“São Paulo is the graveyard of samba.” So claimed the late Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes, who co-wrote Brazil’s most famous song, “The Girl From Ipanema.” Home to more than 20 million people, the landlocked city, a graveyard of buildings ordered against the sky, clashed with samba music’s optimistic, beach-breezy beat. But now, 100 years after the first recorded samba, São Paulo is pioneering the genre’s second act, with a nuanced accent on alienation that is revolutionizing its sound.
“Out there, the buildings will suffocate me,” the São Paulo band Pitanga em Pé de Amora sings on its 2014 Pontes para Si (Bridges for You) album. “It’s like São Paulo is moaning, not even the walls want to listen to me.” The group’s manic samba hit “Insonia” (Insomnia), churning with the distress of loneliness, doesn’t paint a picture of Carnival — and would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Artists like Flora Poppovic, who sings with the band, have replaced samba’s usual tales of unrequited love in the favelas with existential musings about anonymity in the city, electric guitars underscoring the solitude. “I feel so alone in these streets without corners, I’ll always be going the wrong way,” she sings in the group’s 2016 single “Passaro” (Bird).
São Paulo has always served as a foil to Rio de Janeiro, its breezy, curvy cousin to the north, where samba has flourished for decades with peppy songs about life and love in the city’s slums, like Nelson Cavaquinho’s 1976 classic “A Flor e O Espinho” (The Flower and the Thorn) or Alcione’s 1975 hit, “Nao Deixe o Samba Morrer” (Do Not Let Samba Die).
Inspired by performers like Elza Soares, an 80-year-old samba veteran who spikes her songs with elements of punk and jazz, São Paulo musicians have searched for a less manicured sound. They morphed Soares’ angry, combative samba — known as samba sujo or “dirty” samba, and fueled by a sense of social injustice — into introspective anthems of urban ennui.
Sao Paulo was their muse. Unlike Rio, with its aggressive beauty, São Paulo has a prickly charm. Forever submerged in thick smog, the mega-city is Brazil’s industrial and financial capital, constantly churning as its rich and poor hustle for deals. São Paulo’s texture and movement attracted artists exploring rebellious sambas focusing on self-examination.
Samba emerged from percussion styles brought over by the 4 million African slaves trafficked into Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries. In order to maintain morale during the transatlantic voyages, masters would allow the slaves to sing and dance on ships to African rhythms.
When they landed in Rio’s ports, the slaves continued to make music as a way to reclaim ownership over their bodies, according to Marcos Alvito, a history professor at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio. “It was the only available reminder that they were human beings,” he says.
The genre blossomed after the abolition of slavery in 1888. Musicians would gather locally and freestyle rhythms and lyrics. They played tambourines, guitars, several different drums and the berimbau, a musical bow made from a single string that produces a twangy sound, heard in most samba songs.
The popularization of radio standardized Rio’s samba nationally. It became the soundtrack to the country’s wildest party every year, Carnival — and fashioned an image of Brazil as a happy-go-lucky collection of beaches, soccer balls and swaying palm trees.
At the end of the 20th century, Brazil became an agricultural powerhouse and samba took a back seat to Brazilian country music, the guitar-heavy sertanejo, which came to dominate radio stations and concert halls. The few musicians still entranced by samba’s emphasis on a strong second beat — a precipitated accent that forces the leg down and pulls the hip back — were bound to the traditional instruments and themes of Rio.
But the rise of the Internet freed these artists from the whims of music mega-labels. Suddenly, all kinds of songs could be uploaded in cities around Brazil for the world to hear. Samba became local again.
“[Our samba] has this sadness, this urban hardness,” said Rodrigo Campos, 39, a singer in São Paulo who performs with Elza Soares on her highly acclaimed 2016 release, The Woman at the End of the World. “We don’t have Rio’s landscape, so the focus is on the characters,” he says.
Campos’ characters blend into the bustle of the city, navigating metro lines and waiting at bus stops. In one song, two young people fall in love on the outskirts of São Paulo and make love behind the gates of a closed metro station. The city is in constant dialogue with the characters.
What started as an underground movement is growing increasingly popular outside the city, too, with fans packing concert halls as far away as Frankfurt. This melancholic twist is resurrecting samba for a new generation of listeners, says Douglas Germano, one of the movement’s most popular stars.
“We want to celebrate 100 years of something living, pulsing, vibrating,” said Germano, who wrote songs for Elza Soares before breaking out on his own this year with his critically acclaimed album, Golpe de Vista or “Illusion”. “Samba doesn’t accept restraint,” the 48-year-old performer says. “It has to break free or else it dies.”