Over the course of the last five centuries, Portuguese, African, and—to a lesser extent—Amerindian rhythms, dances, and harmonies have been mixing together, altering old styles and creating new forms of music in Brazil.

Chris McGowan and
Ricardo Pessanha

In Brazil, music is everywhere. You can find it in a complex rhythmic pattern beaten out by an old man with his fingers on a cafe table; in the thundering samba that echoes down from the hills around Rio in the months prior to Carnaval; and in the bars where a guitar passes from hand to hand and everyone knows all the lyrics to all the classic Brazilian songs played late into the night.

Music is part of the Brazilian soul, and rhythm is in the way people speak, in the way they walk, and in the way they play soccer. In Rio de Janeiro, after the national team has won an important soccer game, fireworks explode in the sky and samba detonates in the streets. On sidewalks and in city squares, the celebration begins. Impromptu percussion sections appear, made up of all types of Brazilians, rich and poor, black and brown and white. As participants pick up instruments—a drum, a scraper, a shaker—an intricate, ebullient samba batucada (percussion jam) builds. Each amateur music-maker kicks in an interlocking rhythmic part to create a groove that would be the envy of most professional bands in other parts of the world. The singing and dancing inevitably go on for hours.

Music is a passport to happiness for Brazilians, an escape from everyday frustrations and (for most) a hard and difficult material life. "There's an amazing magical, mystical quality to Brazilian music. Their music is paradise," says jazz flutist Herbie Mann.

In the twentieth century more than a little of this paradise reached the outside world, and Brazil arguably had more of an impact on international popular music than any country other than the United States. It was successful abroad for as many reasons as there are types of Brazilian music. Just as the U.S. has exported a wide variety of musical genres, so too has Brazil, even though very few countries speak its national language, Portuguese.

Most Brazilian music shares three outstanding qualities. It has an intense lyricism tied to its Portuguese heritage that often makes for beautiful, highly expressive melodies, enhanced by the fact that Portuguese is one of the most musical tongues on the earth and no small gift to the ballad singer. Second, a high level of poetry is present in the lyrics of much Brazilian popular music. And last, vibrant Afro-Brazilian rhythms energize most Brazilian songs, from samba to baião.

Brazilian music first grabbed international attention with the success of the dance-hall style maxixe in Europe between 1914 and 1922. The public was captivated by this vivacious and provocative song and dance, much as Europeans were taken with lambada in the summer of 1989. The 1940s saw the first exportation of samba, as songs like Ary Barroso's marvelous "Aquarela do Brasil" (known to most of the world as simply "Brazil") reached North America. Barroso's tunes were featured in Walt Disney films and covered in other Hollywood productions by a playful, exotic young woman who wore colorful laced skirts, heaps of jewelry, and a veritable orchard atop her head. Her name was Carmen Miranda and she sang catchy sambas and marchas by many great Brazilian composers in a string of Hollywood feature films. For better or worse, she would symbolize Brazil to the world for decades and become a cultural icon in North America and Europe, a symbol of fun and extravagance.

Samba became a fundamental part of the world's musical vocabulary. It would get another boost when one of its variations, a sort of ultra-cool modern samba called bossa nova, entered the world spotlight through the 1959 movie Black Orpheus, which won the Cannes Film Festival grand prize and the Academy Award for best foreign film. In North America, a bossa craze was ignited by the 1962 smash hit album Jazz Samba, recorded by guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz.

Jazz artists also helped globally popularize the new sound, which had a breezy syncopation, progressive harmony, and a deceptive simplicity. Bossa nova was the big pop-music trend of the early 1960s, until it was supplanted by the English rock invasion led by the Beatles.

Bossa, like samba, is now a solid part of the international repertoire, especially in the jazz realm. Bossa's leading figure, Antonio Carlos Jobim, is one of the most popular songwriters of the century, and his stature rivals that of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and other great composers of Western popular music. Bossa nova initiated a widespread infiltration of Brazilian music and musicians into North American music.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Brazilian percussion became an essential element of many jazz and pop recordings. A new generation of talented Brazilian musicians began a long-term interchange with jazz artists that would put Americans on dozens of Brazilian albums and Brazilians on hundreds of American albums in following decades. Airto Moreira and Flora Purim were two of these artists, and they performed on groundbreaking albums that helped establish the new subgenre called "jazz fusion."

