What is Samba?

Samba is the rhythm of Brazil, an infectious musical style that emerged from African rhythms brought by the slaves to Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.

Performing Samba at Newtown Fair 2016 – video by Sophia Tara

Samba is the unquestioned heart and soul of Rio de Janeiro, its birthplace. Developed in Escolas de Samba (Samba Schools), samba is inseparable from the Carnaval and the samba schools compete fiercely in it each year to win the coveted first place. Samba is truly the ‘popular art’ of the people, and samba schools are important social structures in a world that can be very uncertain if you are not wealthy. They are inclusive and everyone has a place.

Samba music is in 2/4 time (in two) with a high bass drum beat on the first beat, a lower foundation beat on the second beat, and highly syncopated rhythms played over the top. A bateria plays the rhythmical part, while melody instruments and singers play the tunes. The biggest and best known samba schools are located in the popular districts of Rio de Janeiro: Imperatriz Leopoldinense, Mangueira, Beija Flor, Portela, and Viradouro.

The band plays Maxixe at CubaDupa 2016 – video by Bella Obi

Samba can be performed by a single guitarist or a mob and there is a variety of types and sub-styles of samba. These include: batucada, maracatu, afoxé, samba reggae, forró, pagode, samba de roda, samba-canção, and bossa nova.

Samba is a way of life in Brazil, and is gaining huge popularity throughout the world.

Performing Funkanui, Sevens Waterfont Parade 2015 – video by Fernando Maluf


The simple definition of Batucada would be a percussion jam session, but that doesn’t begin to describe the awesome power a tight ensemble is capable of producing. Percussion is the bare bones of samba, but the larger bateria (percussion group) ensembles within the samba schools make breathtakingly complex walls of sound. The throbbing heartbeat of the surdo drum (somewhere between a bass drum and a tom-tom) underpins rattling snares, layers of hand-held percussion instruments such as agogôs (bells), ganzás (metal tubes filled with beads that you shake), tambourims (a bit like small tambourines which you hit with a split stick), and the panting, surreal shrieks and moans of the cuíca, a friction drum.

Samba! Wellington Batucada plays WOMAD 2015
Video by Kirsty Brewin

Escolas de Samba (Samba Schools)

A social, cultural, and club group that meets regularly and frequently with the purpose of learning and performing Brazilian samba dance, music, and costumes. It is a family organisation that hands samba and Brazilian culture down from generation to generation with the main goal of performing spectacular carnival parades during Carnaval each year (occurring during the Lent season).

At a minimum a school must have: a bateria (percussion group), groups of baianas, flag of the school carried by porta-bandeira and mestre-sala, child participants, and a theme song (Sambas de Enredo) written each year for Carnaval and performed and played by the school participants.

The term “samba school” actually comes from the fact that the first such groups met on school property in the early part of the 20th century in Brazil.

The great samba parades of Rio de Janeiro are all put on and performed by samba schools.


The driving force of the groups is the bateria. This is an array of drummers and other percussionists led by a director, or mestre, who conducts and signals with whistles the various breaks, solos, whoops and hollers which can all add up to a delicious assault on the senses.


A person who takes part in the activities of a samba group or a samba school. Dancers (pasistas) and percussionists (ritmistas) are sambistas.


The theme of a samba parade. These are usually lofty, poetic descriptions of a subject that interests Brazilians such as politics, the environment, a famous person, etc.


The word “Carnaval” is derived from the Latin and refers to the penitential renunciation of meat and other robust pleasures during Lent. Catholic and Yoruba-based African rituals co-exist amicably in Brazil, but the ancient Christian tradition of modestly indulging the senses prior to forty days of fasting and penance somehow got just a bit out of hand. At Carnaval time, Christianity bides its time until contrition sets in, and the hung-over masses totter off to make their no doubt astounding confessions before Easter.

The Rio de Janeiro Carnaval is the world’s biggest and rowdiest party and must be experienced to be believed, but has become rampantly commercial over the years. Nonetheless, a head-on encounter with a Desfile (samba school on parade) is like being engulfed by a conquering army of total strangers who really want to make friends! To get an idea of what the Rio Carnaval was like before its present incarnation, we recommend the film Orfeo Negro (Black Orpheus). Another option is to attend Carnaval somewhere other than in Rio. Salvador, the capital city of the northeastern state of Bahia, holds especially wondrous revels, but there are several local bashes around the country well worth checking out.

(Thanks to Rhythmbash for the info.)

» Find out how to join Wellington Batucada as a drummer