The de-Africanization of Brazilian samba: Racial politics behind the most Brazilian of all rhythms

A few of the architects of samba: Donga, Ataufo Alves, Pixinguinha, João da Baiana, Ismael Silva, Alfredinho do Flautim
A few of the architects of samba: Donga, Ataufo Alves, Pixinguinha, João da Baiana, Ismael Silva, Alfredinho do Flautim

Note from BW of Brazil: So once again a week of joy, celebrations and revelry arrives in Brazil with the annual Carnaval festivities happening all over the country. Dancing girls, extravagant costumes, procession themes, blinding lights and lots and lots of samba! But today’s Carnaval that, in terms of media, money and excitement, is on par with huge sporting events such as the World Cup or the Super Bowl, particularly the one coming out of Rio broadcast in many countries around the world. But it didn’t start out this way. If we look under the rug of Carnaval and analyze the music most associated with the parade, the samba, we will see the roots of a black culture of which Brazilian elites saw no value. And like original plans of whitening the population in the last 19th century, with commercialization, Samba and Carnaval went through and continue to go through the same process (1). Though everyone would like to forget the issue of race in the middle of the party, as with the origins of futebol, there is no way to hide the roots of racial politics behind the sound that would later be chosen as the authentic representation of Brazilian culture.

Largo da Carioca - Rio de Janeiro - 1920
Largo da Carioca – Rio de Janeiro – 1920

The post-abolition period (after 1888) in Rio de Janeiro saw Brazil’s elites attempts to “civilize”, ie, Europeanize the city and recently freed slaves, their descendants and their cultural manifestations were seen as a hindrance to those plans. The musical, martial arts and religious practices of Afro-Brazilians were routinely repressed by authorities. Blacks walking around in the streets with their musical instruments were often arrested and had their instruments confiscated. Not even knowing what the charges of their arrests were, Afro-Brazilian music, using rhythms that went completely against the European tastes of Rio’s elites, in essence, was judged to be a crime.

Pixinguinha e a velha guarda do samba/Patrão, Prenda seu gado (João da Baiana/Pixinguinha/Donga)

In this era, black families also felt the brunt of this repression. Having in mind the imitation of great European cities, to accomplish this goal, elites enforced a policy of removing blacks from downtown Rio de Janeiro and sending them to the surrounding hills and periphery neighborhoods of the city. The modernization of the city could not be possible with the presence of so many blacks.

Street vendor, Rio de Janeiro, 1895

But this repression didn’t stop blacks from following their faiths and creating their music in local homes and terreiros (Afro-Brazilian religious temples) in legendary jam sessions and even satirizing Rio’s elites in lyrics of their songs. In these homes, Afro-Brazilian musical styles found refuge from the regular police persecution that sought to stamp out any manifestations of black culture.

Overcrowded cortiços had the worst sanitary conditions. Rio de Janeiro, 1906
Overcrowded cortiços had the worst sanitary conditions. Rio de Janeiro, 1906

For upper class “cariocas” (Rio de Janeiro natives) with “sophisticated” tastes, music such as samba coming out of the cortiço slums and terreiro religious temples couldn’t represent anything good as they turned their noses up at this “coisa de negro” (black thing). Ironically, the same foreigners that Brazil’s elites wanted to imitate and impress took a liking to this black music. The French, in fact, recognized the value in samba and saw it as pure genius and the richest of source of Brazilian music.

Construction of new buildings in 1905 Rio de Janeiro
Construction of new buildings in 1905 Rio de Janeiro

In the 1920s, famed Afro-Brazilian musicians Pixinguinha and Donga and their group the Oito Batutas traveled to France. It was the first time a black group playing popular music would perform on international stages. It was the worst news for Brazilian elites. With elite references from Europe, Rio’s press wrote negatively about the group’s travel, disgusted that their country would be represented in Europe by a low class of negros playing samba, a black music in which they saw no value.

