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.