This was originally published in the blog of Marinilda Carvalho, a journalist in Rio de Janeiro who covered that city’s carnaval celebration and parades for many years. It is a very personal look at the amazing, miraculous drum sections, called baterias, that participate in the annual parades of the Samba Schools — escolas de samba, these are not really schools, but neighborhood carnaval groups which are very large organizations featuring as many as a few thousand in their parade presentation.

The bateria alone may be 300 or 400 very powerful and very synchronized drummers and percussionists. The sound of a bateria is so powerful, unless you are made of stone, it will make you cry and want to dance at the same time! There is nothing else like it, and, pound for pound, would put the loudest heavy-metal rock bands to shame…not to mention, these folks really know what they are doing.

In Rio, there are at least 25 or more large samba schools in various classifications — the best are in the Grupo Especial and they get the most attention. Of these a few have roots back to the 1920s and are long-time popular favorites and these include Portela, Mangueira, Salgueiro and Império Serrano, while Mocidade de Padre Miguel has long been considered to have the best bateria, or did when it was directed by Mestre Andre.

The bateria is the very essence of what makes Carnaval and its music so exciting. But outside Rio, the organization of the bateria and how it works is a mystery. Hell, most people in Rio don’t have a clue either. The discipline required to organize and maintain this sort of tight, seamless drumming is astounding and the Director of the bateria (often called the Mestre) is respected, maybe feared, by his troops. Perhaps Brazil should appoint some of these guys to run the government!!!!

Anyway, here is Marinilda Carvalho’s portrait of these fantastic groups:

Alô, Bateria!

There are few things in the world that I love more than a great bateria from an escola de samba (samba school). I think that I love even the less-than-great! Because of this I am going to make an enormous posting, one of my little Marinilda specialties. You don’t have to read it, it’s only for my personal satisfaction, because a lot of things have been forgotten, and it’s great to have a blog to help refresh my memory.

Some baterias have caused furor in the history of the big Carnaval parades. That of Mocidade de Padre Miguel was the first to introduce the “paradinha” (little break in the regular rhythm). Mestre André got the crowd ready. [translator’s note: Mestre André was the director of Padre Miguel’s bateria for many years…a great symbol in the development of the modern bateria sound.] Everyone was waiting excitedly for Padre Miguel to appear, even though their samba that year was garbage.

Later, Viradouro brought in their own innovation, doing a paradinha with a funk beat. That was another uproar, “That’s a crime, it’s heresy,” shouted the traditionalists. I thought it was wonderful. If the bateria had beat out nothing but funk for the entire time, I would have agreed with the old school, but their break was used to illustrate their theme for the parade that year… Those old-timers need to catch up! A long time ago I read the opinion of one of the former judges of the bateria [note: during the big Carnaval parade, each samba school is judged in a number of categories, the highest score in each being a 10.] who defended the idea that a 9 was the maximum score for a bateria. Only a bateria that innovated or did something daring would earn a 10. What an idea, don’t you think? A lot of bateria directors keep their baterias in a very strict rhythm to help guarantee a hassle-free 10.

To be daring or challenging isn’t easy. Portela experienced the biggest shame that any school could endure in its life: the bateria fouled up the paradinha and the entire school stopped singing the samba. A terrible sadness spread across the avenue (in those days, I think it was 1973, the parade still took place literally on an avenue, Presidente Vargas Avenue) [note: for the last 25 years or so, the samba parades have taken place in the Samba stadium in Rio called the Sambódromo, constructed just for these parades.] Along Presidente Vargas the members of the schools easily lost their place in the rhythm of the samba—horror of horrors! I have read that it was because of the high buildings on each side of the street.

The sound of the bateria only spread out about 300 meters and the sections of the school that were most distant from the drums could not hear the beat. Today, a “sound car” sticks by the bateria, allowing for a monitoring system. That way it is difficult to mess up. Here at my house, the schools screw up really badly: I hear the sambas sung from a long distance, directly from the Sambódromo, which is actually preceded by the sound coming from the TV broadcast of the parade. What a mess!