At the same time that Brazilian music was influencing jazz in the Northern Hemisphere, a remarkable new generation of singers and songwriters was coming to the forefront in Brazil in the late 1960s and 1970s. Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Ivan Lins, João Bosco, Djavan, Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia, Elba Ramalho, Alceu Valença, Chico Buarque and others fashioned original sounds from an eclectic variety of sources in and outside of Brazil. Their superb integration of rhythm, melody, harmony, and lyrics resulted in one of the richest bodies of popular music ever to come from one country.

At the end of the 1980s yet another Brazilian song and dance—the sensual lambada—gained international currency. Although lambada was of more commercial than artistic merit, it became part of an important musical movement sweeping Salvador that decade and the next. Axé music became the name for samba-reggae and other updated Afro-Brazilian styles performed by Olodum, Carlinhos Brown, Timbalada, Daniela Mercury, Ara Ketu, Luiz Caldas, and Margareth Menezes, among others. Elsewhere in Brazil, many other notable artists also established careers during this time, including Marisa Monte, Chico Science, Skank, and Chico César.

Today, as in past decades, Brazil's popular music can lay claim to a dazzling variety of song forms and musical traditions. There are the troubadours who strum guitars and trade improvised stanzas back and forth, each trying to top the other, in traditional desafio song duels. There are accordion virtuosos who lead their bands in rollicking syncopated forró music. There are ritualistic afoxés, festive marchas, frenetic frevos, and the leaping instrumental improvisations of choro. And there are the walls of sound and waves of color that are the escola de samba (samba school) parades during Rio's Carnaval. Each escola's rhythm section, comprised of some three hundred drummers and percussionists, works in perfect coordination with thousands of singers and dancers to create an awe-inspiring musical spectacle, the greatest polyrhythmic spectacle on the planet.

Whether manifested in these or other forms, Brazilian music above all has a profound ability to move the soul. In its sounds and lyrics, it reflects the Brazilian people—their uninhibited joy or despair, their remarkable capacity to celebrate, and the all-important concept of saudade (a deep longing or yearning).

To best understand Brazil's rich musical heritage, we must first journey back several hundred years, to where Brazil and its music both began.

The Roots of
Brazilian Music

Brazil's rich musical tradition derives from the profound mingling of races that has been going on since April 1500, when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral stepped onto the lush tropical coast of what would later be southern Bahia.

Of course, Cabral was not the first human to arrive in Brazil, and long before his foot touched Bahian sand, a long musical tradition had been at play for thousands of years. The ancestors of today's Brazilian Indians migrated from Asia to the Western Hemisphere somewhere between twelve thousand and forty thousand years ago and eventually made their way down to South America. When Cabral first came to Brazil, the indigenous population probably exceeded two million. In their music, they sang songs solo and in chorus, accompanying themselves with flutes, whistles, and horns. They beat out rhythms with hand-clapping, feet-stamping, rattles, sticks, and drums.

Their music did not, however, play a major role in the development of Brazilian popular music. In part, this is because so many tribes were devastated by Portuguese invaders, and the Indians that survived often lost their cultural traditions when they left their native homes and went to live in cities and towns. There is Indian influence in some Brazilian popular music, as seen in songs by musicians like Egberto Gismonti and Marlui Miranda, instruments like the reco-reco scraper, and traditions such as the caboclinho Carnaval groups. But generally one must journey to the remote homelands of the Yanomami, Bororo, Kayapo, and other indigenous groups to hear their music.

The Portuguese

The Portuguese brought their culture to Brazil; in the realm of music, this included the European tonal system, as well as Moorish scales and medieval European modes. They also brought numerous festivals related to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar and a wealth of dramatic pageants such as the reisado and bumba-meu-boi that are still seasonally performed in the streets. The reisado celebrates the Epiphany, and the processional bumba-meu-boi dance enacts the death and resurrection of a mythical bull. Both are autos, a dramatic genre from medieval times that includes dances, songs, and allegorical characters. Jesuit priests introduced many religious autos that eventually took on local themes and musical elements.

