Samba, after the folklore

url-2(Deixa Falar, the first samba school)

The following comes from the slightly controversial book “Politically Incorrect Guide to the History of Brazil” (I’m translating the title, and I did the same with the excerpts below). For the book’s untranslated section on samba, go here.

The TL;DR is that samba went from being impure to being pure, from being heavily influenced by foreign styles to being authentically Brazilian (more specifically, from poor and black Brazilians living in the favelas).


During the mining of what was exotic in Brazilian culture, the first batch of samba was too cosmopolitan. During the 1920s, Pixinguinha, Donga and Sinhô took lots of criticism because their compositions seemed not very Brazilian. In 1928, the critic Cordeiro, from the magazine Phono-Arte, condemned foreign influence in two of Pixinguinha and Donga’s compositions: “We can not help but notice that in their songs there is not a perfectly typical character. The influence of the melodies and even the pace of American music is, in these two choros, quite evident.”

This fact surprised us a lot because we know that these composers are two of the best authors of typical Brazilian music. Two years later, Cordeiro, about to become artistic director of RCA Victor, the main label in the country, did not recommend the disc that contained no less than Carinhoso, Pixinguinha’s masterpiece, to his readers. His reasons: “It seems like our popular composer is heavily influenced by the rhythm and melody of jazz music. This is what we noticed for some time, more than once. In their choro, whose introduction contains a true fox-trot, what’s presented are combinations of yankee popular music. This did not pleas us.”

This ideological patrol predominated. Mário de Andrade participated in it. In letters and articles from the late 1920s, he speaks repeatedly of the importance of folklore in Brazilian music. In a letter to the writer Joaquim Inojosa, he says that “the Brazilian composer has to rely either on documents or on inspiration from folklore” because otherwise “what’s being made is not Brazilian music.” He even comes to use the term “harmful influence of urbanism”:

The macumba for tourists that fascinated writers soon had a musical equivalent. This is the “samba do Estácio”, a style that emerged in the late 1920s. Unlike the first bunch of songs, the new songs did not take after the maxixe, but rather the marcha, because the melody was punctuated with tambourines and drums. Very much practiced in bars and morros like Estácio and Mangueira, they were a “more rudimentary way to make samba, resorting to improvisation and ‘primitive’ techniques, if compared to those developed by sambistas and choro singers, such as Donga, Sinhô and Pixinguinha”. The style also facilitated the samba parade, as told by the sambista Ismael Silva in 1974, one of the founders of the samba school Deixa Falar. “In the old style, samba was like this: tan-tantan-tan-tantan. It wasn’t working. How is that a bloco is going to walk like that down the street? That’s when we started doing samba like this: bumbum paticumbumpruburundum.”

The new sambista’s consciously went against the previous style. They praised the periphery and the morros of Rio though many were white and had a more refined origin than the sambistas of the first generation.

The marketing of poverty worked. In the middle of the 1930s, the new style already carried the image of cultural expression of the morros and blacks. It had become folklore, a cultural value that should be preserved and protected from external influences. On February 25, 1936, journalist Carlos Lacerda wrote in Diário Carioca:

Samba was born from the people and it should stay with them. The elegant samba of official bashes is deformed: it undergoes deformations as it goes from being the music of the poor to the entertainment of the rich. Samba must be admired where it was born, and not after being stolen from its creators and turned into a musical salad to give profits to industrial folk music. Samba is the music of the classes. The lyricism of blacks live in it. At this time, Carlos Lacerda spoke of the poor people’s music as if it were the original samba, fighting against it being deformed by capitalism. In fact, the opposite happened. Samba was born from musicians who wanted to earn a living and please the audiences, and do self-ethnography. “The interesting thing is that the ‘authentic’ was born of the ‘impure’, and not the other way around, but in a later moment the ‘authentic’ starts to pose as the first and original kind, or at least closer to the ‘roots’,” says anthropologist Hermano Vianna in the book, The Mystery of Samba. He adds: “You can not say that the samba schools were a pure phenomena, but what grew up around them was an apparatus that maintains that purity, condemning all modifications introduced in samba.”

The first sambistas, those that played jazz and maxixe, died still irritated with the musicians from the morro.

The First Samba

Pixinguinha, João da Baiana e Donga

Before “Pelo Telefone” (just the music) was registered in the Biblioteca Nacional, in 1916, by Ernesto Maria dos Santos (Donga) in the style of “samba”, at least two other sambas had been recorded. “Em casa de baiana” (Alfredo Carlos Brício, 1913) and “A viola está magoada” (Baiano, 1914). “Pelo Telefone”, however, had more success and fixed the name “samba” as one of the popular urban styles of Rio de Janeiro.

In reality, what was sung in the houses of the “tias baianas”, such as Ciata, were memories of Northeastern parties, interwoven with improvision, true ‘quilts’ of melodic patchwork. It was almost nothing like what today we consider to be samba.

The utterance that gave birth to the sung lyrics of Bahiano and set in wax at Casa Edison, in 1916, was in regards to the polemic law against gambling made by the chief of police Belizário Távora in 1913 and the journalistic coverage given to the case by the newspaper A Noite, whose offices were located in the Largo da Carioca. With the aim of demoralizing the new law, two reporters put a cardboard roulette table on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper’s headquarters and documented how gambling was still done out in the open.

It wasn’t just the gambling that was forbidden by the police. Popular protests, especially those of ex-slaves and their descendents, were subject to the same type of repression, according to a document dated September 25, 1918, signed by the then-police chief Aurelino Leal:

“Prevention of the Festa da Penha….I recommend you absolutely do not permit the entertainment denominated “Samba”, seeing that such diversion has been the cause of disagreements and conflicts.” (Arquivo Nacional, Ijj6-678)

(Source: video description)

The reason for the name “Pelo Telefone”, or Through the Phone, is that police chief Leal ordered all gambling houses closed via the telephone (a device only rich people had at the time), at which point the newspaper went about setting up the aforementioned table in front of their offices. The first verse of the song states this.

…O chefe de polícia pelo telefone mandou-me avisar, que na Carioca tem uma roleta para se jogar…(…The chief of police told me to give warning, that at Largo da Carioca there’s a roulette to be played…)

The verse, though, was lifted from the samba parties at Tia Ciata’s home. In fact, the whole song could have come from the collective of those who frequented her house, as it wasn’t particularly routine back then to sign one’s name to pieces of music (especially improv).

Those that were in Ciata’s home that night in 1916 felt betrayed upon seeing their collective, spontaneous and informal creation, an expression of strong traditions, being appropriated by one of the group and for commercial gain. Mixing anger and humor, they attacked Donga parodying verses of the very song “he” made:

Pelo telefone/ A minha boa gente/ Mandou me avisar/ Que o meu bom arranjo/ Era oferecido para se cantar/ Ai, ai, ai/ Leve a mão na consciência/ Meu bem/ Ai, ai, ai/ Mas por que tanta presença/ Meu bem?/ Ó, que caradura/ De dizer nas rodas/ Que esse arranjo é teu!/ É do bom hilário/ E da velha Ciata/ Que o Sinhô escreveu/ Tomara que tu apanhes/ Para não tornar a fazer isso/ Escrever o que é dos outros/ Sem olhar o compromisso.

For more on the history of samba, click the Samba category to the right side of the home page.