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Roving Exhibition - Carnival Samba

Untitled Document


Author: Dr. Connie Wong (PhD in Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, USA)


Over the course of 300 years of Portuguese colonial history, Brazilian culture has become an extravagant piece of artwork. Music has been interwoven with various art forms and manifested in various aspects. Samba, in particular, is one of the essential pieces, with a long and rich tradition. It is a unique art form of singing and dancing.


From the 16th to the 18th centuries, roughly four to five million enslaved Africans were brought in as forced labour to the continent of Latin America, including Brazil. In their displacement, their distinctive music, dance and other cultural practices placed a significant share in the musical melting pot, in which there were local Brazilian and European elements. Under such influence, samba is the mixed musical genre.


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Root of Samba

  • The root of samba traces back to Angola and Congo in Africa. The word “samba” is likely derived from a Bantu word “semba”, representing a symbolic body movement termed “belly bump” between dancers in a circle-dance. When one dancer invites another to the circle, the belly-bump contact connects the two dancers together as one, which is considered spiritual and holy.
  • This distinctive tradition was later referred to as samba de roda (circle-dance samba) as it was practised by uprooted Africans who lived in the State of Bahia (the Northeastern region of Brazil) during the 17th century. The dance was generally performed by women. They liked improvising their choreographic movements of the feet, legs and hips in the circle while singing and clapping hands together.
  • The Africans were later brought into Rio de Janeiro, the former capital of Brazil, as labourers at the end of the 19th century. Samba has gradually changed since that time.【Note: Brazil relocated its capital to Brasília in 1960.】
India Map
[Image 1]
Map of Brazil
India Map
[Image 2]
Samba de roda (circle-dance samba)

Samba Schools

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, samba became urbanised. Urban samba developed and flourished in Rio de Janeiro, especially in favelas, the hillside slums where enslaved Africans and their descendants resided. This unique location played an important role in the development of samba.
Favela in Rio de Janeiro
[Image 3]
Favela in Rio de Janeiro


  • Although urban samba was first perceived as a vulgar dance by the mainstream society, it was greatly appreciated and captivated by the middle-class for its glamorous performance style with vibrant music and dance.
  • By the end of the 1920s, many talented performers had formed their samba communities or associations, which were later referred to as escolas de samba (samba schools). The oldest and the most famous samba school in Rio de Janeiro, Mangueira, still thrives today.

[Video 1]

Mangueira is a traditional samba school established in Rio de Janeiro nearly a century ago, with green and pink as its official colours. A percussion rehearsal by the school is seen in this excerpt.

[Video 2]
Império de Casa Verde

Império de Casa Verde is another famous samba school established in São Paulo in 1994, with blue and white as its official colours. This excerpt features a percussion rehearsal by the school.

Urban Samba


Musical characteristics of urban samba:

  • Melody: Lyrical melodies and melodic lines are similar to pop songs.
  • Lyrics: They cover various topics, such as nationalistic sentiment, romantic relationships, gender roles, political views, etc.
  • Form and structure: Strophic form presented in call-and-response.
  • Rhythm: In 2/4 time, with polyrhythms and syncopations; a distinct groove is created.
  • Harmony: Simple and functional harmonies, with a major focus on lyrics and melodies.
  • Language used: Mainly sung in Portuguese.
  • Transmission method: Mostly by oral tradition without written scores; yet, there are scores in new compositions today.

Carnival Samba

  • The golden age of urban samba was the 1930s. The word “samba” is a generic term, which is nearly synonymous to Brazilian popular music; it has been commonly used in Brazil even until this day.
  • There are many different styles of samba. Its sub-genres include samba-canção (samba song) and samba-choro. These sub-genres are mainly played in bars, ballrooms and night clubs. In addition to using guitars, performers use other percussive instruments as well (see the section of “Major Instruments” below).

[Video 3]
Ainda Mais

Samba-canção (samba song) is another important sub-genre of samba. This excerpt features Ainda Mais, a samba song written by famous singer-songwriter Paulinho da Viola. Performed by singer Adriana Moreira and her band at Boteco da Dona Tati in São Paulo.
【Note: This video was filmed by a scholar during a field trip to Brazil.】
  • Among others, there are two sub-genres associated with Carnival (or Carnaval), including samba-enredo (themed samba) and samba-carnavalesco (carnival samba).

