The term ‘samba’ has been used in Brazil since at least the nineteenth century in many different regional contexts to refer to an equal number of distinct music genres, often related to dance forms that include the term, as well as events in which they are performed. Its possible meanings, therefore, emerge from the particular forms it may assume from rural to urban settings, along with varying emphasis on values such as community entertainment, ethnicity, social positioning, political power, social repercussion and commercial revenues. Yet, considering all these semantic possibilities, it is equally viable to think of samba in terms of multiple interrelationships between and beyond any circumscribed meanings.
The first known written reference to samba occurs in an article (‘The Extravagant Taste’) signed by the Catholic priest Lopes Gama in a satirical periodical published in the northeastern town of Recife, which describes the samba d’almocreves as being as agreeable as the Semiramis, the Gaza Ladra, the Tancredi, etc. (sic), by Rossini (O Carapuceiro, no. 6, 3 February 1838, p. 1). Analyzing this brief record, popular music historian José Ramos Tinhorão (2008) interprets its association with mule drivers (almocreves) as indicative of a possible white or mestizo lower-class borrowing from (‘contamination by,’ in his terms) African-derived practices such as the drum-based, belly-bump dances termed batuque by the Portuguese, and seen by the intellectual elites as not suitable for a civilized urban milieu (slavery was abolished in Brazil only in 1888). From then on, as shown by Tinhorão, other nineteenth-century literary references would confirm the double standard of samba as simultaneously referenced in African-derived, drum-based belly-bump dances held in the slave laboring haciendas and as an urban hybrid cultivated among the predominantly mestizo and black lower classes.
Despite all etymological and historical evidence indicating its likely origins in Southern-Central Africa (see Carneiro 1981; Machado Filho 1985), the earliest printed source for the practice of samba in the city of Rio de Janeiro remains an 1878 newspaper advertisement for a theatrical pantomime, ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,’ presented simultaneously at a skating rink and a circus-theater. It asks the reader to take part in the ‘Samba, ... the most authentic success of the times! The genuinely popular amusement!’ (Gardel 1967, 126; author’s translation). While the performance contexts mentioned may be more readily associated with white and mulatto lower-middle-class audiences, this touch of novelty may be in part attributed to broader sociodemographic changes affecting the cultural life of the Brazilian capital. With the progressive decay of the slave regime in Brazil, Rio, the country’s strongest abolitionist center, became the main destination of former slaves from various provinces, many of whom spoke dialects that mixed African languages with local forms of Portuguese. Following Abolition in 1888, people of African descent made up to about 60 percent of the city’s population (Mortara 1970), and most were underemployed or unemployed. The oral history of this period records the role of samba music and dance as creators of community bonds (eventually interchanging symbolic forms and values with Afro-Brazilian religious practices) within this heterogeneous social group whose ancestors had come from different ethnic backgrounds in Africa and mingled with distinct regional cultures in Brazil (see Borges Pereira 1970).
As was the case with every other cultural expression associated with Afro-descendants, samba practice was singled out as a despicable sign of backwardness that jeopardized the country’s modernizing efforts, such as the 1902–28 urban reform that remodeled downtown Rio de Janeiro based on the Parisian model, and that also served as a dangerous symbol of black unity and resistance. Performances of samba’s percussive and syncopated music – classified in many written sources as ‘noise’ – and of its dance – labeled lascivious – depended on police permission and were often violently repressed.
After the 1902 opening of the first recording enterprise in Rio, Casa Edison, musical pieces described as ‘samba’ on the record label began to be issued commercially sometime between 1908 and 1911. The first such recording was ‘Em casa da Bahiana’ (In the Bahian Woman’s House), an exclusively instrumental piece performed by the Conjunto da Casa Faulhaber. Recorded for the Carnival festivities of 1917 by the singer Baiano, the song ‘Pelo telefone’ (Over the Phone) became the first commercially successful samba. It had been previously copyrighted by Ernesto dos Santos (nicknamed Donga), an active participant in early-century samba gatherings held in Afro-Brazilian enclaves of Rio and also a part-time professional musician who played banjo and guitar. His achievement, however, was soon shadowed by accusations of plagiarism made by a number of co-participants in the same samba reunions, a controversy that ultimately split the community. Another allegation commonly made to deflate the claim of ‘Pelo telefone’ to be the first recorded samba is that the music itself, the rhythm in particular, has stronger associations with maxixe, a popular turn-of-the-century ballroom genre. Controversies notwithstanding, the success of ‘Pelo telefone’ initiated the systematic commercial exploitation of the term ‘samba’ by local record companies. The earliest samba hits followed the ‘Pelo telefone’ model closely: (1) the characteristic maxixe rhythmic pattern of sixteenth note/eight note/sixteenth note in a 2/4 measure; (2) the vocal style emulating lyrical singing; (3) accompaniment by a single guitar or piano, or, over time, small ensembles of two guitars, cavaquinho (four-string guitar), one wind instrument and almost inaudible percussion. This model was explored by some of the first exponents of Carnival music in the 1910s and early 1920s such as pianist Sinhô (nicknamed the King of Samba), Caninha and Alfredo Vianna (Pixinguinha).
