Gateway to Brazil

Brazilian cuisine, culture, lifestyle and travel

The History of Brazilian Music

Introduction to Brazilian Music

Love of music certainly seems to be one of the traits of the Brazilian character.

Walthere de Selys-Longchamps, Belgian traveller in Bahia, 1872

Brazilian music is one of the world’s most enjoyable cultural treasures. When most people think of Brazil, they think of sunny beaches, talented football players, beautiful people and the iconic Carnival. Carnival is, of course, admired for its vibrant costumes, exciting dance choreography, and most importantly, the hypnotic rhythmic music. Brazilians are, and always have been, great lovers of music. It is a passion that pre-dates the colonial age and can be traced back through pre-historic America and before the Portuguese first sailed along the West African coast.

This article will tell the story of an important period in world history when worlds collided, and new cultures and civilizations were formed. This is an event that has happened many times in human history; however, this time, it was recorded and coincided with an age of intellectual and cultural inquiry. The history of how Brazilian music came to be is one of wonder and beauty, as well as tragedy and sorrow. It is to be celebrated as much as commemorated because it happened and cannot be undone. It is responsible for creating music that has enriched the lives of millions of people for over 500 years and today provides the rhythm for an incredible nation and people. Read this article with an open mind, listen to all the music examples I have included with an open ear and enjoy this beautiful journey.

What is Brazilian music?

Brazilian music comprises styles developed in Brazil through the syncretization of African rhythmic and European harmonic, traditional styles, which formed a uniquely Brazilian sound popularly accepted by all Brazilians, regardless of their ethnic background. The primary examples of Brazilian music generes are samba, forró, axé, bossa nova, pagode, sertanejo, brega, Brazilian funk, musica popular brasileira (MPB), choro, maracuta and tropicália. However, several older genres were essential to modern Brazilian music development and will be discussed in this article.

Brazilian music, just like all of the music cultures of the Americas and Caribbean, has a history that is rich and complex. Over the years, many groups and governments have used music and the music’s authenticity to push agendas, mould society or re-shape how people perceive their history. As a result, the history of Brazilian music is largely misunderstood by most people. The modern conception of the history of Brazilian music was largely influenced by the social and political developments of the 1930s. President Vargas’ Second Brazilian Republic was an era of ‘brasilidade’ or Brazilianization. It is an attempt to unify black, white and mixed ethnicity Brazilians under the banner of a collective Brazilian identity built around African heritage and romanticism of the Brazilian mestiço race. It resulted in a populist-nationalist movement that rejected four hundred years of European cultural domination and finally embraced African culture’s influence on the Brazilian way of life. However, The government used Afro-brazilian culture to build popular mythology for the emerging middle-class to rally around. A romanticized history of an authentic and unpolluted African musical culture, transported from the Congo to Brazil with the slaves that follows a direct linear path of evolution with some European acculturation to become modern Samba and Brazilian music as we know it today.

As you will see, this narrative is on the right track but is much too simple to explain the development of the uniquely Brazilian popular musical genres. This article will discuss the cross-cultural exchange between Africa, Portugal, and Brazil that resulted in a complex back and forth web of music being shared and borrowed, culminating in creating the unique Brazilian sound.

The pre-colonial age

The musical history of Indigenous Brazil

Music was brought to Brazil with the first wave of human settlers approximately twelve thousand years ago. We do not really know what this music would have sounded like. However, we can get a bit of an idea from the music played by remote, isolated indigenous communities that still exist today. Vocal chants are common, and some of the instruments still used by indigenous peoples today are panpipes, drums, horns and rattles.

Ashaninka music from the Amazonian state of Acre.

The musical history of Portugal

Across the Atlantic, the Portuguese were pioneering the Age of Discovery. Suffering from the devastation of the bubonic plague, the Portuguese kingdom turned to the sea to conduct trade with a grand goal of reaching the lucrative East Indian spice isles. Through great development in shipbuilding, navigation, cartography, Portuguese explorers, followed by traders and merchants, reached the West Coast of Africa and commenced navigating and charting the vast coastline. By the mid-15th century, Portuguese traders conducted regular business with African lords to acquire slaves, ivory and gold. Slaves were valuable in 15th-century Portugal due to the demographic collapse caused by the bubonic plague in the 1340s and 50s. Therefore, the first African slaves acquired in what was to become known as the Portuguese slave trade were sent to Lisbon and the recently colonised island of Madeira. In the period of time, there were thousands of black slaves in Lisbon, estimated to be approximately 8% of the population1 .

Africans had a significant influence on the musical culture of Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. There are plenty of documents that show the black community in Portugal co-existed in the same areas as the poor and lower class Portuguese. Both groups fraternised socially, and many children were born from interracial coupling. Portuguese folk music and African music were performed in the same places and were enjoyed by whites and blacks alike. This created new hybridised styles of music and dance that were very popular with the lower classes. As happens in all societies, it began to permeate the class structure to influence what we will refer to as erudite music, the music of high society. We will see as the typical characteristics of African music, through acculturation, worked their way into Portuguese popular music and dances. By the time Brazil was to be colonised in the 1550s, Portuguese music had been Africanised2 .

The musical history of West Africa

The Portuguese developed a fascination for African music from the beginning of their exploits on the African continent. Even as far back as the 1400’s African musicians and dancers were brought back to Portugal to entertain and impress the royal court. So impressed with the musical prowess of the sub-Saharan Africans, the Portuguese accepted African people as exceptionally gifted in music and dance. When the Portuguese Empire decided to colonise their territories in modern-day Brazil and import vast numbers of enslaved West Africans as labourers into the sugarcane industry, it was already widely known that the enslaved peoples had a sophisticated musical culture3 .

The African people brought to Brazil were typically from the nations directly across from Brazil, the nations of the South-West – Bantu people from Angola and the Congo, Yoruba from Nigeria, and the Ashanti from Ghana. These peoples of West Africa had differing languages, religions and cultures; however, their music had similar traits that made it rather unique4 .

