Latin America is a beautiful, diverse region full of different musical traditions. In this episode we explore Brazilian samba and how genres are continuously changing due to the efforts to all sorts of people. Ethnomusicologists Jeannelle Ramirez and Vicky Mogollón Montagne join us to talk about changing Latin American traditions and what it means to be Latinx. Hit play to hear from Vicky and Jeannelle and learn how to perform samba from Felipe Brito, Marco Antônio Santos, and Fábio Augustinis.


Click to Read Transcript

*Trio plays refrain to “Aquarela do Brasil”

Cristina Saltos (CS): Hello and welcome to Reflective Rhythms! My name is Cristina Saltos, I’m a musicologist, which means I study how humans make music, why humans make music, and how human music-making has changed over time. We’ve just heard Felipe Brito, Marco Antônio Santos, and Fábio Augustinis play their rendition of “Aquarela do Brasil,” a famous Brazilian samba piece by Ary Barroso. How are you all doing today?

Everyone: Good!

CS: Thank you all for being here! Today we also have the special treat of having two scholars on the show—Jeannelle Ramirez and Vicky Mogollón Montagne. Welcome to the show!

VMM: Thank you, happy to be here.

CS: Today, we are going to talk about the very cool music we just heard Felipe, Marco, and Fabio play—samba! Before we get into the details of samba’s history, we need to talk about what exactly type of word “samba” is. Samba is a *sound effect* genre of music. You may have heard the word genre before. Some people describe genres as music boxes that artists and listeners put musics into based on shared musical features that occur over and over again. But it’s a little trickier than that. You see, genres are also shaped by how musicians perform them and audiences experience them. Because artists love to create new things and surprise their listeners, musicians often mix genres with other genres, instruments, and performance ideas, leading to changes. Sometimes these changes create *sound effect* subgenres, which are genres of music that fit within bigger genres because they share a lot of characteristics—kind of like when you can fit one cup inside another because it shares a similar shape. Genres also change because different kinds of people hear them, enjoy them, and want to add to them with musical ideas from their own background or tradition. Both of these things happened within the genre of samba. Felipe, could you tell us what you know about samba’s beginnings?

The beginnings of Samba

Felipe: Absolutely! Samba is a genre that has its roots in Afro-Brazilian musical traditions. If someone is Afro-Brazilian, it means that they are of African descent and grew up in Brazil. Many African people came to Brazil because they were enslaved by the Portuguese, who were in control of Brazil until 1822. While scholars aren’t fully sure what specific musical traditions samba came from, many people point to Afro-Brazilian circle-dances and lundu song (a type of traditional music) as two potential sources. Where samba really flourished, however, was in Rio de Janeiro. One of the reasons why this happened is because lots of Afro-Brazilians migrated there after the emancipation (or freeing) of enslaved people in 1888. Many people came from the state of Bahia, where life was getting hard. Once in Rio, many Afro-Brazilians began coming together to hang out and make music, some of which turned into samba. Samba started to really take the form we recognize today in the 1920s, when Black artists such as Sinhô and Pixinguinha began using stanza-refrain—a musical structure that always has the same set of words and music come back after different words or music is played. They also used music to talk about their lives and the people in their communities, people who often weren’t heard because they didn’t make very much money.

CS: Now, although we have Afro-Brazilians to thank for samba, many different groups of people contributed to its growth! Many people contributed because Brazil is a very diverse country. Folks of Amerindian, African, Portuguese, and European descent all live in Brazil to this day. Amerindians were the very first people to ever call Brazil their home. Because lots of people fall in love and have families, many people are mixed-race, meaning that they belong to two or more of these groups.

White composers were one group of people that helped samba grow. They began to write samba in the 1930s, creating a new subgenre called samba-canção. These composers added new harmonies to samba and put a bigger focus on what the vocalist was singing. Ary Barroso, the man who wrote the song we heard at the beginning of the show, was one of these composers. Now, if you’ve heard samba before, you may be a little confused because the samba we heard earlier sounds so different from the samba we hear today. But that’s because like many other genres, samba has continued to change and grow over time. Genres are always changing! While people have continued to add new instruments, ideas, and musical traditions, here are a few key musical features you might hear one or more of: musical units made up of two units of time known as *sound effect* beats with a strong emphasis on the second beat, syncopation—which means shifting the beat forward or backward from it’s expected place to  create a cool rhythm, and stanza-refrains, the musical form that brings back the same music and words after something different happens. If you’re interested in testing your listening ears, we’ve included some examples on the website.

