What is Samba?

Samba is the national music of Brazil. At its core, samba is a highly percussive form of music. There are many sub-categories of samba too, for example the popular Bossa Nova.  It could be said, however, that at its highest level, samba is the heavy-drum based music which is performed by Rio de Janeiro's Samba Schools during Carnival season (Samba Schools have many 'wings', the most important of which is the 'bateria' or drum-corps). In fact, samba music and Carnival are so historically and inextricably linked that one cannot explain samba without reference to Carnival and vice-versa.

Every year the biggest of the Samba Schools of Rio prepare for a grand parade during the Rio Carnival. There are literally thousands of participants from each of the twelve 'elite' schools in Rio alone. Imagine each school having in excess of three-thousand paraders, with some of them up to six-thousand! The foundation of every Samba School, however, is its bateria - drum corps - which may contain up to 300 players or more.

The music they perform, moreover, is highly structured, tight yet powerful and seductive. This is a hard task since there are literally hundreds of drummers parading with elaborate costumes and attempting to have fun! The bateria is managed by a series of directors/conductors who help keep time and signal to the players when a change in the music is coming.

Samba music itself isn't very old. In fact, it's approximately 100 years old, with the first samba song recorded in 1917 ('Pelo Telefone' by Donga and Mauro de Almeida). Its development was intimately tied to Brazil's African slave heritage and Western European (Venetian, Parisian) Carnival, initially celebrated in Brazil by the country's well heeled White Portuguese (Brazil was colonised by the Portuguese and Portuguese is the country's language).  The objective of Carnival was to have fun and indulge in life's pleasures in the lead-up to Lent, a period in the Catholic calender in which people are to refrain from various indulgences and bodily pleasures. It is said therefore that the Rio Carnival is the 'biggest party on earth' during which people farewell the freedom to indulge in certain practices and foods. Every year, just before Carnaval, the keys to city of Rio are symbolically handed over to Rei Momo - the 'King of Misrule' - where everything is said to go crazy and people just party.

But the early Rio Carnival didn't feature samba music at all. During the later parts of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, the Europeans dressed up, threw scented water at each other, formed groups to parade and made floats and attended beautiful balls. Rio's black population, however, weren't allowed to participate in the Carnival. Hence, they created their own in the poorer districts of the city. It was here that the practice of large groups of people playing drums in a big street party emerged. Eventually, as black carnival goers became more organised and accepted by the wider White community, samba 'schools' emerged and progressively took over Carnival.

And it was the music of the samba paraders which drew peoples' attention - white and black - which by 1920, all of Rio was listening to. It was a great tide that could no longer be held back. Not more than a decade before small samba bands were being broken up by police under special laws designed to stop Rio's Afro population from playing the music of "bums and bandits". Nowadays, Carnaval exists to showcase the extravagant and splendorous costumes and massive floats of the samba schools, not to mention the joyous pounding of the schools' baterias! (I'll add more later, ciao ciao!)