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Rio Samba - history, tradition, instruments and development

Let´s have a look behind the scenes - a music style travels the world

article by Nana Zeh

19th century

19th century

In the 19th century, the Brazilian music scene was divided:

The white upper class listened to European music styles and also played them, they danced to polkas, minuets and waltzes whereas the coloured population, slaves and former slaves which had been bought out, practiced African and Afro-Brazilian music and dance, summarized under the name Batuque. As time passed, the music changed. Especially through professional black musicians who played in orchestras, the elements of the different music cultures started to mix. The rhythms became more syncopated, the whole way of playing generally changed and the dances and lyrics became more sensual.


With the abolition of the slavery in 1888, many black people moved to the former capital Rio de Janeiro and to São Paulo where there was more work than in in the Northeast. With this movement, the musical center of the country which before was in Bahia, was dislocated to Rio de Janeiro. This is why with the turn of the 19th and the 20th century, new Brazilian music styles like the Lundu, the Modinha and the Maxixe originated as the predecessors of Samba. The former slaves who came searching for work, built their own neighbourhoods close to the port, where many of them had found jobs and in the suburbs of the town where the first favela districts developed. In the Cidade Nova, the socalled 'little Africa', where the Sambodromo stands today, many modern music styles were born. 


20th century

20th century

Being a sambista was strictly forbidden and even punished by prison sentence until the 1920s / 1930s.

But even those threats could not impede the development of this music. People continued to play Samba secretly, mostly Samba de Roda, just a few people sitting around a table singing and playing percussion, guitar and cavaquinho, while all the others sang and danced to it. This mainly took place in the houses of the 'tias', elderly Afro-Brazilian women priests who had moved from Bahia to Rio. Samba was forbidden, but the religious ceremonies of Candomblé were allowed, and so the tías went to ask permission for their religious festivities and before and after Samba was played. This was for example the origin of the first official Samba 'Pelo Telefone'. It was recorded in 1917 during one of famous Tia Ciata´s parties in her house at Praça 11.

Samba - a national culture good

The prosecution ended with the movement of national culture goods and -identity, when black Samba was discovered in the 1930s and declared typical Brazilian culture, also because society wanted to unleash itself culturally from its former colonist Portugal. The samba ban was undone and the new music style was played in the then still emerging radio. This was the beginning of how black resp. mixed music culture was brought to the center of society´s attention, were it still is today.

The first Samba school 'Deixa Falar'

Of course carnival existed long before the first Samba schools were founded. The Portuguese had brought over this catholic tradition. Above all, the white middle- and upper class enjoyed the entertainment of the Entrudo and the parades of the ranchos and sociedades. In the 1920s, the poor population also started to want to parade through the city just like the rich and celebrate their own carnival. This is how the Samba schools came into existance. Alike the other forms of Samba, the development started in the favelas  of Zona Norte, the northern part of the city. In 1928, the first Samba School was founded in the culturally very active neighbourhood Estácio: 'Deixa Falar' - 'let them talk'. Of course the desfiles had completely different dimensions in those times. The bateria of 'Deixa Falar' consisted in 'tamborins, buttercans, cuicas and pandeiros' (1). Shortly afterwards, surdos were introduced, and in the 1930s the baterias played e.g. with 3 surdos, a tarol, a tamborim, a pandeiro, a cuica, some chocalhos, a reco-reco and a prato e faca (plate with knife). Alltogether the baterias then had between 25 and 30 percussionists and the whole Samba school had about 350-400 participating members, all singing along merrily and at full volume as of course nobody had microphones. 'Deixa Falar' disbanded shortly after, yet the cornerstone for the new carnival by the Afro-Brazilian population was laid.

