SÃO PAULO, Brazil – In 1959, Brazilian poet and composer Vinicius de Moraes said the country’s largest city was a “burial ground for samba.”
If he were still alive, the author of the bossa nova hit “Girl from Ipanema,” which he composed with his friend Tom Jobim, would have a different assessment.
The city of São Paulo has 78 samba schools and seven groups organized by city hall, according to the Censo do Carnaval (Carnival Census), conducted annually by SPTuris, a local government-run tourism and events company.
As early as 1914, residents in the neighborhood of Barra Funda came together for samba parties, said musician and samba researcher T. Kaçula.
The movement expanded to the regions of Casa Verde, Parque Peruche and Vila Matilde, which are home to the city’s traditional samba schools.
Bixiga, home of the popular samba school Vai-Vai, is also where the composer Adoniran Barbosa, who wrote classics such as “Trem das Onze” and “Samba do Arnesto,” was raised by his parents who had immigrated to Brazil from Italy.
The city is also the birthplace of renowned samba artists, such as Eduardo Gudin, Paulo Vanzolini and Toquinho, who eventually became the musical partner of Vinicius de Moraes in the 1970s.
But the São Paulo’s samba roots predate the 20th century.
There are records of samba circles held by slaves in the area now known as Pirapora de Bom Jesus, the municipality considered to be the cradle of samba in the state of São Paulo.
São Paulo samba was born in the countryside, on the coffee plantations, while the samba of Rio de Janeiro was influenced by urban life in the former Brazilian capital. Bahia’s samba was influenced by the practice of candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion.
“Furthermore, the formation of São Paulo samba is deeply rooted in the manifestations of African cultural matrices, such as jongo in Vale do Paraíba and samba de lenço in Vale do Ribeira,” T. Kaçula says. “São Paulo samba is one of the most important elements of the African matrix’s cultural [expression] in Brazil.”
In addition to conventional samba schools and carnival street parties, there are at least 40 samba communities in neighborhoods on the outskirts of São Paulo city, according to a survey conducted by T. Kaçula. There are also 36 samba communities in other cities.
“The socio-cultural role that these communities perform has an impact on the reorganization of idle social spaces,” Kaçula says. “One of the factors that contributed greatly to the strengthening of these communities was the absence of government in the areas of culture and education.”
Pagode da 27, which was created in 2005 by a group of friends in Grajaú, a district in the southern tip of São Paulo, is an example of the socio-cultural engagement of communities through samba.
The group collects food for charity and holds a music initiation workshop for children. But its main purpose is to take to the streets with samba classics from artists such as singer Clara Nunes and composer Roberto Riberti.
Every Sunday, about 300 people come together to join the group’s 12 members who play in the street for free since they earn their living through other musical projects.
One loyal attendee is 20-year-old carpenter Wilker do Nascimento, who has been coming since Pagode da 27 was created. Married to Jessica Rodrigues, 20, Nascimento intends to bring his daughter Nicolly Victoria to the samba circle as soon as she is born in July.
Manicurist Edileuza Moura de Sousa, a 32-year-old resident of the neighboring municipality of Embu-Guaçu, travels two and a half hours to get to Grajaú.
“The community welcomes us,” says Sousa, whose favorite samba artists are the group Fundo de Quintal and singers Arlindo Cruz and Almir Guinetto. “But this group here is just as good as any famous group out there.”
Daniel Aparecido has been a Pagode da 27 fan since 2008 and brings a friend or relative to the samba circle every Sunday. In addition to the famous songs, Aparecido, 36, also enjoys the group’s newest compositions.
“One of the nice things that happens is [when] we perform sambas written by new composers,” says Jefferson Santiago, a composer and percussionist for Pagode da 27. “Nowadays, samba artists come here to pick out new songs to record.”
Pagode da 27 also serves as the stage for renowned samba artists such as Leci Brandão and Jorginho da Cuíca, as well as rappers Criolo and Rappin Hood.
A cradle of samba
Founded in 2000 in the neighborhood of Santo Amaro, Comunidade Samba da Vela has always focused on introducing new talent.
During the past 12 years, more than 100 composers have passed through Samba da Vela, which has performed 1,500 unreleased songs.
“The composers come from all over the city, the countryside, the coast,” says community president José Alfredo Miranda, also known as Paqüera. “Anybody who wants to show his or her music is welcome to come.”
The samba circles held by Samba da Vela serve as a gauge of public acceptance, says Andrezinho Paraisópolis, who has composed more than 60 songs. One of them, “Bom Malandro,” will be included on the second Samba da Vela album, which will also feature performances by Martinho da Vila, Netinho de Paula and Emicida.
Established artists, such as Jair Rodrigues and Beth Carvalho, have recorded songs written by local composers.
Fellipe Arcanjo, a 26-year-old resident of the west side of São Paulo, recently went to Samba da Vela for the first time.
“Being here is like taking a samba class. I feel as though my soul has been washed clean,” says Arcanjo, who makes a living playing in the city’s bars. “I regret not having come sooner.”
Every Monday night, about 150 people do the same as Arcanjo.
The audience sits around a lit candle, which determines the duration of the evening’s performance.
The music ends when the flame goes out.