Life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, 1906
Life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, 1906

The French didn’t see it this way. French poet Blaise Cendrars was fascinated with the sound presented by the group and shared his views with Brazilians. In the mid 1920s, he traveled to Rio to see this black culture up close. Cendrars’ influence was felt within Brazilian modernism circles. Even Gilberto Freyre, the famed Brazilian sociologist and historian commonly known for the spread of the ‘racial democracy’ myth, pointed to the French poet’s influence as a factor in a new appreciation of “coisas de negro”.


Writer Hermano Vianna who has written extensively on the samba, wrote about Cendrars’ importance this way:  “a French poet, representative of artistic vanguards of Paris, taught his Brazilian modernists friends respect for ‘coisas negras’ (black things) and for ‘coisas brasileiras’ (Brazilian things). French classical composer Darius Milhaud, one of the important figures of French modernism in the early twentieth century, lived in Rio between 1917 and 1918 as secretary of the French embassy and became fascinated with Brazilian Popular Music. The composer had contact with the music of composers Ernesto Nazareth and Marcelo Tupinambá and other styles such as choro, samba and Brazilian folklore. “Le Boeuf Sur le Toit”, the most important of Milhaud’s works influenced by Brazilian popular music, is a mosaic of citations to Brazilian themes including the interpolation of more than 30 Brazilian melodic themes, stitched together by a recurring motif of the José Boiadeiro samba, “Boi no telhado.”

Os Oito Batutas
Os Oito Batutas

As such, the samba then had two “ambassadors” outside of Brazil. What was once a regional sound now had international recognition. As such, Milhaud appears here, along with Blaise Cendrars, as another international mediator in samba’s transformation in the history of Brazilian national music. Later, with the growing importance of Carnaval celebrations, samba gradually became accepted by the Brazilian population and being promoted as a true manifestation of Brazilian culture.

The De-Africanization of the Samba

Against obstacles that deviate from the roots, Bahian rhythm won the world

by Nei Lopes

Samba greats Ismael Silva (center) with from left to right, Elton Medeiros, Clementina de Jesus and to the right Nelson Cavaquinho and Hermínio Bello de Carvalho.

Nei Lopes, sambista (samba musician), writer and author, among many other books, the Enciclopédia Brasileira da Diáspora Africana (Brazilian Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora) (4th edition Selo Negro, 2011) – published in issue 79, September 2013

The word “samba”, present in the Brazilian everyday since at least the nineteenth century , when it was defined simply as “um tipo de dança de negros” (a kind of dance of negroes) has undeniable African origin. An eminently popular art, gradually it was studied and understood. In the 1940s, it was seen as “dança de salão” (ballroom dancing), in pairs, to the accompaniment of song, in a 2/4 time and syncopated rhythm,” as the poet and folklorist Mário de Andrade defined it. Finally, in 2001, the Dicionário Houaiss da Língua Portuguesa brought the information that “the name designates, also, a kind of folk song usually in a 2/4 time and varied time, emerging from the twentieth century.”

Roda de Samba (samba circle), Rio de Janeiro, 1946
Roda de Samba (samba circle), Rio de Janeiro, 1946

How to show that the “Samba” was born in Africa, the vocabulary of the Cokwe language, the Quioco people of Angola, register a samba verb meaning “to prance, to play, have fun as kid.” In another language, quicongo, also spoken in the Angolan territory, a similar spelling of the word, sàmba, designates a kind of dance in which a dancer hits against the chest of the other.

According to the first hypothesis, the origin of the term would be the verb semba verb, of the quimbundu language, also from Angola, which has the meanings of “to reject” and “to separate”, in reference to the physical movement produced in umbigada, which is the main characteristic of dances of the peoples of the Bantu group – from which about two thirds of Africans brought to Brazil came as slaves. However, the preferred source may be the other sense that has the verb semba in quimbundu: that of “to please, delight, woo.” For in the traditional samba, the umbigada, real or simulated, is, first of all, the body movement directed toward the pair, as an invitation to join the dance.