What is Latin America?

Now, Brazil is a very big country that’s part of a larger region—Latin America. But I need a little help. Could someone help me figure out what Latin America is?

Felipe: No problem, Cristina.  Latin America is a region consisting of Mexico, Central America, South America, and countries in the Caribbean that speak Spanish or French. Like Brazil, this region has a lot of different folks in it of African, European, Amerindian, and mixed-race descent. While these are some of the most common groups of people and languages, it ss important to note that there are many other languages and groups of people in Latin America. Latin America is very special because it has so many beautiful cultures! There are many different Latin American experiences, and it is best to allow people from Latin America to choose what they call themselves. Most people in Latin America identify by the country they were born in, calling themselves Brazilian for example, like me. In the United States, though, it’s a little trickier. People from Latin America are usually identified as a group by two names: Hispanic and Latino/Latina. These words, however, have different meanings.

Hispanic vs. Latino/Latina

CS: Yes, they do! I did some *sound effect* research and got some answers that explain how they are different. To be of Hispanic descent means that you are from Spain or a country that speaks Spanish. The term Hispanic excludes Brazil because they speak Portuguese. Latino/a refers to a man or woman living in the United States who is of Latin American descent. But today we’re going to talk about an exciting new term: *sound effect* Latinx! Latinx was a term coined in 2004 by people of Latin American descent who wanted to include folks that don’t identify as male or female. Spanish is a gendered language, meaning that people who identify as women end certain words with “a” and people who identify as men end certain words with “o”. For example, if I was talking to my family in Ecuador, because I am a woman, when I am tired I would say “estoy cansada.”

What is “Latinx”?

The “x” in Latinx is gender-neutral, which means it includes people who don’t identify as men or women. Sometimes these folks use terms like “gender queer” and “nonbinary” to describe themselves. This term also celebrates that Latin America is made up of a mix of African, Amerindian, and European folks, and strives to advocate for people in this group that aren’t being treated with respect by certain people or governments.

And there’s something else that’s happened that’s also really cool. Latinx has also created some really cool trends in music that Jeannelle has studied! Jeannelle, can you tell us a little bit about how people are using Latinx identities to make new genres?

Jeannelle:  The term ‘Latinx’ has a lot to do with pan-Latinidad, which is the idea that we are part of a big community because we share similar experiences. So, even though my parents are from Cuba, I might have a lot in common with someone whose parents are from Colombia. Maybe we grew up hearing some of the same Spanish-language music, and we both have to deal with being bicultural, or code-switching – which just means moving back and forth from one culture to another. When we focus on what we have in common, we can work together to make things – like music festivals. There’s a lot of great new Latinx music festivals full of music that doesn’t really fit anywhere else. Latinx musicians today are using technology—like music production software and robots—in really fun ways to create new sounds like “Dreambow” or “Spanglish Dream Pop.” The internet allows these new styles to thrive  because artists can reach listeners all over the world through platforms like Spotify or YouTube, and they don’t have to fit into old categories of Latin music.  It’s something totally different that comes out of this blend of Latinx cultures here in the US.

CS: Wow, very cool, than you Jeannelle! It seems like a lot of cool things happen when we mix genres! Buuut here’s a question—can some negative things happen too?

Vicky:  Yes, they can, and I can give you an example. Even though I am from Venezuela, a country in South America, I became really interested in a type of Mexican music called Son Jarocho. Son Jarocho comes from a state called Veracruz in the east side of Mexico. Traditionally people understood Son Jarocho as a rural, country genre created through the mixing of Indigenous, Africans and Spanish influences. The music was so popular and so significan, that in the 1920s the Mexican government started treating it as the national music. It was not Mariachi, but Son Jarocho the music all Mexicans were proud of!! Sadly, in this process urban, city-like and European features and history were highlighted almost to the point that everything else got lost! This is an important take-away: sometimes when genres evolve they leave some people behind, and we must remember them. Another take-away: upon first listening we are not always able to pick up every single musical or historical influence of a certain genre

CS: Those are great points Vicky! If you know about people that helped make a genre, it’s important to be a teacher and name the folks that participated in making the music so many of us enjoy. And here’s something really cool—are you ready?

