Samba Drumming: The Bateria of Samba
Since the first signs of life, still in our mother’s womb, humans start to exist within rhythms: our own fast heart beats and naturally, of our mothers. Artur da Távola (1936-2008) distinct writer and poet in Brazil once remarked: “the rhythm is definitely the most primitive of our sensorial experiences. Thus, it follows us through our lives and it stands for the basic assumption of vitality, since when it’s over, life has ended.” In samba and carnaval, the analogy is the same. Following this spirit, the Drums Section defines the existence, flow and conclusion of any parade, event, or rehearsal within Brazilian Carnaval. The rhythm means “the force” is animated, alive, just like the primal rhythms of the past. Likewise, the section in Carnaval events where we find the most powerful energy is surely around the Drums.
This is the energy we will try to describe on these pages below. To simplify translation issues, we are using the term ‘Drums Section’ (of a samba-school) for the Brazilian Carnaval term “Bateria”. In this introductory discussion about the Drums Section, we will go over the following aspects: early days, the samba rhythm, origins of the samba instruments and the distribution of drum section instruments within a Samba-School.
But before we go through the more "technical aspects" of the samba drumming, I have to confess that it is very hard to put in words what we actually feel when we are inside are next to a samba drumming section. It is mixture of many emotions, vibrations ( literally ), thrills that make we have those famous goose-bumps. Some just stare in awe, others cry, others feel the adrenaline running by, each with a different sensation, but never the equal. Being next to a full top samba school drum section, with 200 , 300 and even 400 percussionists is one experience in life everyone should go through at least once in life. A real "super-natural" thrill!
Origins of Samba & Carnaval Drumming
As we know, samba and the Brazilian Carnaval music have Negro origins. The roots are notoriously African. Historian Juana Elbei dos Santos in the book “Nagôs e a Morte”, says: “all sound formulation is born as a synthesis, as third element provoked by interaction of two kinds of genitors: the hand or stick beating the leather of the drum, the stick beating the body of the agogo… The resulting sound is the product of a dynamic structure, in which the appearance of the third term creates the movement. In all systems, the number three is associated to a movement.” Rhythm is the organization of sound in time. And moving to the samba drum beat, the “syncopation”, its main rhythmic characteristic, was clearly inherited from African roots.
From Primal Africa to Samba Beats
Always pulsing in a binary beat (2/4), the Samba-School Drums section - Bateria is a perfect orchestra, formed exclusively by percussion instruments (in samba bands, which are different by nature, brass instruments are permitted. Please see samba bands definition.) The Bateria is not just the combination of several types of percussion instruments, but the distribution of “in leather” sub-groups. These groups beating in unison bass and treble sound, promotes a special design to the rhythm.
Below, the exotic shekere, a true African and samba instrument. Many samba instruments were incorporated over the last 20 years.
Early Samba Percussion Instruments
At first, the percussion/drum section instruments used in samba were very poor and simple. They were in essence real imitations of tribal African drums, inherited from the slaves and produced by local artisans in Brazil. These pioneer samba instruments, at first used very rustic materials like leather, wood and nails. The leather skin used as drum heads was taken from cats. (After the “drying” and “stretching”, they were fixed with nails in barrels and wood squares.) These were still the first days of samba instruments; 1905-1940. The tuning, as another example of early experimentation, was done by heating and molding the drums in fires made of old papers. The sound, naturally, was not good. In the 1930’s, Vizinha Faladeira, a prominent samba-school at the time, innovated buying French barrels to improve their surdos – the most common drumming instrument within a samba-school drum section (throughout time, wood was substituted by metal and production was industrialized.)
In early century Rodas de Samba (Informal Samba / Percussion sessions - see definition), tambourines were already present. They had the form of a shovel, but they could also be square-, hexagon-, and octagon-shaped (made out of wood with the leather heads fixed by nails). Later, they were replaced by more modern ones, being rounded and metal produced. The panderos, since their introduction to samba, went through the same transformation process as the tambourines, and evolved considerably. (Today they are mostly used as instruments for juggling in Samba-School Drum Sections.)