By the late 1920s various changes were appearing on recorded sambas, notably: (a) instrumentation with a wind section and percussion instruments, the latter being typical of the popular practice; (b) a multipart rhythmic structure, with the voice and each of the accompanying instruments following its own distinctive, interlocking patterns, the instrumental ones largely developed around an ostinato figure; and (c) a vocal style that sounded more colloquial, contrasting the emulation of lyrical singing observed in earlier recorded sambas. The new style, also known as ‘samba batucado’ (thus referring to its percussive nature, from the verb batucar, meaning ‘to play percussion’), was largely made possible through the introduction of sound recordings in Brazil around 1928, and became the hegemonic form of recorded samba for decades (Araujo 1992; Sandroni 2001). The prototypical samba songs in this style were recorded by white middle-class singers such as Francisco Alves and Mário Reis and composed by lower- or lower-middle-class blacks and mulattos such as Ismael Silva, Bide and Armando Marçal, all of whom belonged to a newly created type of Carnival association, the so-called ‘samba schools.’ Their lyrics depicted the songwriters’ everyday lives, in which involvement with samba was one of the rarely available forms of social participation and mobility. In this context, the theme of the malandro’s (rogue’s) search for a better life would acquire enormous importance. Born tired because his father had literally worked to death, with no money but with a passion for fine clothes, drink and pretty women, the malandro praised the easy bohemian life, in which words such as job or work were taken as insults.
The first significant white composers to write songs in this idiom and to live by its values, such as Noel Rosa, faced the disapproval of their own class as they became publicly associated with the samba world. Despite the persisting stigma, however, the number of white middle-class samba composers and singers (among the latter, the Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda) increased, helping to make samba a national success through records, radio and, beginning in the late 1930s, movies. This phenomenon is concomitant with the proliferation of hybridized forms of samba not meant for carnival, such as samba-canção, sambafox and others.
The dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (1937–45) centered its politico-economic strategies on two basic objectives: overthrowing the landowning oligarchies and consolidating the hegemony of industrial capitalism; and building a sense of national consciousness vis-à-vis the previously predominant politics focused on petty regional interests. The regime soon perceived the importance of samba in Brazilian popular culture but had, of course, serious problems with song texts praising the malandro way of life, which reconciled poverty and privation. Through articles in government-run periodicals and rules for state-sponsored samba competitions, these policy makers attacked the ‘transgressive’ song texts as dated, and urged the sambistas (samba practitioners) to use their lyrics to foster both a sentiment of national pride and a passion for hard work.
The sambas in tune with this patriotic appeal were no longer presented as stemming from an ‘underdog culture,’ but rather as distinguished symbols of the New State (Estado Novo). In this State, racial or social prejudices should have no place – in official terminology, Brazil should be a ‘racial democracy’ in which a man or woman should ideally be valued upon his/her hard work and ‘civic consciousness.’
Musically speaking, the sambas of the Estado Novo in question are by no means different from their predecessors, particularly in the rhythmic rendition of the melody based on the elusive malandro prosody. This similarity lent a relative ambiguity to the meaning of the new lyrics. One may take as an example the song ‘Vai trabalhar’ (Go to Work), recorded by Aracy de Almeida in 1942. The singer reprehends her partner for being a malandro, living in the samba world all day long while she pays her dues washing clothes. The climax comes at the end of the song, when she urges him: ‘Você tem que cooperar/è forte, pode ajudar/Arruma um emprego/Deixa o samba e vai trabalhar (“You must co-operate/You’re strong and may help me out/Get a job/Leave the samba and go to work”).’ Taken at its literal meaning, the song seems overly moralistic, abiding by the principles of the New State, although its policy makers would certainly be tolerant of samba as, perhaps, a form of weekend leisure. However, the singer’s deliverance – emphasizing each syncopation in a slow tempo, and using the malandro’s characteristically nasal vocal timbre and offbeat prosody – subtly suggests that she might even come to endorse her partner’s choice if it were not for their daily difficulties in earning a living.
