In Rio, A Universe Of Samba

Mar 4, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 6:31 pm

Today is the final day of the massive Carnival in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Samba is that festival's native sound, but the music can be heard in Brazil for the entire year. Tom Moon went to Rio before Carnival to witness samba rehearsals. He spoke with NPR's Melissa Block on All Things Considered. Listen to that conversation at the audio link on this page.

Samba is typically heard on U.S. cable news exactly once a year as ambient audio in the background of coverage of the yearly Carnival celebrations in big Brazilian cities like Rio, Sao Paulo, Bahia and Recife. The stock news footage usually involves outlandish floats created by the large competitive samba schools — spectacles involving thousands of dancers in costume, as well as hundreds of drummers and musicians. At the big Rio competition, the schools perform in front of a massive audience — tickets to the Sambadrome can cost over $1,000 — and vie for honors in many different categories like best song, etc.

That's the tourist version of samba, and it only represents a small slice of an incredible thriving music culture. There's a parallel samba universe that goes on all year long, on neighborhood streets and small clubs and little kiosks by the beach. This goes by various names — samba de roda (samba wheel) is the most common term, but it's also known as "samba popular" or "roots samba." It involves as few as five or six musicians, sitting around facing each other at what looks like a conference room table, playing cherished samba hits from years past as well as original compositions. The audience stands surrounding the table, often completely encircling the musicians. If you see a random cluster of people and hear drumming, there's usually samba going on. Nobody is standing still, however; the throngs are usually dancing and singing along. In the Sambadrome, you simply watch; on the street, there's no show biz. Everyday people expect to participate.

Ivan Milanez is one of the elders of what might be described as a growing "roots samba" movement. I caught him in several different groups, in a tiny bar in the Lapa nightclub district of Rio, and when I interviewed him later, he explained that he believes playing in clubs is an act of "cultural resistance" because so much of samba culture in Rio is geared to tourists. In his group and others, the crucial distinguishing characteristic is obviously size — if the samba schools are symphony orchestras, these roots samba groups are like string quartets. There is nothing like the thundering clap-clap-clap sounds made by 250 or more drummers, of course, but when the scale is reduced, it's possible to hear more of the nuances of the rhythm, and how the individual instruments fit together and interact. Of course, many of the musicians who play in smaller groups are part of a big samba school as well — as a result, some of these ensembles have a zinging, supercharged energy. But that's not all. The roots samba groups play samba as it's been done since the 1930s, and that means there's usually a crisp chordal rhythm provided by the high-pitched, ukulele-like four-string cavaquinho, and then scampering single-note runs from the acoustic guitar. Though some of the nuances of samba have changed over the decades, the core rhythm and the basic outlines remain constant.

Another difference between the samba schools and their smaller counterparts: tempo. In the Sambadrome, everything is super-fast, paced for maximum dazzle. The schools have a fixed amount of time for the overall presentation, and are judged not only on their overall time, but if the song started and ended at the same tempo. Over the years, competitive samba has become faster and faster — one of the directors of the Tijuca school, who goes by the name CasaGrande, lamented that the demands of the "show" element have pushed tempos into the realm of frantic. When you hear samba de roda, the music can be much slower, more relaxed — it's music made for a slow couples dance. They crank out fast samba, too, and it just flies along as though propelled by breeze. Just as happens in jazz, there's a much wider range of tempos and grooves that's possible with a small group.

There aren't that many great studio recordings of this "roots samba" because part of what makes it go is the interaction between the musicians and the audience — as soon as one of these groups kicks into a well-known tune, you feel something like an electric surge running through the crowd. A group led by guitarist Moacyr Luz is one of the larger "roots samba" ones, they perform at an unusual weekly event called "The Worker's Samba" that begins around 6 p.m. As you'd expect, in Rio and Bahia the nightlife doesn't really get going until around 11 at night, preventing many folks who work dayjobs from participating. The samba social club "Renesancia" remedies that with a show that doesn't cost a lot and is over by 9 or 10. Here, you couldn't miss the connections between generations. There were kids with the image of the great samba composer Cartola on their t-shirts, and lots of youngsters playing percussion next to their fathers, apprenticing, so to speak. They all seem to know some of the big Carnival songs from the 1960s.

One of the most incredible things about samba is how it really does transcend age — one drummer told me "We get samba in the womb here" and you can tell. At some of the samba de roda events I caught, there were young people dancing with grandmothers, toddlers on their father's shoulders, etc. It's not uncommon to see very young drummers standing in the circle, contributing and learning at the same time.

One of the pioneering samba composers, Cartola, began writing songs in the 1930s, but was not recognized by the Rio public until a career resurgence in the 1960s. His music forms the template for roots samba. Among the biggest surprises for me was how much of this more subtle samba takes place in Rio, much of it for free and nearly all of it (even the cheesy stuff at the beach kiosks that's aimed to tourists) executed at a high musical level. On any given night, there's usually a choice of several well-known groups, either in clubs where they might play for 100 people, or in outdoor spaces like the historic site known as Pedro do Sal, which many consider the "birthplace" of samba. This weekly event was fairly incredible — it draws thousands of young Cariocas to the port zone of Rio, where they cram into a small cobblestone street for samba that's funded by the government. (A sign for the event proclaimed, "Here, the samba is respected.")

Among musicians, this notion of respecting samba seems to be gaining traction. Samba can be somewhat nostalgic anyway — it often expresses sadness over lost love or a lost way of life. But curiously there's not much nostalgia in the performances — you sense that the musicians are immersed in the here-and-now business of making the song relevant to the present moment. Everywhere I went, I encountered musicians who are passionate about the small-group samba style — as a creative outlet, not just some folk heritage form that needs "preserving." Though they are particular about the elements of the music, in a bit of a jazz-purist way, they're not trying to freeze samba culture at any "golden age" point in time. This is huge, and unlike anything we have in the U.S.: In Brazil, the people are invested in samba because it activates memory, brings them back to a simpler time and all the things that music does. But when a performance starts, it's not a looking-back exercise for the musicians or the listeners. When the older women lean their heads back and sing along, they're remembering and forgetting at the same time. And in this way, the music is endlessly renewed each time.

I believe this is one reason the smaller-scale samba is growing — it's old and new all at once. Rio is in the midst of incredible change, what with the World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016. Some people I spoke with say that there's increasing worry about the city losing its unique cultural identity, so people are holding on to every bit of carnival tradition, and samba, that most visible export, is a serious matter. Amongst the musicians I interviewed, many expressed concern that the tourist samba would completely overshadow the more low-key small-group approach that many musicians prefer to play. Some lament that the samba has gone completely commercial, and is in danger of losing its soul.

From one perspective, it's a sign of a healthy art form that so many people are concerned about its future. Given how much samba is available, and how much of it is often free and played at a breathtaking level of musical accomplishment, it's hard for an outsider to share that concern. Then again, it's hard for an outsider to begin to fathom the place samba occupies in the Brazilian imagination. One shirt I saw several times sums it up: "Samba is Life!"

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: Carnival season is wrapping up on this Fat Tuesday and in Rio de Janeiro, Carnival means a massive party with flashy parades, floats and, of course, Brazil's own music, samba, formed by teams of hundreds of people marching in formation and competing for top honors. We're listening to the winning song from last year's Carnival.


BLOCK: Music critic Tom Moon was recently in Brazil to watch those teams, samba schools, they're called, rehearse for their big moment in the sambadrome. But he also spent time seeking out smaller, more intimate samba groups and he joins me now to talk about what he heard. Hey, Tom. Welcome back.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: And is this true? You actually had to buy another suitcase to fit all the CDs that you bought in Brazil and bring them back so that you can play them for us?

MOON: Yes. I had the panic when I was out at some of these shows that this is not going to be on Spotify. I'm not going to be able to find this in the U.S. so I would buy one and that turned into 10 and so I bought a little suitcase.

BLOCK: Well, you were exploring what you call a parallel samba universe, very different from the samba we might see on TV during Rio's Carnival. And we're listening to an example of this parallel universe right now.


BLOCK: I love the sound. Sounds great.

MOON: Yeah, it's five or six musicians. They're usually sitting around a table playing facing each other. The various names for this is samba de roda, which means samba wheel, and that refers to everyone being able to sort of see each other. There's a lot of eye contact. But it's also called root samba or samba popular. When I first heard this artist, his name is Ivan Milanez, he's a drummer, he was playing in a small club and it had this very sort of informal feeling to it.

But as you can hear, everyone's locked into it and the drummers play very spare, but everything's just sort of perfect and precise. You know, if the samba schools are symphony orchestras, these root samba ensembles are like string quartets.


BLOCK: You know Tom, I'm thinking back to a reporting trip that I took to Brazil last fall and we went to hear street samba in a neighborhood of Rio. It was called the birthplace of samba, Pedra do Sal, and there were people of all ages and colors just packed into this tiny cobblestone plaza and stretching up these twisted streets, fantastic scene, great dancing. Were you finding that all around when you travelled around Brazil?

MOON: Yes. I went there and had the exact same experience. First, I couldn't believe how crowded it was. It's not set up for a lot of performance so this happens just in the middle of all this throng of people, you almost don't even see it. The thing that blew me away, like you said about the generational mix, you would have grandmothers there just gesturing wildly and dancing and then you'd also have little young kids and, you know, everywhere in between.

I went to this one weekly performance called the worker samba. Usually this stuff happens late at night. Like, in Pedra do Sal, you show up at 11:30 and it's just getting going, right.

BLOCK: And it goes all night, right.

MOON: But they do one in the north side of Rio called the worker samba where it happens - it starts at, like, 6:00 and you pay very little money, like $5. And when I went there, I heard this wonderful guitarist leaving a root samba band. His name is Moacyr Luz.


BLOCK: The idea is a samba for when you're done with your work day and you're going to kick back a little bit.

MOON: That's right. And it does have that multi-generational component, too. I mean, one drummer I talked to there said in Brazil, we get samba in the womb and I really believe that. It's like you would see toddlers on people's shoulders, they're dancing. This was a really eye-opening thing for me, to be able to see it outside of a normal club or late night setting.

BLOCK: It does also, Tom, speak to the notion that this is a really embedded tradition in families, a huge amount of pride attached to samba and to being part of that tradition.

MOON: That's right and it goes through generations. You see young drummers whose fathers played in samba schools and a lot of them will play both the huge groups and they'll also play in these sort of small groups. There's a real sense that this is the heart of samba in Rio, that the samba schools spectacle thing is for tourists and that this is something that's more rooted in the life of the people.

But it's interesting, these musicians don't consider themselves preservationists. They're doing something that they consider to be right now of the moment kind of work. And that's how it all sounds, even when they're playing music that was written in the 1950s. I heard the work of one of the great composers of samba, this guy named Cartola, who started writing in the '30s. His music was played a lot in the streets and let's hear a little bit of one of his tunes, a classic called "Alvorada."


BLOCK: You know, Tom, as great as it is to hear this recorded music, it's got to be just a pale imitation of how vibrant and wild and energetic it is to hear live samba music. But if you want to sort of transport yourself back to Brazil, put yourself on the beach there and imagine that feeling, what's the one song that you pull out from the CDs that you brought home?

MOON: The one thing that I kept coming back to was from Bahia, which is a state in the northern part of Brazil, and it's considered much more of the cradle of African influence in Brazil and so you get this, like, really open, much less fussy kind of samba from Bahia and this group just blew me away. They're called Samba (foreign language spoken) and they're not trained singers, you know.

They reminded me of this great quote from Michelle Schaap(ph). She said music is too important to be left to the professionals and when I heard these guys, I was like, yes, that's exactly it. It's just wild, frenzy and wonderful music.


BLOCK: Well, Tom, thanks for taking us on this trip to your parallel samba universe in Brazil.

MOON: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: That's our regular music critic, Tom Moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.