What are the origins of samba? During the slavery era, African street pageants from Rio de Janeiro to Havana to New Orleans shared such features as African drums, Amerindian rasps, scrapers and rattles, a mix of Iberian stringed instruments, and an audience that formed a circle around dancers, engaging in rhythmic handclapping and choral singing in response to the dancers’ performance. In what became a signal African American style, the dancing involved a sinuous hip-swinging glide whose kinetic allusion to sexual intercourse most European commentators found lascivious in the extreme.
In fact, this transcultural style had already begun to coalesce before 1492 in the Iberian peninsula, where African, gypsy and Moorish elements merged in the slave-trading centers of Lisbon and Sevilla. Elements included the stylized fandango courting dance between man and woman, the fancy footwork of the zapateado, and the poetic lyrics sung in metrical Portuguese or Spanish. This mix became de rigueur among the popular classes of mixed ethnic background, and would gain cachet among privileged classes of whites in both the Iberian peninsula and the New World colonies.
The Afro-Brazilian dance known as samba can be traced to the pre-Lenten carnival of Rio de Janeiro, and the first samba hit of 1917, “Pelo Telefone”, which in turn gave rise to the first escolas de samba (samba schools) in the late 1920s. Samba drew in part upon an earlier Rio instrumental music, choro (“crying, lament”), which emerged in the 1880s. The choro ensemble combined woodwinds (clarinet, flute, saxophone) with the miniature guitar-like cavaquinho, mandolin, guitar, bass, piano, accordion and a variety of percussion in what might be considered an early form of Brazilian jazz. Choro thus fused elements of European salon and military orchestra music, and popular imports including polka, schottische, tango and waltz, all with an injection of Afro-Brazilian percussion traceable to the congo street pageant and a succession of popular social dances extending back in time from samba to maxixe, lundu and batuque.
Samba’s commercialization in the latter decades of the 20th century introduced a divide between the big names and the many artists who maintained the music’s original vitality, for the most part without enjoying commercial success. In this project, Japanese samba enthusiast and producer Katsunori Tanaka has concentrated on the latter group, offering some three dozen examples of samba from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Volume One includes singer-songwriter and cavaquinho player Monarco, who heads Velha Guarda de Portela, the senior ensemble of the escola de samba he joined as a youth; Monarco’s resonant voice gives the group its signature sound, as on the brassy medley “Todo Pasa/ Grande Fingimento/ Vem Oh! Linda!” Cristina’s upper-class origins make her exceptional as a samba singer. The sister of Chico Buarque, the great singer-songwriter, Cristina submerged herself in the samba milieu and became one of the genre’s most popular interpreters; she is heard here both on her own and fronting Velha Guarda de Portela. Bahia native Wilson Moreira is another standout samba composer whose work lyrically fuses the African and European elements he assimilated from his parents. Rio street singer Luiz Carlos da Vila chimes in with three songs, including “Kizomba”, a hymn to the country’s mixed racial heritage that captured the national imagination during the 1987 carnival, as Brazil commemorated the centennial of slavery’s abolition.
Elder singer-songwriter Nelson Sargento begins Volume Two with two reflective compositions in the Mangueira style associated with the oldest still-existing samba school. In five selections by Velha Guarda da Mangueira, Sargento joins samba singers Carlos Cachaça, Jorge Zaiga, Aluízo Dias, Babaú and Zeca; Zeca’s interpretation of “As Rosas” especially invokes samba’s mournful choro strains. Velha Guarda de Portela, heard on Volume One, is represented here by eight additional tracks. Variously fronting are singers Monarco, Argemiro, Casquinha, Manacéa and Francisco Santana, who collectively reveal the ensemble’s diversity and range. Samba senior Guilherme de Brito, who began studying with the first generation of sambistas in the 1930s, presents four moving examples of the Brazilian serenata singing style, which anticipated the jazzy bossa nova that emerged in the 1960s. Nelson Sargento also penned the classic samba “Agoniza Mas Nao Morre”, as sung here by Beth Carvalho and Seleçao Samba-Brasil, whose memorable, melancholy chorus wraps the volume with the wistful nostalgia Brazilians recognize as saudade. Overall, this two-volume set constitutes a superb introduction to samba, the authentic carnival roots music of Brazil.