The Origins of Samba

Samba Dancer
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The samba is arguably the most typical and familiar music of Brazil, developed from the earlier choro style — a song and dance form of the nineteenth century that is still performed today. 

Although there are many types of samba, its defining characteristic is the rhythm. This rhythm was originally derived from the Candomble, or prayer music, in Afro-Brazilian religious practices. In fact, the word “samba” itself means “to pray."

From this humble origin, samba has gone on to be one of the most popular forms of Latin music, taking on a variety of forms throughout its history and even developing special schools for learning the style. Artists like Elza Soares and Zeca Pagodino have epitomized the genre, but every day more and more samba music is released around the world as its popularity continues to grow.

Prayer and Origins in Rio de Janeiro

Prayer, in the context of the transplanted Congolese and Angolan practice, was usually accompanied by dance — the same type of dance we are familiar with today. As so often happened with unfamiliar traditions, European settlers in Brazil originally found the music and dance to be lascivious and sinful, but this perception led, in part, to the wider popularity of the dance, both among Afro-Brazilians and European Brazilians.

Although the samba was brought to Rio de Janeiro by immigrants from the Bahia region of Brazil, it quickly became the music of Rio itself. People in the poorer neighborhoods would band together into what they called “blocos” and would celebrate Carnaval in their own neighborhoods. Each "bloco" would develop variations and their own distinctive style of dance.

This variation eventually led to a fracturing of the genre into a variety of different unique styles and forms, which in turn led to the need for specialized schools to teach this burgeoning music genre to hopeful students of the craft.

Birth of Samba Schools

Since samba was a dance that was relegated to the poorer neighborhoods, it consequently had the reputation of being the activity of the jobless and worthless. In an effort to lend some legitimacy and standing to the “blocos," the “escola de samba” or “samba schools” were formed. The first documented samba school was Deixa Falar ("Let them Speak"), formed in 1928.

As samba schools grew, both in number and in popularity, the music was transformed to fit the feel of the Carnaval parade. This meant making percussion a dominant component of the music. These new percussion heavy bands were named baterias and thus the samba-enredo, the form of samba most famous via Rio’s Carnaval, was born.

But don’t be confused into thinking that a samba school is actually an institution of musical learning; rather, it is a musical organization. Typical samba schools can have several thousand members, although only the most talented would earn the right to perform in the big parade. These performers often included singers, musicians, dancers and bearers of flags, banners, and puppets.

The rest of the samba school would consequently participate in the creation of costumes, floats, props and whatever else was needed to shine on important days preceding Ash Wednesday.

Forms of Samba

There are many different types of samba. While samba-enredo is the samba performed at Carnival, some of the more popular forms include the samba-cancao ("samba song") which became popular in the 1950’s and samba de breque, a form of samba that is choppier in form. Of course, as music becomes globalized (like everything else), the wonderful musical fusion that we see everywhere gives birth to samba-reggae, samba-pagode and samba-rock.

If you are interested in listening to great samba recordings, try Elza Soares, the “Queen of Samba" or another great artist in the samba-pagode area, a more modern type of samba, Zeca Pagodino. Also be sure to check the recommendations in the general article on the music of Brazil.