In addition, the Portuguese brought many musical instruments to Brazil: the flute, piano, violin, guitar, clarinet, triangle, accordion, cavaquinho, violoncello, Jew's harp, and tambourine. The Portuguese had a fondness for lyric ballads, often melancholy and suffused with saudade, and for brisk, complex rhythms and used a lot of syncopation—two traits that would help their music mesh well with that of the Africans brought to Brazil.

Portuguese song forms included moda, a sentimental song that became the modinha in Brazil in the eighteenth century; acalanto, a form of lullaby; fofa, a dance of the eighteenth century; and fado, a melancholy, guitar-accompanied Portuguese ballad. And along with their music, the Portuguese brought the entrudo, a rude celebration that was the beginning of Brazil's Carnaval tradition.

As they settled the new land, planted tobacco and cotton, and built sugar mills, the Portuguese looked on the native peoples as prime candidates for forced labor on the sugarcane plantations being developed in northeastern Brazil. But the Indians were unsuitable—they either escaped to the forest or died from the brutal work. So the colonizers of Brazil looked east, to Africa.

The Africans
in Brazil

The first recorded importation of Africans into Brazil occurred in 1538. From that year until the slave trade ended in 1850, historians estimate that four million to five million Africans survived the crossing of the Atlantic to Brazil. (Hundreds of thousands died on route.) This was many times more than were taken to North America. The institution of slavery continued until the Brazilian abolition of 1888.

Three main ethnic and cultural groups made the journey. The Sudanese groups (Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and Ashanti peoples) were brought from what are now Nigeria, the People's Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey), and Ghana. Bantu groups came from Angola, Zaire (formerly the Congo), and Mozambique. And the Moslem Guinea-Sudanese groups (Tapas, Mandingos, Fulahs, and Hausa) were taken from Ghana, Nigeria, and neighboring areas.

The African peoples brought their music, dance, languages, and religions, much of which survived in a purer form in Brazil than in North America. In part this was due to the sheer numbers of Africans arriving in Brazil, and the large concentrations of slaves and free blacks in coastal cities such as Rio, Salvador, and Recife. It was also affected by Portuguese attitudes toward their slaves, the influence of the Catholic Church, the existence of quilombos (colonies formed by runaway slaves), and other factors.

The Mediterranean world had already experienced great religious and linguistic diversity by the time Cabral first came to Brazil. On the Iberian Peninsula Christians and Moors had been enslaving one another for hundreds of years. African influence in Portugal, in fact, predated the settlement of Brazil by several centuries and was quite apparent long after Moorish rule ended in A.D. 1249. Thus, compared with northern Europeans, the Portuguese were relatively more tolerant of, or indifferent to, the native culture of their captives.

The formation of Catholic lay brotherhoods called irmandades, beginning in the seventeenth century, also helped perpetuate African traditions. These voluntary organizations functioned as social clubs and mutual aid societies, and were organized along social, racial, and ethnic lines. Thus, many slaves from particular cultural groups in Africa belonged to the same irmandades in Brazil, thus helping them to continue their traditions. In many cases, they syncretized elements of their own festivals and ceremonies with those of the Catholic Church.

Many irmandades were located in large cities, which in general provided opportunities for enslaved and free blacks to gather together. In her book Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil, Diana Brown writes, "Until 1850, thousands of Africans per year were still arriving in Brazil, bringing with them fresh infusions of the cultures of their African homelands...These populations were most densely concentrated in the large coastal cities, which served as centers of slave importation." She continues, "The numbers and density of Afro-Brazilian populations provided favorable conditions for the maintenance of their cultural traditions; in addition, these large cities offered to these groups a relatively greater degree of free time and movement than was true, for example, of rural plantation life. Not surprisingly, it was these cities in which the various regional Afro-Brazilian religions first developed."

Quilombos, colonies formed by runaway slaves in the interior of Brazil, also helped perpetuate African culture. The largest and most famous of these was Palmares, established in the rugged interior of northeastern Alagoas state in the seventeenth century. It lasted for several decades, had a population in the thousands (some say as high as twenty thousand), and made an effort to organize a society based in African traditions. To the Portuguese, Palmares was a threat to the established order, not to mention the institution of slavery. Numerous armed expeditions were mounted against it by the Portuguese crown, beginning in 1654. All were unsuccessful until the last major campaign, waged in 1694, which overwhelmed and destroyed Palmares. Zumbi, the quilombo's famed war commander, was captured and killed the following year. The legendary warrior is still celebrated in Brazilian music today, and his birthday (November 20) has been a national holiday since 1995.

