A Samba of the Poor and Landless

They are the neighborhood clubs which parade together during Brazil’s carnival festivals: escolas de samba. More than showy annual spectacles, writes Tiaraju D’Andrea in Brasil de Fato, they have been for decades expressions of black and working class culture in Brazil. Here, he profiles a samba school founded by the landless workers’ movement.

Samba schools are a central part of Brazilian cultural heritage. In a country suffused with prejudice and segregation, they are central to the socialization of the working classes, and in particular to the cultural expression of people of African descent. But this primary role as places to articulate Afro-Brazilian and working class culture has declined in recent years.

There are three visible reasons for this; first of all is the sheer size of the carnival parade these days, which forces participating samba schools to look for private-sector sponsors. Second is an ‘invasion’ by wealthier parts of society, which has tended to transform the schools, reducing their connection to working-class solidarity and linking them more to individualism, competition, and spectacle. And finally there is television, which has transformed the parades into a privileged product for the symbolic goods market.

Despite the numerous mutations that have transformed them over the years, there are still vibrant communities animating the samba schools, seeking to affirm their own existence within their social class and history. An organization like a samba school expresses the confusing and contradictory kaleidoscope that is Brazilian society.

Respectful of the existing samba schools, but seeing them as unable to express sharper social criticism, at least at present, a group of activist sambistas in 2005 formed the Unidos da Lona Preta [literally Black Canvas United, an allusion to the tents where people from the Landless Workers’ Movement live, usually with walls made of black canvas], in the Sao Paulo region.

Much of the left abhors samba, considering it a form of cultural expression that has lost its purpose. But Unidos da Lona Preta has chosen not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and has been able to seize on the best that is in samba, to instill this worthy form of popular organization into a real social movement.

Several aspects of other samba schools have been incorporated into Unidos da Lona Preta.

First, like other schools, they build social relations through art, in a world that is ever more competitive and individualist. An activist samba school, it draws on musical and aesthetic elements to develop a kind of mystique around people’s everyday struggles, reinforcing their class identity and the fact that they are part of a bigger collective.

The second core aspect borrowed from traditional samba schools is that fact that their parades have a theme to them. Inevitably, the themes in Unidos da Lona Preta are chosen collectively, usually revolving around class struggle and the history of the working classes, themes that once were very dear to traditional samba schools as well.

In musical terms, Unidos da Lona Preta follows in the steps of the classic samba schools, playing sambas with epic narratives that go against the grain of official historical accounts. Samba itself reached the pantheon of Brazilian music by doing exactly the same thing. Working collectively to compose their sambas, they’ve been able to reach high standards of music and poetry; one only needs to listen to their sambas in order to reach that conclusion.

The third core aspect borrowed by Unidos from traditional samba schools is their batucada [percussion instrumentation]. The experience of creating music collectively is truly overwhelming; a percussion orchestra is a great metaphor for the life within a collective and for the organization of a social movement. To each his instrument.

From the sound produced when drumsticks touch leather the individuality of each member is expressed. The individual alone can play the instrument, mold their bodies to it and relate to it. The percussionist, however, cannot do as he pleases with his instrument; in order for his sound to make sense, it must be in tune with the sounds from the other percussionists and the dynamics of the whole batucada. Only then can the mass of sounds gain a harmony that can confer sense to the sounds and take into consideration the relationship between the individual and the collective. The whole and its parts. Music wise, Unidos has great technical quality, achieved through a lot of rehearsals. Poorly played music hurts the listener’s ears and discredits the collective playing it.

Even if we concede, falsely I think, that samba today has little or nothing to say to our youth, would still say that every percussion sound tells the listeners of a past to which we are all umbilically tied: our African past.

Playing percussion also reminds us that, as a society, we still have many issues that haven’t been dealt with properly, among them the legacy of the [colonial]slave-ocracy, still alive in Brazil to this day. Therefore, it is this past relived through sound that takes the streets in order to fulfill its destiny, which is to overcome itself through fight, commitment and the need for urgent changes in the social structure of our country.

Samba connects us to our past, but it also has a message for this present generation. By presenting “our origins” to the listener of the younger generations, samba confronts the present and forces them to build a future that takes into consideration the struggles and tears of the past. That is how the batucada can become timeless and persistent as a cultural expression resistant to fads, exactly because it overlooks them and because its existence is not based on market structures that, by one way or another, produces and destroys such fads.

In 2014, Unidos will parade for the 10th time. Throughout its existence, the samba school helped create the “Percussions of the Brazilian People” Movement, which, in Sao Paulo alone, includes the following groups: Batucada Carlos Marighella, Cordao Boca de Serebesque, BlocoUnidos da Madrugada, Bloco da Abolicao andBlocoSaci do Bexiga.The way in which Unidos is organized has also influenced the creation of many other similar experiences in Sao Paulo and the rest of Brazil.

With the demonstrations that engulfed the streets of Brazil last year, one could easily gauge the effectiveness of a batucada band during the events: it is the band that gives a protest a unity, that helps shape into it a festive character, and so raise morale and encourage the protesters. Batucada is the persistent memory of our past, a fertile construction in our present and a path to follow towards the future. When the batucada of the Brazilian population takes the streets, the powerful shiver and tremble…

Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard.

Tiaraju D'Andrea