Highlights of Musical

About the works

The Coming Decline of Frevo

Tambourine Playing in Brazil

The African Influence in Brazilian Music

Frevo Steps and Music

Art and Artists

In Terms of Music from São Paulo

A Mistaken Analysis of a Brazilian Rhythm

Scales in Brazilian Folk Music

The Indians of Petrópolis

Índios or Cabôcos of Petrópolis

Notes on Playing Marbles

Variations on the Boi

Variations on the Baião

Variations on the Maxixe





III Congresso Afro-Brasileiro. Recife, September 1982.

Os Afro-Brasileiros Fundação Joaquim Nabuco. Editora Massangana, 1985.


          Since most people are not music lovers, I feel obligated – avoiding technical terms as much as possible – to report to Europe and then Brazil a comparison of the Negro influence here. As we know, a given color may be more or less blue in comparison to another.

          The Greeks, who raised music to great heights for their time, synthesized their music, for the sake of theory, into scales. There were essentially three: Dorian, Phrygian and Lydian. The Dorian came about due to a split in the Greek people. The city of Sparta, for example, had Dorian origins, much like others that were scattered throughout the regions the Greeks inhabited. Phrygia and Lydia were found beginning in parts of Asia Minor [in the region of modern day Turkey]. Properly speaking they were not actually Greek, but they had close contact with Greece. Tradition claims that the great fable writer Aesop was of Phrygian origin, but that is not related to the scale of his fables. The Greeks called the scales that defined their melodies modes. This simplified things, giving us Dorian chants, Phrygian chants and Lydian chants. Three lower modes derive from these three: hypodorian, hypophrygian and hypolydian. This leaves us with six modes.

          Later, under Roman domination – the Romans were, of course, greatly influenced by the Greeks – these scales spread to all the countries: Italy, Greece – where they still are -, the Slavic countries, Germany [although with some differences], Switzerland, England and the Iberian Peninsula. From there they came to Brazil’s Northeast, where Brazilian civilization was born. At that time, the end of the Renaissance, all European music adopted these modes, whether it was for the court or for the masses. This music based on modes arrived in the Northeast and traveled to the North as far as eastern Goiás and northern Minas Gerais. While doing research for the Ministry of Education I found it along the northern coast of São Paulo, in Ilha Bela, Caraguatuba, São Sebastião and especially Ubatuba; a little in southern Minas Gerais,  in Folias de Reis; and even in Paraná; much less further south, but reaching Santa Catarina and even Rio Grande do Sul. There, however, it was not melodic, but resulted from the singing in two or three voices; this I heard in a recording a student made while researching the moçambique. Northeastern immigration carried these modes to Amazônia, most notably Manaus, where previously they were not common. On one occasion I spent at least four hours listening to music in Manaus, and you could hear the Northeastern modes. They also found their way to São Paulo. There are at least ninety forrós in the city of São Paulo today.

          A new concept became established in Europe after the 18th century that was not only melodic, but harmonic as well. This classical tonality has four modes. The major mode, exemplified in the children’s song “Atirei o pau no gato,” the minor, as seen in another children’s song, “Terezinha de Jesus,” and two other variations of the minor mode. So there are ten northeastern modes: three fundamentals and their three variations, plus the four classical modes. These came much later, emerging in Europe after the discovery of Brazil.

          There in Europe, music made its way from the courts to the salons of the bourgeois: waltzes, quadrilles, polkas and the like. From there it easily reached the masses. Beginning in the 19th century, the new European immigrants headed to southern Brazil bringing this music with them. The further south we look, the great this tendency, which arose upon Brazil’s Opening of the Ports. The older modal music continued as well.

There are then no less than ten modes – or scales if you prefer – being used in Brazil. Those traced to Greece turning up in the baiões of Luiz Gonzaga, in the aboios, in the music of the “caboclinhos” and of the viola players, etc. The ones that came with the Opening of the Ports are found in the pastoril, the frevo, and in a few other folk manifestations. The prevalent modes in the Northeast are the most deeply traditional and genuinely folk. Whatever the form they take, the ten European modes are very commonly heard.


          And the Negros? What did they bring? We know that a scale is a succession of notes, but I am talking here about modes, which are melodic. A mode may have only one note, “in recto tono,” or straight melody. In the Xangôs I found a few examples of this straight mode: three modes of two notes; five of three notes; six of four notes; seven of five notes [It is pentatonic, but it has nothing at all whatsoever to do with the traditional Chinese pentatonic scale; the relationship of the notes is completely different.] I found six examples having six notes; three of seven; four of eight. In the Xangôs a total of thirty-five modes.