1) Magazin História do samba, Rio de Janeiro, Editora Globo, S.A..1997. chapter 4, S. 61



21st century

21st century

Samba schools today:

Today those dimensions have defenitively changed: A large Samba school has 4000-5000 active sambistas, of which 250-300 ritmistas play in the bateria. Samba schools are professtional organizations, where many people actually work full-time in order to hopefully win the carnival competition. Apart from Samba there are various other activities like sport, health- and social projects, especially for the population of the surrounding neighbourhoods and their favelas. But Samba naturally is key issue. Just like in football there are different leagues (2) to which the schools rise or descend to, alltogether about 70-80 Samba schools just in Rio. The play in leagues from Grupo Especial down to Grupo E. The large schools parade in the Sambódromo in the Avenida Marquês de Sapucaí (which is why it is often called the Sapucaí), officially Passarela Professor Darcy Ribeiro. The Sapucaí was especially built for the carnival of the Samba schools in 1984 by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer. An audience of more than 72.000 people can watch the 700m long parade of the Samba schools with perfect light- and sound conditions.

2) The different 'leagues' of Samba schools:

  • Grupo Especial with currently 12 schools
  • Grupo de Acesso (currently ca. 20 schools)
  • Grupos B (14) to E (8) in the suburbs



A glimpse behind the scenes of Rio de Janeiro´s Samba schools

What are Samba schools?

Samba schools are cultural associations whose aim is to participate in the carnival. The parades of the Samba schools take place in the Sambodrome, the so-called 'Passarela do Samba' and are nowadays the center of Rio de Janeiro´s carnival which is being showed live on TV through all the country. Commonly, the abreviation G.R.E.S. (Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba) is added in front of the official name of the Samba school. Its means something like 'recreational society of Samba school'.

Structure of a Samba school

A Samba school consists in a lot more than just a drum orchestra, the 'bateria', that rehearses from June till the carnival. Just as important are the dancing arrangements like the 'Passistas' (3), the 'Baianas' (4) and more and more also the large groups (alas) with their sophisticated choreographies.

The Desfile (the parade)

The parade of a Samba school is lead by an opening group, the 'Commisão de Frente'. The school itself is headed by a 'Porta-Bandeira' and a 'Mestre Sala', a female standard bearer and her dancing partner with spectacular costumes, both representing their school. Besides those obligatory groups, there are also commercial dancing formations called 'Alas'. Each participant has to buy his own costume and may then actively be part of the spectacle. All costumes and allegorical floats are related to the 'Enredo', the theme, which changes every year and is chosen and designed by the artistic director, the 'Carvevalesco'. The song, the Samba de Enredo, of course also refers to this Enredo, singing of famous Brazilian personalities, Brazilian landscapes, cultures and worldly wisdoms etc.

During the Desfile itself, alltogether 50 ratings in different categories are awarded by the members of the jury. Only 4 categories actually count, the worst drops out:

  1. Mestre-sala e Porta-bandeira (hallmaster and female standard bearer)
  2. Comissão de frente (Opening group introducing the theme)
  3. Fantasias (costumes)
  4. Alegorias e adereços (alegorical floats and adornments)
  5. Conjunto (interaction of all groups)
  6. Enredo (theme of the parade)
  7. Evolução (composition of the theme)
  8. Harmonia (harmony, if all people sing and play well together)
  9. Samba de Enredo (composition of the Samba)
  10. Bateria

3 Passistas are the dancers (female and male) who qualify in regular rehearsals and tests in order to dance close by the bateria at the carnival wearing very light clothing (e.g. bikini for the ladies).

4 Baianas are usually deserving women and members of the Samba school community. They are well knows for their choreography, where they turn around in circles with their flowy, wide swinging dresses. The Baianas are one of the obligatory arrangements of the Samba schools - in reminiscent of the Bahian women that came to Rio de Janeiro and were of great importance for all development of Afro-Brazilian culture like the Samba.

The music

Instruments, songs and arrangements.
Nowadays up to 300 percussionists play in the bateria of a Samba school using the typical Samba instruments: surdo, caixa, repinique, tamborim, chocalho, cuica and in some baterias even agogôs (2-bells or 4-bells) and cymbals. 