Raised to the level of a national emblem (the same status as coffee production at the time, and, later, of football [soccer]), samba began to play an important role in the so-called Good Neighbor policy developed during wartime by the US State Department’s Office of Inter-American Affairs. That agency invested heavily in colorful Hollywood musicals that caricatured its ‘happy and sensuous’ neighboring Latin American countries. Despite its often adverse repercussions in Latin America itself, this idealized ‘Latin fetish’ formula captured minds and imaginations all over the world and made Brazilian singer-turned-actress Carmen Miranda one of Hollywood’s hottest – and often said to have been the best paid – female show business stars of her era. Miranda frequently appeared in the role of a professional dancer-singer in nightclubs, usually wearing an extravagant costume and an exotic head-dress filled with bananas. Her repertoire initially consisted of the same Brazilian genres that she had performed before settling in the United States: marches, choros and, notedly, sambas. The latter, according to newspaper coverage, were perceived as ‘the’ major symbol of her nationality. Singing in Portuguese, she confronted show-business entrepreneurs who pressured her to sing in English, but in the end she became successful largely due to her exquisite trademark combination of stylized samba singing and dancing. Despite its tortuous inspiration, the blend of caricature and sensuous exoticism that constrained Carmen Miranda’s stereotyped roles in film seems to have been transgressive enough to force the Puritan mind to be more tolerant, while simultaneously outlining an acceptable model of Pan-American unity that congregated the exotic ‘banana republics’ under the modernizing US leadership.
Attempts to co-opt the samba of Rio de Janeiro have achieved mixed results. On the one hand, samba’s transgressive potential as an emblem of the oppressed, associated with its Afro-Brazilian roots, played a relevant role during the military dictatorship (1964–85), when many sambistas, such as Zé Keti, Paulinho da Viola and Elton Medeiros, took stances against the miserable living conditions and political repression of the poor. On the other, further developments in popular music – such as the remodeling of samba’s musical structure, worked out by bossa nova musicians beginning in the 1950s, and the 1990s boom of pagode music (initiated among lower-middle-class samba practitioners) – have strengthened the symbolic power of samba among Brazilians in general, while simultaneously raising concerns about its deviation from previous patterns. Even in the twenty-first century, when samba stands as a ‘neutral’ commodity in the world’s entertainment market in that it is cultivated by people of heterogeneous social and ethnic backgrounds, its potential for transgression is not totally impossible. After all, a number of critical sambistas such as Leci Brandão, Martinho da Vila, Noca da Portela, Nelson Sargento and Nei Lopes were still active and influencing newer generations in the early twenty-first century, as exemplified by artists such as Teresa Cristina, Marquinhos de Osvaldo Cruz, Martinalia and others.
Nevertheless, the symbolic efficacy of the elevation of Rio’s samba to the status of a national emblem is undeniable. To many Brazilian citizens from other regions or cultures, this association may seem arbitrary or even absurd, but to the sambista carioca (samba practitioner of Rio) it is a matter of pride. The latter tends to see this music as a strong representation of Brazilian culture, and often as the only cultural icon able to stand against other nations’ musical emblems. This very status, however, can lead the sambista to despair, when he/she can no longer recognize in the media’s spectacular forms of samba any of the values cultivated in his or her own backyard.
A careful consideration of the role of songwriters (compositores) and the making of samba songs in the specific context of Rio de Janeiro raises issues concerning: (1) the backgrounds and resources that a would-be compositor draws upon when conceiving a samba; (2) what differentiates and legitimizes a compositor within the so-called samba world; and (3) intersections with other stylistic formations within the broader field of popular music in Brazil.
Although it is today a widely naturalized category, it is not clear when the term compositor began to be applied to songwriters of popular music in Brazil. A not-so-speculative hypothesis holds that the label’s first use was concurrent with the emergence of the so-called popular music market by the turn of the twentieth century. In any case, the general denomination compositor de samba was already in currency by the late 1920s to refer to market-oriented and/or formally untrained songwriters in all imaginable genres. The term compositor de samba is best translated in this context as a songwriter whose production is identified with the samba world; he or she is simply called compositor by insiders. The ‘songwriter’ usually has no formal training in – or, perhaps more properly, has a different way of formally approaching – the body of knowledge that academia either implicitly or explicitly legitimates as the canons of ‘music,’ and his or her craft is to create songs or, in his or her own terms, sambas.
The suffix ‘-writer’ is in this case a bit problematic. Compositores rarely write down their lyrics, relying on memory alone, although this process is gradually being replaced by sound recording as a form of fixing both lyrics and melodies. One might argue that the appropriation by compositores de samba of the designation ‘composer,’ a term generally used to denote a specialist with formal training whose final ‘works’ may well include songs, is an example of convergent strategies of legitimation, although one could equally define their role as sound bricoleurs, who eventually combine sound with words.
