shores, coasts, and then hinterlands of Brazil were filled with African slaves, a new culture took hold, invoking memories of the past and sustaining a culture for the future. The slaves, who had been surrounded by Europeans for years of their own lives and centuries of a history, carried with them a motley version of the Western African Bantu language. One of its many soulful, multi-faceted words was semba, which captured many ideas with one word: invocation of the spirits, reliance on ancestors, prayers to Gods of the African pantheon; it even meant a complaint, a cry for something, and a feeling of the disillusioned discomfort today known as ‘the blues.’
Semba, pronounced samba, was also used to name a ceremony traditional to the early African slaves in Brazil, in which they danced to the rhythmic choreography of butacar, a native African dance.
Samba originated as an early form of expression, both in the aural and the physical, that integrated the modern with the age-old traditions of West Africa, carried across the Atlantic and transplanted in Brazil.
The word Samba became part of the Portuguese language of the slave-traders, who enjoyed the workers’ performances of batuque. Batuque had both a secular and a religious component, and while Jongo remains the form of worship still today, Samba took hold as a colloquial celebration of rhythm, music, and dance. During the same era of the slave trade, Jesuit priest Lopes Gama gained popular esteem for the articles he wrote on the “black” culture of the Africans. His articles appeared regularly in a self-published Portuguese newspaper in Recife and Corte called “O Carapuceiro;” in 1838, he made references to the “samba d’almoscreve,” ridiculing the dances and music of the almoscreve, the servants responsible for the care of the mules and donkeys.
Lopes launched the standard tirade into the subculture of the workers, ridiculing the brute physical and sheer sensuality of the dance. Ironically, though he did not feel the same way about the slave trade, he thought that the music filtering through the dancehalls, presumably the lundu of the lower classes, would prove responsible for tears in the social fabric binding together the Brazilian community. His articles reported the lyrics of the dances he recognized:
Aqui pelo nosso mato
Qu’estava entao mui tratamba
Nao se sabin de otra coisa
Sanao a denga do samba
Around our village here
Which was quite stupid then
There was nothing else we knew
Besides the samba dance
Despite his displeasure with the popularity of the samba, it was already well-rooted in the popular culture of Brazil, separating the Portuguese aristocracy from the working labor classes and slaves. In 1917, Ernesto des Santos recorded not only his first song, “Pelo Telefone,” but the first produced song of the samba movement. The lower classes, who viewed the release of this song as a symbol of growing strength and hope for their social groups, started Samba Schools throughout Brazil in which they espoused the musical and martial-dance movements of Samba to many willing white learners, captivated by the soulful tone of the music and ease of strut in step.
As Samba took hold in the popular culture, Catholicism became a dominant religious trend as well. Like the slaves taken to Cuba, those forced into slavery in Brazil were able to impart the histories, traditions, and cultural mores of their histories onto their descendants. Particular forms of dance and music in Brazil have roots more directly linked to Angola, West Africa, than to indigenous tribes or the Portuguese.
The Catholic church in Brazil, under leadership complicit with Lopes’ view of popular Brazilian culture, now a hegemony of Brazilian natives, West African ancestors, Portuguese settlers, and their sometimes mixed offspring. The sounds Mambo and Samba were, to them, unholy representations of the physical body, not to mention the cultures of their African homelands. Yet in Africa, music and dance held a sacred place in society as a form of worship.
Because of the encouraged church-based suppression of the popular dance forms, and Samba in particular, the vivacious power of the people to hold on to and grow Samba proved particularly fortuitous. The West African religious system fostered a set of beliefs that included becoming one with a god, or orixa, through physical enactment, an act that stood in conspicuous opposition to the Western-preached forms of quiet and obedient supplication. Because worshipping an orixa was a joyous, loud celebration, historians and anthropologists presume that the popular spread of samba was an early result of the concealed celebration of the native African saints.
