top of page

What Is Samba to a Brit?

Let's continue to explore the surprisingly difficult question of ‘what is samba?’ Here are some definitions that you might have heard, some good and some definitely not so good, followed by how we might hear the word used over here in the UK.

Sambodromo Rio de Janeiro at Carnival
Sambodromo Rio de Janeiro

Some helpful definitions

  • The music (song and percussion) of the samba schools in the Rio Carnival. This is the definition most appropriate to the samba of Olá Samba but it certainly doesn’t cut it in itself.

  • The dance along to the above music in the samba schools

  • The song itself sung in the samba schools (samba enredo). E.g. "Viradouro's samba this year is beautiful"

  • Music and dance of a Samba de Roda

  • Music (song and percussion) of a Roda de Samba (see my vids of contrasting rodas at Samba do Trabalhador and Bip Bip in Rio Dec 2023)

  • The ‘samba carioca’ style of song and percussion formed in the house of Tia Ciata, a mae de santos from Bahia, in the Pequena Africa area of Rio in the early 20th century.

  • Brazilian music created by the black population of Salvador and later Rio, borne out of a combination of African musical traditions and European colonial influences during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

My picture of samba dancers, passistas, at GRES Portela rehearsal
My picture of samba dancers, passistas, at GRES Portela rehearsal

Some BAD definitions

  • Anything with bongos

  • Anything with a djembe

  • Any music with drums that aren’t 'normal' drums

  • You mean Zumba?

  • Oh, you mean Salsa?

  • What they dance on Strictly (although there is some relation)

  • Any sort of street percussion group anywhere in the world that uses Brazilian instruments

We will be exploring the good definitions in turn in more detail in other posts. For now, let’s deal with that last ‘bad’ one…

The Western idea of a ‘samba band’ 

That last ‘bad’ definition is an important one, as it’s the one we fall into under the name Olá Samba.

I chose the name Olá Samba because I wanted a short, memorable name that invited people to say ‘hello’ to samba for the first time like I was able to at Uni (more on my story in another post). It also tapped into the generally understood term of ‘samba band’ in the UK as per that last bad definition above. In that sense, it's a great name, but we should understand more about the limitations of this use of the word 'samba'.

If you stumble across a ‘samba band’ in the UK, you’re likely to see one of the many groups here that play Brazilian percussion instruments (surdos, snares, shakers and perhaps tamborim and agogô etc). But the range of groups and music under this category of ‘samba band’ is vast.

The music could be a very faithful, authentic representation of a samba enredo from Rio or of a samba reggae from Salvador, or it could be a very much simplified, distant relation thereof. The group might be playing another style of Brazilian music like maracatu, which is definitely not samba. The group might not even be playing any sort of Brazilian music at all, instead playing arrangements of other styles of music from around the world, most likely to include hip-hop, funk and drum & bass. Sound familiar?

Their performance could be static or parading, could centre around impressive choreography or be completely unchoreographed. It may be accompanied by a handful or even a large group of dancers. It may serve a song with singers or a horn section or be entirely percussion. It could comprise anywhere between 2 and 100+ drummers. 

The standard of performance in the group could be very strong indeed but might not be. The performers are likely to all be doing it for fun, not for work, and of a wide range of experience and skill. Some bands are auditioned, selective and highly rehearsed while others are very much open to all and community-driven. The musical director might have decades of extensive experience playing a range of Brazilian music, perhaps they even grew up in Brazil, or they might have very limited experience indeed.

And all of this is 'samba'?

Why am I saying all of this?

My knowledge and appreciation for the breadth and depth of Brazilian music has multiplied many times over since my early days of teaching it, and starting my very own 'samba band'. I remember my pitch for new members in the first year or two of Olá Samba was often along the lines of "it’s not like learning the violin, anyone can turn up and play!"

While there’s definitely truth in this, I can't help but cringe at this statement now. True, a big reason this music is now so popular around the world is that group percussion is more accessible, cheaper and less shrouded in pretence than some other group music. A drum (often) demands less expense and less training than a trombone to get a half-decent note. One of the big reasons I love this style of music is the way it is able to unite people of all backgrounds and experience levels. But the statement also gives a false impression that it’s easy, hides the depth of learning to be had, and lowers the expected standard of performance from a percussion group like ours.

So while it's fair to say that we in the Olá Samba Bateria and Silver Sambistas fall under this very broad category of a community 'samba band', we can recognise the limitations of this label and strive to be a very good version thereof. We are keen to go beyond a surface-level understanding of what 'samba' is, hence continuing to practise and reading this blog!

It’s also important to realise that while we can watch some really excellent ‘samba bands’ in the UK and around the world, most don’t generally feel like their Brazilian counterparts. In the next post, let's look at this more closely, and ask if this is a problem.

It's not samba if it doesn't make you smile
Our proudly-displayed art from @ailbhenc


bottom of page