Many compositores are formally associated with a single escola de samba (literally, samba school; escolas de samba are carnival associations, created among the lower classes in Rio beginning in the late 1920s, whose official parade competition later became the centerpiece of the tourist season in the city; in the twenty-first century, virtually all social classes and even foreign visitors, participate). In a samba school, compositores usually belong to either the ala dos compositores (literally, composers’ wing) or to the velha guarda (literally, the old guard), an honorary institution of older composers populated by samba school members. The ala consists of fully active composers, the majority of whom are between their 20s and 40s in age. Traditionally, the rules of alas de compositores demanded the presentation of at least one samba every two years. Each ala holds regular meetings – including the one that defines the rules of the samba-enredo con-test – and also organizes various fund-raising activities (e.g., raffles and parties). Its membership is largely constituted by lower-class and lower-middle-class males. In many but not all instances, members of the alas live within or have strong ties with the base community.
In major escolas de samba (e.g., Portela, Salgueiro and Mangueira), the velhas guardas host the emblematic compositores, those whose long-standing contribution to samba in general and to their samba schools in particular is widely acknowledged among samba practitioners. Being typically of relatively advanced age, they are regarded by their base communities as examples of wisdom. Due to their disagreement with certain paths taken by their particular samba schools or by samba in general, a considerable number of compositores have made a point of distancing themselves – physically at least – from the samba world. In these cases, however, some degree of relationship with the founding community is nonetheless maintained.
It is unanimously believed that these compositores’ specific ability is innate, whereas one becomes a specialist in the other aspects of kinetic/acoustic labor termed samba (i.e., dancing, drumming and singing) through learning and practice (Leopoldi 1978; Araujo 1992). Such unique aptitude would primarily involve a sensitive attunement to human affairs, from everyday to unusual, from worldly to metaphysical and so on. The composer casts his or her themes in a certain light, be it humorous, emotional or critical, which is perceived as usually escaping the common man or woman and which, once unveiled, finds its most effective expression in song. The compositor is then a relatively powerful figure within a referential universe centered on the production of a body of songs, no matter how poor or humble his or her background may be. Given their unique stance, compositores hold a peculiar position within the samba schools (Leopoldi 1978). In a not so distant past, they were regarded by the base communities as among their most sensitive and articulate representatives, their power being often instrumental in voicing the ensemble of values and eventual demands endorsed by those communities (Goldwasser 1975; Leopoldi 1978). Simultaneously, however, their respective agency takes place within a concrete set of conditions, including the need to constantly navigate the constraints, deceptive or not, of financial opportunities in the entertainment market. Thus, their catalyzing mode of insertion in such a process, that is, as essential and uniquely gifted producers, stands out as a potential indicator of emerging trends whose significance may eventually transcend the microcosm in question.
An aspect to be highlighted in a study of samba songwriters’ accounts of their composition process is the importance of the lyrics/melody relationship. In spite of their choreographic component, sambas seem to be understood by their composers as a danceable song form in which the melodic rhythm is relatively free from strict dependence on certain choreographic standards (Araujo 1992). Simultaneously, the accompanying instrumental rhythms comprise a certain stock of formulas, more directly articulated with similarly formulaic dance steps.
Thus, in creating a samba song, the songwriter follows prosody standards of the Portuguese language as spoken in his/her own context, adapting it to the stock of formulas of melodic rhythm, always referenced in the instrumental (usually percussive) rhythm. In fact, the relationships between the melodic rhythm and the instrumental rhythm constitute one of the main aspects of samba efficacy, as manifested in performance. Like the rhythm, the pitch collections found in samba melodies also follow patterns that are more or less recurrent.
The definition and differentiation of diverse subgenres within the realm of samba is a noticeable concern for sambistas. Songwriters are expected to know and explore these subgenres well, writing songs in all subgenres, to enhance their prestige. There are, however, disagreements concerning taxonomy, even among the social authorities in the samba universe. There are also cases in which a composer’s musical output contradicts his/her own formal or stylistic definitions.
The singing is juxtaposed with a multipart instrumental structure, involving a stock of relatively standardized rhythmic and timbral ostinato patterns, usually played by or evoking a given stock of percussive instrument-types (e.g., tamborim, agogô, pandeiros, chocalhos, cuíca, caixa-de-guerra, tarol, repique and surdos).
This samba type is presented publicly during samba school rehearsals or a musically oriented social gathering, some of which are held in the samba schools’ rehearsal yards. Before the construction of stable structures for rehearsals, such events happened in unoccupied land slots, the so-called terreiros. In rehearsals, a samba-de-quadra was often sung as a warm-up before the sambas-enredo (see below) for Carnival. Samba-de-quadra songwriters sometimes performed the vocals themselves, solo or accompanied by a choir, while at other times another singer was used, quite often one whose prestige might enhance the chances of a song’s social acceptance or commercial recording. The accompaniment consisted typically of a variable percussion ensemble plus cavaquinho and guitar.
