There are many different translations and versions of stories about the origins of Samba. To the best of our knowledge, this is how it all began!
Brazil was discovered and settled by the Portuguese, and, from 1550 onwards, millions of slaves were shipped over to Brazil from Western Africa. The word "Samba" and close derivatives such as "Semba" exist in various African languages, and they mean a tribal or religious dance which is performed in a circle. The dance is usually accompanied by drums, scrapers or shakers and by song. One of the earliest records of "Samba" in Brazil is a drawing by German explorer Zacharias Wagner dated 1634. This shows his sketch of slaves dancing in a circle to drums and scrapers. In his notes Wagner wrote:
"The Slaves were allowed the day off on Sundays and spent the entire day dancing in a disorderly manner to drums and scrapers, and becoming deaf and drunk on a sweet beverage called grape."
The masters found that their slaves worked faster to their music, and there are many documented records of slave gangs in Brazil appointing a leader who was allowed to carry and play a form of drum. The slaves often carried a gourd or rattle and whilst labouring would sing and chant rhythms passed down over generations.
In the 1800's, carnival in Brazil tended to be a refined, masked parade on the lines of those performed in Paris or Venice. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888 and many slaves moved into the hills around Rio in order to find work. Initially the ruling classes were not too pleased when ex-slaves joined in with these smart city parades. A letter published in a Brazilian newspaper in 1901 complained about the "Africanisation of our carnival and the filthy ragged costumes and uproar caused by the drumming and dancing". A law was passed banning "The exhibition of Negro costume with batuques" in carnival. It was found, however, that they could not keep the poor people off the streets, and many groups got together to practice their drumming, dance and costume making. This normally took place in school grounds outside of school hours. Hence Samba bands in Brazil are known as "Schools of Samba".
As the Brazilian racial mix has blended over the years, Samba has similarly fused with other music forms. Portuguese swing dance rhythms have been a major influence, and so too have others including reggae, salsa and merengue. Samba now comes in various guises. What started with the poorest of the poor improvising drumming and dancing with whatever materials were available has now become the energy that drives Brazilian carnival and many others worldwide.