Caraval blocos parade in Rio de Janeiro
Caraval blocos parade in Rio de Janeiro

The early days

Before being seen and defined as a genre of music “consciously cultivated”, in the words of José Ramos Tinhorão, one of the greatest theorists of Brazilian popular music, the designation “samba” applied to any batucado chorus of African garb. Of various origins, these choruses or choirs came from Bahia, the farms in the Southeast, the Northeast wasteland etc. and were diffused mainly from black communities.

Flor do Lodo – Aracy Cortes e Conjunto Rosa de Ouro

Until in 1916 the guitarist and composer Ernesto dos Santos, aka Donga, registered the work “Pelo Telefone” in the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), calling it a “Carnavalesque Samba”, to be released in the next Carnival.

Pelo Telefone - Carnavalesque Samba de Great Success - by Ernesto dos Santos aka Donga
Pelo Telefone – Carnavalesque Samba de Great Success – by Ernesto dos Santos aka Donga

At that historical moment, the dominant power sought by various means and reasons, to de-Africanize the body and soul of the Brazilian nation. And, even when later, the State has included it in its political project, the samba was always, expressed or covertly, an object of actions and procedures to strip it of its content and the very formal characteristics of its African origins.

Nelson Cavaquinho – A flor e o Espinho/Minha Festa

This is how, in the 1930s, in the environment theater put to music, came the samba-canção, a slow beat, romantic melody and sentimental lyrics, more to the taste of the elites, and perhaps “cleaner” as the eugenic ideas propagated by so-called “scientific” racism required, Afro-Brazilian expressions.

Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro
Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro

In the same way, once the economic exploitation of musical activity began in the country after the organization of the music industry, a distinction between samba “from the hill” and “from the city” was established. In this division, the creative work of favela (shantytown) inhabitant nuclei, recently-constituted and organized in the samba schools, went on to be the raw material that composers “from the asphalt” transformed into an industrialized product.

Rosa de Ouro Samba School, Velha Guarda (Old Guard or Old School)
Rosa de Ouro Samba School, Velha Guarda (Old Guard or Old School)

But the black strongholds conserved, even subconsciously, in a reserve of talent and art, important components of African originality, such as the rhythm of the drumming, the standard “question/answer” on the choruses and solos of the partido-alto (chanting in defiance) and the dance-fight in the leg kick, a kind of athletic game derived from capoeira Angola.

Ataulfo Alves – Na Cadência do Samba

And, even under often times adverse conditions, in the 1930s and 1940s the black man Pixinguinha, a brilliant composer, instrumentalist and arranger, created a repertoire of “African scenes” that included old fashioned sambas like Benguelê, Iaô, etc., later recreated by the singer Clementina de Jesus.

Bossa nova

The expression Bossa Nova marks the brand new style of composition and interpretation of the samba radiated from southern Rio at the end of the 1950s and previously denominated “samba moderno” (modern samba).

“Chega de Saudade” – Tom Jobim e Vinícius de Moraes

The landmark of the style are two recordings of the samba “Chega de Saudade” by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, in 1958, both having as differential the guitar accompaniment of musician João Gilberto.

Antonio (Tom) Carlos Jobim at the piano with Vinicius de Moraes
Antonio (Tom) Carlos Jobim at the piano with Vinicius de Moraes

Between 1963 and 1964, the work of Gilberto with the American saxophonist Stan Getz boosted the international diffusion of Bossa Nova from the United States. The seed already came from the album Jazz Samba, recorded by Getz along with guitarist Charlie Byrd, in 1962, the year of release, in Brazil, of “Garota de Ipanema” (Girl from Ipanema).

João Gilberto & Stan Getz – Desafinado (Off-key) – English subtitles

In 1967, the now famous samba by Tom and Vinicius was recorded in English by Frank Sinatra, marking the definitive expansion of the style in a dimension never achieved by the Brazilian popular music.

