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Roda de Samba

Updated: 7 days ago

To help answer the question of 'what is samba?', we are looking at different styles of samba, one by one. Here, let's look at Roda de Samba.


Put on some appropriate music like this while you read!



What is roda de samba?


Pronounced "hodda djee samba" and literally translated as a "samba circle", at a typical roda de samba you'll find a small group of musicians sat in a circle around a table and the audience gathered around to watch and sing along.


If you've ever been to a roda de samba in Brazil you'll know that feeling of the audience taking over the song and everyone singing their heart out. Not to mention dancing a casual samba. Maybe you even felt like I did as a gringo in the corner, apparently the only one not knowing all the words and not really being able to dance samba (but still loving it)! A roda de samba is a joyful occasion and everyone is invited.


The songs you hear at a roda de samba are indeed overwhelmingly 'sambas'. The group will make sure that it's not too long between the most well known ones encourage everyone to sing along as much as possible.


Even without an actual roda taking place, recorded songs in this style are often found playing in the background of any party, and this style of music is a big part of any definition of MPB (música populeira Brasileira - Brazilian pop music).






You're never too far from a roda de samba in Brazil. They are a staple of city nightlife, whether in dedicated bars or informal gatherings. Here are are a few of the famous roda venues I've enjoyed in Rio alone:


  • Vaca Atolada - in the beating heart of Lapa, the musical nightlife centre of Rio

  • Carioca Da Gema - also in Lapa, a more formal stage setup, with a range of musical styles on different nights, including roda de samba. I proudly performed on that stage with Carnaval Transatlantico!

  • Pedra do Sal - in the 'Little Africa' neighbourhood, this site of historic importance in the resistance against slavery hosts a weekly roda that has now become so popular as to be almost like a mini carnival.

  • Clube Renascenca - a historic venue and hub of afro-brazilian culture

  • Bar Bip Bip - a very different sort of roda dedicated to traditional choro and samba de raiz, with no amplification, only very sparse percussion and only space inside for about 5 people. Those watching are asked to not talk and to click their fingers instead of clapping for applause!





Related terms


Trying to label and compartmentalise different styles of music is always tricky, and these subgenres of samba are no exception:


Samba de Mesa

Literally 'table samba', this can be used interchangeably with 'roda de samba'.


Samba de Roda

Definitely not the same style of music, but often used interchangeably in error. Samba de roda is a style of samba with a very different instrumentation and cultural context to a roda de samba, We will explore this in a separate post.


Pagode

Different people will give you different answers as to what 'pagode' means. Some would say it is simply the music played by a roda de samba (especially these days rather than historically).


Others would say it evolved from other subgenres of samba like samba de raiz and partido alto in the late 70s and 80s, often credited to the now definitive group Fundo de Quintal borne out of their regular performances at Cacique de Ramos. It could be described as the new wave of samba, which brought it to the mainstream in a new way through record sales and radio play.

See this book on the historical context of Cacique De Ramos

Pagode is sometimes used synonimously with the 'pagode romântico' style, a saccharine radio-ready ballad kind of pagode that paralleled our own manufactured mainstream pop from the 90s into the 00s. This doesn't mean the whole genre should be tarred with this brush, though!

See also 'Pagode romântico' e.g. Imaginasamba, or Raça Negra

Partido Alto

Another subgenre of samba. It existed from the early days of samba near the start of the 1900s, but the label is now particularly applied to a style that rose in popularity in 1970s. Borne out of the the period of military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985), especially the 1970s, this partido alto is (even) more political and strove to resist the homogenisation that was seen to be distorting samba during the time.


Read a full article about partido alto and its relation to 1970s afro-politics here

Partido alto also refers to a rhythm played on certain instruments in a samba e.g. here.


Samba de Raiz

Literally, 'roots samba', this is a vague term that might be used to describe an old-school classic samba, which often come up during a roda de samba. The age is less important than whether it bears the hallmarks of a true traditional samba in terms of lyrics, melody and harmony, in contrast to samba fusion styles like bossa nova, samba-rock, samba-funk etc.



Digging Deeper


Let's not forget that the story of a cultural phenomenon like a roda de samba is deep and complex. The style is not only a symbol of Brazilian identity but also one of black identity- an identity that is inextricable from the social and political atrocities of recent history.


As quoted from a Brazilian friend in my other post 'what is samba to a Brazilian', samba is:


"the existence of black people against oppression, against slavery, by creating the samba that arose in Rio de Janeiro. It was all done by black people, by slaves who were freed." [my translation]


The lyrics of many of these sambas reflect this sentiment:


"...fazem de tudo pra silenciar a batucada dos nossos tantãns..."

...they do everything to silence the batucada of our tantans [drums]...


Samba is, at it's heart, a political protest song. In fact, this extends to many other styles of Brazilian folk music (could we even argue all other types of folk music around the world?).


Read more about some other classic political sambas here.
See also some more contemporary Brazilian political songs (not all sambas) here.

For me, this blend of light and dark, joy and protest, is one of the fascinating things about samba as a whole. One could quite happily enjoy a roda de samba night while being blissfully unaware of the heavy content of some of the lyrics, but for those who are interested, there is a wealth of history there to uncover, one we'll explore more in other posts.


What's the closest thing to a roda de samba in the UK?


It doesn't matter how many videos you watch, pictures you see, words you read, songs you learn, I'm not sure anyone can really understand what a roda de samba is all about unless you've been to a really good one in person. Really good ones are certainly hard to find outside of Brazil, where people have grown up absorbing this music. But what's the closest thing we have over here?


I've been trying to think of things that match the sense of community, of joy, of spontaneity, of informality mixed with respect...


