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Fear of Samba Finds Hope

Samba dance and music has infiltrated many parts of Brazilian culture to become a major part of the Brazilian experience. Even it’s unique roots could not discourage the dance from  becoming synonymous with Brazil and Rio’s Carnival. This paper will discuss the roots of Brazil’s most famous dance and style of music – samba, the tradition and culture surrounding it, and how it is so deeply rooted within Brazil’s culture that neither the fear of catching the zika virus nor the extreme lack of pay will influence performers against participating.

Samba is a rich, syncopated rhythm with voluptuous dance moves involved that is associated with Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival (History of Samba). Samba was founded in the early 17th century at Pedra do Sal.  It originated from the Angolan term “semba” meaning “invitation to dance”.  Samba was influenced by many different cultures.  For example, Pedra do Sal was a former slave market that became “a popular Afro-Brazilian meeting point” (Sandy).  It is believed that the first samba was composed there.  In the Afro-Brazilian religion, “Samba means to invoke your personal orixa” or in other words, pray to a god or saint.  The African rhythms that influenced the uniqueness of Brazilian Samba music came from the Yoruba, Congo, and other West African groups (CNN).  Samba uses the hip movement incorporated into the dance that originally came from Congolese and Angolan circle dances during the colonial period. A dance known as Maxixe is also considered the Brazilian tango.  Around 1880, Maxixe couple dance developed from a blend of Lundu, which was European, namely German, polka, and Cuban habanera (Afropop).  Lundu introduced African traits to Brazilian music in the 18th century through its guitar and piano accompaniment. Maxixe and Lundu are the most direct precursors to modern Samba.  However, modinha, choro, and marcha were also influential in the development of Samba.  Samba was later influenced by American orchestras that brought in guitar and percussion instruments into the music.

The samba dance is considered one of the most valued cultural expressions to Brazil; it has become part of their identity and it is considered “the heartbeat” of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. Rio’s Carnival is one of the most important weeks for Brazilians.  It was introduced by Portuguese immigrants called the Entrudo that came to Brazil (Sandy).  It was originally meant for the working class that would make costumes imitating and making fun of the rich.  Now, it takes place 40 days before Easter and just before Lent begins. The Carnival is celebrated in almost every state in Brazil, but Rio’s Carnival is by far the most extravagant.  Rio’s carnival takes place in the sambadrome arena.  The carnival is a week filled with vibrant costumes, dancing, singing, and partying. There are twelve leading Samba schools who participate in the parade and perform based on a specific theme that each school chooses. The theme is then portrayed by musicians, samba dancers, decorated floats, and ensembles that are performed by drummer groups.  Each performance lasts for an hour each, meaning the carnival doesn’t end until dawn.  The samba schools are scored based on a point system of their performance.  The school with the most points earns the championship title for the year.  The number of points also determines their place in the following year’s competition ( However, the carnival requires a lot of work and dedication.  The performers practice at least twice a week for ten months in preparation for the celebration and as soon as the Carnival is over, performers begin to plan for next year’s performances.  

Samba has greatly influenced Brazil’s economy.  In 2012, Brazil recorded a $3.2 billion tourism income for the country and in 2015, when almost a million tourists traveled to Rio for the carnival, they spent about 782 million US dollars (Sandy).  Nearly 1,100 fast food venders were hired [in 2012] for the parade in the sambadrome.  Bloomberg View says that in 2012, “The total income from the Rio parade itself: $42.7 million in sales of tickets, CDs, television rights, sponsorships, advertising and costumes” (Boas.) As for the economic wealth of locals, performers in the parade are not paid.  However, they are still financially responsible for the costs of their costumes and props. Samba schools can spend up to three million dollars on production for their performances.  This includes the cost of making their costumes and decorating their floats.  During Brazil’s economic crisis, the carnival had a lot of cutbacks.  To save money, samba schools like the Mangueria school cut back on floats, dancers, and musicians.  The Mangueria school was said to “have six not seven floats and 4,000 not 5,000 dancers and musicians.  But it will still be one of the greatest shows on earth” (Sandy.)

Last year during the preparation of Carnival, the Zika virus caused fear in the hearts of many Brazilians, the virus ran rampant across the nation, and Brazilians feared the spread because of the many symptoms the virus could have on one’s body. The Zika virus was known to be commonly transmitted through mosquito bites, sexually and blood contact and causes detrimental birth defects, such as microcephaly (being born with small brains) (Rosen). Many people with the virus are unaware because the virus is asymptomatic for most healthy men and women. The only way to detect whether someone has the virus is through a urine or blood screening. According to the CDC, the people who should be most aware of the Zika virus are elderly people, pregnant woman and young children. However, the tradition and culture that surrounds samba is so deeply rooted with Brazil’s culture and motivated belief that the fear of the Zika virus did not have a negative influence on the performance. Yasmin Victoria, a member of the Uniao Da Ilha Samba School, says, “We’ve all got repellant on.  But I don’t think any kind of fear would be enough to stop the Carnival” (Zika).  That year attendance at the carnival increased approximately 25% from the past year.  Not even the threat of the Zika virus could deter people from participating, attending, and enjoying the Carnival. The importance that Carnival and its samba driven heartbeat plays in Brazilian society is reflected by the hope that it brings to them. Brazilians were still excited to be apart of the samba schools and create their songs and outfits for Carnival.  Lucas Fernandez, a samba drummer, says, “although Brazil is a country with problems [the Zika virus], the carnival brings us happiness” (Daily Nation.)