  • Polyrhythm, a complex rhythm that employs two or more meters simultaneously
  • Syncopation, a placement of stresses on the off beats
  • Antiphony, call and response patterns between a vocal leader and a chorus.

The drum was essential to West African music and was considered to have mystical and spiritual qualities5 . The Yoruba people even had a place in their religion for the first drummer, a man known as Ayangalu who became an Orisha in the afterlife and drummers’ patron deity. The main styles of drums were the djembe and the talking drums. However, whistles, rattles, wind and string instruments also had a place in West Africa’s music. Also, body percussion from foot-stamping, clapping, and of course, singing. West Africa’s music was more than just for entertainment; it was a part of daily life and an essential socioreligious component in society. West African cultures used music to communicate, celebrate and for religious practices. Furthermore, West Africa’s music was intimately connected to dancing; one did not exist without the other. The rhythm was always designed to induce body movement.

The musical history of colonial Brazil

Indigenous music in the age of Jesuits

The Portuguese Empire began the occupation of Brazil in the early 16th century with traders and merchants arriving to set up trade ports and forts. Likely, sailors, black slaves of the captains and merchants, and the merchants themselves had interactions with the Indigenous people who exchanged music and instruments such as tin whistles. Unfortunately, little is known about such interactions. However, Portuguese music officially arrived in 1549 with the Jesuits’ arrival and the first Governor of Brazil. Coming from a nation with a long musical history contributed to the Middle Ages’ splendour and Renaissance European art and music. The Jesuits were a counter-reformation movement within the Roman Catholic church that the King of Portugal supported. They believed in the study and teaching of the faith and classical education that included music and brought this to colonial Brazil. The Jesuits set up missions across Brazil and took a strong interest in the Indigenous peoples. They went to great lengths to understand and learn the Tupi language and culture and taught Catholic chants in Latin and the same chants translated into the Tupi language. The Jesuits were against the slavery of the Indigenous people and worked hard to convert them to Christianity and educated them in European culture.

By the late 16th century, there were quite a few indigenous church and cathedral choirs. By the late colonial period, European instruments had worked into the indigenous cultures and become a part of their musical sounds. Interestingly, ethnomusicologists have concluded that although Indigenous peoples adopted European music styles and instruments, Europeans and Africans typically did not adopt Indigenous music in the same way. We will see that although much is to do with prejudices, a lot was also to do with the Indigenous music being difficult to syncretise with the two technically more advanced music cultures6 .

The 1986 film, The Mission, depicts a Jesuit mission where Guarani people live and are taught to sing sacred chants. The film is based on real events in the state of Paraná during the 1750s and provides some insight into the musical acculturation of the time.

The music of the early Portuguese colonists

In the same fleet as the first Governor and Jesuit missionaries arrived over a thousand men, including functionaries, soldiers, colonists, and four hundred degredados. The degredados were a collection of offenders, homeless, and downtrodden who were exiled to Brazil to bolster the new colony and make a new start7 . As Portuguese colonists began to settle across the land, they brought the more common folk music with them. This was particularly the case with the degredados who were of the same cast that shared their neighbourhoods with the black slaves in Lisbon. Colonists used instruments like the adufe, sarronca, cavaquinho, various viola shapes, and small woodwinds for casual entertainment. Folk songs and dances from across Portugal and Spain were performed in social settings, just like in the scene below. As mentioned above, much of the folk music coming from Portugal had already gone through an early Africanisation from the captive Africans in Lisbon. Early colonial Brazil was driven by the sugar economy the generated great wealth. This economy and the systemic reliance on chattel slavery allowed for perpetuating a rigid class system that mirrored Europe. All the colonists had in common, rich or poor, black or white, they all came from a culture of music and dancing.

The music of the Transatlantic slave trade

The enslaved people who Portuguese traders brought from Africa to Brazil were stripped of all their belongings, including instruments for making music. However, a few instruments appear to have made it across the Atlantic as some ship captains noticed that the music kept morale higher. Therefore more captives made it to the Americas alive, healthier and were less likely to rebel8 . An example of a drum that made it across the Atlantic to the Americas is the Akan Drum located in the British Museum. Although it was taken to the Colony of Virginia, not Brazil, the drum was constructed by and brought across with the Akan people9 . The same slave traders also took these people to Brazil. The Ashanti are a member of this ethnolinguistic group, so it is still a beautiful example of the kind of instruments that may have made it to Brazil.

The Akan Drum was crafted in the Ghana region circa 1730-45 and travelled to America on a slave ship. It is the oldest African-American object in existence.

Even after such a devastating experience and having their treasured instruments stripped from their belonging, the West Africans arrived in Brazil with the memory of their music and the knowledge of how to craft their instruments. Many accounts tell of new arrivals singing as they were disembarking from the slave ships onto Rio de Janeiro and Bahia’s wharves. Their musical culture could not be stripped from them10 .

In their new lives on Brazil’s plantations, African people had only each other and their music. Instruments were fashioned from local materials, or African people sourced European and Indigenous substitutes. In Brazil, a traveller could hear the music of Africa across all the cities, villages and plantations. The white ruling class learned that their slaves stimulated by music were much more productive and easier to control. Following the custom in Africa to sing when working and performing laborious tasks with regular rhythmic movements, black workers could be heard singing day and night in the fields, factories, warehouses and constructions sites. British merchants in the 18th century spoke of their time in Brazil and hearing songs being sung in African dialects on the streets of every street in Rio de Janeiro by the black workers every day. There is a description of porters carrying heavy 160 pound sacks of coffee on their heads, balanced with a single had so the other would be free to shake a rattle and maintain the rhythm while singing. Accounts like this are widespread11 .

Notice the man carrying a basket on his head while playing the berimbau. This print is from the series Views and Costumes of the City of Rio de Janeiro, 1822, Henry Chamberlain.

