Brazil has exported a wide array of cultural traditions to the world, from deliciously grilled meats and cachaça to excellence in sports and the arts. One of the country’s most popular customs within Brazil and worldwide is samba music.
With its combination of singing and dancing, alongside its use of intricately syncopated rhythms and contagious grooves, samba may seem to defy definition. Read on to better understand this unique style!
What Is Samba Music?
The initial birth of samba music took place sometime in the early-to-mid 19th century, with its roots stemming from African drumming traditions. Enslaved African people, many of whom were brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonists, retained the influence of their own musical elements such as polyrhythms and syncopated patterns. With its sparkling melodies and lyrics that are often sung in Portuguese, the music rapidly caught on across South America and beyond.
It’s now an integral part of Rio De Janeiro’s famous yearly Carnival festival, at which many samba schools compete against one another. These “schools” are a bit less formal than the classroom setting that the name implies, and rather provide instruction in both drumming and dance.
Samba Music Characteristics
Traditional samba music features a variety of layered percussion instruments, with or without the addition of harmonic instruments like piano and guitar. Rhythms are usually upbeat and tend to appear in 2/4 or 4/4 time signatures.
While much of the contemporary samba music influenced by jazz or pop is notated or prewritten, traditional groups like those you may encounter at Carnival often improvise their sets. Call and response motifs share the African influence of layered percussion parts, and also serve to discern varying sections of a piece for the musicians and dancers involved.
Traditions like Bossa Nova and Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) use the rhythms and aesthetics of samba, but combine them with influences from jazz and rock. This has led to pop-based music that’s still distinctly Brazilian while also borrowing its complex harmonies from the jazz music being played in the USA.
Eight Examples of Samba Music
While these descriptions are intended to be as detailed as possible, anyone with a passion for music will tell you that there’s no better way to learn about a new style than to listen to it. Here are a few examples of samba music, and the various forms it can take.
Aquarela do Brasil
This piece by Ary Barroso, recorded in 1939, became world-famous after being covered by countless musicians outside of Brazil and featured in a 1940s Disney movie. Locally it didn’t initially catch on, after being performed in 1940 at Carnival and snubbed from the top 3 songs.
Barroso received an apology from judges a decade and a half after this and was further honored with Acarela do Brasil being recorded by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, among others.
This 1938 hit by singer Carmen Miranda features the classic yin and yang of samba music: some upbeat cheeriness, but with a darker undertone. In more romantic pieces, that undertone can be one of nostalgia, but here it’s a political statement.
Brazil’s government was interested in censoring music that painted the regime in a less than positive way, and this song pokes fun at the political situation across the pond in Europe. While this wasn’t directly aimed at anyone in Brazil, it made the song controversial and one of protest.
Corrente de Aco
This recording from the mid-1970s demonstrates the many fusions found in Brazilian music. The guitar provides rhythms of traditional samba, but with accompaniment from tenor saxophone that’s undeniably jazz-influenced.
The arrangement sung by Elizete Cardoso is far less spontaneous than some of our more traditional examples, likely due to the number of melodic lines present. Samba’s relationship with jazz, and the move towards Bossa-Nova, will be a recurring theme amongst these musical examples.
Singer and composer Toninho Geraes gives us yet another example of more contemporary samba music here, that defies classification until the more traditional and intricate percussion section enters around half a minute into the song.
Geraes maintains a busy schedule performing and touring, and seamlessly fuses authentic samba music with pop influences from around the world. His melodies are often more intricate than those you might hear at Carnival but are still memorable and catchy enough to excite his ample fanbase.
João Nogueira’s rendition of Espelho is yet another example of fusing jazz harmony with Brazilian traditional instruments playing samba patterns. The 1970s in Brazil featured many hit songs like this, and represent an era where ample pop and jazz elements were fused while sounding distinctly Brazilian.
Trem das Onze
This piece by Adoniran Barbosa represents a distinctly Sao Paulo interpretation of samba, differing from its Rio de Janeiro roots. The rhythmic syncopations and layered vocal parts are similar to what you may hear at Carnival in Rio, yet the overall tone of the song is more subdued and more heavily produced than what we hear farther to the northeast.
So Danco Samba
This piece by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim truly traverses the fine line between samba and Bossa Nova. Stan Getz, an American saxophonist who greatly admired Brazilian music, is the guest collaborator alongside Bossa legend Joao Gilberto.
While the piece has samba in its name, it uses this term more loosely than the aforementioned samba school and Carnival traditions. There are references to samba dancing in the lyrics, but the harmony and melody bring Jobim’s extensive knowledge of American jazz to the forefront.