          And in the Maracatus? The layman – in music and in Maracatu – normally does not perceive the differences between them and the Xangôs because of the singing style, which is the same. But I can tell you that in the Maracatus there is a two-note mode; two four-note modes; five five-note modes – still with no similarity to the Chinese pentatonic; two six-note modes; and four seven-note modes. That makes a total of fourteen modes in the old-style Maracatus, those that are visibly reminiscent of the Reis do Congo coronation In total there are forty-nine Negro modes. Add to these the ten European modes for a total of at least fifty-nine commonly used modes in the Northeast, not to mention mixtures of African modes with each other and with the European ones.

          However, one of the most important contributions from the Negros – actually they all are, the melody, the rhythm, the instruments – was, in my view, their way of singing. It’s not exactly the timbre. That’s not it at all, because it isn’t a question of the voice’s innate timbre. I visited an Umbanda center in the South where almost everyone was white, but they sang in the Negro style. I have also heard North American Negro choruses that do not sing this way; rather they sing in a completely academic way. Negros, the real commoners, have their own way of singing, and this heavily influenced Brazilian popular music.

          There is also a style of playing, especially the drums. Negros have a different emphasis, give  a different color, with the way they strike the skin; every point produces a different tonality, beating sometimes with the hand open, sometimes with it closed. Even when they play with sticks, they are different, meant to substitute the hands to produce a different sound, whether by their quality, how they are used, or where they strike. In other words, the Negros have a musical accent.

          And now, rhythm. In Recife alone, in the Xangôs, I documented over 500 variations at that time. This is why: At that same Umbanda center, when the ogan-ilu, the head of the ogans, changes, something in the rhythm changes. There are differences from one center to another. The 500-plus variations I referred to were in six hours of playing, two each visit. That’s because I usually went to these centers by taxi, and the drivers didn’t want to wait for me very long because they would lose money. Fortunately I had an excellent informant, the Negro Gobá; he was recommended by the old Santinha do Maracatu Elefante and had the instincts of a researcher. He would even go to the Baptist churches, the Assemblies of God, and he told me everything. He was extremely valuable and could clarify so many things.

          Let’s look at examples of percussion rhythms. For the sake of comparison we take the beats, which is like the counts in a measure. This beat is subdivided into an even – two or four – or odd – three, maybe two times three - number of subdivisions. Some are mixed. I only found one three count measure, the Xangô Alujá or Elujá, here in Recife. In only one center, the Severino center, I found and heard on three occasions a five count, which is very rare in Brazilian music although common in Slavic countries.

          Regarding the rhythms. I don’t know anything about the etymology of the words batá, melê, nagô. They are just names that I noted. First the rhythm called batá. * [The first five were recorded at a house of Lídia de Oxalá; her son-in-law was leading, Zé Romão, the flesh and blood son of Pai Adão. You can’t get any more traditional Pernambuco Xangô.]

          A lot of rhythms are called batá. They have two or four beats, depending on who writes them. They have an odd number of subdivisions, which another drum in the ensemble - one we can’t hear in this recording - maintains throughout.

          Another rhythm is the melê. Here let me note something I learned from our friend Gobá, something that no other researcher seems to have noted. Ilu is the name of the drum used in the xangôs. It is shaped like a wine barrel, with two heads, different than the atabaque, which is tapered and has only one head. The older names of the drums were: melê-chefe, the main ilu, which led the rhythm; melê-de-marcação, the middle one that kept the same rhythm, like a cavaquinho that plays the middle during the choro; and melê-uncó, the smaller one that played a lot of different variations. Uncó means false, because the variations are intentionally off of the ensemble’s polyrhythm. You don’t see these details in all the rhythms. Let us listen to a two-beat melê with an odd number of subdivisions. The drummers may play variations outside the pattern. Depending on the saint that is being played for or that comes down, they may have more or less freedom to vary. In one we will hear there are a lot of them. Fantastic!

          Another rhythm is the batá-de-Emanjá. It can have two or four beats – I opted to write it in four – with an odd number of subdivisions. It is considered extremely difficult. It was recorded one of the first times I visited the centers, precisely during a Xangô of Lídia de Oxalá. It took me at least sixty days to understand it. The percussion rhythm formed one unit; the dance was an independent unit; and the chant – led by Zé Romão, who signaled with his head for the initiates to sing together – was yet another independent unit. In other words, none of the parts were related to the others.

          Now another batá – a very common name – with an even number of subdivisions, as one can see. It is followed by the beat called nagô, which is very common in both Recife and Bahia. I estimate that this beat is played for an average of 30% of each session, of each celebration, making it the most characteristic one at the centers. The dance is in a two count, two pulses. It would be interesting to hear this same beat played in Bahia. Surely something would be different, since they use a different type of instrument. Here in Recife the resonating body is smaller, so variations shouldn’t be played too fast. Also from Bahia, an Alujá or Elujá [depending on who is saying it], a Xangô beat, that is the Orixá called Xangô. It is interesting to compare the interpretations from Bahia and Pernambuco.

