Samba Brasileira History
by Chilemwa Harriet Nkowane
Samba remains a popular Brazilian dance form and musical genre. Over the years, it has been exported worldwide, and fused with contemporary music to its success. Though its origins are widely disputed, the genre can be placed as having its roots origins in the traditional religious ceremonies brought to Brazil by African slaves. As a musical genre, samba combines the rhythmic percussion tempo variation with the sounds of the pandeiro, reco reco, tamborim and cuica to name a few, giving it its distinct sound and vibe. With its link to the yearly Carnaval Brasileiro, samba has come to symbolize racial and social harmony. The northeastern state of Bahia, cradle of many Afro-Brazilian traditions, is home to the origins of Samba music. When slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, former slaves from Bahia migrated south to Rio, which is currently the base of Samba.
The word “Samba” is derived from the word “Semba”. In the African Bantu language known as Kimbundo, brought to Brazil by slaves taken predominantly from Angola, “Semba” signifies “navel bump” which depicts the intimacy and “invitation” to dance, a feature common in many Afro Brazilian forms. It is also noted that the word Samba is the infinitive of “kusamba” which literally means “to pray” or to invoke favour of the gods through rhythm, song and dance. It is believed that Angola's traditional semba music lies at the founding heart of Brazilian samba. Used as a means of celebrating and religious worship, the semba follows an ancient rhythm, accompanied by a dance form similar to present day Samba with emphasis placed on the undulations of the hips and belly.
Samba emerged as a musical genre after its birth in the region of Bahia known as “Little Africa”. Terreiros da Candomble (religious houses) were founded by Bahian priestesses also known as Tias (Aunts) or Bainas (Bahian Aunts), to invoke the gods through song and dance. During these religious ceremonies, samba da roda was danced to the beat of African drum and percussions. Gathering in the homes of well respected Bainas, people would create and compose Samba variations. The first officially broadcast Samba song, entitled “Pelo Telefone”, was recorded in the terreiro of legendary Tia Ciata in Praça Onze, Bahia.
When slavery came to an end, mass migration to Rio from Bahia commenced. Continuing the practice of Samba, Escolas de Samba (Samba schools) were established as a creative and artistic outlet for poor communities. Accompanied by percussion music, blocos (groups of dancers) sung and danced in celebration of Carnaval through their neighbourhoods and neighboring favelas (shanty towns). Initially, the practice and dance expression of Samba was prohibited for it was perceived as obscene, improper and in bad taste in the view of Brazil’s upper class. Angenor de Oliveira, a pioneer of Samba, has been quoted as saying:
“In my childhood, we played the Samba in the backyards of the old ladies, whom we call tias, and the police stopped us often, because the Samba, then, was considered a thing of bums and bandits.”
Thus looked down on by European settlers and upper class citizens, Samba was practiced often in secret societies. With the advent of migration south, blocos formed the basis of the first escolas de samba. However, in 1917, the Samba Carnavalesco was presented to the public by Ernesto dos Santos, or Donga, son of Tía Amelia, in the song “Pelo Telefone” (on the telephone).
The musical form of Samba rose in popularity in the 1920s, establishing itself as a firm favourite for Carnaval Brasileiro. In time, when the first few escolas de samba were established, and dance groups (blocos) paraded the streets in groups of no more than fifty people, the parades evolved into competitions in which the best group would dazzle the crowd with their rhythmic dance expression and elaborate costumes. Samba became a means of instilling national pride in the masses and was officially recognised worldwide, as a musical genre and dance form. Maintaining its Portuguese/Iberian connection and the legacy of Africa, in 1925 Samba was imported into Europe and studied heavily by aficionados from Europe, the US and elsewhere.
The 1930s saw a start to government subsidy of escolas de samba who presented patriotic themes as part of their performance. The theme of Brazil as a racial democracy was presented, with a distinctly “African” Samba style being promoted. The samba de enredo comprised the theme songs of Rio de Janiero's Carnival - batucadas (large percussion sections), as well as the singers and dancers comprising the escolas de samba, marched in street parades to samba de enredo, and frequently, samba cançao.
In time, numerous escolas de Samba fell prey to profit-seeking small businesses who subcontracted the escolas’ services and performances to tourism agencies. Schools were sponsored and supported on the basis that they forward particular political agendas or remained instruments of tourism. In response to this loss of authenticity in Samba, the 1980s saw the rise of the pagode movement, which brought Samba a step towards regaining authenticity which was at risk. The grassroots movement which arose from Rio’s working class suburbs in direct response to the problem at hand, merged Afro-Brazilian nationalist identity with cultural resistance through assertive Samba lyrics and groups organising their own carnival parade blocos, free from external cultural intervention.
Samba remains a diverse and versatile art form. Over the years, Samba has evolved into different sub genres. Some of the most popular genres include Carioca, a Baion, Conga, Mesemba, a Batucado, and Carnivale. As a sound all its own, the Samba additionally exists in different forms: Samba canção (song Samba), Samba carnavalesca (carnival Samba), Samba enredo (theme Samba) and Samba de breque (break Samba).
While some forms of Samba such as afoxé still maintain their religious and cultural African roots, other forms have merged and fused to create new rhythms altogether, with lambada and Samba reggae being the more obvious examples. Samba reggae is said to have evolved from the formation of Bahia’s Afro Blocs, which prioritized black consciousness in their lyrics, as a result of the 1970s movement in the US, thus integrating popular forms of black music. In turn, Samba gafieira was a musical style which evolved from the form danced in popular nightclubs, known as gafieiras. Samba de breque emerged as a form which incorporated short breaks or pauses which were filled in by rap, typically representing gangsta personas such as Moreira da Silva.
As a musical genre and dance expression, Samba has been afforded many cultural interchanges. Having evolved to incorporate the multicultural aspect of Brazil, Samba’s African historical roots remain firmly intact, and its European influence evident in contemporary forms of salsa.
- September 18, 2004