The closest thing I can think of is something like a Celtic folk music jam. These have a lot in common with rodas de samba. In both, people gather to sing classic songs together in an informal setting. Where these two differ might be the age of the repertoire (without knowing the first thing about Celtic folk - would it be fair to say that many of the folk standards are several generations old, unlike the famous sambas that are mainly from 1960s onwards?). Even if you extend to a more general folk jam or acoustic jam night, I think it's fair to say that these are less woven into the fabric of our culture than the rodas de samba are in Brazil.


Maybe similar too is the idea of 'songs around the campfire'. Some rodas de samba are much bigger, more commercial events, but for the smaller more intimate rodas, a campfire singalong feels pretty close. They both share idea that the guitar player(s) or roda group can spontaneously choose to thread together well-known tunes in any order to suit the mood, or someone could spontaneously step up to lead a song and people would join in with the bits they know.


Someone I was speaking to about this mentioned the old English tradition of 'songs around the Joanna', where a people would sing informal songs around the piano in a family home or a pub. I've never been to anything like this, and they are very rare now, but I guess this shared a lot in common with the campfire singalong.


As for quintessential British folk traditions like Morris Dancing... We have a rhythm and a dance but beyond that I'm struggling to find comparisons! (No disrespect to the Morris dancers among us!)


British music is famous around the world. You wouldn't have to look too hard to find Brazilians who love it more than Brazilian music. But the way in which we enjoy it is different. We expect to enjoy the music of a British group like the Rolling Stones or Coldplay by buying a ticket to their show or listening to it on the radio. You might even occasionally enjoy it by singing your own version around a campfire. But the music is not written with the intention of joining the ranks of well known songs to be sung by the people at a roda, any night of the week, for years to come.


What allows this to happen is the boundaries of the style, in particular the fact that the rhythm is always a 'samba'. Even the harmony - the chords under the song - is normally reasonably predictable to a good cavaco/guitar player. This means that anyone who can play samba, can just add the song on top - the lyrics and melody - and sing their heart out.



Famous artists and songs


Of course, I can't hope to give a comprehensive list here of all the most famous artists and songs in the style. But if you're keen to explore the style for the first time, here are some places to start.


Martinho da Vila


Songwriter and singer


Martinho is the current president of honour of samba school Vila Isabel (there's a bust of him as you enter the quadra). Indeed, he named himelf after his favourite school! He has written several sambas de enredo for the school, including their title-winning enredo 1988, (Kizomba, Festa da Raça) widely held as one of the all-time most popular. He was the subject of the theme for 2022.


Some of his famous songs you might hear in a roda de samba:




Dona Ivone Lara


Songwriter and singer


Truly one of the 'velha guarda' (old guard) of the samba world, Dona Ivone Lara was the first woman to write an enredo for a samba school. More bio.


Some of her famous songs you might hear in a roda de samba:


Sonho meu, 1997


Grupo Revelaçao


Famous performance group


Formed in 1991, Grupo Revelaçao are today one of Brazil's most famous groups playing their own super slick, polished brand of roda de samba music.



Fundo De Quintal


Formed in 1978 (or 1975 from other sources), and with their first album released in 1980, Fundo De Quintal are roda de samba heavyweights. They have partnered with many famous performers, including Beth Carvalho and Zeca Pagodinho, recording reference versions of popular sambas and performing in high-profile tours. The group is credited with popularising the cavacobanjo, the tantan and repique de mão instruments.




 


Instrumentation


Melodic instruments


Cavaco/cavaquinho - the iconic strumming sound of a samba. A layman might look at one and say "isn't that a ukulele?!" It looks similar with its 4 strings and small body and the fact it's strummed, but its strings are steel instead of nylon, giving it a much brighter sound. It's played in a very different musical style to the ukulele.


Cavacobanjo - tuned the same as a cavaco and played broadly the same but with a different, louder sound.


Violão - the portuguese word for a nylon-string guitar. Often with an extra bass string making it 7 strings. Played with fingerpicking style, emphasising the bass notes of a chord underneath a cavaco.


Flute - you might see some rodas de samba with woodwind instruments including the flute. This is more typical in rodas playing the styles of 'choro' or 'maxixe' which predate the more modern sambas we are looking at here.




Percussion instruments


A given roda would include some of the following percussion instruments, but not all of them. Some, like the surdo and tantan, fulfil the same function so would not generally be seen together.


Surdo - smaller than those in the baterias, normally 18" or sometimes 16" and with a hide head tuned very low. As always in samba, its strong note is on beats 2 and 4.


Tantan - same function as a surdo, and in some rodas it replaces the surdo.


Rebolo - a smaller tantan, musical role more like a 3rd surdo, driving both the swing and the downbeat.


Pandeiro - tamborine. Either hide (couro) or plastic heads, between 10-12". This instrument in itself has enough tonal variation to hold a whole roda de samba together, embodying the sounds of the surdo, the shakers, the tamborim etc all in one.


Tamborim - same as those used in the baterias, but normally played with a wooden stick.


Reco reco - one of the brightest, brashest sounds in a roda, but can be played with a lot of subtlely.


Repique de mão - 'hand repique', a short, sharp sound suited to fast flourishes (repicadas) or variations between sections (puxadas).


Caixa de guerra - exactly like those in the samba school baterias, but normally used sparingly as it's louder than the other instruments here, and/or covered in a cloth/towel to soften it.


Ganzá - metal cylindrical shaker, normally small, one-handed versions. Much quieter than the loud 'chocalhos de platinelas' of the samba schools.


Agogô - two pitches of bell in one instrument. In a roda setting, this can either be a small version of the steel ones used in samba schools, or can be made of coconuts

(agogô de castanha).





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