A Brief History of Samba and Rio de Janeiro`s Carnaval

Brazil’s annual Carnaval(carnival) in Rio de Janeiro(Rio) is one of the world’s largest and most spectacular musical events. Carnaval seems to have” originated from various pagan spring festivals held by ancient Greeks, Romans and others”(McGowan/Pessanha p.35)The word Carnaval comes from the Latin carne vale meaning “farewell to the flesh”(http//:www.afropop.org)and marks the beginning of the 40 day pre-Lent abstinence. Rio`s Carnaval is a combination of Brazil’s unique African, European and Indigenous Indian heritage.


The first masked (masquerade)Carnaval ball in Rio “took place in 1840 at the Hotel Italia”(McGowan/Pessanha p.36),the music of choice was the then fashionable waltzes and polka of Europe. In 1850 European style street parades appeared and according to McGowan and Pessanha in `The Sound of Brazil`, these parades were competitive events complete with military marching bands and ornate floats. At this same time Rio`s poorer population who “could not afford tickets to the expensive balls”(McGowan/Pessanha p.36) and who saw the formal parades as dull and boring, created male-only cordoes (cords),today known as Carnaval `blocos` or `blocos de rua`. These cordoes paraded on the streets of Rio to Africa based rhythms. Joao Maximo in his article for O Globo cites Nei Lopes’ book `O negro no Rio de Janeiro e sua Tradicao Musical` (The Africans in Rio de Janeiro and their musical tradition) which explains that with the decline of opportunities on the plantations in Northern Brazil around the 1870`s many slaves emigrated to the then capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, which increased the Afro-Brazilian influence on Carnaval.

Composer Chinquinha Gonzaga was asked to write a song that “incorporated a boisterous rhythm that she had heard `cordoes` parading to…”(McGowan/Pessanha p.31) Her tune `O Abre Alas` was registered in 1899 as the first `marcha` (or marchinha) as well as being the “first song written specifically for carnival”(McGowam/Pessanha p.37)Along with the Afro-based rhythms the `marchas` of the 1920`s began to add rhythms and musical forms from music such as the North-American ragtime and one step .Marchinha bands of this era were made up of horns, a continuation of the early influence of military marching bands, along with drums and vocals. The lyrics where of a humorous nature that “often contain some kind of social message”(McGowan/Pessanha p.37)
A huge repertoire of `marchas` was composed during the 1930`s by composers such as Noel Rosa, Ary Barros and Benedito Lacerda ,to name only a few, and many of these compositions are still played and sung during today’s Carnaval celebrations by `bandas`. Modern `bandas` also known as `blocos` are a contemporary version of the original `cordoes` from the 1870`s.Most neighborhoods and suburbs in Rio have their own `bandas` nowdays and these grass-roots community groups are continuing the tradition of spontaneity and participation of the old Rio street Carnaval.

Samba is Brazil`s “most popular style of music”(Adolfo 1993 p.22) and this versatile rhythm comes in many different forms and regional variations, from the slower `samba-cancao` and `samba pagode` to the frenetic and thunderous `samba batucada` played by the `Escola de Samba`(samba schools) during Rio`s Carnaval parades.
.The word samba is a variation on the word `semba` from the Angolan Quimbundo language from Africa, which translates to Belly-dance.(www.sambacity.info)
Escolas de Samba have been part of Rio de Janeiro Carnaval celebrations since 1929 when pioneering `sambistas`(performers and composers of samba) founded the first Escola de Samba `Deixa Falar`(Let them talk)in 1928.This first samba school was born out of the `blocos` which at the time were being harassed and suppressed by the police as local authorities tried to “discourage blacks and mulatos” (McGowan/Pessanha 1998 p.38) that is, people of black and white mixed ancestry, from parading in downtown Rio .Although this first Escola de Samba was short lived, disbanding in 1933, the inspiration had been provided for other sambistas to create their own escolas. In 1929 a number of other `blocos` from Rios poorer northern suburbs, had joined together to form Escola de Samba `Mangueira`, which still parades every year in Carnaval. Founding members included Carlos Cachaca and Cartola.(www.mangueira.com) .Cartola, real name Angenor de Oliveira , is today one of Brazil’s best loved and most performed samba composer despite the fact that he released his debut album in 1974 at age 66 after years of obscurity.
Another of Rios most famous escolas `Portela ` was founded in 1935 and “was the most innovative of the escolas for many decades”(McGowan /Pessanha 1998 p.38)It was also in 1935 that the government stopped discouraging the escolas participation in Carnaval and President Gutulio Vargas officially recognized the Escola de Samba parades. With this official recognition the parades moved from the inner city area of `Praca Onze` to the open and wider avenues of the centre of Rio.
Over the following decades Carnaval became more and more popular , attracting large numbers of participants and spectators. For a time grandstands were erected to accommodate the ever growing number of people but this failed to resolve the congestion and traffic problems caused by the parade. These problems were solved in 1984 when the `Passarela do Samba`(Samba Path) was constructed near the historic Praca Onze. The enormous concrete grandstands and 800 meter long path were designed by Brazils famous architect Oscar Niemeyer ,and today this iconic structure is known as the `Sambodromo`(www.carnaval.com)