Essential in every roda de samba, the old cuíca made out of a barrel, were also one of the first samba instruments. They were made out of wood, and later were replaced by silver or golden sparkling metallic cylinders, where the cuíca players can now obtain more varied sounds. Also present at these early drumming sections, was the reco-reco, which was made of bamboo or animal corns with stretched spring. It produced a very screechy sound that gave lightness to the drums section (see under the Samba Instruments tab, full definition and photo for every samba-percussion instrument used in Brazilian Carnaval.)
An excellent still shot from Vidal of a "tamborim" from Beija-Flor´s Drums Section!
Slowly, small improvements were made in samba instruments. As example, animal leather used as drum heads started to be substituted by nylon heads during the 60´s. One of its main disadvantages was the water resistance (animal leather was not tolerant to rainy days.) In fact, wet leather caused a sound loss and became weak over time. On the other hand, the sonority produced by nylon heads sounded somehow artificial – definitely not the same produced by original leather heads. Still on 60´ and 70´s, samba percussionists who preferred using leather heads, used a common technique of bathing the leather heads with linseed oil to avoid damages caused by rain. Another trick was to mix nylon and leather heads, leather in one side of the instrument, and the nylon on the other side. As you could see, everything was rustic and non-industrialized until very recently, on the origins of samba-school baterias.
Below we see the samba shakers section from Sao Clemente Samba-School
Calabashes with nets made of beads, metallic rattles, agogô (brought by the Yorubas) caixas and taróis, used in the cordões and ranchos were also used in first Drum Sections. João da Baiana (1887-1974), and Caburê, two of the first samba personalities, were responsible for introducing to samba the pandero and reco-reco, respectively (both original from spiritual candomblé ceremonies - see Wiki).
Physical Distribution of Percussionists in Samba-School
The percussion instruments are carefully grouped in the Bateria and generally are distributed according to the First Director´s – Mestre de Bateira´s request. There is a common rule though that every Drum Section Director takes into account: heavy instruments do not mix with the light instruments. In a samba-school parade or event, heavy instruments always stays stationed behind and the light ones in front of the Drums Section.
According to the conductor Milton Manhães, who is a musician and samba percussionist from Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba-School Drums Section: “The first surdos consist of the essence of the Drums Section within a binary beat. They comprise three types: the first surdo (first beat) and stronger, like the C in the contrabass; the second (also called response surdo), performs the cello in a Symphonic. It is less strong and is tuned as A or B in the contrabass. The third surdo is in between both, but also called surdo de corte. Its tune is similar to the drum. The tune in the contrabass is the F.”
Below, the energy of a percussionist using a chocalho, a typical samba instrument.
When the Drums Section is large, there is the need of putting the first and second surdos closer, they stay on the same side and the caixas and/or repiques are arranged between them. The third surdos, or balance surdos, are distributed among the first and second surdos, and their functions are to balance the first and second, and provide the needed ‘swing’. The repique surdos or repinique (the smaller) perform a variety of rhythmical beats and the taróis and caixas are responsible for the ‘counterbalance’. Light instruments in a samba-school bateria or carnaval band add rhythm and treble too.
Similar to an orchestra, there are moments in which all instruments are being played, and others in which just one of the groups perform. For example, when the samba starts, everybody plays, in the second part, the heavy instruments almost make silence, becoming the light ones more intense. The tambourines and rattles stop, the other instruments may keep playing.
When similar instruments play rhythmical drawings at the same time, enjoying the samba syncopation, we have what we call “conventions”. The “conventions” that are most widely performed today are played by the tambourines.
Following is a chart that displays the arrangement of the percussionists in a bateria. It shows more or less how the 200+ members of the bateria march in the parade, usually starting with the lighter instruments. As described before, the heavy surdos are in the middle for stability.
Samba Drummers, apart from being the heart and soul of the parade, sometimes they have to wear strange costumes, like the one below! Note how the Cuica is played.