From samba to mangue beat: how Africa influenced Brazilian music

Note from BBT: As one might gather from some of my previous posts, I’ve been a fan of Brazilian music for two decades now. In my view, Brazilian music is some of the most slept on in the global music industry. This is not to say that I like every style of Brazilian music as there are plenty of artists and genres that I will probably never ‘get’. Brega, sertaneja and to a degree, funk, are just a few styles that for me are just unf***witable.

Now, in every genre, even if you don’t like the style as a whole, you still might come across a handful of songs of the genre that you really like. As such, even though I’m not generally into funk or sertaneja, I can still say there are some songs that I may download here and there or listen to if they happen to come of the radio.

What really intrigues me about Brazilian music, like American music, is how some styles are extremely popular but there don’t seem to be many black artists in that particular rhythm. I’ve already discussed how, if you should happen to get into Bossa Nova, you’ll notice that most of the artists in this genre that mixes Brazilian samba with American jazz, most of the singers and musicians are white or at least, “Brazilian white”. Go figure…

Both jazz and samba have black roots, but when Brazilians began to mix the two rhythms, you generally didn’t see many Afro-Brazilian singers and musicians. I mean, sure you have Leny Andrade, Elizeth Cardoso and even Alaíde Costa, but when most people think of Bossa Nova, most think of people like Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, Nara Leão and others. But, in general, most fans of Bossa Nova don’t remember the name Johnny Alf, the man that many critics proclaim the “father” of Bossa Nova. Alfredo José da Silva, better known as Johnny Alf, was black.

Black music sung by white artists is nothing new. If he were still alive, you could ask Little Richard about that. But as it turns out, much of what we today know as simply Brazilian music owes its origins to black musicians and Africa itself. Bahian musician Letieres Leite has spoken on this.

I first became aware of Leite when I went to see the musical Elza about the life of singer Elza Soares. Although I have long liked Soares’ music, the bright musical arrangements behind the seven singers in the Elza musical left me wondering who was responsible for updating the “Brazilian Tina Turner’s” songs, most of which are from the 1960s and 70s. That’s when I discovered Leite.

Leite and his orchestra, Orkestra Rumpilezz, are responsible for some of the most groundbreaking work I’ve heard in some time coming out of Brazil. And Leite also knows the history of Brazil’s music. Speaking on this topic in an interview, Leite said “Black people create great movements in music and generally the icons come to be the white people.” In that same interview, he mentioned how it is rarely made clear how rhythms such as Bossa Nova are of an African matrix.

I will explore Leite’s views on this in another post, but for now, the piece below goes further into how much of Brazilian music is indebted to Mother Africa.

From samba to mangue beat: how Africa influenced Brazilian music

The emergence of manifestations such as candomblé and capoeira were fundamental for the development of the main musical genres in Brazil

Written by Ramiro Zwetsch

It’s impossible to understand Brazilian music without reflecting on the exodus of African slaves to the American continents starting from the year 1500. All genres and rhythms of Brazilian music branch from this root and consolidate in the following centuries: maracatu (in the 17th century), baião (in the 19th century), choro (in the 19th century) and samba (between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century). Later, this tradition provided rhythmic elements and inspired the emergence of bossa nova, tropicália, mangue beat, funk carioca and the DNA of Africa is still perfectly visible in works by prominent contemporary artists – such as, for example, the Baiana System, one of the main recent popular phenomena. However, before the emergence of these rhythms, the history of blacks in Brazil already brought forms of expression that fertilized this family tree. Candomblé and capoeira are among them.

Both manifestations were practiced in quilombos and senzalas (slave quarters). Candomblé became a Brazilian religion with an African matrix and a hybrid of elements of the faith of blacks brought from different countries, such as Angola, Benin, Congo and Nigeria. Praise to the orixás (orishas) in the rhythm of the atabaque drums and dance are aspects of the celebrations in the terreiros (Afro-Brazilian religious temples). Capoeira became popular as a form of martial art also associated with music, in which the blows are delivered in the cadence of the berimbau sound. Percussion instruments brought from Africa or adapted by slaves in Brazil are fundamental for musicality both in one case and in the other and their foundations were later incorporated into the creation of samba.

Bahian conductor Letieres Leite

“I see the emergence of candomblé, capoeira and samba as resistance, a place of reunion and restructuring of a culture”, observes the Bahian conductor Letieres Leite, of the Orkestra Rumpilezz. “In Brazilian Popular Music (MPB), at the turn of the 19th century towards the 20th century, which we consider to be the period of the rise of samba, these meetings were always linked to the restructuring of culture, to the principles of religious organization. So, I can’t imagine any other way than being activities of resistance, reorganizing its culture and thinking. Blacks made an incredible and profound recreation, in which they not only restructured themselves within their ancestral cultural thoughts, but influenced all contemporary Western culture. Every culture considered contemporary is in some way influenced by the black diaspora.”

