city of Rio de Janeiro.

The Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro
The first samba schools in Rio de Janeiro (and thus Brazil) was founded in the 1920’s, with the goal of creating a new kind of carnival groups, focused entirely on samba as their music and dance expression. The three oldest samba schools are Portela (founded in 1923 in the district of Madureira), Estação Primeira de Mangueira (formed in 1928 in the district of Mangueira) and Deixa Falar (formed in 1928 in the district of Estácio). The first two of these are active still today. The early samba schools recruited the most talented samba composers and artists during the 1920’s and 30's and more or less fixed the rhythm and style of what today is considered the typical Rio de Janeiro samba. Some of the most praised and famous sambistas (samba musicians) who served in the samba schools during the 1920’s and 1930’s were Ismael Silva, Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho and Paulo da Portela, who were all poor black men who grew up in the slums. While many artists in the samba-canção genre strived to adapt their samba to the radio medium, by toning down rhythm and percussion and instead focusing on melody and song, the samba schools worked in the opposite direction. They embraced the more traditional samba de morro tradition, albeit in a more organized and "refined" manner, where the verse improvisations of the old times became much less frequent. The typical instruments were surdo, tamborim, cuica, pandeiro, chocalho, cavaquinho and guitar.

For the samba schools, the carnival turned into a kind of annual contest in which the schools tried to outdo each other, both in terms of extravagant costumes, dance, coreography and music. The thematic nature of the carnival samba parades also led to the invention of yet another type of samba: samba-enredo. A samba-enredo is basically a song written specifically to be played in a samba school parade during carnival. The melodic framework for how a samba-enredo is supposed to sound is quite limited and the important thing is presentation and choreography, both in musical and visual terms. The samba-enredo always tells a story to convey the message that the samba school has chosen as their theme. The number of samba schools grew over the years, as did the friendly rivalry and competition between them. By the 1930’s, they had already become the dominating feature of the Rio de Janeiro carnival. The 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s saw the foundation of the now famous samba schools of Império, Salgueiro, Mocidade Independente, Beija Flor and Imperatriz Leopoldiense. And during those decades the Rio carnival developed into a full-fledged showbiz, closely associated with the tourism industry. In 1984, the so-called sambodrome (sambódromo) in Rio de Janeiro was inaugurated, as an arena built specifically to serve as stage for the samba schools during the annual carnival processions.

Noel Rosa - the Samba poet of Vila Isabel

One of the most important and influential figures in the first generation of nationally recognized samba musicians was Noel Rosa. Noel was born under dramatic circumstances on December 11th, 1910. Complications during the actual moment of birth serioysly injured Noel's lower jaw and parts of the right side of his face were permanently paralyzed. Noel, whose family belonged to Rio’s middle class, went through a total of twelve cirguries as a child, with the goal of restoring his face, but the askew jaw and the paralysis persisted. Noel Rosa was born, lived and died at the same address in the district of Vila Isabel in Rio de Janeiro. At 13 years of age, he began playing the bandolim and soon after, the guitar. As a teenager, in the late 1920’s, Noel began to write his own songs. Just as Sinhô, he wrote songs about everyday life in Rio de Janeiro. Noel's poetry had a quality far above the ordinary and won the adminiration of his surroundings. His lyrics were marked by a minimalist simplicity and elegance, which was also was reflected in his music, bringing a whole new dimension to the samba genre.

On a personal level, Noel Rosa was an incurable romantic, with a highly bohemian lifestyle, in which he regularly spent the nights in bars and nightclubs, consuming massive amounts of alcohol and countless cigarettes. So it may not come as a surprise that Noel had soon ruined his lungs and severely weakened his already frail health and he died in 1937, at the tender age of 26. Despite his very short life, Noel Rosa left a legacy of a large number of much beloved compositions, which greatly contributed to the development of samba and forever enriched Brazilian music.