The success and longevity of a samba-de-quadra would depend fundamentally on the immediate empathy it evoked among participants at a given event. Accordingly, several of these sambas were not premiered directly within the samba schools, but in smaller private social gatherings outside their realms. They were sung in the samba school rehearsal yards only after they had been learned by many samba school members. This method also is used for the selection processes of Carnival samba-enredo.
Sambas-de-quadra were composed all year round and several became extremely successful as commercial recordings. However, since commercially released sambas-enredo started breaking sales records in the 1970s, the time reserved for the presentation of sambas-de-quadra has diminished dramatically. Many samba school administrators eventually alleged that sambas-de-quadra were not ‘lively’ or ‘enthusiastic’ enough, thus disappointing, or even irritating the paying audience at modern samba school rehearsals.
The lyrics of sambas-de-quadra focus on a wide variety of themes, from love to social criticism, metaphysical allusions, or praise of public figures and many other subjects. In terms of style, they may also vary enormously, from good-humored narratives to lyrical evocative samples.
Sambas-de-quadra typically consist of two sections, the first usually sung by a choir (mixed or, more often, female) and the second by a soloist. There are not, however, strict rules regarding the appropriate number or gender of vocalists, allowing a plethora of possibilities for structuring the vocal performance.
In many sambas-de-quadra, the first section tends to be predominantly diatonic, devoid of the ‘difficult’ chromatic passages that are more typical of the second section. It is interesting to notice that composers, whenever asked, acknowledge that the first section of their sambas-de-quadra appeal more directly to their audiences – something that perhaps may be credited to the diatonicism of this section and to its frequent rendition by collective singing, somehow asking one more voice (the listener’s) to join in.
Sambas-enredo are the songs composed specifically for the samba schools’ pageant competition in Carnival. The origins of the escolas de samba are much debated. One of the most popular explanations traces them back to the first of such associations (of a noncompetitive character, however) to publicly assume such a descriptive name, the Escola de Samba Deixa Falar, around 1928 (for other explanations, see Raphael 1980). According to Deixa Falar cofounder Ismael Silva, the term was originally a suggestive reference to a teachers’ preparatory school located near the meeting place of the samba school’s founders, in the Estácio neighborhood.
Whatever its origin, the designation ‘escola de samba’ was progressively adopted by similar Carnival groups in subsequent years. Beside this shared descriptive denomination, each samba school bears its own distinctive name, usually derived from its socio-geographical base. The name may refer to either a specific community or to a more encompassing unit such as a neighborhood or even a city within the Greater Rio metropolitan area. For example, some names allude to the morros (hills) of Rio, the hillside residential areas densely inhabited by the lower strata of the population (e.g., Estação Primeira de Mangueira, Império Serrano). The morros are also stigmatized by the term favela (often translated into English as slum), drawn from one of the first such dwellings appearing by the turn of the nineteenth century. Both favela and morro are terms equally charged in common discourse with the negative connotations of precarious or unbearable living conditions, poverty, marginality and violence. Their respective ethnic or social formations are accordingly subsumed under stigmatizing categories such as favelados (a discriminatory term for favela dwellers). Despite being ‘factually explainable’ (i.e., commensurate, for instance, with the immediately visible predominance of blacks in the lower social strata or with the striking substandard quality of life within favelas), such stigmata presuppose foregoing any critical search for historical and political determinants in the pursuit of social differentiation.
Some of the distinctive samba school names refer to larger areas within neighborhoods with an overwhelming majority of proletarian or low-income residents (e.g., Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel, Caprichosos de Pilares). There are also more or less explicit references to other cities within Rio’s metropolitan area, such as Nilópolis (e.g., Beija-Flor de Nilópolis) and Niterói (e.g., Unidos do Viradouro). In exceptional instances, a samba school may be named after a street (e.g., São Clemente) or bear no socio-spatial reference whatsoever (e.g., Em Cima da Hora, which means ‘on time’).
Such distinctions notwithstanding, in virtually all cases a low-income, predominantly Afro-descendant constituency is at the root of a favela. For example, even in scarce cases in which a group is named after a relatively differentiated neighborhood (e.g., Unidos da Tijuca), its largest and most involved constituency certainly comes from underprivileged enclaves within that area (the nearby Morro dos Macacos in the example mentioned), where the ethnic contour of the division of labor in Brazil is once again reaffirmed. Consequently, expectations of a good result in the competition are often mixed with largely frustrated hopes for a positive projection of those communities in the public sphere, and desires for the open paths to fulfilment of their pressing necessities (e.g., an end to discrimination, better living conditions and socioeconomic uplifting).