Sunday and religious holidays were typically allocated to slaves as days for rest. The slaves used this day to continue the cultural music and dance customs transplanted to the Americas from their memory. Drumming, singing and dancing would begin on the night before the Sunday or holiday and continue into the following morning. The Portuguese generically referred to these song and dance circles as batuques. Because little was recorded about distinguishable styles and characteristics, this is as much as we have to go by. However, one characteristic we know of is the umbigada or semba; both words mean ‘navel to navel’, the act of bumping your belly with someone to initiate or close a dance. In the early colonial age, Europeans were fascinated by African musicality but generally dismissed the music as loud and unsophisticated. However, that attitude would not last forever.

The oldest known depiction of African dance in Brazil. This scene is of a batuque in North East Brazil by Zacharias Wagener (1634): “When the slaves have carried out their arduous duties for weeks on end, they are allowed to celebrate one Sunday as they please; in large numbers in certain places and with all manner of leaps, drums, and flutes, they dance from morning to night, all in a disorganized way, with men and women, young and old; meanwhile, the others drink a strong spirit made with sugar, which they call ‘garapa’; they spend all day like that in a continuous dance . . . ”

The musical melting pot

When African people first arrived in Brazil, their music and dances were mostly unadulterated as passed down from ancestors in West Africa, going back to pre-Portuguese times. However, just as the African slaves in Lisbon influenced the creation of new novel popular music and dance in Portugal, these African slaves travelled back to Africa with their masters and the sailors who occupied the same bairros as the Lisbon blacks. This time mixing with locals in the ports and forts of Southern West Africa. Africanized Portuguese genres were now being spread back into Africa. This process would intensify as the decades passed, and Portuguese and Africans’ proceeding generations exchanged more and more culture. By the late 18th century, many captive Africans arrived with styles of dance and song that had an Afro-Iberian influence. Maintaining cultural purity was impossible.

Similarities between European and African Music

One of the incredible things about African music is that although it may sound very different to European music, it has much more in common than you may think. Certainly, African music’s rhythmic element was more complex than in European music, and European music was far more advanced in polyphonic harmony and based on notation. European music was rapidly advancing the frontier of music theory during the renaissance, baroque, and classical eras. However, there were many similarities between the two cultures musically. The historian David E. Vassberg summarised the similarities between African and European music styles as the use of harmony, the reliance on the diatonic scale, fundamental metric bases, and certain basic forms12 . As a result, captive Africans with musical talent could learn European instruments and styles with remarkable ease.

Plantation orchestras & Barber bands

Music and dance was very much a part of the upper class colonial Brazilian culture. One way a wealthy plantation owner would engage in conspicuous consumption was by acquiring slaves with musical talent for no purpose other than to entertain the owners and their guests. Private orchestras were ensembled with European musicians employed to teach them how to perform the time’s popular music. These orchestras demonstrated great skill in reading music and producing complex sounds13 .

In urban Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, barbers were typically black slaves or freedmen. These men were literally the ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ because along with cutting hair and beards, they worked as surgeons, dentists, and musicians. Barbers would entertain their clientele. Unlike the plantation orchestras that played concert music, barber bands played the popular styles: lundus, chulas, waltzes and fandangos. These bands became known as barbeiros and would be employed to perform at various festivals and religious ceremonies14 .

Barbeiros, like these two gentlemen, could cut your hair, remove a rotten tooth, perform basic surgery and perform the latest popular music.

When required to perform European dances, the black orchestras would subtly ‘creolise’ the rhythm, introduce a degree of syncopation, and a general ‘beat’ and ‘swing’ that the Portuguese enjoyed. The barbeiros would completely Africanize them with lively flutes, bass drums and stringer instruments. The historian Peter Fryer points out the significance of Brazilian children being born into this performance style and the effect it must have had on popular music in Brazil. Through this process, European instruments and sounds were adopted and integrated into what is identified as Brazil’s Neo-African sound.

The Neo-African sound

Neo-African sound is a term used for sounds performed, in colonial and Imperial Brazil, by slaves, free blacks and Afro-mestiços with the stylistic traits of South-West Congo-Kinshasa, Angola and South-West Nigeria and Benin. However, it is important to note that Neo-African sounds were produced using traditional African instruments, Brazilian instruments or European instruments and had European sound influences. It was neither African music nor yet to become popular with white Brazilians. However, as you will see, it is an essential stage in the evolution of Brazilian music.

An example of early music styles that demonstrates the neo-African sound is the Congado. The Congado is an Afro-Brazilian cultural and religious manifestation of music and dance. The merging of a traditional ceremony that honours the King of the Congo and Queen of Angola’s coronation with the Catholic religious themes dedicated to the life of Saint Benedict the Moor (São Benedito o Mouro). A pair of people are chosen in the community to play the monarchs’ role and dress in regal attire. Traditional instruments such as the cuíca, tambourine, the cavaquinho, the reco-reco and the tamboril are used15 .

Here is an example of a the Congado in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, modern era.

Minas Gerais, Gold and the Portuguese Baroque Era

Up to the late 17th century, the primary economic activity in colonial Brazil was growing sugar cane and refining sugar products exported to Europe and the rest of the world. This frontier agrarian society on the periphery of the world attracted Jesuit missionaries, men who were typically the fringe of their class back in Portugal and, of course, captive West Africans. This all changed in the 1690s when gold was discovered in the region that became known as Minas Gerais (General Mines), commencing the worlds longest and largest gold rush up to that moment. Several major gold mining towns appeared in the region almost overnight. Like all gold towns in history, the immense wealth coming out of the ground meant that the gold miners built the cities in Europe’s latest architectural fashions’ splendours style. In this period, it was the baroque style of Portugal.

The city of Ouro Preto (formally Vila Rica – Eng: Rich Town) developed into being the centre of the gold rush and Minas Gerais’s Capital. It attracted hundreds of thousands of people from Portugal and across the colony, seeking to make their great fortune. By 1730 Ouro Preto was the largest city by population in Latin America, dwarfing São Paulo and New York.

Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais. In the 1740s during the gold rush, it was the largest and wealthiest city in South America. It was the home to over 1000 musicians during the century.

What was the Baroque era?

The Baroque era was a counter-reformation aesthetic movement that commenced with the Council of Trent declaring that Catholicism’s imagery was not idolatrous. Due to the illiteracy of the late 16th century and Catholic mass still being primarily conducted in Latin, the imagery was deemed to be most useful in countering the spread of Protestantism16 . The spread of the reformation and its heretical ideas into South America was a serious concern for the church and drawing upon imagery to promote the instructions of the true religion amongst indigenous and black populations was deemed essential. As we saw earlier, the Jesuit mission’s were the result of this same concern. This counter-reformation movement coincided with the colonial age where vast sums of wealth generated from Brazilian sugar, African slaves and Spanish American gold mines flooded back into Europe. Princes, aristocrats, and merchants had surpluses to invest in sacred art, architecture and music. Churches were being built or renovated with no expense spared on the aesthetics. It was a sign of status to have the most richly decorated church or cathedral17. It was also a great show of status for your church to have commissioned its own sacred music and have it composed and performed by the most talented master of music, orchestra and choir.

Colonial Baroque aesthetic in Brazil

In a country that already had a love and passion for music and dance, high society spent vast capital on cultural pursuits in the arts and entertainment. Across the 18th century, there were over one thousand musicians in Minas Gerais. Several of these musicians were great virtuosos that composed music that inspired future Brazilian musicians, styles and genres. An interesting observation, almost all of these professional musicians were Afro-European mestiços of black and white ethnicity. Furthermore, their black parents were typically a member of a plantation or church orchestra. In a class-based society with a racial hierarchy, these people referred to as mulatos or prados had limited prospects to rise in society. In 18th Century Brazil, whites did not engage in manual labour and being a musician was technically considered a manual task, and therefore whites were less and less common in this field. The demand for quality musicians in colonial Brazil was always high; however, in Baroque Minas Gerais, the demand for musicians to compose sacred music for the churches and operas, dramas, and popular music for entertainment was insatiable. Mixed-race individuals filled this void. Being a musician was a respectable vocation that provided improved status to become what we consider the middle class18 .

In the latter half of the 18th century, two new styles of popular music were developing that many of these mixed-race musicians would be drawn to. The neo-African Lundu and the Luso-Brazilian Modinha. Both dances took Brazil by storm and the composers and compositions of 18th century Minas Gerais were influential in their development to becoming Brazil’s first true popular music genre.

Here is an example of a Hymn composed in Ouro Preto by an Afro-European mestico musician, Marcos Coelho Neto. His father was a slave who became a trumpet player and a composer in Ouro Preto during the peak of the gold rush. Marcos managed the production of several operas and dramas during the late 18th century. This hymn is his most well known and is titled Maria mater gratiae (1796).

In the late 18th century a style of music emerged that was to be historically instrumental in the development of a unique Brazilian sound, the Lundu.

The Lundu (or Lundum) originated as a Neo-African sound and dance from what was generally called a bataque or samba (not to be confused with the modern samba). As previously mentioned, the bataque was the colloquial name given to the various dance circles performed and enjoyed by slaves and free blacks in colonial Brazil. In the early 18th century, the lundu was exclusively danced in the black communities of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro with some rural variations. The sounds and dance styles were significantly more African, although they were played using a mixture of African, European and vernacular instruments.

Just like in Lisbon, during the 15th century, when poor lower-class whites began to embrace the sounds and dance moves produced by the African slaves, the same happened in Brazil. Over the decades, the Lundu evolved and became more popular with mainstream Brazilian culture. By the late 18th century, the Lundu was converging with the more erudite Modinha, a genre favoured by the upper classes and has straddled the border between erudite and popular music. By the 19th century, the Lundu was being stylised into a morally acceptable dance form to the upper classes. To such an extent that there are many accounts from visiting travellers and tourists who are amazed at how popular the Lundu is with respectable men and women of high society. They danced it just as the black slaves did. The Brazilian middle class had appropriated the Lundu dance and music.

The Lundu dance style was generally described as lascivious by observers, with lots of front hip movements. A Parisian woman touring Brazil in the mid-19th century described the dance in her journal.

…the national dance, which consists of a kind of rhythmical walk, with the movement of hips and eyes, which does not lack originality, and which as a rule everyone has to accompany by snapping their fingers like castanets to beat out the rhythm. In this dance, the man merely, as it were, revolves around the woman and woos her, while she indulges in all kinds of feline movements of the most alluring kind.

Adèle Toussaint-Samson, A Parisian in Brazil: The Travel Account of a French Woman in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro – describing the Lundu

The lundu was so popular that it became known as Brazil’s national dance. It was even danced in the governors palace of Minas Gerais.

[The Lundu was] the first kind of black music accepted by Brazilian society, and through it, black people gave our music some important characteristics, such as the systemization of syncopation and the use of the flattened seventh.

Oneyda Alvarenga – 20th century, Brazilian popstar

The Characteristics of Brazilian Music found in the Lundu

In the 19th century, the lundu had developed into the first truly Brazilian genre of popular music. Whites and blacks enjoyed it, and the genre possessed the three characteristics that would define Brazilian music into the future.

  1. Systematised syncopation
  2. Switching between the major and minor scales
  3. The popular use of a flattened seventh chord

The first was an adaption of African cross-rhythms to European rhythmic norms. The second and third are adaptions of African scalar values to the European concert scale.

These characteristics were exotic and seductive to foreign ears and became the recognisable features of Brazilian popular music well into the future. So distinct was this sound that it would become tied up with politics and national in a rapidly changing Brazil.

Here is a stunning example of an early 19th-century lundu composition. Listen to its unique sound, and you will notice how the lundu influenced modern samba and other Brazilian styles. This is one of the anonymous compositions compiled by the researcher Mario de Andrade in the 1920s and 30s.

Here we have an exquisite example of a lundu from the late 18th century. The poem played over the top is titled Morrendo Devagar (Dying slowly), written by Domingos Caldas Barbosa, the son of a Portuguese man and an Angolan slave. Barbosa studied at the Jesuit College in Rio de Janeiro and had a successful career in Portugal.

The Portuguese Royal Court and the Empire of Brazil

So far, we have seen that musical culture in Brazil was, for the most part, influenced by the African slaves and the common folk. Wealthy plantation owners and gold miners had the resources to acquire European talent to perform and teach their local musicians how to perform the latest musical trends from Europe. However, Brazil was still on the periphery of the geopolitical landscape as it was, after all, a colony of the Portuguese Empire. That changed in 1807 when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal during the Peninsular War, forcing the Portuguese Royal family into exile. Prince Regent, João of Bragança (Dom João VI), and his mother Queen Maria I, and his family, treasury, court and many nobles escaped Lisbon on a fleet of 15 warships and 20 transport ships; they set sail for Brazil.

The Portuguese Royal Court settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1808. The city was immediately transformed and electrified by the full splendour of European regality and high society. The Prince Regent brought his musical library, considered one of the grandest in all of Europe. Great musicians and composers followed from Lisbon and all over Europe. Theatres were constructed, including the Royal Theater of São João opera house in Rio de Janeiro. In this period, Brazil’s greatest classical composer, José Maurício Nunes Garcia, rose to prominence under the patronage of Dom João VI. Nunes Garcia’s maternal and paternal grandmothers were African slaves from Minas Gerais; his parents were free mestiços. Dom João VI appointed him as Master of the Royal Chapel, where he was later joined by the great Portuguese opera composer, Marcos Portugal. Nunes Garcia was a prolific composer, producing over 300 sacred and secular pieces, including Brazils first Opera. Nunes Garcia’s influence was felt in Brazilian music for decades to come, and his legacy continues in the Brazilian National Anthem composed by his greatest student, Francisco Manuel da Silva.

Missa de Santa Cecília (1826) by José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767 – 1830) written in Rio de Janeiro

Brazilian Opera

Believe it or not, opera was the most popular mainstream music genre in Brazil from the mid-1800s to about the 1950s. This can be ascribed to several factors such as Brazils desire for European acceptance, the huge number of German and Italian immigrants during the same period, vast wealth being made from rubber and coffee that funded the construction of Opera houses and theatres. However, the primary factor was the coming of age of Emperor Dom Pedro II. Dom Pedro II was a highly educated individual that had been the Emperor of Brazil since his father Dom Pedro I abdicated and returned to Portugal in 1831. Pedro II was only five years old at the time, which meant his guardians had plenty of time to educate him to be the perfect ruler. He was made to study science, culture, history and the arts for hours every day. This made him one of the greatest patrons of the art and sciences to have ever lived. As an adult, he advocated for promoting education and culture to his subjects; he even remarked that had he not been the Emperor, he would have liked to have been a teacher.

Pedro II financed the creation of dozens of scientific, humanitarian and cultural institutions in Brazil and around the world. He financed and became the patron of local musicians and composers, including the great Antônio Carlos Gomes, an Afro-Brazilian mestico who composed Il Guarany. This famous opera premiered at the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. Gomes was the most successful non-European Opera composer and was a successful contemporary of Puccini and Verdi during the golden age of Italian Opera. Gomes was rather progressive for his time and composed an opera dedicated to the struggle towards abolishing slavery in Brazil; it was titled Lo Schiavo (The Slave). The Opera was first performed at the Theatro Imperial Dom Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro and was conducted by Chiquinha Gonzaga, the first female conductor in Brazilian history. Gomes music was popular in Brazil well into the mid-20th century and a major influence on many popular Brazilian musicians and genres to come.

Antônio Carlos Gomes, born in Campinas, São Paulo, he considered one of the worlds great Opera composers

In this period, several beautiful Opera houses were commissioned and constructed. They still operate today and are iconic tourist attractions. They include the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus and Theatro da Paz in Belém, funded by the Amazon rubber boom. The Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, built in the early 20th century and the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo funded by the coffee boom.

Teatro Amazonas. Manaus/AM. 20/09/19. Foto: Rafael Zart/Ascom/Cidadania

The Republic and a modern Brazilian identity

The 1880s was an interesting time in Brazil. Slavery had been abolished by all the major nations of the Western Hemisphere except for Brazil. Although with the flow of tens of thousands of European immigrants streaming into the country from Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain, the institution of slavery was on its last legs. Huge amounts of capital and investment were flowing in from the United Kingdom, resulting in a major industrialisation process. Brazil was the worlds leading producer of rubber and coffee, two commodities in very high demand.

13 May 1888, Princess Isabel signed the Golden Law (Lei Áurea), the absolute abolition of slavery across the entire Brazilian Empire. Dom Pedro II, the humanist Emperor, wanted to abolish the institution for decades but was reluctant to do so due to its risk of causing major instability to Brazil. He feared civil war as had afflicted the USA. However, now the risk of civil war had diminished, and Dom Pedro II was older and tired of his responsibility as Emperor. He knew enacting the law would end the Empire and the Braganca dynasty in Brazil. He was correct. The ultra-conservative factions, backed by the rich and powerful plantocracy of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, allied with the Republican movement and orchestrated a coup to overthrow the Emperor and the monarchy. The Emperor wanted to avoid a war at all costs, he put up no resistance, and he and his family went into exile in Europe. The Emperor never saw his beloved Brazil ever again.

If it is so, it will be my retirement. I have worked too hard and I am tired. I will go rest then.

Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, November 16, 1889

The Republic of the United States of Brazil had been proclaimed, and a new era was about to begin. The Imperial age, under Dom Pedro II, had a huge influence on Brazilian culture. A sense of pride in vernacular culture was fostered by the Emperor, although generally, that culture was of the European pedigree. Now Brazil faced a new challenge; the slaves were free people that needed to be integrated into the society. Furthermore, the culture needed to change to encourage acceptance and legitimacy of the new Republican government. When the Emperor died in exile in December 1891, the new Republican government, which did not take control through democratic means, was shocked at the repercussions of the Emperor’s death once word made it to Brazil. The people lamented the loss of their great leader, and demonstrations of sorrow spread across the land. Businesses closed, flags were displayed at half-mast, black armbands were worn, and masses were held to eulogise and praise Dom Pedro II and the monarchy, which Brazil lost without a fight.

“May God grant me these last wishes—peace and prosperity for Brazil

The last words of Pedro II, exiled Emperor of Brazil, December 5, 1891

The Emperor had abolished slavery, the monarchy was then extinguished, the Emperor had died in exile, and Brazil was about to enter the 20th century as a radically different country. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Heitor Villa-Lobos the greatest known South American composer of all time.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887, the final years of the Empire. He grew up in a time of great change and modernisation. He had an ear for music but did not receive much formal training; rather, he learned by ear. This is rather symbolic as many of the Brazilian virtuosos we have seen in this article were formally trained in the European way. However, Brazil was moving away from a formal European musical culture with notations to a more ad-lib vernacular style with a great creative expression. Villa-Lobos was different from the previous generations; he did not seek to replicate the European masters; he was more interested in creating innovative new sounds that embrace Brazil’s sounds. In 1905 he travelled the ‘dark interior’ of Brazil and observed indigenous and black cultures. He took great inspiration and, in this time, composed several works for the classical guitar through an improvised process. He also played with local Brazilian street bands – cultural descendants of the 19th century, barbeiros. He was even a cellist in the Rio opera company. In the 1920s, he did a successful tour of Paris which he showcased his music rather than study.

In the 1930s, Getúlio Vargas seized power and become President of Brazil. A nationalist-populist movement that pursued social reforms, his presidency was in reaction to the prevailing dominance of the agrarian oligarchy of coffee planters and dairy farmers who controlled the government since overthrowing the Emperor and creating the First Republic. In this period, it was illegal to take money from Brazil; this meant Villa-Lobos had to postpone his next tour of France. Instead, he remained in Brazil and commenced working with the Vargas government to produce a new Brazilian sound of music that would promote brasilidade and national pride. A campaign that would have a major influence on Brazilian musical culture right up to the modern-day.

The Maxixe

In the mid-19th century, polka took the world by storm. It was danced in Brazil by people brought up on the Lundu and the Cuban habanera. This resulted in the polka evolving into a dance style known as tango brasileiro. The Brazilian Tango scene was pioneered by legendary female composer Chiquinha Gonzaga and Henrique Alves de Mesquita and Ernesto Nazare. By the 1880s, this dance style had become distinctly Brazilian, as the lundu was before it. The music that accompanied it also possessed the three defining characteristics of Brazilian music (mentioned above). The dance we renamed the Maxixe. It became the most popular dance in Brazil and overtook the Lundu that had reigned supreme for nearly one hundred years.

The Maxixe is a partner dance described as dancing the polka while dragging the feet and rippling the hips. It had evolved to move perfectly to polyrhythmic percussion. But make no mistake, the maxixe was not a black dance; it was mostly danced by the white middle class, explaining why it became the dance of carnival in the early 20th century.


The Maxixe became a trendy dance in Brazil amongst all Brazilians; however, it was clear that the style was a sanitized version of the early bataques and lundus enjoyed by slaves and free blacks. In the early 20th century, we see a process of black people re-Africanising ‘popular’ music for Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The Brazilian poet and musicologist, Mário de Andrade, described it as follows:

The evolution of the maxixe into present-day samba appears to be… a reaction of Brazilian black ethnicity [negrismo etnico brasileiro] against the undue whiteness [branquismo] of the maxixe. … The present-day samba … is a black reaction against the maxixe, a return to purer sources, and a return to the roots [repimitivizacao] of our urban dance, under direct black influence…

The … composers of maxixes began to use the word [samba] again, to denote not the old Afro-Brazilian choreography but a regional kind of maxixe, ‘maxixe’ referring to pieces of specifically Rio de Janeiro feeling and movement, ‘samba’ to the maxixe of rural, especially north-eastern, origin and style.

As discussed in this article, terms like ‘purer sources’ and ‘return to roots’ are rather over simplified because the cross-cultural exchange of music in the Atlantic was very complex, and the development of genres and dances did not follow a linear process. However, it appears the cross-Atlantic cultural exchange was in full swing. Black people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas were taking the maxixe and making it into their own thing – Samba!

The origins of Samba: a rural black diaspora

The favelas in Rio de Janeiro were formed by soldiers who returned from the War of Canudos in Bahia in 1898 and had nowhere to live. They settled on Providência Hill (Morro da Providência). Approximately ten years earlier, slavery had been abolished; over the next several decades, the emancipated slaves and their descendants commenced a migration out of the rural regions and cities. More than half of the population had been born in regional Brazil by the turn of the century. Many settled in the favelas like Providencia Hill and tenement housing known as cortiços. These rural people brought neo-African folk sounds and cultures isolated in remote regions for decades (centuries in some cases). Rio’s favelas and cortiços were developing into melting pots for urban and rural black music to re-mix with middle-class popular music and dances like the maxixe, creating a new re-Africanized popular sound.

An example of a favela in Rio de Janeiro (1926)

Samba was not known as a genre of music until approximately 1917. Earlier in this article, we discussed the African slave dances in the colonial era known as batuques. One of the moves was known as a ‘semba’; a word derived from the Bantu languages in South West Africa. Several regions in West Africa have this word, and it means many things; almost all can relate to dance. However, clearly, this Bantu word remained in the lexicon of rural Afro-Brazilian communities across the centuries.