Letieres Leite with the Orkestra Rumpilezz

The conductor expands the reflection to all music in the Americas, from American jazz and blues to Cuban salsa and Jamaican reggae, all musical genres that emerged in the West have their origins linked to Africa. Rumpilezz’s most recent album, A Saga da Travessia (2016), reflects precisely on the departure of the slaves until their arrival in Brazil.

“Since the beginning of Rumpilezz’s work, I had a desire with me to make a song that portrayed the forced departure of blacks from Africa for the construction of the Americas. It’s a story that is not told in a forceful, clear way, it’s not discussed within the universities in depth,” he explains. “A Saga da Travessia is a personal view of that first moment of departure. The suite has 3 movements: the departure from the African continent, the Atlantic crossing with all the storms (the deaths, the lashes …) and the arrival in the American continent, in Brazil, more precisely in Bahia, but without disembarking. I created a hypothetical image of one of the blacks reflecting and saying, still inside the ship: ‘one of my descendants is going to be Pixinguinha’; the other saying ‘Miles Davis’; ‘Louis Armstrong’; ‘Milton Nascimento’; ‘Nina Simone’; ‘Bob Marley’; ‘Michael Jackson’… It was an attempt of mine to translate into musical reading on a holocaust so profound and cruel as slavery.”

The evolution of samba during the 20th century reveals an intrinsic affinity with the foundations of candomblé in works by some of the main artists of the genre, such as Dorival Caymmi, Clara Nunes, Clementina de Jesus and Martinho da Vila. In the discography of Brazilian music, some albums establish a more explicit connection with the terreiro tones. This is the case, for example, of Coisas (Moacir Santos, 1965). “A mandatory title in any list of world jazz classics, Coisas, the masterpiece of Moacir Santos, would hardly be created by a musician without Brazilian DNA and who didn’t have such an acute perception of his blackness and the past of his people,” analyzes the journalist Marcelo Pinheiro.

“In the ten themes, the confluence of the profound erudition of Moacir, who was a student of H.J. Koellreutter, is explicit with the African ancestry that bequeathed the myriad of rhythms and regional manifestations of our popular culture. With harmonious and rhythmic subtleties, Moacir establishes imaginary bridges between Brazil and Africa, between Brazil and the world.”

At the end of the 60s, the tropicalist movement proposes a pop approach that fuses the whole tradition of Brazilian music with elements of rock, leverages a period that extends to the beginning of the 70s and proves to be one of the most inspired of MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) – the acronym itself, moreover, it appears at that stage.

Classic albums ‘Clube da Esquina’ by Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges (1972), ‘Pérola Negra’ by Luiz Melodia (1973)

Between 1968 and 1975, for example: the collective album Tropicália ou Panis Et Circenses (with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Nara Leão and Rogério Duprat, of 1968), all discs from the first lineup of the band Os Mutantes, the first five albums by Gal Costa, the first five albums by Tim Maia, eight LPs from Jorge Ben (including A Tábua de Esmeralda, 1974), Clube da Esquina (Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges, in 1972), Pérola Negra (Luiz Melodia, 1973), the first album by Secos & Molhados (1973), Elis & Tom (1974) and many others. One of the most connected with Africa is Krishnanda, by percussionist Pedro Santos, of 1968: in a mixture with mystical elements and the environment of the jungle (in the lyrics, in the tribal drumming, in the sounds of animals recorded on the disc), the album didn’t reverberate at the time and became a cult album decades later.

Jorge Ben’s classic 1976 LP ‘África Brasil’

In 1976, Jorge Ben already stamped the connection with the African continent in the title of the album. África Brasil marks the definitive exchange from the violão (acoustic guitar) to the (electric) guitar and deals with real black characters (such as the slaves Zumbi and Chica da Silva) and fictional characters (Umbabaraúma). “Although Jorge himself expressed his dissatisfaction with the recording and with the mixing of the album recorded at the extinct studio Havaí, in Rio de Janeiro, Africa Brasil borders on perfection not only for revealing a new wave of compositions inspired and marked by the use of the electric guitar, but also because it reveals how decisive the funk influence was for creating a new aesthetic in the negroid prosody of Babulina,” says Pinheiro, referring to Ben’s nickname. “Thanks to the Brazilian polyrhythm, inherited from Mãe África (Mother Africa), the funk defended by Jorge, however, is much closer to the afro-funk that took over countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Benin and Cameroon than to the funk produced in the US in the 1970s.”

The mangue beat, in the 90s, updated the anthropophagic sense of Tropicália and promoted a combustion of international influences (rock, rap, funk and reggae mainly) with the traditional beats of Pernambuco (northeastern state).

“Rhythms like coco, maracatu, ciranda and frevo were doomed to be forgotten by the younger generations. They survived at popular parties, at schools and neighborhood associations. What Chico (Science) & Nação (Zumbi) accomplished is not a re-reading. The ciranda is not electrified, for example. They are rhythmic cells – found in the northeastern rhythms – being reprocessed, joining elements from other musical genres. It’s what makes the mix so interesting,” observes journalist and presenter Lorena Calabria, who wrote a book on the album Da Lama ao Caos, the first by Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, scheduled for release in 2019.