Oito Butatas, the “eight experts,” were presumed to have included the worship of these orixa in their music and dance when they first gained popularity as the earliest Samba band with mass appeal. A white brazilian named Duque watched the Oito Butatas with great admiration and academic respect; he had studied at the Dance academy of in Paris. He took careful note of both their rhythm and choreography, and returned to Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century with a detailed new dance book for the Parisian elite. While the youthful aristocracy took to the Samba immediately, the “white” that began for the Samba abroad was far less colorful than the history at home.
Oito Butatas grew wildly in popularity at home, far more so than abroad. Their songs provoked an innate willingness to move in the people of Brazil, whose familiarity with the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria invoked the preservation of the Mambo, of which Samba is a certain derivative. Translated, Mambo means conversation with the Gods.
The Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble mirrored Santeria in many ways, including the use of Samba as a form of prayer, and the importance of music, dance, and rhythm in a holy life.
Candomble requires its believers to seek out their axe, sustaining spiritual force. The axe, a force as important as an orixa, carries the believer through life, and is responsible for all the positive aspects of the quotidian, from a good harvest to a wealthy supply of water. To insure a good daily life, the believer must carry out basic devotional rites to the axe, as well as perform ritualistic ceremonies; these are carried out from an early age, ingraining in each child not only the importance of dance in life, but also the easy grace of movement characteristic of the Samba.
Ernesto dos Santos singled himself out early on as a father to the life of the Samba. Known colloquially as Donga, he produced “Pelo Telefone” a year before iota Butatos made an official copy of it. He wrote the lyrics and cemented the dance steps, and his friend Pixinguinha produced the piano score, but Dos Batutas carried the song to great fame; it was even included in the 1917 carnival, where the already-popular song gained mass appeal not only among Brazilian working classes, but also among the white Portuguese aristocracy.
Donga, viewed as a Brazilian musical genius by his followers, was inspired by the religious music of his youth and asserted the popularity of it as a pseudo-religious canonization. He and his pianist-friend visited the house of Tia Ciata, a noble Condomble priestess who lived near Rio de Janeiro for inspiration. There, a small community had developed in Praca Onze, where ex-slaves and immigrants from the Northeast of Brazil created their own, insular community; afoxe, jongo, and samba were popular musical expressions there.
War and famine came fast to Brazil at the end of the imperial age, and while slavery was abolished in 1888, it did not preclude the terrors of a vastly changing state in the age of transition. As people could no longer survive in the rural countryside, poverty drove them towards the cities, and Brazil witnessed a new age of urbanization. The explosion of populations in the cities meant a surge in the Samba culture as well, and while there was a high demand for the music, the country did not yet have the technological advances to record the music as quickly as it was desired.
In 1922, Donga, Pixinguinha, and their compatriots Oita Batutas took the music of the little Praca Onze community on tour to Paris, where Duque had already achieved maximum notoriety for the taste of Samba. They were exposed, for the first time, to the heated sounds of modern Jazz, which they incorporated into their music upon their return to Brazil. There, Donga, Pixinguinha, Jose Barbosa di Silva, and Heitor dos Prazeres experimented with the world music, mixing it into their won sounds. This fusion movement took Samba from merely the religious and indigenous sound of the peoples of Brazil to the forefront of the international musical scene in what they called Samba-Carioca; it gained world-wide attention when Fred Astaire danced to it in Flying Down to Rio in his 1933 film.
Then, in 1923, the radio was introduced to Brazil, and the Samba was enabled to spread to even the white urban middle class, whose airways brought the local sound straight into their homes. The laborers of Cidade Nova and those of the Morres de Rio established Samba as a common musical language, no longer limited just to those of the Condomble cultures. Samba was soon the natural flavor of Carnival music.
While Samba became the national musical language in Brazil itself, it also increased in rapid esteem outside of Brazil. In 1928, Parisian Paul
Boucher published a dance book with special instructions for the Samba, detailed to help the Europeans learn the steps and movement. At the same time, two formal Samba schools opened in Brazil, one in Estacio and the other in Bloco. Both played the Samba hits from the airwaves and instructed Brazilians in the same steps Boucher was teaching the Parisians, increasing the role of Samba as a new art form with increased complexity and advanced dance steps.
