Although it is virtually impossible to specify how the samba came to São Paulo, some researchers seem to agree on a couple of points: it has a strong influence from African peoples, specifically the Bantu, and it has its origins in the rural areas of Southeastern Brazil – mostly, the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
It is well known that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery. Effectively, the trade stopped in 1888, 40 years after it was legally prohibited. The English had been trying to settle with Portugal to end slavery since the early XIX century – an agreement which Brazil, already an independent country, only effectively accepted in 1826. This was conditional for England to recognise Brazil’s independence and was officialised as a law in 1830.
At first, the consequence of this deal was a spurring of slave trade between 1826-30, the period of implementation of said law – then followed by an almost definite drop until 1835 – and then a new surge from this date up to 1850, the year when international traffic was officially forbidden.
Many factors contributed to this rise and fall in the trade. Soon after independence, Brazil entered a period of political instability, due to emperor Dom Pedro I’s resignation and his leaving of the throne to his son Dom Pedro II, who was then 5 years old. A number of historical facts then led to a deeper split of political ideologies in the country: liberals (pro-republic and against slavery) and conservatives (pro-monarchy and pro-slavery). This made it easy for the slave trade to carry on a little further.
At this time, most of the people brought from Africa were from Bantu origins. São Paulo state had risen as an economic force due to its coffee plantations. The diaspora of African slaves took, then, the following path: many Bantus were captured from central, northern (up to Senegal) and South Africa, as well as a few eastern regions (like Mozambique) – the majority of them, however, came from the area known as Congo-Angola.
They were taken to ports in the west coast of Africa, such as Luanda, Cabinda, Benguela, and Malembo, and would then spend around three months traveling by sea until landing in the Brazilian ports of, among others, Bahia (in the Northeastern region of the country), Rio de Janeiro and Santos (in the state of São Paulo). From there, they were thereafter distributed to villages in the Southwest, mostly around the Paraiba river valley (Vale do Paraíba), which runs between the states of Rio and São Paulo. This region was the focus for many cultural manifestations in the Southwest.
There was a path along which the Bantus were spread out, a sort of ‘coffee corridor’ linking the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Some villages along this path still keep the “jongo” and other cultural practices from the time of those slaves. Among many villages we can mention Vassouras, Barra do Piraí (Jongo Semente D’Africa), Pinheiral (Jongo do Pinheral), Volta Redonda (Jongo di Volta), Madureira (Jongo da Serrinha), all in Rio de Janeiro; and, in São Paulo, the villages of Guaratinguetá (Jongo do Tamandaré), São José dos Campos, Campinas (Jongo Dito Ribeiro), Indaiatuba (Jongo Filhos da Semente), among others.
Later on, with the expansion of the coffee plantations, other farms also started receiving Africans and their descendants. After 1850, following the end of the international trade, many villages in São Paulo brought in people from the North and Northeastern regions of the country – from states such as Bahia and Maranhão. Among those villages were Campinas, Santana de Parnaíba, Pirapora do Bom Jesus, Vinhedo, Piracicaba, where the Bantu heritage is still alive to this day, through many different cultural manifestations.
In the rare free time they had, the slaves would carry on practicing their traditions as a form of resistance. In spite of extremely adverse conditions, they kept on worshipping their ancestors, preaching their philosophy and their cosmovision – which included the “batuque” in its many different forms. Among this body of heritage was the concept of “umbigada”, which, in Brazil, became the “Samba”. The word is derived from “semba”, which means belly button. The dance consists of two dancers approaching their belly buttons, a body part considered sacred for the Bantus: being the means through which babies are fed before birth, they saw it as the link between the young and the elder, who will one day become the ancestors of their people.
 [TN] “Batuque” can be roughly translated as “rhythm”, although the original work will be kept untranslated for precision purposes. In popular spoken Portuguese, the terms are sometimes interchangeable, although “batuque” is more widely applied for African-derived rhythms.
Among other African concepts adopted in São Paulo were the “roda” (circle), which mimics the movement of the cosmos; the chants, which could be used as codes for the slaves to communicate and escape from their chains – or as warnings of the approach of a foreman – as means to spread enchantments, defy, praise or even to elevate the mood; the dust that was lifted from the ground by their stomping feet, a reminder that we belong to this planet; the fire which keeps the darkness away, tunes the drums and warms up the circles of people during cold nights; and, finally, the drums, which are the voices of the ancestors, and represent divinities on Earth for many African cultures.
These cultural manifestations are the pillars of the so-called “batuques”, which are thus so difficult to translate or define (refer to previous translator’s note). These concepts show how complex and rich the African cultures are, as one cannot separate the notions of rhythm, dance, singing, spaces, society and philosophy. They’re all part of a whole.