With the huge black diaspora out of the countryside, so many isolated black cultures mixed that ‘samba’ became a colloquial word referring to any social event that included music and dancing. The samba was an opportunity to enjoy the day with family and friends and leave all the worries of life behind for a period of time. You could expect to hear various Afro-Brazilian music styles and dance from across rural Brazil at an early samba, such as the coco, tambor de crioula, lundu, fandango, cateretê, quimbere, mbeque, caxambu, xiba, samba de matuto, jongo and samba de roda. Once again, in Brazil’s history, people shared customs and cultures to create a new Brazilian sound and culture, this time in the black neighbourhoods (bairros) of Rio de Janeiro. However, the genesis of urban samba was not linear; there were two styles of urban samba to develop in the early 20th century, one was through the black intellectual circles and Candomeble terreios of Cidade Nova, the other in the favelas of Rio’s North Zone and the neighbourhood of Estácio.

Samba do Cidade Nova

The tens of thousands of people from Bahia (baianos) came not just with the musical culture but also a religious culture. Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion officially formed in the 19th century and was derived from the syncretism between West Africa’s religions (particularly Yoruba religion) and Portuguese Roman Catholicism. Members of Candomblé meet in temples known as terreiros. This religion’s central theme is ceremonial music and dance that revolves around drumming and singing. Several women arrived from Salvador, Bahia, who helped found the Candomble terreiros of Rio de Janeiro. These women were referred to as ‘Tias Baianas’ (Bahian aunts) and were well known in the community.

One Tia, in particular, was very influential in the early development of samba. Her name was Tia Ciata. Tia Ciata lived in Cidade Nova (known as Praca Onze at the time), the part of Rio that was nicknamed ‘Pequena Africa‘ (Little Africa). Her home was frequented by intellectuals, politicians, and local musicians. It was here that the ‘architects of samba’ would meet and created the music that would be named samba. Talented instrumentalists that would play choros, maxixes, lundus and marchas in jam sessions. Responsorial singing and percussion interplay, less formal sounding than the maxixe. 2/4 meter emphasises the second beat, a stanza, a refrain structure, and many interlocking, syncopated lines in the melody. The main rhythm and cross-rhythms can be carried by handclapping or percussion (batucada), including more than a dozen different instruments. Accompanied by guitar and four-stringed cavaquinho.

Tia Ciata, one of the famous ‘Tias Bianas’ who was influential in the creation of urban samba.
Ernesto “Donga” Santos, who recorded “Pelo Telefone” argued to be the song that established urban samba as a genre.

Future samba legends such as Pixinguinha, Sinhô, Donga, Halario Jovino Ferreira, Joao da Baiana and Caninha all were regular guests Tia Ciata.3 It was here that these gentlemen collectively composed a song titled ‘Pelo Telefone’. Pedro “Baiano” dos Santos performed the song, and it was recorded in 1916 for a January 1917 launch. It was a hit and became known as the first urban samba track. Donga registered the sheet music as a ‘carnival samba’. The original verses of Pelo Telefone created in Tia Ciata’s home went:

The chief of police rang me up

Just to let me know

That there’s a good roulette game

In Carioca Plaza

These lyrics were referring to a corrupt police official and the reality of life in Rio de Janeiro at the time. However, by the time the song was recorded and published in sheet form for the 1917 carnival, Donga had changed the lyrics to appeal to the middle class.

The chief of police sent me a message

That everyone is free to jump and dance

Like the Lundu before, white middle-class Cariocas (Rio de Janeiro’s inhabitants) were beginning to embrace this new Africanised maxixe known as samba. It was a new century, a new government, and middle-class Cariocas (white and black) may have complained about the rural blacks taking over’ huge parts of the city. But that didn’t mean the people had lost their addiction to dancing to exciting new black rhythms and beats.2 With the introduction of the gramophone and then the radio in the 1920s, samba was ready to reach popularity levels that would far exceed the lundu, choro and maxixe. But it was deep in the favelas, in the hills overlooking Tia Ciata’s neighbourhood, that the Afro-carnival revolution would change samba and the sound of Brazil forever!

Samba do Estácio: Revolutionising the sound of a nation.

Samba do Cidade Nova was the first genre of urban samba, and its legacy, along with that of Tia Ciata and musicians like Ernesto ‘Donga’ Santos, will always be honoured. However, the modern samba sounds we know today were developed much deeper in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and didn’t emerge into the mainstream until about a decade after Pelo Telefone was recorded and put samba on the map. Samba do Estácio is named after the Estácio neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, where the tram network converges and connects the various neighbourhoods and favelas.

Just as Samba do Cidade Nova drew its influences from the rural sounds and dances that were flooding into Rio from the North East, so to did Samba do Estácio. However, the Cidade Nova style was based heavily on the maxixe, which we previously discussed, had been ‘re-Africanised’ by the Candomble terreiros. It was actually considered somewhat respectable due to the intellectual and influential crowd that Tia Ciata associated with. Her husband was a doctor, and she lived in a well-to-do black community. She was by no means shielded from the time’s prejudices, but Tia Ciata was respected by many, and this respect rubbed off onto the music that came out of her social network. Furthermore, her neighbourhood was the centre of a middle-class black and white Carnaval scene that was still influenced by the European masquerade theme. The Estacio style, on the other hand, could not have been more different.

Favelas like Sao Carlos Hill were not considered respectable by middle-class Cariocas. In fact, both middle-class whites and blacks looked down on these communities as being backwards and dangerous. The inhabitants were actively barred from parading in the carnival celebrations in Pequena Africa. The carnival parades on the hill were considered rowdy and anti-social. The community knew them as blocos de sujos (dirty blocks). Legendary sambista and resident of Morro de Mangueira favela, Cartola recalled his first block as:

We had a dirty bloco. And [other people on Mangueira] had blocos. Those were organized… That block was made up of the worst kind of crowd, real low-lifes, good-for-nothings, that species was! It didn’t come out at carnaval to play, it came out to fight. To fight, get beaten up, beat up, get thrown in jail. So much as that all the other people in the neighbourhood, in the other blocos, didn’t accept us one bit.