The coming back in to the rhythm of all the instruments after the paradinha with no signaling from the repique [sharp sounding, snareless drum, see below], like Viradouro did this year, is nothing new. Mestre Ciça himself did this in ‘99 when he decided that all the instruments would come back in at the same time. “I know that I run the risk of making the samba get out of step, but Carnaval has to get out of the same old same old,” he said at the time. The other day, Veja-Rio [the Rio insert for Brazil’s principal news weekly] wrote, “It has also become obligatory that the bateria do something beyond just establishing the rhythm. A series of choreographed moves performed by the percussionists will be the keynote of the parades. Commanded by Mestre Ciça, of of the pioneers of this pantomime, Viradouro’s bateria will bow in reverence to the honored figure, Bibi Ferreira, and making the drums roll as if they were applauding…”

Wow! it was marvelous. I don’t see anything wrong in the innovations of baterias. Percussionists love showing off their clever skilfullness, it thrills the public. But what you can’t do is endanger the samba. As long as you don’t do that, what’s the problem? (Zé Carlos Rêgo would kill me if he heard me…me, so traditional in so many ways…)

The beat of each bateria is completely different from that of other baterias, according to old African rites [and their distinctive drum rhythms] honoring the orixás (African saints or deities). This difference used to be even greater, but it does still exist. Right after I moved to the Santa Teresa neighborhood and became familiar with the local carnaval group Aconteceu Virou Raiz (which had a very capable bateria), I commented to some friends, “What a great bateria, it reminds me of Salgueiro’s bateria.” Someone responded, “The Director is one of the directors of Salgueiro’s bateria.” To make the point, I, who had not covered Carnaval since the beginning of the ’90s, after 12 years in the thick of things during the parades (that doesn’t even include the many years I was just a spectator), I, who no longer bought the annual recordings of the new Carnaval sambas from each school and who had, for quite some time, stopped attending the rehearsals of the samba schools, in spite of all this, I recognized the beat of Salgueiro. Imagine people like José Carlos Rêgo (the best of the best) or Ivo Meireles (a young guy who knows this stuff well).

Some of Portela’s drums…just waiting!

“Mangueira, with its surdo (bass drum) beat only on the downbeat [samba is in 2/4 and the downbeat is on the TWO], with no other drum responding [note: as you’ll see, their are usually 2 or 3 different bass drums which alternate beats; one sets the beat, the other responds.] and Portela with only the response in the surdo de segunda [the second or responding bass drum], have beats that are absolutely unmatched and differentiated from all the other schools…Salgueiro, with the cuícas up front and altering the position of the group of tamborins [small hand drums with a very piercing sound], offer a substantially different sonority. In the early days of the parades, when the various schools gathered in formation all at the same time in Praça Onze (Plaza 11) and they had not yet developed the custom of wearing costumes in the colors of the school, the members of the various schools arrived at the plaza directing themselves to their appropriate schools guided only by the sound of the bateria, such was the distinctiveness of each one, as attested by the old timers from that period…Even today, I guarantee, anyone who frequents the rehearsals of the baterias and the parades with properly atuned ears and sensibilities, shed of all preconceptions, can still detect the fantastic variety that our beloved samba allows, in spite of all the fuck-ups that these days increasingly make everything sound the same.” (quoted from the Website Samba & Choro from a response by Fernando José to a complaint about the same old same, old of today’s baterias.)

The Instruments Of the Bateria

Take a look at the instruments of a bateria such simple “things” (today, not as much, now so farrrrrrr from the old days of wooden barrels and cat skins…today, boring technology rules the day!) that produce all those fantastic sounds:

[Click on the play button for a sound sample.]

playSurdo de primeira (First surdo)

This is the largest surdo (bass drum), the one that gives the crucial marcação [the second, stronger beat] to the samba—it’s the base. It’s the one that gives the primary beat everyone concentrates on. The singers are guided by this surdo so as not to speed up or slow down. In general, there is a surdo de primeira right next to the principal singers as a guide. It has a higher tone, a stronger tuning than the surdos de resposta (the responding bass drums, second and third surdos). A large bateria has from 8 to 10 big surdos.

Bum Bum Paticumbum Prugurundum” the name of a theme-samba that made Império Serrano champion in 1982 was the onomatopoeic expression used by the great samba composer Ismael Silva to show how the beat of the surdo should be. Too much, don’t you think? Just genius! And Brazilian!!!!

playSurdo de segunda (Second surdo)

This is the response to the surdo de primeira. It sustains the samba rhythm while the surdo de primeira is at rest [in equal note values], it’s the counterpoint.

playSurdo de terceira (Third surdo)

It chimes in between the other two (a little before the surdo de segunda). It gives a special sauciness to the cadence, breaking through the rigidity of the other two surdos, and a swing to the rhythm. The beat varies from school to school, but each one has its own way of adding the third surdo, sometimes called the surdo de corte. [playClick here for a sample of most baterias’ surdo ensemble.]