Brazil began its slow creep back into the international spectrum as a South American power during the same time. President Getulio Vargas, who pioneered the building of the city of Brasilia and incorporated the western ideas of nationalism with a very practical growth model, sought social reform for Brazil that harkened the roots of the people and moved away from the Portuguese dominating ruling class. He brought a sense of national respect, pride, valorism to the celebration of native culture, and began subsidizing groups in Rio who would perform dances of a “patriotic” theme; Samba was a prime candidate.
In 1929, the popularly held white belief that drumming was too African morphed suddenly into respect; it was no longer seen as not as intellectual or civilized, but rather a means of expression that furthered the new movement of Samba that was sweeping the cities of Europe and the United States by storm. The same year, a group of white middle class youth from Brazil were invited to many weddings throughout the country and play the Samba coming from the overwhelmingly large majority of Afro-Brazilian descendents. They called their band Bandos Tangaras, and continued their education of the Samba as it grew wildly. Noel Rosa released her international hit “Com Que Rupa?” The next year, and became fascinated with the rustic Samba beats the inhabitants of the Brazilian hill country performed. The most native forms of Samba were incorporated into the music of the leading Samba stars, and the Afro-Brazilian culture was popularly celebrated, a powerful social force.
Modern Samba-Carioca is the fundamental base of ballroom Samba, which gained mass-appeal in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Great Britain, where it was danced by youth on their back porches on weekend afternoons, young adults in dance halls at night, and even the older adult population in celebratory balls.
Rio saw the rise of Samba with Brazilian refugees escaping Bahia, and the changing political tide of the South African brought large population relocation, furthering the cultural dissemination of the working, African descended, and indigenous people.
The power-hungry political motivations of Vargas did not detract from the many advances he made in the country and the society as a whole; his attention to the power of the people remains unvanquished. By providing financial and governmental support to those dedicated enough to the dance of Samba, he achieved not only an image of native power but also succeeded in popularizing a culture that had been ignored and suppressed by its rulers for centuries. Vargas played upon the political theme that Brazil was a racial democracy, where Afro-Brazilian heritage could not only be accepted but received the honor it was due.
As a dance form, Samba was rooted in the African heritage of the slaves the Portuguese brought to brutally till the lands of their newest conquest, Brazil. Ripe in their own culture, the slaves outwitted their keepers by celebrating their own culture under the guise of party and dance; popular continued dedication to the holy forms of traditional culture invoked the preservation of the sensual dance form. As the world scene grew more international and Brazil developed its own government separate of the European thrones, Samba was encouraged on a national level for patriotic reasons, spread internationally for the beauty that had been suppressed for centuries, supporting its power to overcome racial segregation through simple movements.
Guillermprieto, Alma. Samba. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Hess, David. Samba in the Night: Spiritism in Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Marre, Jeremy. The Black Music of Brazil: A Harcourt Films Production. [documentary film; 60 min.] Newton, NJ: Sanachie, 2000.
Raphel, Alison. Samba and Social Control: Popular Control and Racial Democracy in Rio de Janiero. 1980. Microfilm — FC81-13, 546.
The Social History of the Brazilian Samba: Ashgate Studies in Ethnomusicology New York: Ashgate Publishing, 1999.
Marre, Jeremy. The Black Music of Brazil: A Harcourt Films Production. [documentary film; 60 min.] Newton, NJ: Sanachie, 2000.
The Social History of the Brazilian Samba: Ashgate Studies in Ethnomusicology New York: Ashgate Publishing, 1999. p. 34.
Guillermprieto, Alma. Samba. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p. 137.
A Social History of the Brazilian Samba, p. 177.
Guillermprieto, p. 68.
A Social History of the Brazilian Samba, p. 84.
Ibid, p. 98.
Ibid, p. 113.
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