The music culture in these communities was superb, and although not professional, as the sambistas at Tia Ciata’s were, they were very talented and had a unique style. However, this was a very low class and poor neighbourhood; life would never improve if things remained the same. The final straw came when in 1928, the young sambistas realised that families saw no dishonour in their daughters dancing in Cidade Novo’s carnivals but would never be allowed anywhere near their ‘rowdy’ blocos. They had to take their future into their own hands, which is exactly what they decided to do.

The Samba Schools

The São Carlos sambistas, led by Ismael Silva, wanted desperately to clean up their image and be accepted as a respectable act. They came up with the idea of ‘Escola de samba’ (samba school) inspired by the teacher’s college they rehearsed next to. Silva knew that the college was out of reach for him and his sambistas, but no one knew more about samba than them. The group needed a name, and being on the fringe of society, ignored and shunned, they came up with the name Deixa Falara-“Let Them Talk.4

Deixa Falar went to great lengths to change their image. They invited women to join their rehearsals, choose marching colours, created costumes, and even invited ‘elders of the favela’ to lead the march bearing the flag. But what importantly to this topic are they composed new sambas that their parade and school could march to. At the 1929 carnaval, Deixa Falar completely outdid the other blocks and sambistas. Sambistas from Mangueira, Carlos, Cachaca and Cartola were stunned by what they saw and were inspired to create their own samba schools. In 1930, five other black communities debuted their own samba schools at the carnival, including Mangueira. Each year more samba schools joined, and the schools attracted hundreds and hundreds of new members. Samba Schools were a hit and would go on to revolutionize Brazilian culture to this very day.

The sound of modern Samba

It was Ismael Silva and his sambistas who re-defined samba to create the sound that is universally recognized today. They codified a form that introduced longer notes and two bar phrasing, and compared to the maxixe sambas of Cidade Nova, the tempo was much slower. Furthermore, the Turma do Estácio (Estácio Gang) produced lyrics that induced poetic images of common and simple themes.5 Silva composed sambas perfect for marching to and implemented the bateria (drum kit) that was more common with capoeira music. The bateria includes the now-iconic samba sounds such as the cuíca (friction drum), agogô (cowbell), reco-reco (scraper), surdo (low-tuned drum), caixa de guerra (snare drum), and many more percussion instruments.

At the time, samba did not work for carnival groups to walk on the street as we see today. I started noticing that there was this thing. The samba was like this: tan tantan tan tantan. It was not possible. How would a bloc get out on the street like that? Then, we started making a samba like this: bum bum paticumbum pugurudum.6

Ismael Silva
Legendary sambista and founder of the Deixa Falar samba school, Ismael Silva. Deixa Samba was the first samba school and changed Rio de Janeiro and Brazil forever.

By the mid-1930s, Rio de Janeiro was samba crazy. Thanks to their Samba Schools, the blocos of the favelas banned from the mainstream carnival parades were now on the path to becoming the dominant carnival culture in Rio. Today these samba schools are Brazilian carnival and have spread across the world. Estacio samba became the dominant Brazilian music genre; sambistas like Silva and Cartola would write some of the biggest samba hits that would have international success. However, the habit of middle-class Brazil’s first disapproving of, then embracing, and then appropriating black music happened once again as it did with maxixe and lundu before. But with radio, it was heavily sanitized to appeal to the masses and President Varga’s new Brazilidade laws. This time, samba would make it to Hollywood and put Rio de Janeiro on the map as the go-to Bohemian holiday destination for the rich and famous. However, it would be a few decades before many of the Estacio gang would get the recognition they deserved and for their favela style to be accepted for what it was. But that is a story for the next chapter.

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If you are not familiar with the sound of carioca samba then this song is the perfect introduction.
  1. Behague, Gerard, et al. “Inter-American Musical Research.” College Music Symposium, vol. 7, 1967, pp. 103–110. JSTOR,
  2. Guillermoprieto, Alma, “Samba”, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990, p. 27.
  3. McGowan, Chris & Pessanha, Ricardo, “‘The Brazilian Sound’: samba, bossa nova, and the popular music of Brazi”, New Ed, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1998, pp. 22-24.
  4. Guillermoprieto, 1990, p.28.
  5. McGowan & Pessanha, 1998, p.25.
  6. Cabral, Sergio, “As escolas de samba do Rio de Janeiro” (in Portuguese). Lumiar, Rio de Janeiro, 1996, p. 242.

  1. Fryer, Peter, “‘Rhythms of Resistance’ African Musical Heritage in Brazil,” Pluto Press, London, 2000, p.2. []
  2. Fryer, 2000, pp. 3-4 []
  3. Vassberg, David E., “African Influences on the Music of Brazil,” Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol.13, No. 1, 1976, P. 36, []
  4. Vassberg, 1976, p.39, []
  5. Nketia, J. H., African Music, Vol1 No.1, 1954, p.43. []
  6. Vassberg, 1976, p.39, []
  7. Jerome, V. & Jacobsen, S.J., “The Roman Catholic Church in Colonial Latin America,” ch.7 The Jesuits in Brazil, ed. Greenleaf, Richard E., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1971, pp. 73-74, []
  8. Vassberg, 1976, pp. 40-41, []
  9. The British Museum, Akan Drum, Am,SLMisc.1368, []
  10. Fryer, 2000, p. 41, []
  11. Fryer, 2000, pp. 40-54, []
  12. Vassberg, 1976, pp. 38-39, []
  13. Fryer, 2000, pp. 134-140, []
  14. Fryer, 2000, pp.139-141, []
  15. Freyer, 2000, pp. 61-68, []
  16. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Baroque art and architecture”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Jan. 2021, Accessed 17 April 2021. []
  17. Reily, Suzel Ana, “Reconceptualizing “Musical Mulatismo” in the Mining Regions of Portuguese America,” The World of Music, Vol. 2, No. 2, Transatlantic Musical Flows in the Lustophone World, 2013, pp. 33-34, []
  18. Reily 2013, pp. 35-7 []
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