Tuesday, June 5, 2007

maSamba: A brief history of Samba.

maSamba: A brief history of Samba.

A brief history of Samba
Samba is one of the best known forms of Afro-Brasilian music. Afro-Brasilian culture developed through a blending of cultures as a result of the Portuguese colonisation of Brasil.

The Portuguese wished to use Brasil’s temperate climate to grow crops such as coffee and sugar and subjugated the indigenous Indian population to work their plantations. The Indians found this way of life unacceptable and were subsequently wiped out through a mixture of military campaigns and unknown diseases‚ inadvertantly carried by the European’s.

To replace them‚ slave labour was transported from Africa and inevitably‚ the African’s brought elements of their culture with them. Out of this racial melting pot‚ Afro-Brasilian culture was born.

This vibrant and exciting culture is still evolving and is expressed in different ways in various parts of Brasil. It is important to note that what we in Europe call samba or Samba music‚ is often an umbrella-term encompassing several different forms of music (samba‚ samba-reggae‚ afro bloc‚ maracatu‚ baio‚ etc.).

In Brasil‚ ‘samba’ refers to the carnival music associated closely with Rio and to a lesser extent Sao Paulo.

Rio de Janeiro
No one is sure where the term samba originated. Some say it comes from the word semba‚ a Congo/Angola expression used to describe a traditional African dance brought to Brasil by slaves. It may also come from the Umbanda term san-ba meaning to pray as many samba players and composers are followers of Umbanda and Candomblu.

Today’s samba schools are descendants of the neighbourhood blocos - groups of poor Rio residents who came together to sing and dance to the accompaniment of percussion music. Blocos celebrated carnival in their own neighbourhoods and visited neighbouring favelas and often ran foul of the police for their raucous and sometimes lewd antics.

Samba came to the attention of white Brasilians with the advent of radio and record players and the first recorded sambas appeared from 1917 onwards. The first samba school Deixa Falar (Let Them Speak) was formed in 1928. Quickly‚ many other samba schools were formed such as Mangueira (1930) and Portela (1935)‚ all of which exist to this day. The term samba school refers to the fact that many of these early groups rehearsed in school yards.

A typical samba school can number 3000 to 4000 members‚ although not all members will perform for carnival. A samba school carnival entry will typically include singers (puxadores)‚ musicians‚ including a drumming section called the bateria‚ dancers‚ giant puppets‚ several floats and flag bearers‚ all ornately decorated or wearing colourful costumes. As well as the performers‚ there will be an army of people behind the scenes‚ building props and floats‚ making costumes‚ designing elements of the entry‚ doing the administration‚ etc.

The most important event in the annual life of a samba school is the carnival parade. Carnival is celebrated each year just before the Catholic feast of Lent and‚ as such occurs in February or early March. Samba schools will begin their preparations for the carnival as early as mid July. Samba school members compose songs and submit designs for costumes‚ floats‚ etc. The samba enredo (winning song) is selected and becomes the key song and determines the overall theme for that year's entry. Then‚ intensive rehearsals‚ float construction and costume making commences which will continue right up to the beginning of carnival.

Salvador de Bahia
In Salvador de Bahia‚ carnival traditions developed differently and are closely linked with the black-consciousness movement of the 1970’s. Taking on board the same influences as Rio samba‚ and mixing them with music from other black artists of the period (soul‚ funk and reggae)‚ new Afro Blocs formed. Afro blocs celebrated the African heritage of their (mainly black) membership and set about educating people about African cultures while speaking out about past and present injustices and inequalities in Brasilian society. Their music contains a stronger African influence than Rio samba.

The first Afro bloc was Ile Aiye‚ formed in 1974. Ile Aiye took the controversial step of excluding whites and mulattos from their ranks and specialises in provocative‚ pro-black lyrics. The best-known Afro bloc of all is Olodum‚ who are generally considered to have invented samba-reggae.

Samba-reggae mixes Afro bloc music with reggae influences‚ to produce an extremely popular music form which has gained popularity world over. Amongst others‚ Olodum have recorded and performed with such luminaries as Jimmy Cliff‚ Herbie Hancock‚ Paul Simon and Michael Jackson.

Recife and Olinda
The third pillar of Afro Brasilian music history lies in the northeastern state of Pernambuco‚ centred around the cities of Recife and Olinda.

In the past‚ this area was somewhat isolated from the rest of Brasilian society and‚ as such‚ the music here developed in isolation from other forms. This has resulted in two factors: Some music forms are closer in structure and content to their original roots and the music found here is unique to the area.

The main carnival pattern from the Northeast is Maracatu‚ a slow trance-like rhythm relying on heavy‚ off beat patterns laid down by bass drums (alfaias)‚ complex interlocking snare rhythms and large African cowbells (gongus).

Also associated with carnival in the Northeast is Frevo‚ a manic‚ polka-type music played with percussion instruments and brass and Forru‚ music played on accordion‚ triangle and bass drum (zabumba).

Ireland and the U.K.
Samba was not played in Britain and Ireland until the 1980’s. For the most part‚ the development of a vibrant samba scene can be attributed to the tireless work of a small group of samba fanatics.

The London School of Samba is the longest established group in the U.K.‚ dating back to 1984. Inner Sense Percussion Orchestra have had a huge effect on the samba scene in the U.K. and Ireland‚ touring incessantly and bringing Brazilian music to many new audiences and inspiring new bands to form far and wide. The less obvious factor in the development of the samba scene here‚ has been the use of Brasilian percussion in community music and community arts projects.

Samba is an ideal tool in education and community arts settings and‚ as such has been used in a broad variety of social settings. Many of the groups in existence today either are‚ or owe their existence to‚ community music projects.

Today‚ there are more than 100 Afro-Brazilian music groups in existence in the U.K. and Ireland. There are now some very good practitioners and training courses with the likes of Dudu Tucci that will ensure that the quality of playing and teaching in the sector will continue to rise. There is a greater knowledge and interest in this form of music than ever before and the scene looks set to grow even more in coming years.

Simeon Smith.

No comments: