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In Rio, A Universe Of Samba

Sitting around what looks like a conference table with a small group of musicians, guitarist Moacyr Luz (center) leads his samba group.
Courtesy of QK
Sitting around what looks like a conference table with a small group of musicians, guitarist Moacyr Luz (center) leads his samba group.

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 onAll 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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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.
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