Each Escola de Samba parades to a specific theme known as the `enredo`. McGowan (1998) observes that these themes may be of a historical or political nature or are often a tribute to particular individuals, such as Escola de Samba Imperatriz `s tribute to Chiquinha Gonzaga in 1997 and Escola de Samba Mocidade`s enredo in homage to “Brazils most important composer of the 20th Century Heitor Villa-Lobos”(Randel 1986 p.113) in 1999.
Once the `enredo` is chosen by the artistic director and approved by the escolas board of directors the escolas composers write sambas based on the theme. These sambas are known as `samba enredo` (Broughton 1994) Each escola votes for their favourite samba enredo and this is then recorded pre-carnaval. ”These are generally performed by male vocalists accompanied by `cavaquinho`(soprano guitar) and a large `bateria`(percussion group”(www.carnaval.com) All participating members of each Escola de Samba then learn the words and music to their schools `samba enredo` during the “months of intense activity”(Robison 2009 p.133)
At the commencement of each Escola de Sambas entrance into the Sambodromo the whole escola sings the samba enredo two or three times through before what McGowan(1998)describes as the most exciting moment of the whole parade, the entrance of the bateria. Each escola has a bateria (large percussion group) numbering up to 300 percussionists(www.brazilcarnival.com.br)
The bateria is conducted by the `mestre de bateria` who cues the percussionists using a whistle ”which serves as his baton”(McGowan/Pessanha 1998 p.42)
Each escola uses their own combination of percussion instruments , which may vary from year to year ,but a typical bateria will include the following instruments. The `surdo` is the bass drum which comes in three different sizes. The largest is the `surdo de marcacao`(marking surdo), as the names suggests it emphasizes the strong second beat of the 2/4 samba rhythm ,as McGowan(1998) notes this surdo is the base for the whole bateria. The second largest surdo is the `surdo resposta`(answering surdo) which answers the` surdo de marcacao` by playing on the weaker first beat of the 2/4 rhythm. Thirdly there is the smallest `surdo cortado`(cutting surdo) which plays on and of the beats adding syncopation. All three surdo are played by striking the large drum skin with ”a wooden stick topped by a velvet-covered wooden head”(Aldofo 1993 p. 135)
The `caixa` is the snare drum which plays drum-rolls. The inclusion of the `caixa` is influenced by the military marching bands which paraded in the earliest Rio Carnavals. The `tamborim` is the smallest drum n the bateria measuring about 18 centimeters in diameter .This small hand drum is struck with a multi-pronged flexible nylon beater and up to 70 percussionists can be playing `tamborins` in unison. The `agogo` is a double-cowbell, the two bells are of a different size and pitch and are struck with a wooden stick .According to www.brazilcarnival.com.br the agogo “may be the oldest samba instrument and was based on West African Yoruba single or double bells.”
The `pandeiro` is similar to the western tambourine, but with a tunable skin(drum head0 and inverted metal jingles`pratinelas`(tiny cymbals).The `repique`or `repenique` is the tenor drum played with a drum stick and the bare hand. The `cuica` is a small single-headed friction drum .A small bamboo stick attached to the drum rubs against the inside of the drum skin producing “grunting, growling and squeaking noises”(Adolfo 1993 p.135) Other commonly used percussion instruments include various types of shakers such as the `chocalho`,`ganza` and `shekere`.

Adolfo,A 1993, Brazilian Music Workshop, Advance Music.
Broughton,S et al 1994, World Music, Rough Guides Ltd, UK
Chandler,C et al 2008, Brazil, Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, VIC Australia.
Maximo, J 1997,`Da umbigada ao samba que Donga nao fez` ,O Globo, Segundo Caderno p.p 2
Mangueira History, accessed 28 December 2010,
Mc Gowan,C and Pessanha,R 1998, The Brazilian Sound .Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil, Temple University Press, Philadelphia ,USA.
Origins of Samba, accessed 27 December 2010,
Randel, D 1986 , The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd edn, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Robinson, A 2009, Brazil Handbook, 6th edn, Footprint Handbooks Ltd, Bath, UK.
Rosenberg, D 2010, History of Carnival in Brazil, accessed 24 December2010,
Sambodromo, accessed 28 December 2010,
Baterias de Carnival , accessed 18 January 2011,

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