[Video 4]
História Pra Ninar Gente Grande

Samba-enredo (themed samba) is an important sub-genre of samba developed in the 1930s. This excerpt features História Pra Ninar Gente Grande, an award-winning song by samba school Mangueira in the 2019 Carnival which demonstrates the said samba sub-genre. Performed by singer-songwriter Moacyr Luz and his band “Samba do Trabalhador” at Renascença Clube in Rio de Janeiro.
  • In 1934, the local authorities officially made Carnival an annual national event, which has symbolised Brazilian national identity. To make Carnival more appealing, the government encouraged vivid presentation of performances where elaborately costumed dancers danced, musicians sang and played original music compositions on colourful and decorative floats.
  • The Brazilian Carnival is seen as the world’s largest Carnival celebration, which is a gigantic, 4-5 day non-stop “party” held from Friday of Pre-lent to the morning of Ash Wednesday in February or March in Rio de Janeiro every year.
  • Many samba schools participate in the annual Carnival championship. One of them is selected as the winner, judged on criteria such as choreography, music arrangement, extravagant costumes and magnificent design of the towering float.
  • Each participating samba school sets its own theme and has hundreds of performing sambistas (samba performers), including composers, singers, musicians, dancers and samba baterias (batteries of samba percussion). They spend half a year to a year on the preparation for the Carnival championship.
A colourful and decorative float at Carnival Samba
[Image 4]
A colourful and decorative float at Carnival Samba


Elaborately costumed dancers performing at Carnival Samba
[Image 5]
Elaborately costumed dancers performing at Carnival Samba


[Video 5]
Carnival Samba 2020

Vying for the Carnival championship, six samba schools (including São Clemente, Vila Isabel, Salgueiro, Unidos da Tijuca, Mocidade and Beija-Flor) are featured in this excerpt.
  • Samba is popularised not only in Carnival or other similar events, but also in orchestral works. Contemporary composers tend to add samba elements to their compositions, typical examples of which are Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Chôros No. 10 (1926) and Ernani Aguiar’s Sinfonietta Seconda: ‘Carnevale’ (2002).

Major Instruments


According to the system of “Classification of Musical Instruments” proposed by musicologists, Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, the percussive instruments of Carnival Samba can be divided into three major categories:

(A) Membranophone: a musical instrument which produces the sound while a stretched membrane vibrates.
(B) Idiophone: a musical instrument in which the sound is produced through movements such as striking, shaking, rubbing and scraping on a solid surface.
(C) Aerophone: a musical instrument in which a column of vibrating air produces the sound.

(A) Membranophone

[Image 6]

Surdo (low-pitched drum)

  • The literal meaning of the Portuguese word “surdo” is “deaf”. This instrument is expected to reach its extreme loudness as it plays.
  • There are three different sizes.
  • The surdo player is responsible for playing duple metre, which acts as a timekeeper and gives a rhythmic foundation of the whole ensemble.。

[Image 7]

Repinique (tenor drum)

  • It originated in Africa and acts as a leading instrument, especially in the opening and ending sections.
  • It also directs the ensemble to play in unison.
  • The repinique player sometimes does improvised solos.

[Image 8]

Tarol (snare drum)

  • The drum has wire-covered strings (snares) stretched across its surface.
  • As the drumsticks hit the drum, the snares vibrate and produce a buzzing sound.
  • The tarol player is responsible for playing the basic rhythms while rhythmic accents and tremolo are added as the music continues.
[Image 9]

Pandeíro (Brazilian tambourine)

  • It originated in Europe.
  • Its diameter is about 8 to 12 inches. Jingles or “cymbalettes” are attached in a row to the rim of the drum.
  • Timbre varies with different applications of touch, strength and parts of fingers and palm.
[Image 10]

Tamborím (small tambourine)

  • It originated in Africa and Portugal
  • Its diameter is about 6 inches. The only difference between pandeíro and tamborím is that there are no jingles on tamborím.
  • The tamborím player uses a small drumstick to hit the surface of the instrument and plays syncopated rhythms
[Image 11]

Cuíca (friction drum)

  • It is considered as the most distinctive instrument in the samba percussion ensemble.
  • Cuíca is similar to other drums in appearance; however, it is a one-headed drum, with a rod attached to the centre of the drumhead.
  • The player uses a piece of cloth to rub the rod with one hand, while pressing the skin on the outer side.