          The number of beats in the Candomblés is huge. I have heard a lot of them in centers in Rio de Janeiro. I’ve only heard recordings of the ones from Bahia, never live. However I did hear them in Rio Grande do Sul, on the batuques, which are the candomblés there. I heard them in Porto Alegre at the center of Mãe Apolinária, in the Auxiliadora neighborhood. Later my friend Carlos Galvão Krebs gave me a tape. You could see that many of the rhythms have the same shape as in other African cults in Brazil, just with some variations. As far as the melodies, I recognized some from those I knew from Recife. I’ll say it again: when they sing in the African cult services, the Spanish influenced gaúchos do it in the African style.

          Now moving on from the xangôs. I’ll show now a mixture of religious and profane elements. Let’s hear a Bumba-Meu-Boi rhythm from Maranhão, which mixes different measures while the melody goes along in one of the non-Negro modes.

          It seems to me that wherever there was Bantu influence the rhythms are simpler, probably because the Sudanese Negros had Arabic influence, more sophisticated, more rhythmically complex. What is certain is that as soon as the music leaves the more traditional cult, of Xangô or Candomblé, the rhythms become simpler. Take for example a rhythm from the Rio macumba that I recorded in Irajá. It is like a samba, which everybody knows. There are other rhythms in macumba, but this easier type is predominant. The advantage of it being easy is that when one person can’t play, someone else can substitute, although it won’t have the rich variety that traditional cults have.

          Here in Recife there is, or was anyway, like in Porto Alegre, Salvador, Rio and other places, a rhythm called congo. I have no doubt it is from Angola or the Congo, because I have heard it in documentary recordings from areas where Bantu is spoken. The congo rhythm played here is from the Pai João d’Angola center, from Belo Horizonte. Besides the rhythm, we see the Negro singing style and an influence from Minas Gerais, a second voice.

          Another clearly Negro influence is found in the baião, usually on the bass drum although sometimes on other instruments. This Negro influence on the baião rhythm is sometimes even sophisticated, but you wouldn’t notice it unless you were educated to. The baião-de-viola is even more African and has exactly the same characteristic syncopation. This is very clear in the piece this short passage is from, the famous story A onça e o cachorro.   

          There is another kind of music with African influence that rhythmically, but not in the melody, is similar to the baião. It is the tango, which seems to have nothing at all to do with the Argentinean tango. Due to the success of the Argentinean tango, they started calling ours the “Brazilian tango,” as if it were like the Argentinean one. However, the Brazilian tango existed long before the Argentinean one. Some people used to, or still do, get it mixed up with the maxixe. This is a big mistake, because the maxixe is not a type of music or even a dance properly speaking; it is just a style of dancing. The maxixe was danced to polka or galope music, etc. However the Brazilian tango lent itself to the maxixe better, so people confused the two, and sometimes due to their commercial interests. Recordings of Chiquinha Gonzaga or Nazaré released in France when the Argentinean tango was at its prime often read “tango-maxixe,” which was understood to mean “tango for dancing the maxixe.”

          Let me add something. The Argentinean musicologist Rodrigo said that the Brazilian tango had been influenced by the habanera, which I hope to write about at some point. He also said the Argentinean tango was influenced by Brazilian Negros exported to Buenos Aires as slaves. He saw the Argentinean tango as a regional version of the Brazilian tango, like the Brazilian tango is a regional version of the habanera. Rodrigo also explained the name – I personally don’t understand etymology, so I leave that up to him. He said the word tango is from the Xangô, both the cult and one of its orixás, and means between us. The fact is that in Cuba Xangô is pronounced tchangô, which could have led to tango. The tango reproduced here I got from Vicente, a zabumba player from Caruaru.

          The syncopated low line, which is very African, is also found in the slow processional music like that played in the Good Friday procession, as part of the novena.

          One rhythm that is played a lot – but you can’t dance to it – in the African cult services and sometimes in sacred-profane music, like the congada, the folia de reis [at certain times], etc, is what they called rufado in Recife. It is a random beat that doesn’t have to adhere to the timing. The drums do a roll and maybe a few slaps; the agogô does whatever.

          There are many different rhythms in the São Paulo congada, although not as many as in the Xangô. For reproduction here I chose one that is similar to the baião; following that is a fandango from São Paulo, with typical Negro details, and lastly a fandango from Paraná for the sake of comparison.

         I just want to say that African syncopation is very clear in Brazilian music. Syncopation may not be exclusive to Brazil, nor to Africa; the Portuguese have it too, as do other peoples from completely different cultures. However, the way it is done in Brazil – how it’s played, articulated – is typical of Africa.

          In one of his books – don’t ask me which one, but the phrase is quoted a lot - Mário de Andrade wrote that a large part, perhaps the largest part, of what we received was from Europe, but the Negros gave everything color. Saravá!