African heritage survives in modern Brazil in a variety of manifestations. Brazilian Portuguese has incorporated many Yoruba and other African words. The cuisine in Bahia is quite similar to that of West Africa. And Brazilian music, dance, and culture in general are heavily rooted in Africa. In fact, Brazil has the largest African-descended population outside of Africa. In 1980, Brazil's population was 44.5 percent black or mulatto, according to the government census, and it is clear that more than half of all Brazilians have at least one ancestor from the mother continent.

Afro-Brazilian Religion:
Keeping the Music Alive

Afro-Brazilian religions, despite their suppression by the Catholic Church and Brazilian government, became firmly rooted in the national culture and had a tremendous influence on the development of Brazil's popular music.

The enslaved Yoruba, Ewe, and other peoples brought their animist beliefs from Africa to the New World. These religions are probably thousands of years old, predating Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Their belief systems were maintained for millennia, not on parchment or tablets, but as living oral traditions in ritual and music handed down from generation to generation. The Yoruba, who had the greatest influence on Afro-Brazilian religion, came primarily from what is now Nigeria.

Their òrìsà tradition, carried across the Atlantic Ocean, was transformed in Brazil into candomblé. It became santería in Cuba and Shango in Trinidad. The Yoruba deities, the òrìsà, are called orixás in Brazil and orishas in Cuba. In her book, Santería, The Religion, anthropologist Migene González-Wippler estimated that as of 1989 there were more than 100 million people practitioners of Yoruba-based religions in Latin America and the United States. Most of them are in Brazil.

In Haiti, the òrìsà religion also played a role in the formation of vodun, which incorporates many traditions but is especially dominated by those of the Fon from Dahomey (which became the Republic of Benin in 1975). In the American South, especially Louisiana, vodun became known as voodoo, the subject of a great deal of outrageous legend and misunderstanding by outsiders.

In Brazil, macumba is a common generic name—mostly used by outsiders—for all orixá religions. Candomblé is the closest to the old West African practices, while umbanda is a twentieth-century variation with considerable influence from spiritist beliefs. Xangô, catimbó, caboclo, and batuque are regional variations, with different sects reflecting influences from particular African ethnic or cultural groups—nações (nations). The greatest influence of the Fon, and hence closest similarity to vodun, in Afro-Brazilian religions can be found in the casa das minas religion (or minas) of São Luís, the capital of Maranhão state.

The Afro-Brazilian religions began to take an organized form in the nineteenth century, and terreiros (centers of worship) were first reported around 1830 in Salvador and 1850 in Recife. The religions were syncretized in Brazil into new forms by their followers because of government and Roman Catholic repression that persisted into the twentieth century. Devotees secretly worshipped their West African gods during Catholic ceremonies. Blacks who prayed to a statue of the Virgin Mary often were actually thinking of Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea. Saint George might represent Ogun, god of warriors; Saint Jerome could stand in for Xangô, god of fire, thunder, and justice; and Jesus Christ might really signify Oxalá, the god of the sky and universe. Catholicism, with its abundance of saints, meshed well with the orixá tradition and inadvertently sheltered it.

In the Afro-Brazilian religions, a follower always has two different orixás, a male and a female that "rule your head" and are seen as your spiritual parents. For example, you might have Xangô and Iemanjá as the "masters of your head." The head priestess, the mãe-de-santo (mother of the saints), typically discovers this and asserts that these two orixás, because of their specific personalities and powers, are the natural guides for you and your life. During the ceremonies, the drums and singing call down the orixás, and they or their intermediary spirits "possess" the bodies of the initiated sons and daughters.

While the traditional sect of candomblé focuses solely on the orixás, umbanda has incorporated many influences from espiritismo (Spiritism), a religion that formed in the nineteenth century around the ideas and writings of the Frenchman Allan Kardec, the pseudonym of Léon Hipolyte D. Rivail. Today, candomblé and umbanda are an accepted and integral part of Brazilian culture, with many leading cultural figures counted among their adherents. One notable example is the novelist Jorge Amado, who is a son of Xangô. Many Brazilian musicians praise or refer to Afro-Brazilian deities in their song lyrics, and some have included invocation songs for the orixás on their albums.