One key aspect of Carnival preparation in every samba school is the yearly competition aimed at the selection of one samba-enredo, a samba song related to the plot to be developed through its costumes, floats, etc. This is carried out through an internal contest among each samba school’s compositores, which may involve about 30 songs and which usually comes to an end by October or early November. After the last samba school has chosen its samba-enredo, all the winning songs are released on a commercial CD compilation containing that year’s plot-based sambas.
Sambas-enredo are authored either by individuals or, more commonly, by teams, which may comprise up to about eight people. Since the 1970s and the commercial success of sambas-enredo on record, however, there have been allegations that several participating team members are incapable of collaborating even slightly in the composition of a samba. Their inclusion in a team may be due to factors such as their ability to publicize a song or their close connections to influential people.
The song themes are either chosen by the carnavalesco (pageant director) alone or by the so-called Carnival commission, which usually includes the pageant director, and they are summarized in a synopsis of the plot (enredo) distributed among all the compositores. The song text of a samba-enredo is based on this synopsis, where the compositores find references to the highlights of the plot, including important figures, selected events and places, as well as its main ideas. The songwriters are then supposed to treat the material freely, but a pointed reference to these highlights is expected.
After obtaining the synopsis, the compositores start working on their respective songs, either individually or in partnership. A deadline is set for registration in the internal competition for each samba school. As soon as their sambas are completed, each of the individual participants or teams submits a recording (initially a tape, nowadays a CD) containing the song and begins to promote it through all available means. These may include printed lyric sheets, performances at social gatherings in and around the community, radio or even television performances, homemade CDs and the internet.
As an illustration of this process (Araujo 1992), in the 1989–90 Carnival, one major samba school’s internal competition took place between mid-August and mid-October 1989; the composers had received the synopsis about two months in advance. Thirty-four sambas were registered in time, a procedure that involves providing one typed copy of the lyrics and recording a guitar-and-voice version of the samba on an ‘official’ cassette tape. One hundred and sixteen people were listed as compositores of these sambas, the majority of whom were in partnerships consisting of as many as seven people. Only one woman participated as songwriter that year, as a member of a team of five.
All sambas receiving grades of six or under were eliminated in the first round. The same occurred in the following two rehearsals with those sambas receiving eight or under and nine or under, respectively. Only four songs ‘survived’ these three stages of elimination and remained in the competition until the final selection of the winning samba-enredo.
While this selective process takes place internally in every samba school, several backstage maneuvers are typically made, from the more subtle and peaceful to more transparent and forceful ones. A general slang term for all these activities, describing in particular those considered unfair, is armação (literally, ‘building up’). Not unusually, armação charges are raised by upset competitors and the results are forcefully contested, leading to disputes with unpredictable results.
Immediately after the winner is proclaimed, there comes a period in which compositores largely avoid the samba school grounds. According to insiders, this commonly occurs due to resentment and/or to avoid violent confrontations based on fresh memories of dissent that would disturb the preparation process. Accordingly, all the competing sambas-enredo with the exception of the winning one fall little by little into oblivion. Only after a brief interruption of rehearsals for Christmas and New Year’s festivities do the compositores start to return to the samba school grounds in significant numbers. From then on, those who return (some will not) are, as much as any other member dedicated to their particular samba school’s victory in the pageant.
Simultaneously, the chosen samba-enredo is worked out in rehearsals until all school members can sing it over and over again, as flawlessly as possible. Because they will take an active part in the pageant, they must be prepared to sing this samba uninterruptedly for at least 90 minutes (about 30 full repetitions). As observed at the same major samba school in 1989–90, highlighted above, after the internal contest was over, about half an hour of each of the following three rehearsals was dedicated to listening to and learning the winning samba. One individual sang it repeatedly into a stage microphone, accompanied by a single surdo-de-marcação (the lowest-pitched frame drum) played from the bateria (percussion ensemble) box. Thousands of samba school members remained standing on the dance floor, not dancing, listening attentively during the first rendition and trying to follow the lead singer during the repetitions, as they progressively memorized a growing number of passages. Since this process takes place simultaneously with the commercial recording and release of the compilation CD containing all major samba schools’ respective sambas-enredo, by mid-November the samba was already confidently sung by a vast majority of people attending the rehearsals. From this point on, to know the samba well became a crucial, socially pervasive symbol of commitment to that particular samba school’s quest.
