Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world and largest on the South American continent. It has common borders with all but two of its South American neighbours namely, Equador and Chile. Brazil possesses 4,600 miles of coastline as well as the Amazon Basin, home to the largest rainforest on the planet. It is still the world's largest producer of coffee, sugar and oranges, second among the cocoa producers and fourth among tobacco growers. But, perhaps it is best known for its musical endeavours. The most celebrated expression in the vocabulary of Brazilian musical is the Samba, a national phenomenon of international recognition.
But what is Samba? There is no straightforward answer to this question. Samba is many things to many people. A common response might be that 'it's a way of life' or knowingly 'it's in my blood.' But, sometimes words simply can't express the enthusiasm or respect that some people feel for this musical expression. It's a philosophy, a celebration, and a remedy for the repressed soul. It is culture and tradition, it's a way to forget yourself and conversely also to find yourself . On top of all this, it is also a musical form created mainly by black and mulatto residents of Rio de Janeiro. The key elements that make Samba what it is are a 2/4 metre with the heaviest accent on the second beat and a stanza and refrain structure with emphasis on interlocking and syncopated rhythms. These rhythms are produced by the batucada which consists of various drums and percussion instruments. Samba also comes in different flavours, from the melodious samba canção (song samba) to the brash samba carnavalesca (carnival samba) from the often poignant samba enredo (theme samba) through to the choppy samba de breque (break samba).
In the 1920's Mario de Andrade observed that samba was a form of choreography, rather than a strict musical structure. Indeed, the term, according to the cognoscenti, has it origins in the Quimbundo word semba. This word refers to the belly bump or 'invitation to the dance,' a choreographic feature familiar to many African-Brazilian circle dances. After the abolition of slavery in 1888 and subsequent rural to urban migration, ex-slaves from Bahia brought down the rhythmic patterns inherent in these choreographic forms, or batuques. The destination was for many, Rio de Janeiro. It was in this musical melting pot that the batuque simmered with other musical forms such as the choro, the lundu, the habanera, the polka, the marcha and the maxixe. The end product from this musically nutritious matrix was samba.
Before any further discussion of samba takes place, a sketch of Brazilian history and key influences in its musical development will be helpful. Brazil's national character and the sonorous musical heritage that pervades in the country today are the outcome of centuries of ethnic intermingling. A portrait of samba reveals two cardinal hues: the colonial Portuguese/Iberian connection and the legacy of Africa. This musical expression is fundamentally a bi-ethnic fusion rather than a tri-ethnic composite. The Amerindian influence on samba, although considered by many to be meaningful, is essentially irrelevant in this context.
Brazil first gained its name from the extensive trade in pau-brasil or brazilwood. This valued commodity enticed Portuguese settlers and consequent colonialisation. The Portuguese influence remains paramount. Brazil is the only official Portuguese speaking country in South America. This however, is only one of many influences. Pivotal to this discussion is the Portuguese legacy that resonates and is reflected lucidly from the mirror of Brazilian musical expression.
Before any African ingredients in this recipe are discussed, the Portuguese influence will be explored. Unlike the situation in North America where settlers remained morally aloof and distant from the natives, in Brazil a fusion of cultures began from day one. This ethnic amalgam can be accounted for, in part, by the absence of Portuguese female settlers in the first century of expeditions to the New World. Key stylistic elements in Portuguese musical expression still remain despite deviations over time. The European tonal system, Iberian polyphony and European medval modes were all propagated on the other side of the Atlantic. Another Portuguese contribution to the vast Brazilian musical heritage include an affinity for brisk and resplendent rhythms. Portuguese lyric ballads also made a contribution, representing a longing or saudade that is familiar to samba cancao and many other Brazilian genres. Moreover, of critical importance in this reflection on the development of Samba was the importation of entrudo, a rude celebration that over time evolved into Brazil's carnival tradition.
Discussions of samba as a tri-ethnic blend are interfused throughout Brazilian musicology, and although the minimal influence that Amerindians have on samba is acknowledged, aboriginal influences are largely imagined. The incorporation of the Amerindian tradition into the story of samba is the result of a search for the national soul. In truth, arguments for aboriginal contributions, such as nasality and prosodic rhythm, can be easily disputed and equally attributed to an African or Portuguese heritage. This lack of influence on samba can be accounted for in the remarkable diversity that resides in Amerindian musical tradition. Their absence is also due to the imposition of European culture and the aftermath of assimilation, subjugation and extermination. Missionary zeal banished many traditional instruments. Rattles and bone flutes, made from human skulls were replaced by more 'appropriate' European counterparts. The Amerindian musical void in samba is also accounted for by the fact that the guardians of Indian musical tradition existed only in exile, living on the peripheries, in the rain forests and generally away from the plantations and urban centres. It was in these locations that samba and other African-Brazilian musical expressions evolved.
With territorial expansion and the exploration of new lands, came the setting up of large plantations. With this came the necessity for slave labour, which at first was supplied by the aboriginal Indians. However, with the devastation of successive epidemics and the realisation that the natives could not be pushed as hard as their African counterparts, the importation of African Slaves intensified. As many as 3.5 million survived the crossing of the Atlantic. With the mass influx of African culture came a further introduction of musical stylistics. African musical traditions that were brought over and established with the slave population were as follows: pentatonic scales, rhythmic traits such as polyrhythms and hemiola rhythms, polymetric vocal polyphony and choreographic features, call and response forms and specific instrumentation. Syncopation has also been ascribed to the African influence and although minimal in its original African rhythmic form, evolved with time.
These stylistic elements remained distinct, despite Portuguese hegemony. However this hegemony did not neutralise African influences to the same extent as the native Indian population. In the centuries before the discovery of the New World slavery was widespread throughtout the known world, and especially so on the Iberian peninsular. With this familiarity came a degree of clemency and although religious practices were suppressed the slave population did retain their drums and dances.
Despite this religious repression many traditional African beliefs were practised under the facade of Catholicism. The three main ethnic groupings, the Bantu, Sudanese and Moslem Guinea-Sudanese with their respective religions came together to form what is called Macumba, an umbrella terminology for African-Brazilian religious systems. In these religions African gods or Orixas were secretly worshipped behind Catholic ceremonies. Jesus for instance, represented Oxala, the African god of the sky and the universe. Catholicism also preserved musical expression. Under the church, previously banned dances were allowed on certain recognised holidays or saints days. By placing the slaves as under church jurisdiction, they provided an outlet through which African tribal dances, chants and rhythms could be celebrated. Slaves chanted, danced and held drum sessions that were seemingly in praise of the Roman Catholic saints but in reality were often were directed at African divinities. Priests and colonialists also changed the course of Brazilian musical history by training slaves with high musical aspirations in Iberian and Western instruments for processions and plantation-run slave orchestras.
Catholicism not only influenced musical expression, but also influenced opposition against the practice of slavery. Brotherhoods or irmandades were set up under the auspices of the church. These gave the slaves a first taste of integration into the fabric of Brazilian society. Through these brotherhoods slaves had a voice which called for the recognition of their own social class. Although at first this recognition was of a lower status than the established order, emancipation began with the law o> the free womb in 1871 which made free any children born to slaves. This process culminated with the abolition of slavery acts in 1888 which although not a remedy of the black mans plight did give rise to an increased freedom in the new urban centres of musical genesis.