With roots deep in the Bahia of Brazil, for the past 500 years samba has absorbed the music of numerous cultures to create samba. At the beginning of the twentieth century, samba finally crystallized into the form we recognize as samba. As this compilation bears the subtitle “Carnaval: the world’s most serious party”, it’s probably good to keep in mind that samba was originally outlawed from Carnaval until the 1930s. In Brazil, the music possessed a notorious reputation that insinuated secret societies, obscenity, and violence.
Americans knew nothing of this notoriety when samba first surged into popularity here slightly more than forty years ago—nothing of the secret religious ceremonies slaves hid from view of their strict Catholic masters in the jungles of Brazil, powered by rhythms carried with them from Africa. Nor that the word “samba” itself has African origin, being derived from “semba”. In Quimbundo, the language the Bantus brought to Brazil from the area that became the Congo, “semba” means “navel bump”. Nor anything too much about the forced migrations when tribes were broken apart and members sent to work on different ranchos to reduce the risk of rebellion but where they were exposed to different native Indian and European rhythms which were incorporated into their music. Nothing too much about the next migration upon the abolition of slavery when thousands of former slaves left Bahia to seek work in Rio de Janeiro and populated the nearby hills of the city, some obliged to settle permanently into the poverty-haunted favelas. There was just a hint known then that samba flowered first in the favelas with different samba schools competing for the grandest display during Carnaval. Americans first listened to samba without much of a sense of the history but were enchanted by the music.
The last time Americans were so samba crazy as they seem to be now was back then in the late 1950s when imaginations were first aroused by the siren call of Black Orpheus . Most people hearing that music were immediately captivated, the heat of their fantasies slowly ignited to a higher flame. Back in a time when distances seemed greater, travel both harder and a luxury reserved for the very rich, just hearing samba prompted some to romaticize enough to check the prices of tramp steamers sailing south.
The compilation opens with “Saudacao A Ossain”, one of the oldest forms of samba, a call-and-response chant called condomble, as led by Leci Brandao with only percussion backing the vocals. The most lustrous pearls on the collection are soon strung out in a line. Paulo Moura E Os Batutas play an inspired instrumental version of the first samba ever recorded in 1917, “Pelo Telefone”. The old standard is reworked in a jazzed up choro style, but made to sound like an antique record on a hand-cranked Victrola from the slightly scratchy lead-in. The sprightly clarinet carries the melody, a trombone provides counterpoint, and the arrangement of the percussion alone is brilliant. Moura has a well deserved reputation as a good arranger. His group recently won Brazil’s “Premio Sharp” for best instrumental group and a Latin Grammy award. Moura is versed in dancehall samba, but he is also one of Brazil’s most important practitioners of choro. Rooted in similar traditions as samba, choro assimilated influences from classical music and jazz. A more traditional form of choro follows with the superb guitar duo of Barbieri-Schneiter on “Choro No. 2”, heavily embroidered with classical and jazz techniques.
The style of samba most associated with Carnaval is shown with “Axe De Ianga (Pai Maior)”. The smoky-voiced Dona Ivone Lara is captured in a peppy live rendition. The low bass surdo drum, lively high-strung Portuguese guitars, and choral responses back up the powerful lead singer who soars in improvisations.
With 18 tracks on this compilation, nearly everyone is guaranteed to find three or four favorites. A decent collection worthy of being owned by every music lover, nonetheless The Rough Guide to Samba did not make me dream of catching a freighter to Brazil. Perhaps the approach is a bit too academic for that, or perhaps there are too many modern sambas included for my tastes. Though I admit I was listening in the middle of a cold, rainy winter.
For me, the gem of the collection is by Monarco, a composer who grew up in Oswaldo Cruz, home of the Portela samba school. Portela was the first school to use floats for Carnaval and music has to be striking to engage the onlookers when accompanying a rather slow-moving static display, however beautiful the design. Monarco’s “Feliz Eu Vivo No Morro” is the most joyous and sweet spirited song, one that never fails to bring a few rays of bright sunshine to any place you happen to be.