Sambas-enredo are primarily distinguished from other subgenres, as already pointed out, by their thematic and contextual foci as well as by the dynamics of their production. Equally subject to qualitative diversity have been the formal aspects of these sambas. Generally speaking, two mutually influential trends are observed. The first one prevailed almost absolutely over the period between the seminal mid-1930s production and the late 1960s, characterized by slow-to-moderate tempo historical narratives in relatively extended poetic form, more adventurous, eventually modulating harmonies, and more frequent use of melodic chromaticism. The second trend, already identifiable in a few sambas-enredo of the 1950s, was consolidated after the massive sales and success of the 1971 samba-enredo ‘Festa para um rei negro’ (Party for a Black King), composed by Zuzuca for the Salgueiro samba school. As its general distinguishing features, one might highlight: the faster tempi: the relatively more compact poetic structures; new, not necessarily historical plots; and the incisive use of diatonic harmony and melody – all features present in other types of commercially successful popular music. This latter trend came to dominate samba-enredo production in Rio and also led this samba subgenre to dominate the diffusion and sales of Carnival-oriented songs in general. Despite their relative differentiation, however, since the 1970s there has been feedback between these two trends.
This denomination, meaning ‘high party’ or eminent group, is currently used in Rio to refer to songs comprising a usually compact refrain (from two to four lines of text fitting a symmetrical melodic line, in many cases spanning four or eight measures), sung either by a choir or in responsorial alternation with improvisation by one or more soloist singers. In the early twentieth century this type of song form was eventually called partido alto or simply partido. Both designations may also name a performance of such songs.
Partido alto cultivators in general, but particularly its expert text improvisers, are singled out as partideiros. These improvisers are often compositores in the sense explained above, although a number of partido alto specialists refrain from identifying themselves as such.
The existence of homonym practices in the State of Bahia and the decisive role played by Bahian migrants in forging an Afro-Brazilian cultural field in Rio de Janeiro by the turn of the twentieth century strongly suggests that, at least initially, the partido alto of Rio had a strong Bahian background, either transplanted or slightly adapted in the new context.
The improvisatory practices in early twenty-first century partido alto may either encompass melody and text or, in stanza-like form, may be restricted to the text alone. Even in the latter case, however, slight melodic alterations may and often do occur during the elaboration of a new improvised stanza. The improvised text may be related to the fixed part; when it does not, its content is virtually free of restrictions. Common topics in the improvised section include the everyday life of the poor and its many hardships, any aspect of an ongoing performance (e.g., a charming dancer, the good and plentiful liquor being served), or love affairs. The partideiro’s verbal fluency, swing (the equivalent Portuguese terms ginga and balanço are often used in this context), irony, humor, wit and sharply critical worldviews score high marks in the evaluation of participants.
Performances of a partido alto have no prescribed setting, and they typically take place at informal gatherings of all sorts (e.g., private parties, bars). Any relatively small accompanying ensemble drawn from common samba practices may be employed, but the consistent use of hand-clapping (sustaining a given rhythmic cycle) somewhat distinguishes a partido alto performance from those of the other subgenres discussed above. In fact, partido alto is frequently sung against handclaps alone.
It is also worth noting that, since partido alto made its way to commercial recordings in the late 1960s, in particular through the sales of composer and singer Martinho da Vila, only a small and select sample of so-called ‘improvisation’ is ever included (usually three or four stanzas). Often, a single individual may pre-compose all the ‘improvised’ sections. A partido alto song with identical text may be performed on different occasions.
A number of other denominations expand the variety of subgenres associated with the label ‘samba,’ many of which imply the creation of hybrids in connection with other local musical styles (e.g., sambacanção and sambaião) or international ones (e.g., sambolero and samba jazz). Although the creation of such hybrids is more characteristic of the sphere of pan-stylistic songwriting outside the samba world, it is by no means uncommon to find sambacompositores trying their skills at producing hybrids. Both the amount and quality of this inter-stylistic borrowing (i.e., the distinct modes of working it out) varies from case to case, and sometimes in the work of a single composer.
Since samba is definitely shaped by time concepts, rhythmic aspects are at its center. This may be exemplified by the role that the bateria (percussion ensemble) plays in a samba school. A good bateria performance not only enlivens the other members but is also largely responsible for the achievement of a harmonious balance between the singing, the dancing, and, in the competition, a smooth flow of the samba school body through the pageant competition floor. But what aspects ensure a ‘good performance’ for insiders? First, it should be tightly coordinated, rhythmically speaking. This is a highly demanding task, considering the average number of players per bateria (about 300) and the variety, on the one hand, of instruments involved (about 10 different sets of instrument types), and of their interlocking rhythmic patterns on the other. Secondly, the bateria should set the proper mood between containment and euphoria. Tempo as well as timbre and intensity are key factors for producing such a climate. A third object of insiders’ evaluation, not readily perceivable by outsiders, consists of distinctive rhythmic cells played by certain instrument sets. These cells provide cues at given passages of the song and help to prevent problems with the singing of the thousands of pageant participants. Given the spatial gap between the different wings and between the wings and the bateria, slips such as lack of coordination or even misplacement of song sections are easily made. A good system of cues should help to keep the singing lively and tight, and may end up being eventually emulated by rival samba schools in subsequent years.
