1. Samba in the streets of Portland, Orgeon.
Most of us have heard of samba, and of course bossa nova (literally, “new trend”), and we’ve all heard high school band directors tell us to make it sound “a little more Latin.” But that Latin world is not something you can fake, and it doesn’t fool anyone to play “ and 1, and 2” on your bass drum and call it samba. The nature of this music is fluid, and the Brazilian rhythmic family keeps growing. The samba groups most of us are familiar with are also referred to as escolas, baterias, batucadas, and blocos and their music wafts though the streets and ally-ways during carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.
But there are also sub-styles of samba under the same umbrella which you may not have heard of such as samba de morro, samba duro, samba de partido alto, and samba reggae just to name a few. And to make it even crazier, as with any family, you have distant cousins, and in this case that includes pagode, choro, maracatu, and afoxe, all which have emerged as their own distinctive styles. With traditions as long and diverse as the Amazon itself, let’s head to Brazil in search of that ginga, or greasy swinging feel that seems to emanate from every pore of Brazilian music, so that we’ll no longer have to make it “a little more Latin.”
Sometimes an instrument can be scary with its simplicity, and yet a lifetime can be devoted to that single instrument. If you’ve seen tabla master Zakir Hussain play cycles most of us can’t comprehend, or watched Giovanni Hidalgo as he finishes a lick before mere mortal minds can register it, then you’ll want to check out their Brazilian equivalents like Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro (he got his name by outperforming 500 other pandeiro players in 1966, to become, literally, “Carlinhos Of The Golden Pandeiro.”). He is just one example of how a Brazilian instrument comes alive in the hands of a master. With open and muted tones, slaps, and expert control over the pitch of the rawhide head from the backside and crazy control over the jingles, he can make this little tambourine sound like an entire ensemble if he wants to.
And there are real-world applications for an instrument as simple as the pandeiro. Studying it can help kit players learn hip new ostinato patterns, independence, and that elusive ginga that makes samba swing. Consider what New Orleans street-beat king Stanton Moore has done with his pandeiro when he plays with Galactic. Last year toward the end of a show in Portland he took a ten-minute pandeiro solo as his bandmate held an Audix D6 mike under it. Sounded like an entire band with cannons shooting off. And when you drill down, you realize what a perfect match Moore is for the pandeiro because there are a lot of musical similarities betweens New Orleans and Brazilian drumming: both are parade styles that feature multiple instruments with common origins pointing straight back to Africa. Both are participatory and community focused. The point here is when you study samba or any other world musical style, you’re not just learning the grooves, you’re connecting the cultural dots whether you realize it or not. The applications for Brazilian percussion are endless whether you specialize in a single instrument or attempt the impossible – to be a specialist in all styles!
2. Carnaval in Rio.
3. Olodum in Salvador, Bahia.
Samba is like a big family, spreading beyond Brazil to European and North American cities and is one of the most visible and fastest growing world music trends. It’s a musical genre that brings together young and old, various races and cultures, and seems to transcend class. And like a family, Brazil’s samba schools often function like a safety net, providing not only musical instruction but also access to healthcare, food, and housing to many of the poor living in the favelas, or slums. And like Red Sox or 49ers fans, the affiliation with these institutions is a family affair that is passed down through generations.
That’s the cool thing about Brazilian percussion – that no single person can be a master of all styles. It takes a community, and that community could be two people, two hundred – like many of the prominent escolas, or the two million who crowd the streets during carnaval. Samba isn’t notes on a page, but a larger coming together of various cultures over time. It’s not a gig; it’s a lifestyle.
If you ask five people you’ll get five different answers about the origin of samba. It’s kind of like asking the other players in your band to explain a Purdie shuffle. We know Portuguese elements mixed with the Africans who were coming from Portuguese colonies like Angola and Mozambique, as well as from Congo, Dahomey (now Benin), and Nigeria. One thing seems certain and that’s the Angolan circle dancing, known as semba, which seems to have joined forces with the Yoruba-inspired Candomble rhythms into the grandfather of all samba styles, the samba de roda, or “samba of the circle,” in Bahia back in the 17th century.
Picture a family tree with all the African elements on one side, and all the European elements on the other. The African side brings the rhythmic structures, the call and response, and the participatory nature of the music. The European side brings its melodic structures, marches, and military order, all of which mix with the indigenous population and instruments. And so samba de roda, the oldest samba ancestor, blended with those European influences, which then came together as two sides of the family tree that grew to create the samba we know today. Yet with each generation of this musical family, more influences are added to the mix such as jazz (think Stan Getz’ “Girl From Ipanema” or Airto Moreira’s work with Miles), reggae, and pop, which in turn give birth to new styles like samba reggae.
You’ve already seen this evolution in ensembles like Olodum backing Paul Simon on his Rhythm Of The Saints tour, or parading through Salvador’s narrow streets in Michael Jackson’s video “They Don’t Care About Us” (nearly 89 million views on YouTube!). All these musical collaborations point back to the same rhythmic ancestors and their common European and African cultural influences. A great read on the subject is the book Rhythms Of Resistance: African Musical Heritage In Brazil by Peter Fryer.