What is Samba?

Samba is one of the best known forms of Afro-Brazilian music, and is a key component of a wide Afro-Brazilian culture that include dance, visual art, food, etc.


Origins of Samba

Afro Brazilian culture developed through a blending of cultures as a result of the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil in the 1500s. The Portuguese wished to use the temperate climate Brazil to grow crops such as coffee and sugar and attempted to subjugate the local indigenous Amerindian population to work their plantations. These Amerindians were for the most part, hunter/gatherers, and had no experience of farming. In addition to their lack of farming experience, exposure to European diseases such as smallpox and syphilis caused many of the Amerindians to sicken and die, further reducing their numbers and ability to work. The Portuguese considered their poor efforts either acts of laziness or rebellion, and turned instead to the importation of slaves from Africa. With no further ‘use’ for these first-nation Amerindians, the Portuguese often annihilated them, and as stated above, European diseases killed many more. 

The Africans brought to Brazil belonged to two major groups: the West African and the Bantu people. The West African people were sent in large scale to Bahia. They mostly belong to the Ga-Adangbe, Yoruba, Igbo, Fon, Ashanti, Ewe, Mandinka, and other West African groups native to Guinea, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria. The Bantus were brought from Angola, Congo region and Mozambique and sent in large scale to Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and the Northeastern Brazil.

 The African slaves inevitably brought elements of their culture with them, despite some resistance from the Portuguese. It must be noted, that while the Portuguese colonists did seek to repress expressions of African culture, they were not as committed to it as some other colonial powers. This may be because of the fact that Portuguese culture already had influences from Moorish sources, as the Moors had themselves colonised large parts of Southern Portugal and Spain between 711 and 1492. 

‘What is beyond dispute is that the Portuguese tradition of songs accompanied by percussion instruments, (e.g. the Arab-derived adufe, a hand beaten double-membrane square frame drum with metal jingles, which the Arabs called al-duff)12helped make Portuguese colonisers in Brazil and their African slaves markedly receptive to each other’s music. Much of what the transported Africans sang and played was compatible with the music of the Portuguese settlers; and that music in turn, both traditional and otherwise, was largely accessible to the slaves.’ (Fryer, 2000, p. 2)

Out of this racial melting pot, Afro-Brazilian culture was born. This vibrant and exciting culture is still evolving and is expressed in different ways in different parts of Brazil. It is important to note the what we in Europe call ‘samba’ music, is often an umbrella-term encompassing several different forms of music (samba, samba-reggae, afro bloc, maracatú, baiao, etc.). In Brazil, ‘samba’ also refers to several music forms including samba de roda, samba gafeira, samba de cançao, partied alto, pagode and samba-enredo. Samba erred is the carnival music associated closely with Rio and to a lesser extent Sao Paulo.

‘Nowhere are the difficulties of Brazilian musical nomenclature more apparent, and more likely to pile confusion on confusion, than in the term ‘samba’. It has been claimed that ‘there are dozens of types of samba in Brazil, each with its own musical, chorographical, lyrical, and sociocultural parameters’. This is not the overstatement it might at first seem to be. We have already distinguished the ring samba from the line samba of São Paulo (both also known as batuque), and both of these for the modern urban samba, to which we shall return in chapter 9. In 1988 it was shown that at least 31 present or past forms of samba had been identified in Brazil, in 21 of which there was umbigada, the smacking together of the dancers’ bellies that normally signalled a change of partner.’ (Fryer, 2000, p. 103)

Rio de Janeiro

No one is sure where the term ‘samba originated. Some say it comes from the word ‘semba’, a Congo/Angola expression used to describe a traditional African dance, brought to Brazil by slaves. It may also come from the Umbanda term ‘san-ba’ meaning to pray as many samba players and composers are followers of Umbanda and Candomblé.

Today’s samba schools are descendants of the neighbourhood blocos – groups of poor Rio residents who came together to sing and dance, to the accompaniment of percussion music. Many of these sessions were hosted by the ‘Tias Bianas‘ (the Bahian Aunts), many of whom were key figures in the city’s Candomblé scene. Blocos celebrated carnival in their own neighbourhoods and visited neighbouring favelas and often ran foul of the police for their raucous and sometimes lewd antics.

Samba came to the attention of white Brazilians with the advent of radio and record players and the first recorded sambas appeared from 1917 onwards. The first samba school ‘Deixa Falar’ (Let Them Speak) was formed in 1928. Quickly, many other samba schools were formed such as Mangueira (1930) and Portela (1935), all of which exist to this day. The term ‘samba school’ refers to the fact that many of these early groups rehearsed in school yards.

The authorities still regarded the samba community as little more than vagabonds and street hoodlums, regularly breaking up celebrations and confiscating or breaking instruments. In the 1960s, the military dictatorship, now under critical threat from the Tropicalista and Bossa Nova performers, decided that ‘traditional’ samba would be elevated as the official indigenous music of Brasil, and samba events supported and even paid for by the state.

This process culminated in the building of the Sambadromo in Rio de Janeiro in 1984 – a dedicated samba parade auditorium. Ironically, while this building facilitated many more people to see the samba parades in person and on television, the ticket prices excluded many people from the very communities that created samba in the first place.

A typical samba school can number 3,000 to 4,000 members, although not all members will perform for carnival. A samba school carnival entry will typically include singers (puxadores), musicians, including a drumming section called the bateria, dancers, giant puppets, several floats, flag bearers, etc, all ornately decorated or wearing colourful costumes. As well as the performers, there will be an army of people behind the scenes – building props and floats, making costumes, designing elements of the entry, doing the administration, etc.