Although Brazil is said to be 90 percent Roman Catholic, at least half of its population also follows Afro-Brazilian religions. Rio, for example, has hundreds of umbanda-supply shops that sell beads, candles, dried herbs, and plaster-cast figures of spirits and saints. Offerings of food for an orixá can often be found beside flickering candles late at night alongside a road. And every New Year's Eve, millions of Brazilian men and women dress in white and throw flowers and other gifts into the sea as offerings to the goddess Iemanjá. Each orixá is called by a particular rhythm and song, and these rituals have kept alive many African songs, musical scales, musical instruments, and rhythms.

The wide assortment of African-derived instruments still played in Brazil today include the agogô (a double bell struck by a wooden stick); cuíca (a small friction drum) and atabaque (a conical single-headed drum). The African influence also reveals itself in Brazil's traditional and folk music (as it does in the rest of the Americas) through the use of syncopation and complex rhythmic figures, the importance of drums and percussion instruments, certain flattened or "falling" notes, the so-called metronome sense of West Africa, the use of call-and-response patterns, short motifs, improvisation, and—perhaps most important—the tendency of music to play a central role in life.

Religious, ceremonial, and festive African music would form the basis of Afro-Brazilian songs and dances that would eventually develop into various musical forms: afoxé, jongo, lundu, samba, maracatu, and more.


Over the course of the last five centuries, Portuguese, African, and—to a lesser extent—Amerindian rhythms, dances, and harmonies have been mixing together, altering old styles and creating new forms of music. One of the most important early Brazilian genres was the lundu song form and circle dance, brought by Bantu slaves from what is now Angola to Brazil, where it began to acquire new influences and shock the Europeans.

The first recorded reference to lundu in Brazil was in 1780. The dance was considered lascivious and indecent in its original form, which included the umbigada navel-touching movement, an invitation to the dance that was characteristic of many African circle dances. By the end of that century, lundu had made an appearance in the Portuguese court, transformed into a refined style sung with guitar or piano accompaniment and embellished with European harmonies. By the mid-nineteenth century in Brazil, lundu was performed both in salons and in the streets. As a popular style, it featured sung refrains and an energetic 2/4 rhythm carried by handclapping. Both types of lundu would remain popular in Brazil until the early twentieth century.

Another important song and dance, maxixe, was born in Rio around 1880 from the meeting of lundu with Cuban habanera and polka (with influences from Argentinian tango coming later). Created by Afro-Brazilian musicians who were performing at parties in lower-middle-class homes, maxixe was the first genuinely Brazilian dance, created from a synthesis of the above forms with additional voluptuous moves performed by the closely dancing couple. Maxixe gave as erotic and scandalous an impression as lundu had one hundred years earlier and lambada would one hundred years later.

Maxixe and other Brazilian styles would be popularized by a native music industry that dates to 1902, with the release of Brazil's first record: the lundu "Isto É Bom" (This Is Good), written by Xisto Bahia and performed by the singer Baiano for the Casa Edison record company. In later decades, Brazil developed a large music industry and began to export its songs all over the world. Domestic genres such as choro, maxixe, samba (in its myriad forms), bossa nova, baião, frevo and samba-reggae have been enormously popular and influential throughout the twentieth century. Musically, Brazil has continued to reflect the great racial and cultural miscegenation of its history, and to absorb and modify new ideas and styles. Marisa Monte, Chico César, the Paralamas, Daniela Mercury, Karnak and Carlinhos Brown are among the latest exponents of a vibrant artistic heritage that stretches back centuries.

Excerpted from the first two chapters of The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, Temple University Press, 1998, 248 pp. The book contains 167 illustrations and a large glossary and discography. The authors can be reached at and

The MPB Zone, a Web site devoted to Brazilian music, has been created by McGowan at:  

The Brazilian Sound is available for sale at Culture Planet in the Westside Pavilion (Los Angeles) and Santa Monica Place (Santa Monica). And it can be purchased via the Internet through these online bookstores:


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