Samba is a form of dance and music that originates from Africa but is most prevalent in Brazil and has been popularised by the Brazilian Carnival. In essence, it has 2/4 timing and combines a vocal chorus with a wide range of percussion instruments which are complimented traditionally with string instruments from the guitar family and more recently brass and wind instruments.
Because the focus is heavily percussive; the timing simple; the style upbeat and cheerful; the history very cultural, and for the fact you can comprise a band from just a few members to literally hundreds, the popularity of teaching Samba or joining Samba groups has increased dramatically.
What age range?
Samba can range from very basic rhythms that can be learnt by anyone with no musical experience right up to the professional outfits that you see at carnivals and cabarets across the globe. The percussive instruments involved are suitable for tiny hands and the enjoyment and skills gained from working together as a group, large or small, to create an upbeat rhythm are applicable to any age range.
Often the problem with starting a music club or band is having the correct number of people. Instruments can be expensive and parts limited. Sometimes people can’t make it one week and the whole thing has to be called off. With Samba, you can have any number of people (the more the merrier) and there are no solo or individual parts. Multiple people can play the same part so there is never any need to limit numbers. Also, the basic instruments are very cheap, so if you have a few more people keen to join then it’s a benefit, not a problem.
One of the easiest ways to get people involved in something they haven’t done before is to make them a part of a team. A large group masks individual abilities and problems are shared with others. Overcoming difficulties together is far easier than when alone and makes the process of learning a lot more relaxing and fun. Samba teaches people to work together and gives those with no other common interest a reason to get together and share in creating music and having fun.
There is no need for a high technical ability in order to join a Samba group. An individual’s parts can be as simple as hitting a drum on the first beat of a bar. A minute’s basic tuition in how to count to four and how a bar works is enough to have a new member playing along. Disabilities, physical and mental, are also not necessarily a hindrance because of the basic nature of the music and instruments that can be used.
Unlike teaching other forms of music, the individual members can learn at their own pace. If someone gains a good grasp of Samba and technically blossoms, then you can simply make their part more complex. Those learning at a slower rate can stick to simplistic parts but change instruments. Therefore, everyone can progress and there should be no reason for anyone to feel they are “stuck” on one level or get bored having to do the same thing each lesson or session.
Modern Samba is very much an expression of Brazilian culture, and by dressing up whilst performing you can really immerse yourself in the carnival ethos that epitomises the Brazilian way of life. For those that can’t go all the way to Brazil, this is a good way of being introduced to a totally different culture and leads to development in understanding how cultures differ across the globe – a useful lesson to anyone.
The main percussive instruments of an authentic samba kit include the repenique, surdo, agogo, caixa, tambourim, ganza, chocalho, cuica, timba, pandeiro and berimbau. You can of course add other percussion instruments to this that you feel would complement the sound such as claves, guiros, whistles, shakers, tambourines, bells, rainsticks and a quite a few others.
A high quality complete 30 piece set from SVM would set you around £1500 – so about £50 per head.
An inside story
I spoke to Dan Faircloth (leading the band in the picture below), who is part of a Samba band in Oxford called Sol Samba to find out an insider’s view of learning Samba, setting up a Samba band and what they get up to.
RH: How did Sol Samba start?
DF: Sol Samba started in the summer of 1999 with a small group of people interested in Brazilian music. Oxford City council provided a grant to buy some drums, and more instruments were slowly purchased using the money raised from gigs and the weekly practice subscriptions. The terms of the Council grant stipulated that it should be a community band (anyone can join) and that Sol Samba perform at the annual summer carnival in Oxford.
RH: How did you become involved?
DF: I became involved by seeing Sol Samba perform at the Carnival- a samba band is pretty hard to ignore.
RH: Had you played Samba before, or any other instruments previously?
DF: No. A little bit of guitar and church bells!
RH: What samba instrument did you start with?
DF: I started playing the agogo bell, which is two metal bells attached to a handle and hit with a wooden drum stick. They are not expensive. As with all drums there are simple patterns and more complicated patterns, the beauty of the agogo bell is that you don’t need to learn any complicated technique to actually play it: you just hit it! The other advantage for the beginner is that most two note patterns can easily remembered by saying a phrase that replicates the timing and note changes with each word, for example: “Have-a-cup-of-tea”.
RH: What instruments do you play now?
DF: I play several different instruments now. Often I play instruments owned by the band, but I have bought myself a tamborim which was quite cheap (£20) and a cuica which was about £180.
A tamborim is a small round hand drum about 15 cm in diameter hit with a plastic beater. A playing style that requires the tamborim to be quickly turned with the wrist takes quite a lot of practice to be able to play at normal speed.
A cuica is a friction drum, which has a wooden stick attached to the centre of the drum skin. A wet cloth is then used to rub the stick, this causes the skin to resonate creating a note. The pitch of the note can be changed by pressing on the skin, the harder you press the tighter the skin gets and the higher the note becomes. A cuica when played sounds a bit like a laughing monkey. It requires quite a bit of practice to be able to play at a constant volume.
RH: How long have you been in Sol Samba?
DF: I joined Sol Samba five years ago, I love drumming.
RH: How many people are in the band?
DF: There are about 30 people in the band; we get about 20 people at each of our Wednesday night practices. We need at least eight people to perform.
RH: When did you start being part of the performances?
DF: There is a range of abilities – after a few months most people become good enough to perform at gigs. You have to be able to remember the patterns and the hand signals that the mestre makes.
RH: Do the band perform at events?
DF: We perform carnivals, fairs, Christmas lights, balls, and private functions. We also busk for charity. Our busiest time of the year is in the summer where we can have a gig every week.
RH: Do you dress up for the part?
DF: The standard samba band uniform is white trousers and a band t-shirt. This way we all look the same and it looks professional. The dancers wear amazingly colourful costumes.
RH: What’s your favourite aspect of Samba?
DF: There is something incredible about 20 people all making what is essentially live dance music. No amplification is required, we just turn up with the drums. It’s very exciting. There’s also something very primal about drumming.
RH: So there’s a lot more to Samba than learning to play percussion?
DF: Yes, it’s an amazing community – we are one big happy family.
RH: Do you have any advice for anyone thinking they want to join or start their Samba band?
DF: Just do it!
If you would like to see Sol Samba then they are playing a night called “Moving with The Times” on the 10/11 March at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford. You can find out more about them online at: http://www.solsamba.co.uk/index.html
Feel free to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01708 771950 to find out more about Samba and which products are available for helping to start your own group.