The Da Lama ao Caos (1994) album by Chico Science & Nação Zumbi was watershed moment in Brazilian Popular Music

“It’s possible to identify many African influences in the band’s sound. Starting with the origin of maracatu, for example. Although maracatu is not the basis of all the songs by Chico & Nação, the sound of the instruments evokes African musical roots. In the album Da Lama ao Caos, there is a track in which the influence of African music is very explicit. It’s in “Samba Makossa”. Not only by the title, which is a reference to Soul Makossa, an international hit by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango in the 70s, but also in Lúcio Maia’s guitar, similar to juju music. It’s curious that Lucio didn’t know the rhythm at the time of recording the album; it was producer Liminha who noticed the proximity.”

This intuitive reference to Africa is also a characteristic of the funk carioca beats. “This is very evident and refers to candomblé. If we’re going to build a timeline, funk (carioca) is this newest version of the translation of tradition, which is when we take ancestral elements and transform them into something new,” explains Ana Paula Paulino, executive producer of the Heavy Bailes party and music label Ball and owner of Ubuntu Produções. “The macumba spots become a reference for a DJ from the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to make a funk that everyone will dance to, including in a playboy nightclub.”

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Baiana System

With two recorded albums (Baiana System, of 2010, and Duas Cidades, of 2016), the band Baiana System is one of the most interesting pop phenomena of contemporary Brazilian music. Its concert schedule covers the whole of Brazil and other countries and catharsis moves the presentations, with a powerful recipe that mixes elements of Bahia’s music (in Roberto Barreto’s rhythmic references and Bahian guitar) and Jamaica (mainly in the ragga style of the vocalist Russo Passapusso and the highlight of the bass in the arrangements).

Their next album, still unnamed and scheduled for January, already announces a closer look at Africa and the effects of cultural miscegenation promoted by the arrival of slaves in Bahia. The new work comes from an intense research on the Ilha de Itaparica, where there is a concentration of terreiros that worship the Egunguns – in rituals that, in general, proposes a spiritual connection with ancestry and collective existence.

“From this experience, we started to absorb this understanding overseas and this look from Africa that came to Brazil. How does it mix in the blood, how does it mix with our Indians? How does this change singing and weeping? How is this symbiosis reflected in capoeira and samba?”, asks Russo Passapusso.

“The perspective of the record Duas Cidades is very much above the city, of how Salvador behaves within an urban social vision. In the next record, we will move through this ancestral environment through this research. It is a process of recognizing our own melodies, where we find clippings from many other peoples who came here. We don’t make music before conversing, before living. Our process of making music is mainly coexisting within the environment. This is how the Baiana is in this phase, living with the masters: artists such as Buli Buli, Lourimbau, Mateus Aleluia, Antonio Carlos & Jocafi, Virginia Rodrigues, Letieres Leite, conductor Bira Marques, As Catadeiras, As Lavadeiras, As Ganhadeiras de Itapuã. They are very strong and ancestral references. It’s through coexistence that we take classes from this group.”

At a time in the history of Brazil when slavery is relativized and racism is treated as “coitadismo” (presenting oneself as a ‘poor thing’), music has a fundamental role in not forgetting who we are and where we come from.

Source: Red Bull

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Exactly.

    That’s what pisses me off so much about people always wiping the “black” identity off of so much of life in music and art culture.

    People forget where all their modern sense of popular music came from in life. It DIDN’T come from Europe–Europe was bored.

    That’s why black music has always interested white people–it’s always radically different. It’s music born from the common black reality, so it’s inherently something others couldn’t invent.

    But folks always forget just how different, because glorification of whiteness has overtaken the blackness in black music. You can’t even call black music “black music” without hearing the world sigh.

    Even though, much like African-American genres that prevail in popularity, EVERY popular genre in “Latin” music is black African in nature. Even their goddamn names are African terms.

    Yet, you can scarcely find a globally-popular black Brazilian musician associated or popularized with these genres.

    It’s just disturbing. It’s why I hate the whole “Latinx” moniker–it’s a BS umbrella concept, born out of oppression, to whitewash the history of non-white “Latin” peoples.

    So much so, you still have to REMIND people of the history and origin of the music and cultures of the oppressed peoples.

    • It’s funny because in Brazil, you find the roots of several genres being either created by black artists or black artists had a huge influence on the style. The roots of Choro are yet another example. You don’t find many black musicians in the genre these days. The musician Letieres Leite that I discussed in the article has been pretty vocal about this. I’ve been discussing this for years, but last year, a popular black actress asked a popular white Bahian singer why she was so popular while a black singer in the same genre wasn’t nearly as successful as her. The reason is obvious and this apartheid and white face of black music is quite obvious in a state like Bahia.

      Some of these articles touch on this:

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