Mangueira’s bateria doesn’t have surdos de resposta (second or third). It only has the first and a certain surdo de corte, also called the surdo-mor, that isn’t a response exactly, but swings the first. [This has been disputed by some, that Mangueira has just the surdo da primeira and none other.] Mangueira is the only school with this particular pattern, all the others have first, second and third. [playClick here for a sample.] And it’s because of this that Mangueira’s my favorite bateria. I swear, it’s not because I’m a fanatical Mangueira-ite! It’s that it takes a lot of balls to present such a “destroyer” beat like that without second and third surdos!!!!!

playCaixa de guerra (Snare drum of war)

This is what gives character to the samba. Only through the sound of the caixa can you really identify a certain school. It’s always played with two sticks,and has two cords [snares] across the drumhead that gives it a different kind of tone. It sets the tempo, but allows flourishes that can’t happen in the surdos. The way you play the caixa also varies from school to school: in some the player puts the drum at waist level, playing with two hands; others place the caixa higher, using one hand as a support and the other free. A Tarol is a smaller snare drum, and the sound and size are equivalent to the so-called meia caixa [half snare].

playRepique

The repique [this drum is about 12”x14”]. It is the king in the paradinhas and turns of the samba, it’s the signal for the return of the other instruments. In the past, the repique dominated the paradinhas. These days, shakers and other small drums [tamborim] are allowed while the rest of the bateria stays silent.

Repinique

Similar to the repique, two drum heads, but it’s skinnier, but the function is about the same. In schools like Salgueiro, Unidos da Tijuca, Vila Isabel, Estácio de Sá e Mangueira, the sound of the repique is prevalent. Portela, Tradição, Caprichosos e Mocidade highlight the repinique.

Chocalho

It’s made up of several rows of jingles [formerly bottle caps]. There are chocalhos with two, three, four five and even six rows of jingles. There is not a big difference in the sound of chocalhos based on the number of rows, but a larger number of rows creates a stronger sound. This instrument appears more in the refrains of the samba, and there can be entire passages without being heard. The chocalho helps the caixa give the swing to the samba, but it’s lighter.

playTamborim [plural, tamborins]

The tamborins give the punch and the shape to the samba. While the surdos and the caixas provide the continuing rhythm, the tamborins add a yummy texture to the samba. The stick can be single-ended, or branch into multiple ends, each style with a different sound. The tamborim section usually has its own director. In my humble opinion, the best tamborim section is Salgueiro’s.

playCuíca

The sound of the cuíca is produced by a small stick on the inside of the drum, attached to the drum head which is very tightly tuned. Its rhythm depends on the beat of the surdos, which it follows.

 

playAgogô [Double cowbell]

The agogô has one of the highest tones of the bateria. Império Serrano is famous for its agogô section, it’s a stamp of the school and consists of more than 50 agogôs.

Reco-reco [Scraper]

This is a notched shaft and a piece of wood or metal that produces sound from the friction when the stick is scraped across the notches. Some schools don’t use the reco-reco anymore, but some still do.

 

Pandeiro [tambourine]

Many schools have abolished the pandeiro [very much like a tambourine] from the bateria. It’s used as a prop by some percussionists who play it—with great inspiration—to aid the women samba dancers with their intricate samba steps.

Take a look at the formation of a traditional bateria: most military “geniuses” can’t pull off this miracle! And the directors of the baterias do it with a whistle and a baton—or they use a club!!!

[Following is a chart reproduced from the book Memorias do Carnaval published in Rio many years ago. It shows more or less how the 200+ members of the bateria march in the parade, usually starting with the lighter instruments…the heavy surdos are in the middle for stability. The whistles indicate the various Directors who help coordinate the musicians and keep everyone together.]

Portela’s bateria in action in Austin, Texas, Feb. 2000. The man playing the tamborim in the bottom photo is now the Director of the Bateria.

For more on samba schools, check out the links page on our website. We offer several links to various English language sites which discuss various aspects of Carnaval and the link for Liesa, the official League of Rio’s samba schools has links to the sites of most of the major and minor schools. Have fun. Vamos, lá, gallera!