The parades of the Samba Schools of the “Grupo Especial” will take place during the nights of the 2nd and 3rd of March – once more an astonishing display of sound, colour, movement, bodies – and creativity. There is nothing like being there in person, because the television version (however cleverly done) cannot capture the overwhelming rhythmic impulse of the “baterias”, which just commands you to move yourself. Nor can TV capture the collective excitement of the whole crowd singing and dancing with the sambas which really catch on, while each new float and each new “ala” (group) brings a new interest in seeing the participants and the costumes (or lack of them).
It is amazing to me to perceive just how a group of percussionists can produce such a compelling rhythm, full of intricate cross-rhythms. Each year each school uses a new Samba-Enredo, and the rhythmic patterns are adjusted to fit in with the words. And the words must tell the general story of the parade, which is then illustrated by the floats and the alas. But even so, the baterias tend to have a specific sound, in keeping with the tradition of the school. The “mestres de bateria” responsible for choosing the combination of instruments, and schooling and coordinating the percussionists, tend to have long tenures, which favours continuity.
The rhythm instruments.
The Surdo (a big deep-voiced drum) lays down the basic rhythm. In the musical notation, the black note followed by the pause (line 1) means a sharp blow which is immediately silenced by the left hand. The white note means a resounding thwack which is not stopped by the left hand. Since this is done on the third beat, not the first, this is already a syncopation different from a military march! Sometimes this beat is divided between different instruments which are tuned to different pitches – surdo de primeiro is the lowest, making the big boom, while surdo de segundo would make a lighter, higher-pitched thwack in between. There may be a surdo de terceiro which uses a different pitch and intersperses the beats between the others. The deep boom of the surdo is what holds the whole thing together (and is generally lost in recordings!).
The Repinique (or Pinique) is a somewhat smaller drum, but still played with one drumstick and the hand. The drumstick sometimes is played on the skin, sometimes on the rim of the drum. So, with the stopping of vibrations with the hand a big variety of patterns is possible.
The Caixa or Tarol is slung at waist height and played with two drumsticks, continuously, very fast and very tricky, and this is what you mostly hear on recordings or broadcasts.
The Tamborim is held in the left hand and played with the right, using (nowadays) a three-pronged plastic drumstick. Since the left hand rolls the Tamborim backwards and forwards, it is played sometimes on the skin and sometimes on the rim. Usually it plays very tricky cross-beats which punctuate the main rhythm, and are used in short bursts. (I think sheer fatigue of the players prevents playing for longer!). Since the sound is very sharp and high, it doesn’t have much carrying power, and so you usually hear these only when the bateria is very close.
Then there are a variety of other instruments used to give variety to the rhythm – the Chocalho is a can filled with beans or small stones which is shaken to produce the sound; the Afoxé and Xequerê (on the right) make the sound by the movement of a beaded web over a rough surface – try doing that for long! The Reco-reco (no picture) uses a stick rubbed up and down a spring.
The Agogô (on the left) produces an interesting variant to the sound (it may have five bells rather than two) while the Cuica (on the right) is most extraordinary – the player makes the sound by dragging a piece of dampened cloth along a stick on the inside of the instrument. This is amplified by the drum skin (and the sound can be stopped by the left hand). The pitch of the sound depends on the pressure exerted by the fingers when dragging the cloth along. Apparently this is most difficult to play (and it must be difficult to get a consistent sound out of it).
Another difficult-to-play instrument is the Pandeiro, which looks like the top of a drum with some metal disks set in the side. In the hands of a skilled player, a surprising variety of effects can be extracted from this, but its delicate sound is more suited to a small group of instruments, as in Choro, rather than the big sound of the bateria. During Carnaval, it seems to be more used for displays of throwing, catching, spinning and rolling than anything else.
So these are the instruments which are gradually welded into an effective band by the Mestre de Bateria – repeating until each member has learnt his pattern, how it fits in, when to change, how to obey the whistle of the mestre – not easy, even for the talented! Then the adventurous baterias can provide more interest by putting in stops , and starts, and little solo bits, and so on. Very impressive.
The Puxador de Samba sings into a microphone in the sound car, which also carries accompanying instruments like the cavaquinho or bandolim, whose sound usually gets pretty lost. Now with the watts installed in the sound car, the enthusiasm and rhythm of the singer (or singers) are carried the whole extent of the parade, and as the crowd take up the singing, he has more time more interjections, singing the first words of the next phrase, and so on.
Perhaps one never feels more gringo than in being in the crowd at the parade – even with the words in front of one, one would never fit them to the rhythm the way it is done, nor learn the melody as easily as does everyone else, nor move as lithely responding to the rhythm. A very Brazilian skill – in the blood!
The Samba-Enredos 2014
Google Samba Enredo 2014 and you get to a super site which has the sambas of all the schools , with words and video clips of their rehearsals. You can see how each instrument is played! You can learn the sambas in advance of the big night – but since they are all of the same genre, I would not recommend it just for listening. The hot tips this year are for the sambas of Beija Flor, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, and Vila Isabel.
This does not mean of course, that these schools will win the parades, since many other factors are taken into account. However, a great samba-enredo helps, and provides fun for everyone. So…..