Brazil produces some of the best music and dance in the world, most of which is unfortunately underrated and quite unknown around the world. Samba, a type of dance and musical genre, has achieved relative global significance, but it still merits much more attention than has been received, for its creative flair and lyrical hybrid.
Samba has been existent in Brazil since just after the nation was discovered in 1500. It has since evolved with Brazil over the centuries and is therefore one of the many things that define this rich country. While most of you have probably heard of samba, what you may not know is that there are actually different types of samba, all often referred to as just “samba,” even though officially, each kind has a different name and holds unique characteristics. (Needless to say, this can get a bit confusing!) For instance, samba de raiz is the original modern-day samba of Brazil. But the samba known around the world is that which is associated with the annual Carnival, called samba de enredo.
Samba de Raiz
The “raiz” in “samba de raiz” means “root.” Samba de raiz is the root of all modern-day Brazilian samba; it led to the birth of many other sub genres, including samba de enredo. Think about it this way: without samba de raiz, there would not be the Carnival samba…
Samba was actually first born in Africa and was brought to Bahia, Brazil through the slave trade in the sixteenth century. However, it was only until it developed in Rio de Janeiro in the twentieth century that it became the samba de raiz that we know and love today.
20th-century Rio underwent many changes; slavery was abolished in the late 1800s, and the city then tried to eliminate the rampant poverty and the “Africanness” from the center by pushing those who were poor (all marginalized blacks) to the slums and peripheral areas. Faced with such discrimination, the blacks of Rio began to develop their own Afro-Brazilian culture; it was here that samba saw its true origins.
In the slums of Rio, former Bahian slaves who had introduced samba to Brazil mixed the Bahian samba with other dance moves and musical genres played throughout the city, so that it became something completely different. While samba was originally played with strings and percussion instruments, after World War II, many were influenced by American music, and so began to incorporate other instruments, like the trombone, trumpet, flute and clarinet. Over the years, even more instruments have been added, such as the banjo and the tan-tan, and the style has melded with other musical genres such as rap and reggae.
While samba music is an integral part of its dance, the main focus of samba de raiz is on the dance itself. This evolving samba was influenced by capoeira and other dances. It is now known for its very fast steps at a quarter of a beat, upward hand motions and swaying of the hips. The video shown below gives a good idea of how it’s done:
Samba was certainly not immediately accepted by the rest of the population; before becoming the national symbol that it is today, many people rejected samba due to its African roots. Even today, despite its immense popularity, some Brazilians still look down on samba, in the belief that it is meant for lower classes. Whichever way you look at it, samba’s enormous influence on Brazilian culture is undeniable.
Samba de enredo
The samba de enredo came about from the samba de raiz; this unique kind of samba, created especially for the yearly Carnival, changes with each group that performs it. The dance moves are quicker than samba de raiz, but the main difference lies in the music. “Enredo” is the “story” that is told through the samba; samba de enredo always communicates a story through its music and the song that has been composed for the festival; more importantly, songs of the samba de enredo always pay homage to a particular person or place or express a viewpoint on a certain issue. Listen to the song below to get a feel for how they sound:
Carnival parades take place in the major cities of Brazil and are essentially a competitive display of the state’s escolas de samba (samba schools), which are schools that normally represent a particular neighborhood and of course, are devoted to the practice and performance of samba. While they are called “schools,” the escolas de samba are not actually places that teach samba; they are more like soccer teams preparing for the Olympics (if the Olympics were each year).
Every year long before Carnival, each samba school that is represented undergoes a long and selective process of choosing a samba de enredo (song) that will be performed at the festival. Once the song is finally chosen, most schools spend all year rehearsing their samba de enredo; since this is the main event that the school partakes in, year-round preparation is necessary. Once at Carnival, each school boasts a different theme and exhibits their carefully-selected and fiercely-rehearsed samba de enredo one at a time; each school is given about an hour to parade and show off what they’ve got…
Further, every Carnival festival has the schools divided into two groups: grupo especial (special group), which are the best schools from the state, and grupo de acesso (access group), which is like the Division Two team; they are not as good as the grupo especial. Based upon the performance of the samba-enredo among other factors, the worst school of the grupo especial goes to the grupo de acesso the following year, and the best school from the grupo de acesso transitions to the grupo especial. In the end, one school is declared the winner.
So where is the best samba de enredo of Brazil, you might be wondering? Since samba schools originated in Rio, this is where you will find the most famous and extravagant shows. Here is a sample of various schools in Rio performing their respective sambas de enredo at Carnival: