Samba, the Musical Essence of Rio

By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – Performed to one of the liveliest, most captivating rhythms of the world, the fast and sensual samba is the driving force of the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro; what may not be as obvious to an outsider is how it is integral to the Carioca way of life, 365 days a year.

A dancer from the samba school G.R.E.S. Acadêmicos do Salgueiro at an open rehearsal, photo by Sibel Tinar.

Quite possibly the most famous product of Brazilian culture outside of their yellow soccer jersey, samba originated and evolved in Rio from its African roots, and here remains the home of Brazil’s biggest samba festivities, its best musicians and greatest dancers. The samba rhythm reaches almost every corner of the city, and it is of no surprise to discover that Cariocas seem born with an innate ability to move gracefully to the music.

Danced to a two/four beat with three steps to every bar, a focus on the hip action, and a cheerful attitude channeling the Carnival joy, samba comes in many different forms, ranging from the most basic to highly complex and from subtle to jaw-dropping, lending it an everyman appeal to be enjoyed in different forms at a variety of events.

Samba no pé is the solo version of the dance and the main focus of the famous Escolas de Samba (Samba Schools) which compete during Carnival at the parades showcasing their most talented dancers, colorful costumes, and glamorous floats. Samba Pagode and Samba de Gafieira, on the other hand, are partner dances with intricate steps and elaborate moves that are more reminiscent of tango, and usually require some training to master.

Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of venues, events, and opportunities to learn how to dance and enjoy samba. In summertime, especially before Carnival, the samba schools concentrated in Zona Norte hold open rehearsals in which visitors can both enjoy an amazing dance show accompanied by a blasting bateria (percussion band) and samba-enredos (the school’s samba songs on a particular theme), and display their own dancing skills on the huge dance floor.

The bateria of Samba New York with the lead dancer Danielle Lima performing in New York City, photo courtesy of Samba New York.

Rio’s nightlife district Lapa, also known as “the cradle of samba”, is home to dozens of venues offering daily shows of live samba music. With only a basic understanding of the steps and sense of rhythm, the energy on the dance floor could gradually turn anyone into a decent dancer. Frequented by skilled Cariocas and everyday visitors alike, seeing a samba show in Lapa is the best way to experience the samba culture of Rio.

Vinicius Alexandrino, a Carioca and samba aficionado, credits samba as the “the artistic manifestation that best represents the essence of the Carioca way of being, combining the humor and the difficulty of living in dance and in music.” Listing Clube dos Democráticos and Carioca da Gema in Lapa as the best places to dance in Rio, he adds: “As long as there is a child singing and dancing, samba will live on.”

Rio de Janeiro may be the home of samba, but samba culture is kept alive by various samba schools around the world, such as Samba New York, which offers training for both musicians and dancers. Their performances are among the highlights of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, which carry the Carnival spirit of Rio to the streets of New York City, minus the scorching hot weather.