Samba is an underground music that evolved in the cultural mixing pot of colonial Brazil, emerging as a style in its own right at the turn of the 20th century. The word itself comes from ‘semba’ or ‘san-ba’, a word that can be found in many African languages. It had several potent meanings but is generally taken to mean ‘to pray’ or ‘invoke the spirits’.
Samba evolved under the patronage of old women coming down from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro and they carried with them elements of their African heritage; The dances of the slaves were meant to invoke certain African deities known as Orishas and the dancer would then allow that spirit to take possession of her body.
This kind of thing didn’t go down too well with the Catholic Portuguese plantation owners and so the Orishas took on the masks of various Catholic saints to hide their true identities. In this respect samba is very similar to capoeira, a martial art that had to be disguised in the form of a dance.
Yet despite the disguise the authorities sensed something was going on and the gatherings would often be broken up. In Rio de Janeiro samba shed some of its religious connotation and became more of a music of protest and expression in the poor communities of the favelas.
A pioneer of Samba, Angenor de Oliveira, was quoted as saying:
“In my childhood, we played the Samba in the backyards of the old ladies, whom we call ‘tias’ (aunts), and the police stopped us often, because the Samba, then, was considered a ‘thing’ of bums and bandits.”
In many respects samba has parallels with the blues in America. Still today it remains the music of the poor and the schools are all centred in the favelas. It received little popular attention aside from the mass-marketed Carnival that draws tourists from the world over. The original parades were a home-grown affair but now the ticket prices are so high that no one from the favelas could afford to watch the blocos pass.
Still, samba is alive and well in the bloco performances that happen all over Brazil and every weekend impromptu performances can be seen in small cafes on the street. In Rio the residents of the favela above Ipanema come down on Sunday to play around plastic tables and chairs and sing. Samba needs only a basic rhythm to be knocked out on claves, triangle or drum and these small sessions are often accompanied by a guitar or mandolin. Everyone knows the words to the songs and it’s about as democratic as music can get.
Sadly mainstream acceptance of samba is still pretty much limited to TV shows of well-endowed women in bikinis shaking their stuff. The dance is very evocative with foot-shuffling that sets the hips and breasts swinging. It’s generally danced alone but also works in pairs.
Samba is catching on big-time internationally and now performance of samba bands and dance classes can be found in most major European cities.