The Cultural History of Brazilian Samba Music


The Slave trade, religion and the inter-mixing of African, native South American and Portuguese cultures are all key to the cultural history of samba music, and help to explain its evolution right up to the present day, including its status as the national music of Brazil.

In this article we’ll look at: 

  • Samba and the Slave Trade
  • Samba and Religion
  • Samba and its Musical Influences
  • Samba Instruments
  • Samba and Carnival
  • Samba in the Modern World

Samba and the Slave Trade

Slavery began in Brazil in 1526 and lasted until 1888. 

Drawing showing how slaves were packed into cargo ships.
Drawing showing how slaves were packed into cargo ships.

The Portuguese were the first and the biggest slave traders, followed by the UK and Spain. Over more than 350 years the Portuguese colonial administration forcibly transported an estimated 6 million Africans to Brazil. Brazil received 40% of the total number of Africans brought to the Americas, vs approximately 10% received by the USA. As a result, Brazil’s African-descended population is today larger than the population of most African countries. 

The enslaved Africans came from a variety of cultures and societies. From West Africa in the latter part of the 16th Century; from Angola in the 17th Century; from the Gold Coast (which became Ghana) from about 1700 to 1770; and from Nigeria and Benin from 1770 until the 1850s. 

Slave trade out of Africa, 1500–1900 Attribution: KuroNekoNiyah – Own work based on Map 1, from Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven, 2010)

Brazil was the last Western nation to abolish slavery. On May 13th 1888 Princess Isabel of Brazil signed Imperial Law number 3,353, also known as “The Golden Law”, which states: “From the date of this law, slavery is declared extinct in Brazil. All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.” Interestingly, and perhaps at least partly due to the influence of aggrieved former slave owners, the Brazilian monarchy was toppled the following year, and Brazil became a republic.

LAW 3,353 document “THE GOLDEN LAW”

After slavery’s official abolition, no measures were taken to help ex-slaves to integrate or become independent, and Brazil continued to be a very unequal society, with major inequalities following racial lines. Protest against racial injustice in Brazil continues to be asserted in Brazilian popular music, including the samba. For example, the theme of the Mangueira Samba School for the 1988 Rio Carnaval was “One Hundred Years of Freedom: Reality or Illusion?”, suggesting that the slave plantation of former times has been replaced by the modern day favelas (shantytown slums) in which vast numbers of Afro-Brazilians live.  

For much more information see this Wikipedia article on The Atlantic Slave Trade

Samba and Religion

Brazil’s enslaved Africans practiced traditional African religions and some were Muslim. The two main African cultures represented in Brazil are the Yoruba and Fon of Nigeria and Benin (formerly known as Dahomey), and their influence dominates in the Candomblé religion; and Bantu Africans from the Kongo-Angola region, who gave birth to the martial art/dance of Capoeira and to samba, among other manifestations. Ewe and Ashanti cultures are also represented in Brazil, as are the Muslim Tapas, Mandingos, Fula, and Hausa — all of whom were taken from the Gold Coast, Nigeria, and neighbouring areas.

Map of West Africa and it’s Tribal cultures

During the 350 years of slavery the African slaves were prohibited from practicing their African religions. This was in part because the slave owners believed the slaves would use religious gatherings to spread insurgency, and in part because the Portuguese colonists wanted them to convert to Catholic Christians. 

But the African people did not wish to give up their religious practices, and iso they began to secretly integrate them into other activities, such as song, music and dance. Samba was one of the results. African deities were disguised as catholic saints, so that the African people could covertly continue practicing their religions.

Samba and its Musical Influences

The Music

Samba music can often be recognised by its walking pace, its two strong beats to a bar with accents on the “off beats” (sometimes compared to a heart beat), and sometimes the use of the “Clave” rhythm. 

The name “Samba” is probably derived from the Angolan word “Semba”, a type of traditional African in which the man danced in front of a woman. The man would then put his hand on the woman’s hips and would pull her towards him suddenly, provoking a choc (Semba). Semba developed into Samba and Kizomba dance styles. There is more on the history of Semba here.

Semba dance from Angola

Samba came to prominence as recently as the early 1930s, with the introduction of Samba bands and marching bands in carnival parades. 

The different cultural elements of Samba

Native South American Folk Music

Katari – Ashaninka – Native Brazilian Music

The native folk music of the indigenous South American Indians, including that of the Amazon tribes, was absorbed naturally into Samba, as the new music developed. Much of the early folk music used simple large log drums and smaller frame drums and had repetitive drumbeats, similar to those played in modern Samba today. The native music was accompanied by unison singing and melodies played on wooden flutes.

African Music

West African Drummers

The strong African musical influences in Samba grew out of the drumming that accompanied the traditional African Dances that were performed during ceremonies such as coming of age, and other African religious rituals.

Portuguese Military Band Music

Portuguese Military Band

Samba includes rhythms from Portuguese military band music, and this no doubt helped to lend legitimacy to the Samba bands. A good example of this influence are the snare drum marching rhythms. 

Samba Instruments

In the same way that the rhythms of the Samba are a mix of different cultures, the instruments used in Samba also have a mixed heritage:

Drums for Schools Brazilian Samba Class Set
  • Native South American hand drums developed into the tamborim (the small, hand-held samba hand drum).
  • African drums developed into the samba surdos and repiniques (the big and medium samba drums).
  • African hand percussion developed into Agogo bells, Ganza shakers and other types of hand-held percussion.
  • Portuguese military drums evolved into the samba Caixa, a marching snare drum.

Samba and Carnival

The modern Rio Carnival

Samba is perhaps most famous for the integral part it plays in the carnivals that take place ounce a year between February and March. Although Carnival has origins in ancient folk festivals, the Christian Catholic religion took these over and Carnival now forms part of the celebrations leading up the the Christian Easter period. 

During Samba carnival there are four days of festivities. On two of these days the Samba schools parade. The term “Samba School” refers to the fact that early samba groups used to rehearse in the local school yard. It was possibly also an attempt to give samba groups a veneer of legitimacy, and to counter the fact that “sambistas” (people who play samba), were often thought to have connections with unsavoury elements in society. The Samba schools can number as many as four thousand people, with dancers in elaborate costumes and up to three hundred musicians.

For more on Samba and the Carnival, see our separate article on The Role of Music in the Rio Carnival

See also this article on the History of Carnival in Rio

Samba in the Modern World

Radio had a big influence on the development of samba. As radios became widely available in Brazil, they helped spread the popularity of samba and contributed to the use of samba music for social and political ends.

In more recent years younger musicians have introduced modern rhythms and beats from popular music into Samba. This has given birth to Reggae Sambas, Jungle Sambas as well as Drum N’ Bass and Dub Sambas.  


Reggae Samba – Olodum Saturday Mini-Performance in the Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia
Drum and Bass Samba – Brazilian Drum Group
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Andy Gleadhill

Andy Gleadhill is a Musician, Educator, Author, Composer, Ethnomusicologist and Teacher Trainer. Andy is a specialist in whole class music teaching and learning. He is the author of the Drums for Schools World Class Music teaching guides and has pioneered the use of world music styles for whole class music teaching.
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