Competence and gender stand out as the two most visible criteria of differentiation among bateria members, the former being more readily acknowledged as such by insiders. Tacit perceptions hindering female participation, while persisting, might well be on the verge of losing their largely undisputed status in the twenty-first century. Competence appears more sharply defined in the distinction between mestres (master percussionists) and batedores (literally, beaters or players). Mestres typically are required to master all the different instruments in the ensemble, although in a few cases they may acknowledge their limited skills on one or another instrument. Their main function is to assist the bateria director (diretor de bateria or primeiro mestre, i.e., first mestre) during rehearsals. A mestre may lead an instrument set until a certain consistency is achieved, replace the director conducting portions of the rehearsal, or simply stand by, critically watching a performance. During the Carnival competition, the director conducts the bateria, while each assistant master leads his or her designated set. The bateria director, however, is not only supposed to master all instruments (he or she gives the ultimate directions to each instrumental set with the corresponding instrument in hand), but also has to demonstrate outstanding leadership abilities. Beyond a strong personality and solid musicianship, he or she should exhibit charisma emanating from a deep involvement within the samba world.
Whenever the position is vacant, a new director is appointed by the school’s president, often after consultation with other players and respected mestres. As consensual as it may sometimes seem, the final choice may be contested either overtly or, more characteristically, through gossip.
A director’s tenure may last a lifetime or only a handful of years, depending on several factors, but mainly on the samba school’s administration and personal health. In the first case, he or she is usually lured by another mestre de bateria.
Not only samba school members, but virtually anybody considered proficient in their instrument of choice may ask for a chance or be nominated by a third party to join the bateria. Whenever either of these occur – and such requests are made much more often than positions become available – the potential member may be asked to join the bateria for one or two rehearsals, during which he or she is evaluated by the mestres. The director-master, however, has the last word. All members are expected to parade, and their total number is generally prescribed at about 300. Circumstances such as sickness, unexpected trips or, not unusually, imprisonment (a recurrent event in the lives of the underprivileged in many situations of extreme inequality) lead the actual number of pageant participants to vary. Sometimes, despite a lack of available positions, the director-master may decide to include a few new batedores for one reason or another. If, for instance, they have proven mastery of their respective instruments, their participation may reinforce a section that the director feels is in need of more volume or consistency. Social origins are varied, but there is a predominance of players who either live or were raised in and around the vicinity of the samba school. As all schools are strongly tied to poor residential areas, this means that the majority of players come either from the lumpen-proletariat or else from unskilled, low-paid sectors of the working class, many of the latter shifting back and forth between the formal and the so-called informal sector of the economy. But one will occasionally find representatives of intermediate or even upper strata in a bateria, as a side effect of the aforementioned transformations involving the field of the escolas de samba from the 1960s onward. Accordingly, it is unusual to spot clerks, public workers, foreign professionals, physicians, lawyers or middle-class rock musicians amidst bateria players.
Within the bateria, a correlation exists between professions and their corresponding social status and the ethnic division of labor that characterizes Brazilian society in general. Therefore, blacks and mulattoes usually constitute the majority in the lower social ranks, while a ‘whitening effect’ is felt in the progressive upgrading toward the middle and upper classes. Social and ethnic origins alone, however, are not empowering assets within a samba school section, where a single mistake by an individual member during a performance can produce total disarray. The question of competence is far more relevant in determining the downplayed yet existing hierarchy within the bateria (see below). Still, at given points in time, social/ethnic origins may play a significant role in aesthetic or stylistic turns.
The bateria ala (wing) is largely a male domain. Males are noticeably predominant with relatively few spots occupied by women. Although the first known example of a female participant – Dagmar da Silva Pinto, who played reco-reco (scrapper) and chocalho (rattle) in the Portela samba school – comes from the 1940s, only by the last two decades of the twentieth century did female participation in baterias increase significantly. Mestre Tião from the Unidos de Cabuçu bateria, for example, reported that, in 1980, he had dismissed the only two women participants. Shortly afterward, however, he noticed the male players’ growing indifference toward the smaller handheld instruments known as miudezas (i.e., minutiae, small handheld percussion), such as the chocalho and the tamborim (small frame drum). He then reconsidered the matter and even began to encourage female players to take those instruments up. In 1989 and 1990 Unidos do Cabuçu had 30 women members (the record number among all escolas), most of whom were in the miudezas section.
Samba has played and still plays a key part in cultural debates on race relations, identity and social power in Brazil and abroad, not to speak of its many and analytically interesting music and dance structural aspects. Therefore, multidisciplinary scholarship on the subject will certainly continue to expand, adopting new approaches, uncovering new data and shedding light on the intricate aspects of both its national and international scopes.
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