By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The samba schools are currently starting the final intense period of preparations for the spectacular samba extravaganza that is Carnival. However while the sensational Sambodrome showdown is but an annual occurrence on the calendar, there is a weekly celebration of samba’s roots at the historic birthplace of the genre, Pedra do Sal.
Every Monday evening starting at 7PM, the Roda de Samba da Pedro do Sal performs original Carioca sambas in a traditional samba circle in a place that has a deep historical significance.
“This place is sacred for samba, this is old Rio,” says percussionist Walmir Pimental. “There has to be a notion of the importance of [Pedra do Sal] for Afro-Brazilian culture and the Roda looks the be close to that history”.
Located in the Saúde neighborhood of Centro near Praça Mauá and the port, the area around Pedra do Sal was where the first African immigrants from Bahia settled in Rio in the early 17th century. Formerly Pedra da Prainha, it was a large slave market before becoming a central meeting point and cultural reference the growing Bahian population.
The area was nicknamed ‘Little Africa’ and its residents introduced Bahian traditions such as the religious practice of Candomblé and martial art dance capoeira to Carioca life.
It was in the square at Pedra do Sal that the first Carioca samba developed with legendary sambistas such as Heitor dos Prazeres, Pixinguinha, Donga and João da Bahiana (after whom the square is now named) performing their original samba compositions.
Now it is this music and the historical spirit and significance of the area that the current Roda de Samba da Pedra do Sal look to preserve with their free, weekly events.
The group, who have been playing at the site for the last six years, are comprised of eight members: along with Pimentel, there’s Wando Asevedo, Paulo Cesar, Orelha and André Pressão on percussion; Doreval Junior on guitar; and Rogério Família and Junior Travassos on cavaquinho, the small guitar instrument that plays a vital role in samba and choro.
“[The Roda] is a project of resistance and rescue, to maintain the samba and sing the music of the people” says Pimentel, speaking with intense passion. “We try to resist the pagode movement [a type of commercial samba pop], we preserve samba”.
Cavaquinho player Junior Travassos adds, “We play samba you don’t hear on the radio or in Lapa. We really look to the sambistas and our history. The lyrics and melodies in the music are so rich.”
With the palpable enthusiasm of the band, the energetic force of the original sambas and the deep historical significance of the site, the Monday night sambas have become a lively popular night attracting a mixed crowd.
As the musicians play, stalls selling drinks, soups, stews and barbecued meat skirt the square while the lively dancing crowd spreads up the Pedra, or rock, that climbs up from the square.
While the wildly elaborate Carnival version of samba is perhaps the most internationally known display of the genre, the Roda de Samba da Pedra do Sal offers one of the most traditional experience of an older, simpler samba, which Pimental argues is the music at its most profound: “The beauty of samba is in its simplicity. The simpler, the better”.