Samba, Brazil’s siren song and most celebrated dance phenomenon, is a musical tradition full of contradictions. At once frenetic and gentle, unrefined and elegant, its range of expression extends from thunderous urban rhythms to intoxicating effusions of nostalgia. Samba owes its formation to the rich musical syncretism of Afro-Brazil; the term itself comes from the Angolan word semba,meaning an invitation to dance, and it was first used in Portuguese to refer to boisterous slave dances on the colony’s vast sugar plantations. However, it was not until after slavery was abolished in the late 19th century, when large numbers of Afro-Brazilians immigrated to the rapidly expanding urban centers of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and São Paolo, that samba began to coalesce into a distinct musical genre. The streets and hilltops of the favelas found former slaves bringing together batuque, traditional Afro-Brazilian percussion and dance, with more modern influences, such as polka and habanera. From the Bahian samba breque, with its emphasis on storytelling and improvisation, to the melodic, lyrical samba canção of Rio’s upper classes, the variety of samba styles that subsequently emerged reflects the breadth of the country’s cultural and geographic diversity.

Ultimately it was samba enredo whose exuberant rhythm mirrors the furious pulse of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, which elevated the genre to its current status as a symbol of national unity. Adopted by the famed escolas de samba, organizations including thousands of singers, dancers, instrumentalists and percussionists charged with putting on the extravagant pre-Lenten celebrations, samba enredo refers to the music written and performed according to the annually selected Carnival theme. In keeping with the tradition beginning with the first samba contests in 1928, each year samba schools transform the streets into parade grounds in which all Brazilians, regardless of race or class, can be seen observing the incandescent rites of Brazil’s incomparable Carnival.