The approx. 40-50 surdos are played in 3 voices, the 'surdo de primeira', 'surdo de segunda' and the 'surdo de terceira form the base together with the often more than 100 caixas and 30-40 repiniques.  und den häufig mehr als 100 Caixas und 30-40 Repiniques die Basis. Chocalhos (rocars), tamborins and cuicas (and if available agogôs and cymbals) play with each 30-50 players in the front half of the bateria.

Experts know to identify almost any bateria within a couple of bars due to their individual swing: every Samba school has its own specific structure and arrangement of instruments, which gives them their characteristic sound and swing. Also the surdos de terceira and the caixas play Samba school - specific rhythms, the tamborins have characteristic arrangements and also the breaks are different in each school.

Differences within the baterias

A good example for larger differences between the baterias of the Samba schools is Estação Primeira de Mangueira: they just have 2 surdo voices, the 'surdo de primeira' playing the 2 and the 4, and the much smaller 'surdo mor', that is quite similar to the 'surdo de terceira' and plays variations inbetween the beats of the 'primeira'. The missing 'surdo de segunda' on 1st and 3rd beat changes the character of the bateria completely. The bateria of Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel plays a caixa groove, which no other bateria in Rio plays. They also play traditionally, with revers tuning of the surdos de primeira and segunda. 5

The carnival

At the carnival, the bateria plays along to the Samba de Enredo sung by various singers and all dancing Samba school members.  The Samba de Enredo is played during 82 minutes at the grand parade. The arrangement is made especially for this one Samba de Enredo. The bateria playes the different breaks of the year several times, all of which are tailored exactly to the song.

On Ash Wednesday all ratings are broadcast for the public on TV. With each good or bad rating, the people´s emotions grow until in the end the happy winner and the desperate looser that descends to the lower league are certain.

Normally the surdo de primeira is the lowest pitched voice, the surdo de segunda is a bit higher and surde de terceira has the highest tuning. At Mocidade, the surdo de segunda is the deepest voice.

Samba Batucada in Rio de Janeiro and in Europe – two different music styles?

Samba in  Europe – a copy of the original style or an own musical culture


Two baterias play Samba batucada: one in Rio de Janeiro and one in Europe.

They are playing the same music. Are they really?

This article is about the phenomenon, how and why a bateria (in this particular case a German one) differs from a Brazilian one and about the changes, that Samba in Germany has passed through. When comparing both baterias we realize quite some differences allready in very primary aspects:

Who and why?

To understand this phenomenon, we have to take a closer look at how Brazilian Samba schools came into being. In the 1920s, the first Samba school was founded by sambistas of a poor  working-class neighbourhood with the aim to take part actively at the carnival. Most of the members were Afro-Brazilians without the possibility of participating in the associations of the white upper class.


The main goal of those newly invented Samba schools was to be part of the carnival: in the beginning, many dancers and singers in costumes were accompanied by a bateria of about 30 percussionists and paraded hour after hour and basically without any breaks through the streets. The Samba songs - popular songs and hits of the year - were sung by all members, while the bateria gave the rhythm for the song and the dance. In those times the bateria literally played non-stop and only differentiated between the chorus (a bit louder) and the verse (less loud). Here the tamborins, agogôs and chocalhos played an important role: during the chorus they all played, the tamborins played the so-called carreteiro (6), whilst during the verse all chocalhos kept quiet and the tamborins changed to the less dominant 'teleco-teco'. The agogôs varied individually during the chorus and appeared less compact than playing unisono rhythms during the refrain.


Over time the Samba schools became bigger and more professional, that lead to quite a few changes. Nowadays the baterias consist in aprox. 300 ritmistas and professional singers that accompany up to 5000 members of a Samba school. In 1959, Mestre André from the Samba school of Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel 'invented' the bateria-breaks which since then have been one of the attractions of the baterias. Today, media and field professionals mainly focus on the breaks (called paradinha, convenção or bossa), as over the years they have become more and more complex and meanwhile their production is impressively sophisticated. Since the 1980s / 1990s, the tamborins also have their own arrangements that are tailored to the anual Samba de Enredo. Originally those arrangements were no more than a simple sequence of different patterns which were played mainly for the 2nd part - the verse - but today the tamborim variations are complicated melodies that exactly match the Samba de Enredo.

