Brazilian Samba – where did it come from?

The origins of the Brazilian Samba dance date back to the 16th century during the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil. In order to cope with the growing demand for Brazilian commodities such as cane sugar (and later the Brazilian Gold Rush), the Portuguese bought slaves from Africa to handle the workload in the then capital: Salvador, Bahia. An estimated 4 million African slaves were shipped to Brazil over the subsequent 300 years. It is in the sugar cane plantations where Samba de Roda became popular amongst the African slaves, where they would dance together in a circle to a 2/4 percussive beat.

Brazilian Samba – African origins

When the African slaves were brought to Brazil, they also brought their religion Candomblé with them. The word Candomblé means “dance in honour of the gods”, and music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies. Worshipers of Candomblé communicate with their numerous gods through distinct drum rhythms, not too dissimilar to the drum rhythms found in modern samba music.

Brazilian Samba – from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro

Slavery was finally abolished in Brazil in 1888, and a large portion of the freed Africans moved to the then capital, Rio de Janeiro. It is in Rio where the mix of African culture and cosmopolitan Rio culture fused to create urban Carioca Samba. The Rio natives (known as “Cariocas”) living in the favelas would join together to create samba dances for the annual Carnival festival. In 1916, Rio-born Ernesto Joaquim Maria dos Santos (better known as Donga) composed what is considered to be the first samba song, titled Pelo Telfone. The song was recorded in the home of Candomblé priestess, Tia Ciata.

Image of HD Entertainment Brazilian Samba dancer

Brazilian Samba – Rio and music

Pixinguinha (real name Alfredo da Rocha Viana Fiho) was part of a group that traveled to Paris in 1923, where he heard American Jazz for the first time and subsequently released the track “Carinhoso”. His fusion of Brazilian choro music and American Jazz wasn’t received well initially, however over time grew in popularity and paved the way for modern Samba music. Other Brazilian artists such as Dorival Caymmi and Carmen Miranda (“The Brazilian Bombshell”) were also pivotal in popularising samba, both domestically in Brazil and overseas in the USA.

Brazilian Samba – Music and politics

With its roots in African slavery and progression to the slums of Rio, early samba music focused on the suffering of Afro-Brazilians and the harsh transition into city life. Therefore middle-class Brazilians, especially those with Portuguese heritage, didn’t respect or appreciate samba music at the time. When Getúlio Vargas became President in 1930, he harnessed the power of radio to unite the different classes and ethnicities of Brazil. Through music and dance, Vargas created a national identity for all Brazilians, with samba becoming the symbol of national self-definition.

Brazilian Samba – Samba schools

The first samba dance school, Escola de Samba Deixa Falar, opened in 1928 in the outskirts of Rio. This was a time where samba wasn’t tolerated by the authorities and different ethnicities were kept segregated, making it difficult to keep the school operating. Although Escola de Samba Deixa Falar disappeared a few years later, a number of newly created percussion instruments survived including the surdo (large bass drum) and tamborim; both of which are used extensively in modern samba.

Brazilian Samba – Football, Capoeira, and Bossa Nova

Samba dance influenced much of Brazil’s 20th century pop culture, especially the national sport of football (soccer). Brazil’s world beating teams from 1958 to 1970 played a style of football known as Joga Bonito (“the beautiful game”), where players move with the ball like they’re dancing. In fact, this “ginga” style of football was a mix of the Brazilian martial art called Capoeira and Brazilian samba dance. Capoeira has become internationally popular in recent times, but actually dates back to the sugar cane plantations and Samba de Roda from the 16th century. Bossa Nova music, which rose to international fame in the 1950s and 1960s is a combination of Samba Canção, western classical music, and jazz.