Brazilian Folk Music

• Folk and Traditional Styles

Brazilian Folk Music


Background and History


Brazil is one of the largest countries in the world, ranking just behind the United States. The official language is Portuguese, but this does not preclude the strong presence of other European immigrants, particularly in the south. Immigrants from Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Wales also settled in Brazil and retain many cultural elements of their ancestors. The combination of these cultures-from the indigenous peoples, to the immigrants, to the enslaved Africans-makes up the face of Brazilian folk music.

The depth, richness, and variety of Brazilian music is the result of hundreds of years of history, much of it tragic-a history of conquest, oppression, and slavery. The vitality of the sounds that emerge from the seething, multicultural, multiracial melting pot of Brazilian life is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. In Brazil, music is everywhere-on the streets, in cafés and bars, in houses and work places, on the beaches, in the mountains, and in the barrio. Music, like soccer, is a cornerstone of Brazilian life. Brazilian soccer teams warm up by dancing to music, and fans spur them to victory by filling the terraces of the great stadiums with music. Brazilian musician Antonio Carlos Jobim once said, "Brazil is music-music is Brazil." It is in the air, and it is in the blood.

When the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral first set foot on the luxuriant tropical coast of what would later be known as southern Bahia, he discovered a thriving 12,000-year-old culture. The native population, which probably numbered somewhere over two million, had its own musical traditions. Their songs were often sung solo or in chorus, and they accompanied themselves with whistles, flutes, and horns. Rhythms were set down with drums, rattles, sticks, hand clapping, and foot stomping. Some elements of this indigenous music still exist in the folk music of modern Brazil. The reco-reco (scraper) and the ganzá (a tubular shaker filled with seeds or shells) have survived pre-conquest times. Both instruments play a part in the choro and samba, as well as in the aboriginal festival dance music of the caboclinhos.

The Portuguese explorers brought their music with them. Portugal and Spain had themselves been occupied by a colonial power. For seven centuries up to 1492, most of the Iberian Peninsula had been under Muslim rule. Their music was a mixture of European, Middle Eastern, and north African elements. The Portuguese introduced the European tonal system, the Moorish scales, as well as earlier medieval modes, both folk and liturgical. They brought their ballads (moda and the melancholy fado), their lullabies (acalantos), and their syncopated, rhythmically complex dance music, which contained both Gypsy and Moorish elements. (The Gypsies are a traditionally migratory people that originated in northern India, while the Moors are people of Arabic or Berber descent that conquered Spain.) They introduced the violin, the guitar and cavaquinho (a small guitarlike instrument that is still played today), the flute, the clarinet, the accordion, the tambourine, and the jew's harp. They brought their language. They introduced Roman Catholicism with its music, its liturgy, and its calendar of celebrations and holidays. Significantly, they brought their raucous festival known as the entrudo, which in time developed into arguably the greatest folk festival of all, Carnaval.

Cultural Influences from Africa

The Portuguese planted sugar and other crops, and between 1538 and 1850, four- to five-million men, women, and children were captured in west, central, and southern Africa and taken to Brazil as slaves. Their religions, languages, dance, and music came with them. Their religious faiths and practices blended with the Catholicism of the Portuguese into a unique form of Christianity that transformed many festivals and holidays. In many places, this uniquely Brazilian religion took the name candomblé, particularly in the northeastern state of Bahia where many people of African descent live. The instruments, rhythms, dance, and overall aesthetic of the music of this religion are closely related to those of West Africa, but many of the religious customs and figures are taken from European Christianity. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888. Approximately half of the population today is either of African or mixed descent.

West African music was, and is, highly sophisticated and extremely complex. Its influence on the folk music of Brazil has been very profound and far-reaching. The influence of West African polyrhythms can be heard in Portuguese dance music and ballads. The traditional Bantu lundu song and circle-dance form became, in time, a street game for children, and eventually entered the salons of the wealthy as a courtly dance accompanied by a piano or guitar, with European harmonies. The meeting of lundu with the Cuban habanera and the European polka in the late nineteenth century developed into an immensely popular Brazilian folk dance and song form, known as the maxixe.


The enslaved Africans brought their instruments too. Many of these, either in their original form, or adapted over time, play a central part in the folk music of Brazil. The berimbau, from Angola, is a musical bow that often accompanies the Bahian martial art capoeira. It is made of a single vertical wire that is attached to a sound resonator, such as a gourd, which is held against the body. The agogô (or agogo bells) is a double bell struck with a wooden stick. It is sometimes used in religious rituals of Afro-Brazilians.

Percussion is vital to the rhythmically intricate music of West Africa. It had a key role in the development of traditional Brazilian music. The flatting of certain notes, typical of west African modes, found its way into traditional ballads and lullabies, and call-and-response structures quickly became part of Brazilian folk styles. Short musical motifs and quick, staccato figures, also west African in origin, became typical of Brazilian dance music. Instrumental and vocal improvisation over formal European chord structures became a staple of Brazilian folk music. Religious, festive, and ceremonial African music formed the basis of Brazilian songs and dances that would eventually evolve into afoxé, jongo, lundu, maracatu, choro, and samba.


Choro is structurally close to traditional European forms, but in rhythm and spirit, it is Afro-Brazilian. In Portuguese, "choro" means "weep," which is ironic because the music is joyous and celebratory. It developed out of folk dance forms in the late nineteenth century. Like early American ragtime, it is basically an instrumental form. Its speed and improvisation encouraged virtuoso soloing that would emerge from the ensemble-this would usually be made up of instruments including guitar, mandolin or cavaquinho, clarinet, flute, and percussion. This music was in form and spirit folk music, and it developed out of traditional folk elements, but it became massively popular throughout Brazil and throughout the world. With its vitality and rhythmic complexity, it was the immediate forerunner of the modern samba, the preeminent form in Brazilian folk and popular music.


Samba, the dance and the music, can take many forms, from the vivacious call-and-response of samba de enredo (the music of the Carnaval) to the more relaxed cancon or song-samba. While the former features a percussion ensemble-comprised of the bombo (a large bass drum), snare drum, tambourine, cuíca (friction drum), reco-reco and guaiá (a shaken rattle)-the latter uses guitar. Bossa nova, a distinctly Brazilian jazz form, emerged in the late 1950s as a blend of American cool jazz and samba rhythms.

Folk Music Today

On the streets of towns and cities, and in the country areas too, children participate in the traditional music of Brazil. The games and dances that emerged out of the lundu may still be seen. The songs that accompany them are called cantigas. They are traditionally sung in a circle. Children do what the lyrics tell them: clap hands, stomp feet, wave handkerchiefs, and so on. These lyrics, like all authentic folk lyrics, are passed down through the generations by oral transmission. They have adapted over time to suit location and environment. Some are nonsense, some are educational, and some, like the nursery rhymes of England, carry a secret message, which can be anything from local gossip to political satire. In recent years, cantigas have reached the concert platform and are accorded the respect due an old folk form. They have also become the lyrics of rock musicians like the successful duo brothers Kleiton and Kledir.

In Brazil, musical categories are often blurred. Even the distinction between folk and popular is sometimes unclear. Nevertheless, they all emerge, or erupt, from the same rich and diverse tradition.