Group: Yes!

Latinx music

CS: You don’t have to be Latinx to play or enjoy Latinx music! It’s important that we all listen to, learn about, and play each other’s music. Today we’re going to do that together and Felipe, Marco, and Fabio,  are going to teach us how to perform a little bit of “Aquarela do Brasil,” the song we heard before.

So first we’re gonna learn some of the instruments. What instrument should we start with today.

FB: We’re gonna start with pandeiro, that’s a percussion instrument, very traditional used in samba.

CS: What does it sound like?

*Fabio plays pandeiro*

CS: Ahh, I see! So the pandeiro gives us a really nice, steady beat. What’s the next instrument we’re using in this piece?

FB: The next instrument that we’re using is the guitar, commonly used in samba accompanying the voice along with the pandeiro.

CS: Ah. What does that sound like?

*Marco plays guitar*

CS: Ah, so it seems like we’re getting some harmony there as well. And what’s the last instrument we need?

FB: The last one is the trombone, used several times to substitute the singer to do the melody.

*Felipe plays trombone*

CS: And here’s something exciting—we’re all going to sing as well and help! Jeannelle, Vicky, and myself will be singing along with you. So let’s learn the melody before we play altogether.

*Jeannelle, Vicky, and Cristina sing the melody while Felipe plays*

CS: Excellent work everyone! Okay, we’re going to put it all together now and we’re gonna do it two times so you can get the hang of it.

FB: And you can sing along with us!

*Group performs “Aquarela do Brasil.”* 

CS: Wow, that was so fun! Thank you Marco, Fabio, and Felipe for playing with us today. And thank you to Jeannelle Ramirez and Vicky Mogollón Montagne for coming in today and sharing knowledge with us. If you’d like to know more about the artists we had today or the scholars we spotlighted, please check it out on the website. And if you have any questions about Latinx music or other things you’d like to learn about you can ask those there as well. Before we leave today we’d like to give a special thank you to  UT Austin Rainwater Innovation Grant and the UT Austin Fine Arts Diversity Committee for their financial support. Once again we’d like to thank you for joining us today. We’ll see you next time!

Works Cited

Learn More about Cited Works

Béhague, Gerard. “Brazil.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. Accessed January 20, 2020.

­­——————–. “Samba.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. Accessed January 20, 2020.     92630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000024449, s.v. “Definition of Hispanic | Dictionary.Com.” Accessed January 23, 2020.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “List of Countries in Latin America.” Accessed January 23, 2020.

Madrid, Alejanrdo L. and Robin D. Moore. Danzon: circum-Caribbean dialogues in music and   dance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

McGowan, Chris and Ricardo Pessanha. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009.

Lopez, Mark Hugo, Jens Manuel Krogstad, and Jeffrey S. Passel. “Who Is Hispanic?” Fact Tank (blog), Pew Research Center, November 11, 2019. Accessed January 23, 2020.

Merriam-Webster, s.v. “LATINX.” Accessed January 23, 2020.

Mogollón Montagne, Victoria. “The Art of Mixing and Equalizing: Mestizaje, Belonging, and Fusion in Mexican Son Jarocho.” Paper presented at the Society for Ethnomusicology Southern Plains Chapter Conference, Lubbock, Texas, April 14, 2018.

Party, Daniel. “Twenty-First century Latin American and Latino popular music.” In Musics of Latin America, edited by Robin Moore and Walter Aaron Clark. New York, NY: W.W.  Norton & Company, 2012.

Ramirez, Erika. “Why Is the Term ‘Latinx’ So Important?” ELLE, August 2, 2016. 

Ramirez, Jeannelle. “’A mix of everything’ : alternative music and alternative Latinidad in the United States.” Master’s Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2016.

Samson, Jim. “Genre.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. Accessed January 22, 2020.    9781561592630-e-0000040599

Steinmetz, Katy.  “Why ‘Latinx’ Is Succeeding While Other Gender-Neutral Terms Fail to Catch On.” Time, April 2, 2018. Accessed January 23, 2020. 

“Syncopation.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. Accessed January 30, 2020.

A special thank you to ZapSplat for our sound effects.