Samba and Sway to These Brazilian Songs Compiled By Smithsonian Folkways

Take a virtual tour through the country’s diverse musical traditions

Samba school Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel performs at the sambodromo during the carnival of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 03 March 2014. © Marcelo Sayão/epa/Corbis

Full of dense rainforests, bustling cities and golden beaches, Brazil is an endless feast for the eyes—and also for the ears. The country’s music teems with African, European and Amerindian influences, and regional genres like the samba and bossa nova pulse through the air at festive occasions, allowing partygoers to prove they’re as fleet-footed on the dance floor as they are on the soccer field.

In honor of the World Cup, we invited Smithsonian Folkways to compile a playlist of the varied tunes and cadences that have shaped the nation’s proud musical tradition. “The recordings span a large amount of time,” says Anthony Seeger, the label's former director. “But some of them are very significant and well documented.”

Sampled from a longer catalog, the five tracks below range from early rural folk rhythms to popular urban beats to capoeira music; in Brazil, they’ve served as backdrops for everything from fetes to fighting. For the World Cup’s purposes, however, they might be best listened to at the end of an exhilarating game, intermingled with cheers, whistles and victory chants. For more insight into Brazil’s variegated soundscape, spoke with Seeger to discover the story behind each song. 

"Côco baiano" performed by Hermano Caetano

“The côco baiano is a very popular dance rhythm,” says Seeger. “It’s set to all kinds of things; it often has singing in it, but not always.” According to Seeger, the recording was made around 1942, and most likely originated in the Brazilian state of Bahia. “It’s a folk genre of the northeast of Brazil,” he says.

"Grito de Liberdade, Un (A Cry for Freedom)" performed by Mestre Acordeon with his students

"Capoeira is an art, a dance, a music and a fight…It is a cry of liberty,’ are some of the opening lyrics of the song "Grito de Liberdade, Un," meaning "A Cry For Freedom." Capoeira is a graceful Brazilian martial art form with African roots, in which combatants stand in the middle of a circle of fighters, called a roda, and employ a mixture of dance and acrobatics to attack their opponent. Their motions are dictated by background music, provided by the roda. A berimbau—a one-string musical bow—guides the rhythm; tambourines, cowbells, drums and a serrated wooden scraper merge in the background. Sometimes a senior member of the group provides the lead vocals; other times, the group engages in a call-and-response pattern. 

The song is sung by Mestre Acordeon, a famous capoeira master who’s credited with bringing the fighting style to the United States in the early 1980s. But this song is not an example of traditional capoeira music, says Seeger. “This is an experimental piece in which the musicians added a guitar to it. Most capoeira music has no guitar. It’s an attempt to extend [its repertoire]."

Is capoeira a game, or a test of strength against one’s enemy? “You can fight with capoeira, [but it’s also] an art form,” says Seeger. “Yes, you show the other person that you could knock their hat off, but you don’t. That’s the key thing.”

"Samba" from "The Dances of the World's Peoples, Vol. 3: Caribbean and South America"

The samba is celebrated as one of Brazil’s greatest cultural traditions. A blend of Brazilian and West African musical traditions, the genre originated in urban Rio de Janeiro between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are many types of samba, but all share a defining characteristic—a syncopated rhythm that stems from candomble, the prayer music used in Afro-Brazilian religious practices.

This particular song was recorded in the 1950s, says Seeger, and “is a good example of a straight-on fast samba. You have to be really light on your feet while dancing to it.” 

Brincando na Roda performed by Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho

“Brincando na Roda” is another capoeira song. But this one is more traditional than the last; it's sung by the roda at the opening of a fight, and it uses all of the genre's typical instruments.

A series of slightly different rhythms are controlled by the singing of Mestre Moraes, an important master of capoeira who lives in Bahia. His lyrics, translated, are playful. 

“He’s saying, ‘Here, let’s go play in the ring… I’m going to spin around, I’m going to see the world spin,” says Seeger.

This song’s tone is a far cry from “Grito de Liberdale, Un”; Mestre Moraes portrays capoeira as a game, not an art form. In the end, his overarching message is simple. “If I can win in this ring,” summarizes Seeger, “I can win at life.”  

"Choro: A Tempo de Samba, Instrumental" from "Songs and Dances of Brazil"

"Choro started in the 1870s or 1880s. It's sometimes called Brazil's first urban popular music," says Seeger. "It began near the docks in Rio, near where the sailors got off and partied. It emerged from that fertile mixture of cultures that was occuring in the ports of the city." 

Choro is derived from a mash-up of polkas and waltzes, mixed with Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Its name comes from the Porguguese verb chorar, which means "to cry"a nod to the genre's wailing flutes and clarinets, which soar over accompanying guitars and percussion instruments. Characterized by shifts in melody, harmony changes and rapid speed, choro is improvisational and virtuosicmuch like American jazz. 

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