When I was in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks ago, I sang and danced to samba in the clubs, I heard it on the radio and I ate a "Feijoada," Brazil's national dish, while listening to a live samba group.
But I wanted more insight into the world of samba. So I asked young samba composer and singer Leandro Fregonesi to take me to some clubs and educate me. I asked what drew him into samba.
"It's very complete, in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony," he said. "Here in Brazil, samba, it's the most representative way to express our emotions, when we are happy, when we are not happy."
And as we hopped from club to club, I realized this music lets you express lots of different emotions. Fregonesi says that's partly because there are so many different kinds of sambas.
"We have Samba de Enredo, which is from the samba schools”, Fregonesi explained.” We have Samba de Partido Alto, [where] sometimes the singers, they improvise on the song, on the theme. We have Samba-Canção, which is a slower way to do the samba. We have Samba-Jazz. We have many types of samba. This classification 'samba' brings together many possibilities."
Samba's roots are in Africa, and drumming is a key element. So are the lyrics. Samba composers write about love and heartache, separation and reconciliation, tragedy and triumph. Sambas can be about food, soccer, even politics.
For instance, "Vai Passar," by the great Chico Buarque, is about the arrival of democracy in the early 1980s.
Fregonesi says a good samba composer is a storyteller who's sharp and insightful.
"This is very important in Brazil. The more witty the composer, [the] more respected he is by others. It's a kind of measure. The wittier, the better."
"Samba Mestiço," co-written by Fregonesi and recorded by the Godmother of samba Beth Carvalho, shows that kind of wit. It talks about the origins of the music and how samba became an anthem of freedom.
On my last night in Rio, my friend Nilson Raman surprised me with a special gift. He got tickets to a samba song competition at one of the oldest institutions of Brazilian Carnival, the Mangueira Escola de Samba — or Mangueira Samba School — near the famous Maracanã Stadium.
There were hundreds of people, dancing and singing like there was no tomorrow. I was in samba heaven. Never in my life had I even imagined I'd get a chance to see this kind of spectacle, the biggest party I've ever attended.
So the next time you hear samba, you'll know why it's such a rich and vibrant music tradition. It's a way of life!