The Story of Brazilian Samba

Samba tells a story…of the origins and daily lives of a people. It is myth. It is legend. It is a way of life. Samba is beauty, sadness and suffering. Samba is hope. Samba is history…

Samba is the sound of African slaves…of their torment on board the great Portuguese galleons crossing the Atlantic and their first footfall on Terra Brasilis…of their song of freedom, of their homeland. Samba is the candomblé they brought with them and hid behind the Catholic religion of their masters. Samba is the shout of rebellion in a small town called Inconfidentes…of the runaway-slave quilombo of Palmares and its ruler, King Zumbi…of Maculele defending his village against invaders…and of finally breaking free from the coffee and sugar plantations of Bahia.

Samba is Rio de Janeiro, in the Bay of Guanabara, at the end of the 19th Century. A city ridden with violence and Yellow Fever. Samba is hungry and poor, hanging out in the bars and the gafieira dance halls of ‘Little Africa’ with the Maxixe, half-African like itself. Samba is the bad boys, the malandros, stealing your girlfriend and picking your pocket with a wink and a smile. Samba is the Bahianas selling their sweet tapioca cake, coconut quindim and the sacred acarajé all the way up to the great Praça Onze de Julho. And Samba is these same women by night, priestesses of candomblé.

Samba is the afro-brazilian families that live crammed together in huge, colonial houses abandoned by the rich, white families who left some time ago for the more fashionable Zona Sul. Samba is in the kitchen of Aunt Ciata, Aunt Amelia, and the other Bahianas who run the community…and in their candomblé ceremonies that take place out back. Then one day, on a scorching Summer’s eve in 1916, in Aunt Ciata’s house, mixing with the smell of the cooking, and the rhythm of the trendy marchinhas and choros from the front room, a new sound is born — and Samba gets its name.

But Samba is notorious…and there’s prejudice. Samba is black, at a time of repression, persecution and extreme poverty. Samba is selling itself for an easy buck, or a couple of beers, to white journalists and radio producers coming to Little Africa looking for a fix. The police confiscate its tambourines and beat it up — but unknown to them, Samba is sister to capoeira, and they escape.

Samba is watching carnival at the beginning of the 20th Century: the Zé Pereiras with their cacophony of improvised instruments; the violent cordões dressed up as witches, devils and clowns; the more organised ranchos with their handsome (and dangerous) mestre-salas defending the beautiful, flag-carrying porta-bandeiras from other groups trying to steal the flag; the elaborate floats and sculptures of the magnificent corsos crossing the city on their way to the famous balls of the Great Societies. And then finally, seeing all this, Samba stops dead in its tracks and shouts, in 1928, “Let me speak!” — and so it became the first samba school, Deixa Falar (“Let me speak”). And it gets its own theme music, the samba-enredo.

However, samba is not singing the praises of Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo in the 30s in exchange for mainstream recognition and acceptance by the middle-classes. Samba is not a platform for politicians and political leaders to exploit and win support from the masses. Samba is, however, the sound of the New Brazil. But, come on, Samba isn’t Fred Astaire dancing ‘the Carioca’ in Flying Down to Rio, nor is it Carmen Miranda with fruit on her head — bananas are not its business!

So samba is hanging out in Copacabana and falling in love again…and again…and again. And samba is that same love, lost, singing of betrayal, melancholy and nostalgia in the samba-canção of the 40s. Samba is a little too African for the rich kids on Ipanema beach in the 50s, who start playing a new happy-go-lucky version of it on their guitars and calling it bossa-nova. These same kids go looking for it again, during the military dictatorship of the 60s, and end up in a bar called Zicartola, where they flirt with the girls, lose at cards to the malandros and jam late into the night with musicians from the favela, calling it samba-de-raíz. The owner, Cartola, takes it in. Eventually, Samba is an influx of a wave of foreign music in the 80s — rock, rap, funk, disco — and those who still remember Aunt Ciata’s cooking shout “no!”, and turn it into pagode.

And now, despite becoming rich beyond its wildest dreams, Samba still lives in the favela. With the poverty, the violence of the drug gangs, and the police intimidation. It still spends all year getting ready for its carnival parade. And on some Saturday nights, when it really needs to party, it goes to the baile funk — though it doesn’t feel as young as it used to be. But when all is said and done, and everything is just splendour and ashes, samba is and always will be, believing in life, and the joy of living*.

*(It is not, however, “shaking your ass”)

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Chris Bicourt

Long walks in the park, swimming, photography, writing stories and spending time with family. https://creativepool.com/chris-bicourt/