This could be the definitive book about samba. There is barely mention of the derivative bossa nova, fleetingly of Jobim and Powell, nothing of Gilberto and Getz - which means that the author has remained on the straight and narrow and concentrated on the source. It did not take long for yours truly to realize that Mr McCann has gone deeply into the matter of the music and the socio-political aspects that were, you might say, forced upon it. Samba was meant to be the epitome of all things Brazilian - "Brazilian-ness," the author writes. To a certain extent, of course, the music itself resisted. After all, politics and music are erstwhile chums, despite the political machinations that have by no means been restricted to Brazil (think Wagner and the Third Reich). One is inclined to wonder why Jazz wasn't offered as the essence of all things American. (Well, we do know why. Don't we?) But the parallel is not far from being universal, as it happens. In a country possessed of Afro-Brazilians and white Brazilians, one can easily imagine which group gave Brazil the samba. Exactly...!
The book moves relentlessly forward, introducing the reader to a seemingly endless and interacting cast of characters, all of whom were the sambistas, the performers and composers, often synonymous, or those who would support or exploit them, according to personal persuasion.
Although we read of samba "flowing from the favelas", we are also told that the first sambas emerged from Cidade Nova, but the first sambistas were said to be immigrants from Bahia. The favelas were "on the hill" (the morro) and the folks who lived on the hill live a precarious, slum existence, which results in a great deal of hustling and not a little downright thievery. A typical spiv, street-wise kid, or gangster (malandro), is born and raised in the slums. This is nothing peculiar to Brazil, but poor people everywhere usually find ways to forget poverty - hence religion, and with a bit of luck, music.
Together with the fascinating account of politics and the dismaying prevalence of musical piracy, there is the joy of reading that "Yes, We Have Bananas" was a Brazilian response to the 1920s hit "Yes, We Have No Bananas" - as far as I'm concerned the ultimate Cockney hymn when things get cheery in a pub in London's East End. The real national anthem of Brazil, of course, is "Brazil", a song sung universally (we are told to inferior lyrics in English) and loved by us all for its clattering rhythm behind a strong melody with some swooning effects thrown in for good measure.
The book reads with the compulsive insistence that is the stuff of its subject. It is highly recommended and it will have you out there yearning for the clatter and bang, the wiggle and shake, and the irresistible charm that is samba.
by Lawrence Brazier
Jazz Now Interactive October 2004 Vol 14 No. 6 - Table of Contents
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