Musical Cauldron


Public approval of the Real plan is not unanimous anymore.
Complaints range from the rise in unemployment and social justice issues to the fact that
many of the Real plan’s proposals have never materialized. But the plan did lower Brazil’s
poverty rates and improved eating habits even for the poorest.
By Brazzil Magazine

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

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

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

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:

comments to

Buy it at

The Brazilian Sound
248 pp

  • Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


You May Also Like

Latin America Mother’s Milk Bank Modeled After Brazil

Brazil has the largest network of mother’s milk banks in the world, according to ...

A Water Project That Would Benefit 15 Million in Brazil

One of the major steps planned by the Brazilian government for 2005 still exists ...

In Brazil Fat Compensations May Be Legal, But They Sure Are Immoral

Brazilian judge sets maximum of 2,400 reais (US$ 887) to those granted amnesty – ...

Brazil Cheers Fed’s Cut and Gets Ready for Bull Times

The surprising US Fed's cut of its federal funds rate by 50 basis points ...

In His Talks to Obama Brazil’s Lula Will Urge Global Credit Relief

Talking to reporters before embarking for Washington, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ...

Under New CEO, Santander Gets Full Control of Santander Brasil

Spanish banking giant Santander under its new executive chairperson, Ana Botin, announced earlier this ...

Brazilian Artist Brings Ancient Egypt Back to Life

Pharaohs, pyramids, mummies, temples and hieroglyphs inspire the work of Brazilian artist Eduardo Vilela, ...

Brazil’s Petrobras Told to Invest to Reduce Dependence on Bolivian Gas

The Brazilian government’s central policy group has ordered Petrobras, the country’s state-run oil giant, ...

Brazilian Foreign Investments Zoom to US$ 23 Billion in 2006

Brazilian foreign investments amounted to US$ 15.022 billion in October, compared with only US$ ...

Brazil Inflation at 3.4% for First Semester

Brazilian inflation as gauged by the Broad Consumer Price Index (IPCA) amounted to 0.25% ...