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Annual Samba Residency Program

An Introduction to the Samba
By Philip Galinsky, Ph.D.

The samba is the most famous type of music and dance from Brazil. But before we delve into the samba, we have to talk about the make-up of Brazil.

The make up of Brazil and Samba »

There are three general cultural groups that formed the foundation for Brazilian culture and society. These are the Native Brazilians, the Portuguese and other Europeans who colonized Brazil and later came as immigrants, and the Africans. There have also been many immigrants from countries all over the world who have made Brazil their home.

More than three million Africans from various parts of Africa were taken to Brazil as slaves. The samba has its origins in Africa — more specifically, the Congo-Angola region.

In Brazil, the Congo-Angolan roots of samba mixed with other African influences as well as the influences of the Portuguese and other Europeans, and Native Brazilians to create the Brazilian samba — which exists in many different styles and is played and danced in many different contexts throughout the country.

The early samba — danced in a circle, just like in the Congo-Angola region of Africa — first emerged in Bahia and other states in the Northeast of Brazil.

There were many migrations from the Northeast to cities in the South like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the late 1800s. Migrants from Bahia State brought the samba at that time to Rio, which was, and still is, a big melting pot of many different cultures and ethnicities. The first hit samba recording, “Pelo Telefone” (On the Telephone), was recorded and released in Rio in 1917. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the samba spread throughout the country via radio to become the national music of Brazil.

In Rio, the samba is played and danced year round in various contexts, including informal, communal samba gatherings, which often take place around a table with food, drink and much socializing.

Another important context for the samba in Rio today is Carnaval, the big festival that happens before Lent in the Catholic calendar. In Rio, the Carnaval samba is represented most famously by large formal social clubs that put on huge parades called escolas de samba (“samba schools”) or by street Carnaval groups called blocos. Both types of groups feature a drum section called the bateria that can number up to 300 percussionists in each group. There is also a typical kind of song played in Carnaval by the samba schools called the samba-enredo, or “theme samba,” which tells a story that is also illustrated in the floats and costumes of each samba school.

Nourished and sustained in largely Afro-Brazilian communities in lower-income areas of Rio, the samba today is played, danced, and appreciated by people of all different backgrounds in Brazil and throughout the world. In Rio and other places in Brazil, the samba is more than just a music and dance. It’s a culture or way of life that provides a tremendous source of meaning and pleasure for people who often live in challenging material conditions.

The instructional videos contained here provide an introduction to some of the typical samba instruments and rhythms as well as a basic samba dance step.

The video above is a playlist of videos about the samba educational project with hosts and Samba Teaching Artists, Philip Galinsky, Ph.D. and Magali Medeiros. Please refer to our notes below as you watch through the videos.

Introduction: Provides introduction to our samba educational project with hosts and Samba Teaching Artists, Philip Galinsky, Ph.D. and Magali Medeiros.

Samba Time-Line: Demonstrates the time-line rhythm in samba called teleco-teco, which functions as a guide for all the other rhythms. Here, our hosts demonstrate the samba time-line using a song they composed called “I Love Samba,” with Magali on the cavaquinho (the typical four-string Brazilian guitar) and Philip on the tamborim (small Brazilian frame drum). As played here, the teleco-teco starts on beat 3 of the four-beat cycle (See below for a link to the “Samba New York! – Bateria 101” video, which provides more information about the rhythmic structure of samba.)

Surdo: Philip demonstrates the surdo drum, the heartbeat of the samba. When played outside of Carnaval, a single surdo can be used to play the samba pulse, with a muted tone on beats 1 and 3 and an open tone on beats 2 and 4 of the four-beat cycle.

Pandeiro: Philip demonstrates a basic samba pattern on the pandeiro, a type of Brazilian tambourine. The pattern comprises the basic subdivisions of the samba — four subdivisions per each of the four main beats of the cycle. First, he demonstrates the four strokes slowly. Then he plays the pattern a bit faster, adding both the typical accents on the first and fourth subdivision of each beat and the special rhythmic phrasing, or “swing,” of the samba. See below for a link to the “Samba New York! – Bateria 101” video, which provides more information about the basic subdivisions and characteristic “swing” of the samba rhythm.

Tamborim: Philip demonstrates two different techniques for playing the tamborim (small Brazilian frame drum) in samba.

Agogô and Shaker: Magali plays an egg shaker (which has the same function as the tubular shaker called ganzá in Portuguese), while Philip demonstrates a typical rhythm on the agogô double-bell, a Yoruba instrument from West Africa.

Additional Resources

The Story of Samba At the Dawn of Modern Brazil
A website in English devoted to the samba in Rio de Janeiro

Samba New York! — Bateria 101
An introduction to the basics of the “bateria” samba percussion ensemble

Samba New York! — Bateria 102
A sequel to “Bateria 101”

This project was made possible through the contribution of Philip Galinsky, Ph.D.; Magali Medeiros; and Elizabeth Martins, Project Coordinator, Brazil Initiative, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Many thanks to the University of Michigan’s Vencedores Samba Band for their participation in this collaboration.