Samba e Amore
Chico Buarque is another musician who traverses the musical landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. His sound, and that of this unique pop-influenced song, have replicated the “big city vibe” of Sao Paulo while keeping rhythmically grounded in the samba tradition. Buarque is still alive today, performing contemporary pieces as well as classic samba.
Top 5 Samba Musicians
Brazilian music today is greatly influenced by jazz and pop music. Rock musicians playing others’ music (“covers”), and jazz musicians reading chords and melodies off of simplified “lead sheets”, allow for a lot of collaboration in those genres. Samba music is no exception.
Musicians will frequently perform and record others’ music, which is one of the reasons for Brazilian genres having so much variety within them. Let's get to know some of the most influential samba musicians, from the bandleaders who started the tradition, to those who have stretched its limits and continued to innovate.
Growing up in a musical family with plenty of traditional Choro music to draw influence from, Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho, or Pixinguinha would go on to be one of the most popular musicians and composers in the samba genre. While originally known for choro, Pixinguinha shifted musical tastes with the times in the 50s and embraced samba.
In both Choro and samba works, his style tended to be more complex than that of his contemporaries. Many of his Choros were written for piano, requiring virtuosic independence between their left and right hands. This influence is paramount to the blend of danceability and complexity found in modern samba.
Ary Barroso is renowned for being one of the most influential Brazilian composers of the 20th century, stepping only slightly out of the spotlight when Bossa Nova became more popular. Alongside musical endeavors, he attended law school, commentated on soccer matches, and did countless interviews for important news agencies.
A virtuoso at a young age, Barroso began making ends meet with music in his mid-teenage years, accompanying silent films and theater productions. Even after gaining popularity with his own performances and compositions later in life, he continued to contribute soundtracks to various films within and outside of the Brazilian border.
Portuguese-born Brazilian singer Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, later known as Carmen Miranda,made a name for herself performing and interpreting classic samba as the style grew throughout Brazil. She left Brazil for the United States early in her career and found success there acting as well.
Miranda’s success became more attributed to her acting and her image as the “Brazilian Bombshell” which became her nickname in the US. Later in her career, she lamented not being able to break free from this celebrity status, but she remains heralded for promoting Brazilian and South American culture worldwide.
João Nogueira began a hard-working career as a prolific samba composer in his mid-teens, becoming more famous in his 20s and 30s with several hits and protest songs. He quickly became known as a free-spirited yet determined member of the counterculture in the mid-70s.
As Brazil became more politically stable, Nogueira fully embraced his samba roots and ran several schools that competed at Carnival each year. He was known for his unique voice and way of phrasing melodies. Following his death in 2000, tributes took place across Brazil.
While not purely a samba artist, João Gilberto deserves a spot on this list for adding jazz influences to the genre and creating what we know today as Bossa Nova. Gilberto was born in the Northern state of Bahia and dropped out of his formal studies in his early 20s to pursue music professionally.
This paid off, with Gilberto becoming a quintessential crooner of traditional songs. He put himself on track to achieve Brazilian and international fame through access to the more contemporary repertoire of composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim and recording techniques capable of capturing his subtle and delicate vocal quality. He went on to collaborate with some of the greats in Latin jazz, as well as performing solo regularly.
The History Of Samba Music
The syncopated rhythms, characteristic groovy drums, and the call and response techniques paramount to samba all started in Southern Africa. Enslaved African people brought traditions across the Atlantic to Brazil, which was then a Portuguese colony. These colonies adapted samba dancing and singing to function with the massive parades during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and they have been a part of this yearly festival ever since.
Carmen Miranda is generally believed to be responsible for bringing samba to the United States before jazz musicians in the 1960s began experimenting with the genre. Its versatility has not only influenced other genres like MPB and Bossa Nova but also has brought the style across the world.
Samba’s popularity amongst jazz musicians in the 1960s made it popular in Japan as well, long known for its appreciative audiences of instrumental music. In Brazil, fans distinguish the different styles of samba by various names. “Break samba” gained popularity by interspersing breaks into existing songs and samples often filled with Portuguese rap.
Traditional samba like you’d hear at Carnival in Rio still exists, with numerous samba schools still thriving around the world. Contemporary Brazilian musicians like Chico Buarque keep these traditions alive while composing music and breathing new life into classic pieces. While samba isn’t the oldest musical art form out there, it has had a long history and evolution. Don’t expect to see it going anywhere soon either!
What Is Samba Music? Final Thoughts
From its Afro-Brazilian origins to the genre’s worldwide growth in popularity, samba music is a relatively specific set of concepts that can go in any direction depending on the musicians involved.
If this sounds a little like jazz, perhaps that’s why jazz musicians gravitated towards the genre. However, here lies the beauty of samba: all you need is a drum and a lively presence to get folks on their feet.