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Voices from the Favelas: Don't Let the Samba Die Sofia Ribeiro Willcox recounts the story of samba music

Voices from the Favelas: Don't Let the Samba Die

Sofia Ribeiro Willcox recounts the story of samba music

by Sofia Ribeiro Willcox, Cultural Exchanger and Explorer
first published: December, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

The roots of samba can be traced back to 18th-century African slaves laboring in the sugar cane mills of the Northeast and the coffee farms and mines of Brazil's southern regions.

December 2nd, a date deeply embedded in Brazil's cultural fabric since 1962, marks the esteemed Brazilian Day of Samba – a cherished intangible cultural heritage and a profound emblem of Brazilian identity. Embarking on a journey that stretches over six decades, this rhythmic odyssey encapsulates the soulful essence of a nation.

The roots of samba can be traced back to 18th-century African slaves laboring in the sugar cane mills of the Northeast and the coffee farms and mines of Brazil's southern regions. The rhythms emerged from the cramped quarters of these slaves, expressed through beats created by their feet and hands striking the floor or their own bodies, as musical instruments were scarce. Notably, this unique sound drew inspiration from musical genres native to their homelands, such as lundo, among others. Additionally, it fused with European melodies like polka, waltz, mazurka, minuet, and even indigenous rhythms. The term "samba" is believed to have its origins in the Kimbundu (Angolan) word "semba," denoting an "invitation to dance" and serving as a common designation for the parties held by slaves.

In the century following the abolition of slavery, freed slaves migrated to Brazil's then capital, Rio de Janeiro, seeking employment opportunities. They brought with them a rich cultural heritage that crystallized into a distinctive musical and dance genre, evolving into various subgenres. This cultural expression found a vibrant home in the slums, where former slaves were often resettled due to lack of inclusive policies and social practices. Samba flourished in these communities, particularly in the homes of elderly Black women from Bahia, affectionately known as "tias," or in "terreiros." Terreiros served as sacred spaces dedicated to practicing Afro-Brazilian culture, including Capoeira, Candomblé, and Umbanda.

However, these gatherings, particularly in public spaces, often drew the attention of the police, as they were deemed suspicious under unjust laws rooted in veiled racism and biased views. The 'vagrancy law,' for instance, stipulated the arrest of anyone engaged in activities associated with African culture, extending even to mere possession of percussion instruments. Despite these oppressive measures, the Black community demonstrated remarkable resilience and resistance. Interestingly, by the turn of the century, even the upper echelons of society in Rio de Janeiro began incorporating African rhythms into their events, signifying a significant shift towards the acceptance and integration of this cultural heritage.

The release of Donga's "Pelo Telefone" during Carnival in 1916 marked a pivotal moment in the history of samba. The decade witnessed the rise of samba icons like Sinhô, often hailed as the "king of samba," and Pixinguinha, a genre pioneer. Despite societal stigma and repression against sambistas, this period became a milestone in the struggle for the acceptance of samba and Afro-Brazilian culture. The song's significance lies in its role in popularizing this marginalized culture and musical genre among a wider audience, becoming the first recorded samba.

The 1920s marked a departure from informal gatherings of musicians to a more urban setting. The music evolved with longer melodic lines, shifting from a party atmosphere to a style suitable for marches rather than dancing. Samba schools emerged, incorporating samba into the Rio Carnival's established practices. This fusion gave rise to the 'samba-enredo,' a style tailored for leading carnival processions and conveying specific messages.

Particularly notable was the role of the Carioca neighborhood Pequena África, particularly Pedra do Sal. Ironically, this former slave market and site for salt unloading from the harbor became central to the samba scene, highlighting the resilience and transformation of cultural spaces over time.

In the 1930s, former president Getúlio Vargas played a pivotal role by decriminalizing the samba music genre, embracing it as an integral part of Brazilian identity. Concurrently, samba's ascent became inextricably linked with Carnival, the iconic Brazilian celebration. As a result, the genre secured a prominent position in the Brazilian music industry. The more lenient legal stance enabled samba to gain recognition and promotion on radio stations, the primary mode of communication at the time.

This shift drew the attention of the Carioca middle class, giving rise to a generation of sambistas with lighter skin tones, including notable figures such as Noel Rosa, Dorival Cayimi, Francisco Alves, Ary Barroso, and Carmen Miranda. They played a crucial role in promoting the acceptance of the music genre, distinguishing it from the 'samba de malandro,' which portrayed anti-heroic, impoverished Black Brazilians. This era in the Brazilian popular music industry became known as the Golden Age, spanning from the 1930s to 1945.

The Golden Age of popular music was a period of rich eclecticism, showcasing a harmonious blend of urban genres and countryside influences, drawing inspiration from the vibrant musical traditions of Brazil's Northeastern regions. This era was marked by a diverse array of samba subgenres, each characterized by its unique rhythms and thematic elements. Technological advancements and a cultural revolution, spearheaded by the advent of radio, musical comical talkies, and electromagnetic sound recording, played a pivotal role in shaping this remarkable period.

The influence of foreign rhythms, including bolero, tango, jazz, foxtrots, and French chansons, became increasingly prominent, signaling the gradual decline of the Golden Age. This period witnessed a shift in Brazilian music, embracing a heightened emotionality and a sense of refinement, epitomized by the emergence of samba-canção between the 1940s and 1950s. This subgenre stood out for its melodic sophistication and sensitivity.

The 1960s marked a pivotal change in Brazil's cultural landscape with the inauguration of Brasília as the new capital. Despite this shift, Rio de Janeiro continued to hold its position as the epicenter of Brazilian culture, particularly with the flourishing of urban samba. During this period, a kaleidoscope of samba subgenres emerged, drawing inspiration from a diverse array of foreign sources.

Towards the late 1950s, the release of "Chega de Saudade" by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes heralded the arrival of bossa nova – a groundbreaking fusion of samba and jazz, spearheaded by a group of middle-class intellectuals. Hits like "Mas que Nada" and "Chove Chuva" soared to international prominence, showcasing the genre's unique blend of bossa nova, American blues, and rock and roll. Dom Salvador further enriched the musical landscape by seamlessly integrating American funk into samba.

The 1960s saw the rise of nightclubs as the primary venues for nightlife in Rio de Janeiro, becoming vibrant hubs for sambistas and samba dancers. Rio de Janeiro cemented its status as the Mecca of samba, with bars serving as the heart of the samba scene, fostering a dynamic and ever-evolving musical community. This period also witnessed the proliferation of partner dance samba styles, adding to the genre's dynamic and ever-evolving nature.

In 1962, Édison Carneiro penned the "Carta ao Samba" during the First National Samba Congress. This poignant letter addressed the growing concern of losing samba's authentic character, urging composers to safeguard its roots and integrity. The "Carta ao Samba" marked the establishment of December 2nd as Samba Day, a symbolic recognition of samba's cultural significance and a commitment to preserving its essence.

The 1960s brought challenges, including the introduction of foreign influences, the emergence of music festivals, and an oppressive 21-year military regime. Despite these setbacks, artists like Chico Buarque de Holanda emerged with sambas that bravely addressed the political climate, epitomized in "Apesar de Você." Samba's roots in terreiros (African-Brazilian religious gatherings) were reaffirmed, becoming powerful symbols of defiance.

The following decade witnessed a samba revival, led by new interpreters and songwriters like Clara Nunes, Beth Carvalho, and Alcione. Technological advancements facilitated the release of LPs by seasoned veterans like Donga, Cartola, and Nelson Cavaquinho. Efforts were made to revive sambas from samba schools, with annual releases of "samba-enredos" during Carnival. Additionally, the traditional "Partido-alto" format from terreiros experienced a resurgence. The genre also expanded its reach across discs, radio, and television.

This period also saw the rise of Brazilian popular music, with artists like Milton Nascimento and Djavan modernizing the batucada (polyrhythmic percussion) and incorporating contemporary harmony and instrumentation. This fusion of samba with foreign forms propelled the genre to mainstream popularity.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, pagode emerged as a vibrant addition to the samba scene. Originating from backyard parties, pagode evolved with refined melodies, innovative harmonies, and percussion. New instruments, such as the banjo, tantan, repique, samplers, and keyboards, enriched the musical landscape.

In recent decades, samba has diversified into various subgenres, incorporating melodic rhythms and blending with other musical genres from across Brazil, including São Paulo and Minas Gerais. Notable figures like Fundo de Quintal and Zeca Pagodinho shaped the pagode subgenre.

In Salvador, samba's birthplace, the genre underwent a unique transformation through its fusion with Olodum beats, representing Black culture and pride. This fusion occasionally incorporated elements of Jamaican reggae, adding an international flavor to the evolving samba landscape.

Samba is more than just music; it is a symbol of resistance and resilience that resonates with the soul of Brazil.

“Because samba was born there in Bahia
And if today it is white in poetry
It’s too black at heart”
(Samba de Bênção-Vinícius de Moraes, 1967)

Sofia Ribeiro Willcox
Cultural Exchanger and Explorer

Sofia has a BA with Hons in Creative and Professional Writing and Film and Television Studies from the University of Wolverhampton (2020-2023). Born in Brazil, Sofia is an enthusiast of pop culture (cinephile and melophile), social sciences (snowflake generation), and poetry (lusophone).


about Sofia Ribeiro Willcox »»

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