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What is Samba to a Brazilian?

Updated: Feb 9

What is samba? A simple question to ask, but not so simple to answer. In this post we look at answering it from the point of view of someone who grew up in Brazil. Seems like a good place to start!

“The word samba for me is Brazilian popular music. It’s where we can get together with friends to party with good music and be happy. Samba is also a cultural expression of our thoughts through music. It’s where we can unite different generations and even races. Samba is joy, axé and happiness. Samba is where the batuque lives, where love lives, and even the inner peace of each one of us. Axé to samba.” - Gavial.

These are the words [translated from Portuguese], of my capoeira Mestrando in reply to this very question ‘what does the word samba mean to you’. He has lived most of his life in Brazil and played for decades in rodas de samba. Hearing this makes me feel flattered by my capoeira nickname ‘Samba’!

Here’s the [translated] response from another Brazilian friend, who is a director in a samba school’s bateria in São Paulo:

“The word ‘samba’ itself means nothing specific. It’s not like São Paulo, for example, which literally means Saint Paul.
However, the ‘culture of samba’ is very meaningful. It 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. So samba is the pure culture of Brazil. This culture of samba is really important to me. Back then, to sing a samba was to sing a social critique. In general we don’t do that anymore but this is the true roots of samba.
And for us to be playing samba today, it’s because many people fought for it before. They resisted oppression, they resisted all those horrible things that happened in years gone by so that today samba has left Brazil and exists in England, it exists all over the world. These people did a lot for samba back then but also we play a part in this now. Like when we sing the samba “Não deixe o samba morrer” [don’t let samba die] we are literally sending it around the world. So congratulations to you and your groups for doing this. Even though it’s not your culture, you have joined it and so are mirroring samba, doing more than many Brazilians. So congratulations.” - Renan

Not everyone I’ve spoken with has been able to answer so eloquently, though. I’ve had a range of answers from those who I’ve spoken with. I’ve even heard arguments between Brazilian friends about what samba really is. It seems that even to a native of the country of samba, and even though the word clearly means so much to so many, it’s not obvious how to define it.

The word samba has a different meaning depending on where you grew up or the context in which you mention it. Whether a roda de samba, a samba de roda, a bloco afro playing samba reggae or a samba school on a parade, Brazilians will have seen/heard several forms of ‘samba’ growing up.

(The list doesn't end there. We will be exploring styles of samba and other styles of Brazilian music in later posts).

Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s all easy and natural to all Brazilians though. Don’t assume that every Brazilian likes samba or knows how to play/dance it! There have been a few occasions where someone who grew up in Brazil has joined one of my groups and I’ve heard people say things like “well they’re going to show us up… it’s in their blood!” More often than not this was inaccurate.

I’ve mentioned my profession to taxi drivers in Brazil expecting to be able to talk about samba with them, only to receive replies along the lines of… “meh, samba is fun but I’m not into it.”


In future posts we will be looking at what samba means to a brit, plus taking a deeper look into the history of the word and the music.


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