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Guide to Samba Music: 11 Brazilian Samba Instruments

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 23, 2020 • 3 min read

Brazilian culture has produced many popular styles of music, one of the most iconic of which is samba. The genre is popular from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo to the countryside, and from the mid-twentieth century onward, samba has caught on throughout the world.



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What Is Samba Music?

Samba is a type of popular music with roots in Afro-Brazilian traditions. Samba music is distinct for its characteristic rhythmic patterns, emphasis on melody, relatively simple harmonies, use of African percussion instruments, and Portuguese-language lyrics. While the Brazilian music scene has spawned many genres from bossa nova to Choro, samba is arguably the nation's best-known musical export. Samba has long featured in the annual Brazilian Carnival, where it is performed by ensembles known as samba schools (or escolas de samba).

A Brief History of Samba Music

  • Origins: The style of samba traces back to the Brazilian state of Bahia in the seventeenth century. There, descendants of African slaves combined their percussion techniques with Latin American folk music to create an early version of samba.
  • Development: It was in Rio de Janeiro that samba took shape. The earliest samba songs on record come from the 1910s, starting with 1917's "Pelo Telefone." Different regions of the country spawned different variants of samba. Impoverished favelas (shantytowns on the edges of major cities) became known for samba de morro, or "samba from the hills.”
  • Variations: Throughout the country, new Brazilian dance genres spawned from samba, including samba-reggae, samba-enredo, samba-canção, samba de roda, ballroom samba, samba-maxixe, samba-de-chave, and pagode. Bossa nova originated from samba with an assist from American jazz.
  • Resurgence: In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, samba rose to new heights, led by popular Brazilian artists like Nelson Cavaquinho, Guilherme de Brito, and Cartola. Other musicians, like João Gilberto found equal success in both bossa nova and traditional samba.
  • Present day: Today samba is well known throughout the world. Moviegoing audiences encountered samba via Hollywood films starring Carmen Miranda. Tourists experience it via the annual Brazilian Carnival parades. Samba has also found its way into other musical traditions, from Cuban salsa genres to Polish polka to jazz.
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4 Distinctive Characteristics of Samba Music

From its rural Bahian origins to its urban maturation, samba tends to be defined by a few core characteristics. These include:

  1. An percussion-heavy ensemble: Samba groups are called baterias, a term that comes from the Portuguese word for drum kit.
  2. Steady, hypnotic rhythms: Most samba rhythms are in 2/4 time and feature repetitive rhythmic motifs. The batucada rhythm is particularly popular because it conveys urgent, danceable energy.
  3. Repetitive chord progressions: Most samba styles use relatively simple harmonies and chord progressions, putting a far greater emphasis on melody and rhythm.
  4. Call-and-response vocals: Most samba songs feature a vocal soloist trading lines with an ensemble of background singers, who may be dancers within a samba school. This technique traces back to the earliest forms of samba, but it remains popular today.

11 Brazilian Samba Instruments

Samba music is built on interaction between a few string instruments (usually guitar and bass, along with a four-string Portuguese instrument called a cavaquinho) and a large percussion ensemble. Samba percussionists play a wide array of instruments, including:

  1. Snare drum
  2. Bass drum
  3. Wood block
  4. Tambourine
  5. Cuícas (a type of friction drum)
  6. Pandeiro (a type of hand frame drum)
  7. Surdo (a type of bass drum)
  8. Tamborim de Brasil (Brazilian frame drum)
  9. Agogô (a pair of conical bells)
  10. Chocalho (a type of jingle stick shaker)
  11. Ganzá (a cylindrical rattle)

As the twentieth century unfolded and samba became more international, some ensembles began incorporating brass instruments like trumpet and trombone, as well as woodwinds like clarinet and flute. This brought samba in line with many other Latin American musical styles, most notably the various forms of salsa in Cuba and the Caribbean.


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