On a balmy autumn evening in Rio de Janeiro’s old port zone, a crowd gathers near a group of musicians eated around a long table. People
come to this colonial square twice a week to
hear samba. They drink beer from plastic cups
and throw a few bills in a hat when it gets
passed around. When Tom Ashe arrives with his
trombone, the circle of musicians opens to make
room for him. Nobody misses a syncopated beat
as they ease into another samba.
Soon, Ashe’s rich melodies are darting around
the soaring voice of singer Thais Villela. Young
women, hips flowing in liquid movement, lift
out their arms as if embracing the chorus. The
crowd sings along with gusto. The song is theirs,
and they claim it.
“It’s a live music show in which half the band
is the audience,” says Ashe. Most cariocas— as
Rio natives are called — know the words to
hundreds of sambas. “They’ve retained their
tradition,” he says.
Samba has been played in “samba circles” like
this one since the music began. These particular
sessions are named after the rock that takes up
one side of this flag-stoned old quadrangle: the
Pedra do Sal, or Salt Rock. Slaves loaded salt near
here. It is a place steeped in samba history.
Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, Rio
saw an influx of Afro-Brazilians, one of whom
was a woman known as Tia Ciata, who lived
in the now long-gone neighborhood of Little
Africa. Ciata was a priestess in the Afro-Brazilian
Candomblé religion and an immigrant from
Bahia state in Brazil’s poor Northeast. Like many
newcomers to Rio, Ciata hosted gatherings, in
which food, religion and percussion all played a
role. Songs were improvised over rhythms like the
Angolan batuque using brass and wind instruments and guitars. Samba was born out of this
random cultural mix and soon was being played
at early Carnival parades. “It has this African
Samba is both a music and a dance—and in
its native Brazil, it’s even more.
BY DOM PHILLIPS