Samba tells a story, of the origins and daily lives of a people. It is myth. It is legend. It is a way of life. Samba is beauty. Samba is sadness. Samba is suffering. Samba is hope. Samba is history…

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Samba is the sound of the slaves. Of their torment on board the great Portuguese galleons crossing the Atlantic and their first footfall on Terra Brasilis. Of their song of freedom, of their homeland. Samba is the candomblé they brought with them and hid behind the Catholic religion of their masters. Samba is the shout of rebellion in a small town called Inconfidentes, of the runaway-slave quilombo of Palmares, of Zumbi, of Maculele, and of finally breaking free from the coffee and sugar plantations of Bahia.

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Samba is Rio de Janeiro, in the Bay of Guanabara, at the end of the 19th Century, a city ridden with violence and Yellow Fever. Samba is hungry and poor, hanging out in the bars and gafieira dance halls of ‘Little Africa’ with the Maxixe, half-African like itself. Samba is the bad boys, the malandros, stealing your girlfriend and picking your pocket with a wink and a smile. Samba is the Bahianas selling their sweet tapioca cake, coconut quindim and the sacred acarajé all the way up to the great Praça Onze de Julho. And Samba is these same women by night, priestesses of Candomblé.

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Samba is the afro-brazilian families that live crammed together in the huge, colonial houses abandoned by rich white families (for the more fashionable Zona Sul part of the city). Samba is in the kitchen of Aunt Ciata, Aunt Amelia and the other Bahiana tias who run these communities. Samba is in the Candomblé ceremonies that take place out back. Then one day, in Aunt Ciata’s house, mixed with the cooking, and the marchinhas and choros being played in the front room, a new sound is born; and Pelo Telefone becomes the first official Samba.

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But Samba is also notoriety. It is prejudice, repression and persecution. Samba is black. Samba is selling itself for an easy buck, or a couple of beers, to white journalists and radio producers coming to Little Africa looking for a fix. The police confiscate its tambourines and beat it up – but Samba knows the art of capoeira and fights back.

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Samba is Carnival at the beginning of the 20th Century: the Zé Pereiras with their cacophony of improvised instruments; the violent cordões dressed up as witches, devils and clowns; the more organised ranchos with their handsome mestre-salas defending the beautiful porta-bandeiras from other ranchos trying to steal their flag; the elaborate floats and magnificent sculptures of the corsos, crossing the city on their way to the lavish balls held by the Great Societies. And finally, seeing all this, the Samba stops dead in its tracks and shouts, “Let me speak!” and it starts the first Samba school, Deixa Falar, with its own theme music: the samba-enredo (‘samba-script’).

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However, Samba is not then singing the praises of the government in return for fame and glory. Nor is it the voice of politicians and political leaders shamelessly serenading the masses. Samba is the sound of the New Brazil in the 1930s, though. But, come on, Samba isn’t Fred Astaire dancing ‘The Carioca’ in Flying Down to Rio, nor is it Carmen Miranda with fruit on her head – bananas are not its business!

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So Samba is hanging out on Copacabana beach in the 1940s, and falling in love…again and again! And Samba is that same love lost, full of melancholy and nostalgia, and calling itself samba-canção (‘samba-song’). It’s a little too African for the rich kids on the beach in the 50s, who start playing a new happy-go-lucky version of it on their guitars and naming it bossa nova (‘new wave’). Then these same kids go looking for it again during the military dictatorship of the 60s, ending uptown in a bar owned by Cartola da Mangueira and his childhood love, Zica. There they flirt with the mulata girls, lose at cards to the malandros and jam late into the night with musicians from the favela, calling it samba-de-raíz (‘roots-samba’). Finally, Samba is the influx of a wave of foreign music in the 80s – rock, rap, funk, disco – and a bunch of people who still remember Aunt Ciata’s cooking saying “no” and calling it pagode.

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And despite becoming rich beyond its wildest dreams, the Samba still lives in the favela, with the poverty, the violence of the drug gangs, and the police intimidation. It still spends all year getting ready for its parade. Some Saturday nights it even goes to the baile – although it doesn’t feel as young as it used to be. But when all is said and done, and everything is just splendour and ashes, Samba is and always will be, believing in life, and the joy of living.

Chris Bicourt