Samba is Brazil. Brazil is Samba. Samba is even more important than football in the country that has become World Champion a record five times. Only in this way one can understand how much Samba means to this country. It connects poor and rich people, blacks and whites, old and young people. Here you can learn more about where this dance comes from and why it’s so important to the Brazilians.
A Detailed History of the Samba
The Bantu-word “Semba” from Angola describes the “movement of the belly-button.” And indeed – the erotic, circular movements around the pelvis are typical for samba. To the Europeans in the 19th century, this looked very immoral at first. However, it’s exactly in these flexible movements, combined with the quick change of steps that we find the positive easiness that makes the Samba stand out. Its origin most certainly lies in West Africa and like many other dances came to America with the first slave deportations in the 16th century.
Today, the word “Samba“ is used as a generic term for about one hundred different dances from Brazil. The contents of the Samba represent the wishes and dreams of the underprivileged classes, who settled around the big cities after the end of slavery in 1888. Then, in the 1930s, the great potential for political agitation was discovered in politics. This led to acceptance by the state and was the final breakthrough for the Samba on the streets of Brazil. Today, Samba dominates, if not to say permeates the cultural life in Brazil.
And together with the Brazilian Carnival it makes up an inseparable unity. In the 17th century the Portuguese brought the Carnival under its old name “Entrudo“ to Brazil. From 1840 on this meant celebrations that took place in great ballrooms. Here the first carnival societies were founded, still fiscally very strong today. The beginning of the modern Samba and the later unification with the Carnival can be dated back to 1917: Ernesto dos Santos released the song “Pelo Telefone“ under the description “Samba Carnevalesco“ – and it became a hit.
Later, many songs were composed under the name Samba. At this time, Samba was inseparable from the popular dances “Maxixe“ and “Marcha“. Only the “c“ can be described as the first modern Samba and is the most original form of Samba. This “Samba in a circle” was at that time synonymous with the general Samba. Typical for this Samba is a circle of dancers who then alternately sing the solo and the refrain. This dance can be danced completely without instruments. Sometimes it’s accompanied by rhythmical clapping. Important for the Samba-de-Roda is the 16-beat “time-line”. This asymmetrically structured rhythm is called “Clave”, just like in the Cuban Rumba. Mostly it’s carried out on loudly chiming instruments like glass bottles, bells or through simply clapping. Soon several more Samba variants evolved, like the Sambolero, the Samba de Breqe, the Samba-Coro, the Samba-Cancao or the Samba-Enredo. The last one is the Samba especially composed for the Carnival. Each year, the Samba schools present their own 90-minute theme (Enredo) in the parades, something for which they prepare and practice for a whole year ahead.
Then everybody celebrates, dances and drinks extensively a whole week. The otherwise ever present race barriers play no role anymore during this week. Poor and rich people, young and old people, blacks and whites all celebrate together. From the sound trucks, the Trio Elétricos, the samba rhythms are blasting. All the Carnival groups are in the streets. The Carnival ends with a final concert on Ash Wednesday.
However, only a few days later plans for the next year are made and the practice of the new choreography begins. The golden age of the Samba, the “Època de ouro“, is connected to the Samba-Cancao. In the mid-20s, as the radio was invented, the middle classes realized that one could make a lot of money on the Samba. From now on, the rich people controlled the Samba. Even though the lower classes were practically exploited through this development, the Samba profited from it. Well-educated composers gave the Samba new impulses.
In this way the Samba-Cancao originated, where the text and the melody played the most important part. Musical stars like Noel Rosa, Braguinha, Lamartine Babo, Bahianer Dorival Caymmi and Arri Barroso could thereby present themselves with an enormous effect on the audience. Barroso had the most successful Samba-Hit ever: the “Aquarela do Brasil“. But until this day, the most ultimate star of Samba is considered to be Carmen Miranda. She was a dancer, singer and actress and recorded about 300 songs during her lifetime. Her biggest successes were “Tico Tico“ and “Que é que a baina tem“. In her films she played, for example, with Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. From 1940 on she lived in Hollywood, something for which she was often criticized. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands took to the streets when she was buried in Rio de Janeiro at the age of only 46.
The Samba has been a competition dance since 1959 and since 1963 it’s been part of the World Dance Program. It is played with intertwined, syncopated lines in melody and accompaniment. The simplest rhythm is a clapping form originating from West Africa, which was composed and written down systematically. This rhythm is used even today. A small ensemble can play the Samba just as well as the giant Escolas de Samba in Rio with more than 5,000 participants.