Snap Shot Brazil: Rocking The Cradle Of Carnaval


4. Surdos stacked for Carnaval in Rio.


5. Salvador, Bahia.

Getting Schooled In Rio

The best time to visit Rio is in the weeks preceding carnaval. You can visit the quadras, or neighborhood centers that serve as headquarters for each of the escolas. The quadras are open to the public to visit, usually for a small entry fee. In addition to having bateria rehearsals and training for the youth, the quadra is also the location for community events and projects and a great place to meet people. If you’re there, ask around about watching some of the ensaio technicos (technical rehearsals) that take place in the Sambodromo in central Rio as they get ready for the competitions. These rehearsals are the backbone of what you’ll see during carnaval, only minus the costume and floats. It’s like listening to a John Bonham track without vocals and guitars. Listen as 200—300-piece groups such as Mocidade, Beija-Flor, or Salgueiro practice their desenhos and paradinhas (signature grooves) that they’ll use during that year’s competition.

The Sambodromo is the stadium-like location through which the official parades will pass during carnaval. In the States we have basketball arenas and baseball fields, but just the mere fact the Brazilians have a physical space dedicated to samba tells you just how important this art form is for the country. Close to the Sambodromo you’ll find the Cidade do Samba (Samba City) which is where all the float-building takes place. It has lots of budget hotels and cheap food in the area for the millions who will descend upon Rio.

If you’ve made it this far, don’t even think of heading back home without experiencing carnaval itself. Parades and events will often begin at two in the afternoon and go well into the following morning, giving you just enough time to charge your batteries and do it all again. The Children’s Parade, the Parade Of Champions (featuring the year’s top six finishers), and the Grupo Accesso Parade – which features the smaller samba groups – all perform during this week before Lent. If you’re lucky you’ll run into Mestre Ailton Nunes, the Bateria director with Mangueira who also performs and records regularly with many of Brazil’s famous and up-and-coming artists.

Instruments used in Rio-style samba are what most major brands have made available in our music stores such as caixa (snare drum), repinique (repiques), agogo bell, surdos (bass drums often in three sizes: maracacao, reposta, and cortador), tamborim, cuica, and pandeiro. Today we’re also starting to see the timbal (a cone-shaped hand drum with a plastic head, evolved from atabaques) and shekere being incorporated into larger baterias.

A couple of things in order to understand samba: The emphasis is generally on beat 2. The premeiro or marcacao surdo plays heavy on the 2 giving way to a syncopated side and square side, a call side, and response side, within a fast 2/4 with mostly two-bar phrasing. And this is all happening at 120—140 bpm.

Every year a compilation CD, called Sambas de Enredo is made of the top escolas, which you can find on file-sharing sites online. Resources before you go include and the Facebook pages and YouTube clips of most major groups. Look for names like Vila Isabel (the 2013 champion), Portela, Mangueira, and Academicos Do Grande Rio to name a few more major ensembles that define this style.

To enhance your experience while in Rio, visit the Statue Of Christ The Redeemer, not only because it is the most famous thing in town, but also for the views of the city on your way up to it. You could also spend days at the museums, music stores, drum factories, art galleries, botanical gardens, and parks Rio has to offer. Take the train ride up to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa after you visit Lapa, the neighborhood that is Rio’s “cradle of samba,” which in addition to being the home of the famous blocos Banglafumenga and Monobloco, features a multitude of samba and pagode music clubs.


Whereas Rio has more Portuguese influence and the fiercely competitive samba schools, a trip up north to Salvador, Bahia, is where you’ll find a little piece of Africa. Like a lot of South American/Caribbean countries that have West African influence owing to slave trade under the British and French. Bahia has this history, but also has roots in southern Africa as well. The common thread here are the Portuguese, who colonized Angola and Mozambique as well as Brazil, resulting in the movement of both people and products between the two continents. Instruments that we think of as Brazilian such as the cuica (friction drum), berimbau (single-stringed musical bow), and atabaque (hand drum) can be traced directly to Africa. Even today it’s not uncommon to see African djembes being played, bought, and sold in Salvador, where the conversation with Africa is on going.

Salvador is also in the heart of capoeira culture, that distinctive Brazilian martial art which evolved with music and dance in a circle in order to disguise it from colonial oppressors. You can learn to play berimbau or study capoeira with one of the many mestres who come from one of the two prominent schools of capoeira: angola or regional.

Salvador is the place to learn more about the Orixa ceremonies of the Candomble. In Candomble rhythms and instruments you’ll see a lot of similarities to the Santeria religion found in Cuba. Like its Afro Cuban counterpart, the Brazilian Candomble can be traced back to the Yoruba people of present day Nigeria. Similar to congas, Candomble uses atabaques, which are a trio of hand drums (rum, rumpe, le) which like congas are stave constructed with natural skins – only atabaques are taller and rope-tuned similar to their African counterparts.


6. Costumes in Salvador.


7. Carnaval in Rio, 2007.


Like a 12/8 Cuban rumba colombia, or agbadza from the Ewe tribe in Ghana, Candomble is also rooted in the groups of three, four, and twelve that we might consider 12/8. But the truth is you can hear much of it in either three or four. While recording their classic recording Bata Ketu, Michael Spiro and Mark Lamson coined a phrase for this phenomenon: Fix – which they used to describe that uncategorizeable feel in Brazilian and Cuban music that is not really in four or six, but rather “fix.” And that is one of many fixes we encounter in trying to apply Western symphonic concepts to world rhythms.

There’s another fix we need to make when talking about the rhythmic feel in Brazil involving styles, which is when a rhythm is neither straight nor swung in the ways that our method books have taught us. And indeed this is where method books and our European understanding of how we group rhythms departs from what’s actually happening in music around the world.

Brazilians call it ginga. It’s a feeling. It’s how you walk, how you play, how you sweep the floor, how you think, and how you live. And no other musical style in Brazil typifies this more than in samba. It’s that almost unteachable lilt that is perhaps the most common thread within the extended family of Brazilian rhythms. With Salvador’s deep tradition of Candomble and samba de roda, you’ll begin to break down that Brazilian ginga into its component parts much in the same way that we as drummers break down grooves to understand what’s inside. And if you’ve studied the swing in American jazz, the melody in Cuban rumba, and the thick pulsating bass-lines in Jamaican reggae, then you’ve also just found the key to unlocking Brazil’s rhythms. They’re all cut from the same African cloth.

Salvador’s street carnaval is known around the world, going six consecutive days from five in the evening till five the next morning, with an estimated crowd of 2 million. The 2014 dates have already been announced (February 27 to March 4, 2014 ). Check out the trio electricos (large tractor/trailers outfitted with humungous sound systems) featuring artists the likes of Carlinhos Brown and Daniela Mercury perched atop the rigs, leading a sea of costumes, music, and dance (

Some of the most percussive and African inspired musical styles are here including samba reggae, which has that same Brazilian ginga only with slower tempo (90—120 bpm) and different rhythmic accents. The caixas play a swing reggae backbeat, and there is the addition of a third surdo pattern played with two mallets that roll into beat 1. It’s that third surdo that is often the most melodic and free to improvise and follow the melody within the rhythm. And true to the reggae in its name, caixas in samba reggae play accented eighth-note upbeats that replicate the easy skank’in guitar of Jamaican roots reggae.

Samba reggae showcases Afro-Brazilian pride and identity while peppering songs with social commentary and political references. Groups to inspire you before you arrive include Olodum, Timbalada, and the numerous Blocos Indios and Blocos Afros – ensembles, all of which have membership numbering into the hundreds.

Things to do and see while in Salvador include looking up the Balé Folcl√≥rico da Bahia, which offers classes and gives performances. Spend a day wandering around the Mercado Modelo where you’ll find all kinds of artwork including musical instruments, recordings, and costuming produced in Bahia. And if you wander around the neighborhood of Liberdade, you just might bump into the quadra of one of the first and longest running samba reggae groups, Ile Aiye.

A great side trip from Salvador is about 70 miles inland to the small town of Cachoeira, the site of some of Brazil’s most authentic Afro-Brazilian music, religion, and culture. A welcome respite from the crowds in the cities, this sleepy town of about 40,000 people is a place where one person grabs a shaker, another grabs a partner to dance, and before you know it you are a participant in a scene wishing your friends could see you now!

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