Stan Getz and João Gilberto
Stan Getz and João Gilberto

This new samba was characterized mainly by a “different beat”, expressed in a kind of rhythmic division uncommon at that time, but characteristic of a style, not of an autonomous genre. According to journalist and author Ruy Castro, this was “an extreme simplification of the beat of the samba school,” as if it were conserving only the tambourine. We reaffirm that the Bossa Nova won the world expressing its indisputable origin in titles like “Samba de Verão” (Summer Samba), “Samba do Avião” (Airplane Samba), “Samba em Prelúdio” (Samba in Prelude), “Samba Triste” (Sad Samba) and “Só Danço Samba”(I only dance the Samba).


Bossa Nova then proposed and effected a simplification of the samba as much for the “good”, with the pace being assimilated by the great musicians of the international scene, and for the “bad” with the African-ness diluting itself. So impressive was this dilution, the very scope of the new wave emerges from the partnership between Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist Baden Powell, the sub-style of composition denominated “Afro-Samba”.

Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist Baden Powell - 'Afro-Sambas' LP
Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist Baden Powell – ‘Afro-Sambas’ LP

With lyrics inspired by songs, rituals and other traditional forms and drawing on black Brazilian themes, the Afro-sambas characterized, according to some theorists, by melodies that would end in a certain plaintive tone, supposedly characteristic of African music, which lacks foundation.

Canto de Ossanha – Baden Powel e Vinícius de Moraes, from the LP Afro-Sambas

The denomination then – in spite of the beauty and importance of this body of work – seems redundant to us: either it is questioning the African origins of samba or is then denouncing the de-Africanization suffered by it from its urbanization and its commercial exploitation. Afro (African) itself, at that time, is the aforementioned Clementina de Jesus, an effective link, in the samba, between the ancient tradition and much of what came later, in works like those of Candeia, Martinho da Vila, Luiz Carlos da Vila etc., besides interpretations like those of Clara Nunes and Roberto Ribeiro, among others.

The schools

In the 1930s, the samba schools were organized to ensure a place for samba in Carnival, and not to assert any kind of Africanness. However, they eventually ended up retaining, at least symbolically, some elements of the tradition, which were gradually being diluted. It’s what you see on the alas de “baianas” (wings of the Bahian women), the rhythm of the drums and in recurring storylines concerning, the good or bad, to Africa.

The relative spontaneity of the rodas (circles of samba), citations remaining in the drumming, re-invigorated starting in the 1980s in the so-called the “pagodes de fundo de quintal” (backyard pagode parties).” Otherwise, they remain frozen in folklore as in the samba de roda of the Recôncavo Baiano (region of Bahia), recognized in 2004 as Patrimônio Imaterial do Brasil (Intangible Heritage of Brazil) and, in the following year, as Obra Prima do Patrimônio Oral e Imaterial da Humanidade (Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity). In the realm of the society of consumption, however, the echoes of Mãe África (Mother) Africa sound increasingly distant.

Source: Carta na Escola, Vianna, Hermano. O Mistério do Samba. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar/Ed. UFRJ. 1995. Álbum Itaú Cultural, Dicionário Cravo Albin da Música Popular Brasileira, Silva, Vinícius Elias dos Santos. “Samba, a voz do morro A história do Brasil do início do século XX sob o ponto de vista dos excluídos.”  Centro Universitário de Brasília – UniCEUB. Faculdade de Ciências Sociais Aplicadas – FASA Curso de Comunicação Social, Habilitação em Jornalismo


1. Outside of Brazil, particularly in the United States, a very white Carmen Miranda became the most famous representative of the samba style. See the story here.

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


  1. I find it interesting Samba’s history (and bleaching of it) mirrored that of Jazz and Rock’n’Roll here in the United States.

  2. no mention of Elza Soares, and candomblé roots , samba de caboclo, avamunha, and folkloric dances like samba de roda? your sources arnt telling the whole story…you cant get the whole story from academia, you have to talk to musicians and dancers

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