(B) Idiophone
[Image 12]

Agogô (double bell)

  • It originated in Africa.
  • The instrument comprises a lower bell and a higher bell.
  • The player uses a drumstick to hit the bells.
[Image 13]
Musical scraper

Musical scraper

  • It originated in Africa.
  • The instrument is made of bamboo or steel.
  • The player uses a stick to rasp the scraper.
[Image 14]

Chocalho (shaker)

  • It originated in Africa.
  • The instrument is a wood or steel instrument attached with two to three rows of jingles.
  • The “back and forth” shaking motion produces different rhythmic accents and dynamics.

(C) Aerophone
[Image 15]

Apito (whistle)

  • It acts as a “conductor” in the ensemble. Musicians and dancers change their respective patterns when the whistle commands.
  • It is particularly important in an outdoor Carnival, where verbal instructions are barely heard.

Development of Samba: Overview


Samba has been developed into many sub-genres among different regions and cities in Brazil. In the process of globalisation, it has turned into many hybrid genres. Here are the recent developments of samba from the 19th to the 21st centuries:


Period Major Development
Late 19th century After the 1888 abolition of slavery, an influx of enslaved Africans migrated from the State of Bahia to Rio de Janeiro. During that time, samba had gradually changed to its urban versions.
Early 20th century “Urban samba” flourished in favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
1920s Urban samba became standardised, and many sub-genres were developed, including samba de morro (hillside neighbourhood samba).
1928 Samba communities established escola de samba (samba schools), which performed street parades and joined the carnival championship.
1930s It was the golden age of urban samba. Many kinds of sub-genres developed, including samba-enredo (themed samba), samba-carnavalesco (carnival samba) and samba-canção (samba-song).
1934 Carnival officially became an annual national event. Samba schools legally registered with the government.
Late 1950s The advent of bossa nova in Rio de Janeiro became a new revolution of samba. Bossa nova includes the elements of samba, guitar accompaniment with syncopations, a subdued vocal style and harmonic influence on classical music and cool jazz. Antônio Carlos Jobim’s The Girl from Ipanema is one of the best examples.
Early 1960s Samba jazz emerged.
1960s - 1980s A kind of backyard style samba called pagode (informal party samba) emerged, which has become commercialised since the 1990s.
1980s Samba reggae appeared and developed in the city of Salvador.
1990s Sambalanço emerged as a new variation of samba with pop music elements.
2005 Samba de roda (circle-dance samba), a Bahian antecedent of Brazilian’s national music and dance, was proclaimed by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (i.e. the present Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity).
21st century - the present Samba is globalised and commercialised. New fusions of samba have emerged, such as bossa-funk-samba and Afrosambabeat.

[Video 6]

Samba jazz is a sub-genre of samba emerged in the early 1960s. This excerpt features Berimbau, a piece of samba jazz music written by jazz guitarist Baden Powell. Performed by guitarist Zé Paulo Becker and his band “Semente Choro Jazz” at Dumont Arte Bar in Rio de Janeiro. Berimbau, a single-string percussion instrument that originated from Angola, is now commonly used in samba.


  • For local Brazilians, samba creates a sense of national identity; for Afro-Brazilians, samba gives a complex sense of marginalised identity, mixing African descendants, “Brazilian-ness,” and residential segregation. This “samba identity” reflects the longstanding problem of the marginalisation of low-income classes who live in favelas. In summary, samba exemplifies a marginal music that has gradually turned into a national symbol.
  • Brazilian Carnival is a major source of income through tourism, and contributes to the local economic growth. In recent years, the culture of Brazilian Carnival has been promoted worldwide as well. For example, in Asia, Asakusa Samba Carnival is one of the biggest events on Japanese calendars. The Latin Carnival in Taipei also attracts thousands of attendees. In addition, there are famous samba schools performing at Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade.
  • As Brazilian Carnival has been fostered in different places and countries, people are inspired and pleased to embrace this vibrant culture as part of their amusement. For samba music makers, they are encouraged to contribute a wide spectrum of new elements to their music and create a new dynamic in musical styles. It is our hope that it moves into a new direction and inspires musical imagination of the world music culture across the board.
Asakusa Samba Carnival in Japan
[Image 16]
Asakusa Samba Carnival in Japan
Samba performance at Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade
[Image 17]
Samba performance at Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade

English editing (arranged by Dr. Connie Wong): Allan C.L. Cheung

Supplementary information on images and videos