Samba, from the 1930’s until today
After having been adopted by the middle and even the upper classes of Rio de Janeiro, the samba music developed into a variety of directions and subgenres. As mentioned above, the samba-canção style enjoyed huge commercial successful during the 1930’s and 40’s. Another important samba subgenre, which became popular during the first half of the 20th century was partido-alto, which mixed traditional samba de roda of Bahia with new urban Rio de Janeiro samba. Just like the samba de morro, partido-alto often consits of improvised verses and short choruses. Partido-alto experienced something of a revival during the 1960’s and 70’s, when the popular sambista Martinho da Vila reintroduced and modernized the style.Other influential 20th century sambistas are Ataulfo Alves, Cartola, Elton Medeiros, Antônio Candeia, Zé Keti, Dona Ivone Lara, Paulinho da Viola, Clara Nunes, Beth Carvalho and Alcione.

Rio de Janeiro has always been the epicenter of samba music and the vast majority of sambistas has lived and worked in the city. In Bahia, home of the original form of samba, also saw the development of a new type of samba, more melancholic and “raw” in in its expression, called samba duro (hard samba). The uncrowned king of samba duro was Batatinha, who during his career wrote some of the most beautiful samba melodies and lyrics in history. Another prominent figure of Bahia styled samba was the mischievous Riachão.

Only on a few rare occasions, the above mentioned great samba composers of Bahia were presented the chance of actually recording their work. Although the samba was both accepted and adopted by the middle class in the 1920’s and was hailed as a national symbol by Brazil's cultural elite, it took a very long time before the black and poor samba composers received the recognition that they deserved. Until the 1960’s, there was absolutely no prestige in being called “sambista” and most samba performers were born poor and also died poor. Their talent and the music they produced were not enough to overcome the deep-rooted prejudices that existed against the poor classes and people of color. This only changed in Rio de Janeiro during the mid 1960’s, when samba experienced a general upheaval, when many of that decade’s most popular artists, not least several of the bossa nova protagonists such as Vinicius de Morães, Carlos Lyra and João Gilberto, acknowledged and celebrated the Brazilian samba heritage.

The 1960’s also saw the beginning and rise of the career of Paulinho da Viola, one of the most famous and prominent samba songwriters and performers of all time. Paulinho da Viola’s samba is faithful to the genre's roots, while the quality and elegance of his work surpasses most. His songs have been recorded and rerecorded for decades by hundreds of Brazilian artists.

One of the newest and most successful subgenres of samba is pagode. Since the mid 1980’s, “pagode” has been the generally used term for a kind of upbeat, festive samba, which is discintivly different from the traditional Rio samba. In pagode, the banjo, with its sharper sound, has replaced the traditional cavaquinho. The heavy surdo drum, with its powerful percussion beat, which is one of the main characteristics of traditional samba, is also replaced with the light repique drum. A pagode song also needs to constitute a very straightforward and easy listening, in order for even the most inebriated party guests to be able to embrace it and sing along. Through artists like Zeca Pagodinho, Jorge Aragão and Almir Guineto the pagode music reached enormous commercial success during the late 1980’s. A second pagode wave swept over Brazil during the 1990’s. It was characterized by an ever more commercial direction, with simple melodies and lyrics, often written and produced by the record companies’ professional hit makers. A plethora of new artists such as Exalta Samba and Art Popular, appeared on the samba scene, enjoying huge but short lived commercial success. In many cases, they mixed samba with contemporary pop music. Within a decade, the overwhelming wave of pagode music foisted on the public through Brazilian media, effectively resulted in a pagode “overdose” for Brazilians in general and the subsequent decline of the genre. Today, the word "pagode" has come to represent a loose genre of commercial, light weight party samba, of dubious artistic quality.

Examples of samba

Click to listen:

Segure Tudo, Martinho da Vila, 1971
Para ver as meninas, Paulinho da Viola, 1971
Direito de sambar, Batatinha, 1998
Vassalo do Samba, Ataulfo Alves, 1966
Universo ao meu redor, Marisa Monte, 2006
Dança da Solidão, Marisa Monte, 1994
O Surdo, Alcione, 1975
13 de Maio, Caetano Veloso, 2001
Mas que nada, Jorge Ben, 1963
Sentimentos, Paulinho da Viola, 1973

Old painting of people dancing lundu, a predecessor of samba.

19th century painting of Afro-Brazilian music and dancing.

Samba de roda, in the state of Bahia.

Noel Rosa, poet and samba composer in the 1930's.

Paulinho da Viola, 1971.

Zeca Pagodinho

Samba School during carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Samba School during carnival in Rio de Janeiro.