The most important event in the annual life of a samba school is the carnival parade. Carnival is celebrated each year just before the Catholic feast of Lent and, as such occurs in February or early March. Samba schools will begin their preparations for the carnival as early as mid July. Samba school members compose songs and submit designs for costumes, floats, etc. The samba enredo is selected and becomes the key song and determines the overall theme for that year’s entry. Then, intensive rehearsals, building and making commence which will continue right up to the beginning of carnival.

‘The begin with, every parade must have a theme, the enredo, which might be political or historical or a tribute to a particular person. Until 1996, the enredo had to be related to Brazil. It is chosen by the carnavalesco, a type of art director who is responsible for the visual aspect of the escola. After the enredo is approved by the board of directors, the carnavalesco writes a synopsis of it, describing the message he wants to visually convey in the parade. Then, around June, the synopsis is distributed amongst the escola’s composers so that they can begin writing the samba on the theme. Such a samba is called a samba-enredo.’  (McGowan & Pessanha, 1998, p. 40).

The carnival parade itself is a competition and entries are judges on a range of factors including costumes, dancers and, of course, the musical ability and composition of the entry. The competition is taken very seriously by all involved and groups work extremely hard to put together the best possible entry.

Salvador de Bahia

In Salvador de Bahia, carnival traditions developed differently and are closely linked with the black-consciousness movement of the 1970s. Taking on board the same influences as Rio samba, and mixing them with music from other black artists of the period (soul, funk and reggae), new Afro Blocs formed. Afro blocs celebrated the African heritage of their (mainly black) membership and set about educating people about African cultures while speaking out about past and present injustices and inequalities in Brazilian society. Their music contains a stronger African influence than Rio samba.

The watershed event in this ‘process of re-Africanization’ was the founding of the exclusive dark-sinned blacks-only bloco afro, Ilê Aiyê, in 1974. Formed by Vovô – whose mother was a famous canbomblé (9) leader, a recognized holder of the fragments of African ‘essence’ 1930s anthropologists identified in Salvador – in the economically dispossessed neighborhoods of Curuzu, Ilê Aiyê’s explicit claim for racial (black) exclusivity was unprecedented and unimaginable. For Ilê Aiyê’s agenda proposed a view of black consciousness informed by the US black power movement and the anti- colonial intellectuals from the Portuguese colonies in Africa. (Ferreira da Silva, 2005, p. 334)

The first Afro bloc was Ile Aiye, formed in 1974. Ile Aiye took the controversial step of excluding whites and mulattos from their ranks and specialises in provocative, pro-black lyrics. The best-known Afro bloc of all is Olodum, who are generally considered to have invented samba-reggae. Samba-reggae mixes Afro bloc music with reggae influences, to produce an extremely popular music form which has gained popularity world over. Amongst others, Olodum have recorded and performed with such luminaries as Jimmy Cliff, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon and Michael Jackson.

According to one of its founders, Rodrigues, Olodum ‘was founded in 1979 by prostitutes, homosexuals, people associated with the jogo do bixo, (animal lottery) dope smokers, bohemian lawyers, and intellectuals’. Definitely, unlike the religious-based founders of Ilê, this crowd met in the regions of Pelourinho e Maciel. Salvador’s poorest neighborhoods could not immediately claim an African ‘essence’ but they could claim something which its carnival lyrics consistently communicated. ‘Olodum’s work’, Rodrigues describes, ‘is a form of nonviolent guerrilla warfare. At all moments we are engaged in politics. (. . .) At all moments we are thinking about taking power in order to create the concrete conditions for us to share the wealth of a country’ (Ferreira da Silva, 2005, p. 334)

The Northeast

The third pillar of Afro-Brazilian music history lies in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, centred around the cities of Recife and Olinda. In the past, this area was somewhat isolated from the rest of Brazilian society and, as such, the music here developed in isolation from other forms. This has resulted in two factors: Some music forms are closer in structure and content to their original roots and the music found here is unique to the area. The main carnival pattern from the Northeast is Maracatú, a slow trance-like rhythm relying on heavy, off beat patterns laid down by bass drums (alfaias), complex interlocking snare rhythms and large African cowbells (gongués). Also associated with carnival in the Northeast is Frevo, a manic, polka-type music played with percussion instruments and brass and Forró, music played on accordion, triangle and bass drum (zabumba).

Samba in Britain and Ireland

As mentioned earlier, the term ‘samba’ when used outside of Brazil can be an umbrella term, encompassing all the forms mentioned earlier in this paper. For the sake of brevity, I will do likewise.

Samba was not played in Britain and Ireland until the 1980s. For the most part, the development of a vibrant samba scene can be attributed to the tireless work of a small group of samba fanatics. The London School of Samba is the longest established group in the UK, dating back to 1984. Inner Sense Percussion Orchestra had a huge effect on the samba scene in the UK and Ireland, touring incessantly in the 1990s and bringing Brazilian music to many new audiences and inspiring new bands to form far and wide. The less obvious factor in the development of the samba scene here, has been the use of Brazilian percussion in community music and community arts projects. Samba is an ideal tool in education and community arts settings and, as such has been used in a broad variety of social settings. Many of the groups in existence today either are, or owe their existence to, community music projects.

Today, there are more than 300 Afro Brazilian music groups in existence in the UK and Ireland. There are now some highly skills practitioners and training courses that will ensure that the quality of playing and teaching in the sector will continue to rise. While the overall number of groups and individual musicians has dropped from its peak in the late 1990s, those that remain have developed their passion for this artform to a point where its continued development is assured.


Simeon Smith,

September 2020.