Some insights into how you choose a Samba to be performed at Carnival?

Text by Kevin Williams

When you listen to an Escola de Samba (school of samba) play their Samba Enredo (song for Carnival) on CD, DVD or performed live at Sambodromo during Carnival in Rio, you hear a well-oiled machine rolling down the avenida accompanied by thunderous percussion, vibrantly colored costumes,elegant dancers all moving in unison to one common theme, and the syncopated rhythms of the Samba Enredo chosen by the Escola. You see the end product but, how do you get from an idea to this incredible artistic production passing through Sapaucai?

This very question took me to several evenings at the Quadro of the Escola de Samba in Pilares, Rio de Janeiro. Having read numerous articles, books, television reports and watched about a decades worth of performances from the Escolas de Samba from both Rio and Sao Paulo, you always feel like you have a great working knowledge about carnival, but Samba is like an onion – as you peel back each layer you find a greater deal of complexity.

How do you choose a Samba to be performed at Carnival? It is a combination of finding the best material and politics. Politics, what does that mean exactly? Choosing a Samba Enredo is similar to an election. You have the music, but you have to campaign to the people in the community whether or not it is worthy to be chosen. Each Samba Enredo composed has its good points, but only one can be performed at Carnival. In this lies the political aspect of the process. You need to make your case to the people.

Over a period of approximately several weeks an elimination process takes place in which numerous composers from the various samba communities bring their Samba Enredo to their individual Escola de Samba. Within this time frame numerous composers present their compositions to the Escola and Communidades to be selected. There are a series of rehearsals in which all of the new Sambas are heard and then one Samba is ultimately chosen to be performed. The Sambas written by the composers are presented in the following way:

– A group of performers accompany the composers as they perform their composition with the Bateria from the Escola de Samba.
– Each individual Samba is performed two times by the Bateria. The first time is with a stripped down version of the
ensemble with the composers, accompanists (someone playing cavaco, violao seis or sete cordas, two or more singers) and a small amount of percussion generally consisting of repique, surdo, tamborine and Caixa. The second time the song is played with the whole ensemble, which is comprised of 100 or more percussionist on various Samba instruments.
– The various sections of the Escola de Samba are also participating and or observing the whole process
– Flyers are generally passed out with the words of the various composition so embers of the Escola and Communidade can follow along with the
– The best Sambas of the evening are then performed once again on a another evening with other composer’s compositions until ultimately a song is chosen to be performed at Carnival that year.

There was one word which I mentioned earlier that is involved in the selection process that I need to come back to and that is the Politics. Each composer is ultimately campaigning to get his or her piece performed at Carnival. It would be nice to believe that in every election whether it be for a President, Congressman or in this instance Composer of Samba Enredo, that the best person, or in this case song, usually wins. In both Samba and Politics this is not always exactly what happens.

Often composers pack their friends and followers into the various Quadros while their Samba is being performed. This often can sway the selection process if it is perceived that one Composition has greater popularity with the Communidade. Often perception can influence which Samba moves into further rounds of the elimination process. Once a Samba passes the first round in the elimination process it continues to further rounds until ultimately one Samba is chosen to represent each individual school for that years Carnival.

So, think of all of this as the music and dance in the videos below play on, and if you find yourself down in South America for Carnival one day, in the middle of it all…………..