Nowadays, the Samba and Carnival in São Paulo follow much of the way established by Rio de Janeiro. Until the mid-XX century, the Carnival went through periods of allowance and prohibition by the government. From the 60s on, the São Paulo city hall finally conceded a definite allowance for these public parties and parades, so long as the parttakers and organizers would follow regulation. The only available regulating model for São Paulo was the Rio Carnival, which, henceforth adopted, brought dire consequences to more traditionally local types of Samba – stripping them of some of their specific traits and variances.
Even before that, during the slavery period, in Pirapora do Bom Jesus (formerly a part of Santana de Parnaíba), something unique had occurred. Pirapora was the state’s largest pilgrimage spot, due to the finding of a Christ image at the shores of the Tietê river, at around 1725, to which many miracles had been attributed. Many of the pilgrims were farmers, coming from distant villages, who would bring their slaves along.
While white men and women attended their religious obligations, black people had to camp far from the city center. Eventually, the Church built two big warehouses to shelter the slaves. These structures hosted a great convergence of cultural manifestations, as the many dwellers brought in their own variations of “batuques”, like the “bumbo Samba”, the “jongo”, the “umbigada batuque”, the “Mozambique dance”, “congadas”. The later composition of what is known as the Southeastern “Batuques”(Batuques do Sudeste) are thus composed of these cultural manifestations.
After the abolition of slavery, Pirapora continued to attract pilgrims from several regions of São Paulo, and had its peak of popularity around the mid-1930s, to the point where it could very well be considered a cultural festival. However, the success and popularity of the “batuques” was so great that it started drawing more attention than the Christian religious fests, leading to much discontent from the Church, and to its final decision to take down the warehouses – and to the definitive prohibition of “batuques” in the 1940s.
The legacy of Pirapora do Bom Jesus was to become a central meeting and exchanging point for these cultural manifestations, even before the city of São Paulo became one of Brazil’s main economic centers. As the demographic growth accelerated, many freed slaves moved to the expanding city of São Paulo, in search for work. Not by any coincidence, these people settled in the very regions where the first Samba schools were born. Many of the founders of those schools were the ones who attended the meetings in Pirapora.
We can see how the arrival of the Bantu peoples in the coffee plantations began, and how they managed to keep their traditions alive in the midst of so many adversities.
Following the “coffee corridor”, these cultural manifestations – the “jongo”, “batuque de umbigada”, “bumbo Samba” “Mozambiques” and “congadas” – spread throughout the Southwest, from Rio all the way to the South of the country. Once gathered in Pirapora, these groups provided for the ground to be paved, so as to ease passage of the Samba from São Paulo.
Unfortunately, these Southeastern “batuques” are largely unknown, even in the regions where they are rooted. They have, however, survived. They’re kept strong inside the communities, and many of them are now being recognised as immaterial heritages – not without some resistance from the government and some parts of the society. These “batuques” are the evidence of these African peoples’ resilience. Their ancestors may have passed, but the legacy has been kept alive after almost 400 years of a shameful history that is part of Brazil and Portugal. Much was taken from the Africans during this period: their dignity, their blood, work, culture, spirituality and even their lives. But it was mainly through their cultural force, their philosophy and cosmovision, that these men and women managed to stay alive – and despite terrible circumstances, they were able to pass on their knowledge to new generations. After the end of slavery the culture became even more widely spread, forming what we we know today as the Afro-Brazilian culture.
Some of the villages in the state of São Paulo, where the “batuque” still carries on, are (apart from the groups of “jongo” already mentioned): Samba de bumbo: Pirapora do Bom Jesus (Grupo Samba de Roda), Santana de Parnaíba (Grupos Cururuquara e Grito da Noite), Campinas (Quijengues , Mauá (Samba de lenço), Vinhedo (Samba D’Aurora). Batuque de umbigada in the cities of Piracicaba, Tietê e Capivari, e and also the Moçambique and Congadas in Aparecida.
• Cover Photography: “Grupo 13 de maio do Cururuquara” in Casa do samba de Pirapóra do Bom Jesus, by Kamilla Egry.
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DA CRUZ_Luiz Paulo Alves: O jongo e o moçambique no Vale do Paraíba (1988-2014): cultura, práticas e representações. São Paulo . PUC. 2015.
DIAS_Fernanda de Freitas: Na batida do bumbo, um estudo etnográfico do Samba na cidade de Pirapóra do Bom Jesus-SP. São Paulo. UNESP. 2008
MANZATTI_Marcelo Simon: Samba Paulista, do centro cafeeiro à periferia do centro: estudo sobre o Samba de Bumbo, ou Samba Rural Paulista. São Paulo. PUC. 2005
MARCELINO_Marcio Michalczuk: Uma leitura do Samba rural ao Samba urbano na cidade de São Paulo . São Paulo. Universidade de São Paulo. 2007.
MONTEIRO_Lais Bernardes: Diálogos entre Tradição , Memória e Contemporaneidade: Um estudo sobre o Jongo da Lapa. Rio de Janeiro. UNIRIO. 2015