Samba Schools

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Samba Schools

Samba schools, Brazilian organizations (escolas de samba) that plan and stage samba parades during Carnaval. Based for the most part in Rio de Janeiro, they often perform other social functions and may serve as community centers in poorer neighborhoods. For decades they have served as a source of pride, identity, and creativity for working-class Brazilian blacks and mulattoes, who make up the majority of members of each samba school.

As of 2007, there were eighty four officially registered escolas de samba in Rio and dozens more in other cities throughout Brazil. There is a hierarchy among the schools, and each year they compete for top ranking. The top fourteen "special" schools (Grupo Especial) parade on the Sunday and Monday of Carnaval week, seven each night. The rest of the schools are divided in descending rank into Groups A, B, C, D, and E. Each year, however, a school is downgraded from the Special to the Access Group, or Group A. The seven schools of the Special Group with the best scores march again at the Champion's Parade the following Saturday. The bigger ones, such as Mangueira, typically parade with four to five thousand singers and dancers, and three hundred-member percussion section. Every escola's parade has a theme, an enredo, for that year's performance, which often focuses on Brazilian culture, history, or politics. This theme is explored in the lyrics of a samba-enredo chosen for that year, and these songs are often written by some of Brazil's top samba composers. The enredo is also illustrated in the ornamented floats and the lavish costumes of the participants, who are divided into several dozen different wings (alas), each of which features a distinct costume. The carnavalesco is the art director who coordinates the visual aspects of the floats (carros alegóricos) and the alas in order to elaborate upon the theme. The puxador is the lead singer of the escola, and the mestre de bateria is the percussion director who conducts the musicians playing a dozen or more different drum and percussion instruments. The latter typically include the surdo (three different sizes), caixa, repique, tamborim, pandeiro, prato, cuíca, frigideira, agogô, reco-reco, and chocalho.

The first escola, Deixa Falar, was founded on 12 August 1928 in Rio's Estácio neighborhood by the famed samba musicians Ismael Silva, Bide, Armando Marçal, and Nilton Bastos. Deixa Falar was defunct by 1933, but other schools rose up to take its place, such as Mangueira (founded in 1929) and Portela (1935). At the beginning, the government repressed manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture and discouraged blacks and mulattoes from parading. But, with official recognition by the Getúlio Vargas administration in 1935, the festivities moved to the wide avenues of downtown Rio and then in 1984 to the Passarela do Samba (or Sambódromo), designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. From the 1960s on, the escola de samba parades have been broadcast live on national television, which has firmly established their importance and also made them into a major tourist attraction.

By the 1970s there were complaints that the escolas and the parade had become too large and overly commercialized; many poorer members had to save all year to pay for their parade costumes, and the huge budgets of certain schools were often bankrolled by drug dealers or the bicheiros who ran illegal lotteries. Many musicians left the larger escolas and formed smaller groups independent of the televised festivities in the Sambodromo. One example was Quilombo, founded in 1975 by samba singer-songwriter Paulinho da Viola and composer Candeia.

Among Rio's biggest and most important escolas in the early 2000s were the aforementioned Mangueira and Portela, as well as Império Serrano, Salgueiro, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, Império da Tijuca, Unidos do Cabaçu, Beija-Flor, Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel, and Vila Isabel, Unidos da Viradouro, and São Clemente.

See alsoCarnival; Music: Popular Music and Dance; Samba.


Cabral, Sérgio. As Escolas de Samba (1974).

Caurio, Rita, ed. Brasil musical (1988).

Fernandes, Nelson da Nobrega. Escolas de samba: Sujeitos celebrantes e objetos celebrados, Rio de Janeiro, 1928–1949. Rio de Janeiro: Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Secretaria das Culturas, 2001.

Guillermoprieto, Alma. Samba. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

McGowan, Chris, and Ricardo Pessanha. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (1991).

Shaw, Lisa. The Social History of the Brazilian Samba. Aldershot, U.K. and Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.

                                       Chris McGowan