Social and political background

Before explaining the differences and commonalities of Samba baterias in Brazil and Europe, here´re some comments about social and political aspects of the Samba schools and the carnival in Brazil. Everywhere in Brazil, the carnival is celebrated with the regionally typical culture: In Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo, the Samba schools are the main attraction, in Bahia it´s the Afro Blocos and the Trio Eléctricos, in Pernambuco it´s the Maracatu and the Frevo just to name a few examples. In all those groups, the main part of the members are from poorer sections of the population. For them, playing in a bateria is not only a hobby, but also some of them (sometimes) earn some money with it and it is an activity of great cultural identity and consciousness. The pride about the Samba school, the Afro Bloco or the Maracatu group is expressed in the annual themes. African and Afro-Brazilian (7) subjects are dominant and express the political fight for equality. It´s the especially composed songs, the Sambas de enredo, that communicate the subjects to the members and the public. The bateria´s function is to accompany the songs. Of course nowadays all baterias have a 'bateria show', showing off with their breaks and arrangements. But mainly the bateria is the rhythm base for the singers and dancers and therefore they know how keep the Samba grooving for hours and hours!

6 Carreteiro is the Tamborim groove when the instrument is turned.
7 Most of the Afro Blocos have Afro-Brazilian or African roots firmly anchored in their traditions.

Samba in Europe

In the 1970s / 1980s, the first Samba groups appeared in Europe. Of course one can´t say there was just 'one kind of very typical European Samba group', still a few particular European features have developed throughout the years. Many of the European groups play various Brazilian rhythm styles and not just one like typically in Brazil. Samba is just one out of many styles.  Also most of the groups play exclusively instrumental, without vocals. Since the beginning of the 21st century, more and more Samba groups include singers and harmonies at least for larger stage gigs, but in the first 20-30 years of European Samba scene this was mainly rather rare.

Differences between a Brazilian and a European Samba group

Talking musical differences between Brazil and Europe, it´s not about playing better or not. It´s more about musical differences like the arrangements.

Let´s take a look at a typical German Samba group from the 1980s / 1990s: Usually there´s no vocals, which is why the 'pieces' not automatically have a form or an arrangement like the mentioned Brazilian Samba schools. A vocal section offers differences like chorus and verse, beginning and end, elements that simply go missing if there´s no vocals. The musical elements from Rio´s Samba has been taken over and adapted to the local conditions. Bateria breaks can be taken over without modification, it is also common to play breaks from different Samba schools and from different years in one piece. The tamborim e.g. is an instrument that plays a structurally completely different role in German baterias. Because of the missing song, the tamborins change their groove and play different 'patterns' or 'lines' whenever the mestre tells them to. To make it more attractive to the public, choreographies and arrangements for the rest of the bateria are invented. Especially the tamborim lines which in Rio de Janeiro are played during the verse, are a typical European structure element for soliparts, groove- or instrumental changes as well as a classical show element.

This does indeed make sense for many European Samba groups, because many of those bands mainly play at street festivals without amplifying techniques or stages. The involvement of lyrics means not only having to find someone that knows how to sing in Portuguese, but also requires technical facilities. European Samba groups not only play at the carnival but also at all kinds of occasions, and technical equipment is not always available.

Playing 'different' songs in Rio de Janeiro means playing and accompaning (vocals and harmonies) various Sambas de Enredo. In Europe the variety of the programme is achieved through many breaks or arranged changes, in many cases also through offering various musical styles.

21st century

The situation has changed with the 21st century; many Samba groups have specialised in one Brazilian music style, they integrate vocals and harmonies the same as in Brazil and are as close as possible to the 'original' and respectively keep developing their style and musical identity.

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