Arts & Entertainment

Once banned in Brazil, samba is now a source of national pride

By Maria Angelica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, Dec 2 (EFE).- Brazil’s most emblematic musical genre was not always synonymous with Carnival and joie de vivre but instead was viewed as morally dubious and even outlawed altogether.

On Dec. 2, International Samba Day, the South American giant commemorates that dance, musical style and cultural phenomenon even as it recalls some troubled aspects of the country’s history.

Known internationally as the essence of the Rio Carnival, samba is much more than pageantry and glamor. It is the cry of the slaves transformed into music and dance, a reflection of religious traditions like Umbanda and Candomble and a constant flurry of melodic innovation that continues the long struggle against racism and discrimination, experts say.

Samba dates back to the arrival of the first slaves in what today is known as the northeastern state of Bahia, Rodrigo Pereira da Silva Rosa, a linguistics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), told Efe.

“Before being enslaved, the blacks would get together in Africa to commemorate and celebrate. When they were forcibly brought to Brazil, they wanted to keep that culture alive,” he said.

The slaves maintained that tradition, and their descendants then migrated to other regions of the country, particularly Rio de Janeiro, where they initially settled in the city center and the port but then moved to peripheral communities that today are known as favelas (shantytowns).

They gathered there in houses to sing, eat, drink and dance, or in so-called “terreiros” for Candomble or Umbanda worship. After the religious ceremonies, those spaces were used for “rodas de samba” (samba circles) in which melodies and songs sprang from collective improvisation.

Whereas slaves would mark the time with their palms and use plates and cutlery to make drumming sounds, percussion instruments such as the tambourine, the surdo (a type of bass drum) and the cuica (a type of friction drum) were created and introduced after Afro-Brazilians relocated to Rio.

String instruments – mainly the cavaquinho (a four-stringed instrument in the guitar family) – were later added and today form part of a typical samba ensemble.

Afro-Brazilians arrived in Rio from Bahia in larger numbers toward the end of the 19th century, following the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the establishment of the first Brazilian republic in 1889, leading to a blend of the musical traditions of the north with those of Rio.

But these trends also coincided with the passage of strict anti-vagrancy laws, with unemployed people on the street being placed behind bars for offending “good customs and morals.”

Included among these “vagrants” were musicians and people who enjoyed samba dancing. In fact, a person could be jailed for merely being seen on the street with a musical instrument.

According to the UFRJ expert, that samba ban was symptomatic of the heightened racism in Brazil in the wake of the abolition of slavery.

“Samba was banned because the state was saying that was music of the marginalized population, of bad people, of criminals. So everyone who was celebrating or who met to (play or dance samba) was pursued by the police,” he said.

Samba began to be seen more favorably with the arrival of radio and after Carmen Miranda popularized that genre in films in Brazil in the 1930s and later in the United States with her performances there in the 1940s.

Since then, that musical genre has continuously reinvented itself and its essence also can be found in a variety of sub-genres that range from pagode and chorinho to bossa nova. EFE


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