Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Feel in samba

I'll start this post with an enormous caveat that Brazilian music is not my field of expertise at all.  Many people around me are learning Portuguese, making trips to Brazil and being very serious about it, making me feel a little like the guy who sat next to the class clown, as I mentioned to someone recently. Still I thought this might be helpful to people who are, like me, seeking to put together some understanding from multiple, imperfect bits of information. See my "samba builder" download for applications for these concepts.

First, for reference:

The subject of feel in samba is intimidating because it has never been clearly and fully analyzed, at least that I've seen. Here in their entirety are three of the most helpful things I've read about it:
Duduka da Fonseca/Bob Weiner in Brazilian Rhythms for Drumset: One of the keys to understanding Brazilian music is feel the pull towards a "triplet pulse" against the 2/4 feel of the samba.
Eliane Elias quoted by Peter Erskine in The Drum Perspective: "You Americans don't know how to swing samba; you all sound like TI-KA TI-KA TI-KA TI-KA." I smirked and said, "Well then, how should it sound?" She sang, "DO-goosh-ga, DO-goosh-ga, DO-goosh-ga, DO-goosh-ga."

Peter Erskine in Drum Concepts and Techniques: Remember to accent on 2. 

These are all good, but pretty thin compared to the practical theory surrounding swing in jazz. Erskine's things are a nice illustration and rule of thumb; Duduka's thing is the best, but needs to be explained further to be helpful to someone who doesn't already have a clue.

As batucada ensembles have gained in popularity outside of Brazil, there are more people trying to analyze and explain it, usually without the benefit of much musical training. There seems to be a trend among these players of quantizing the swing element mathematically, as percentages of a beat. The results vary based on the player and the tempo, but for me the primary takeaway is that the last 16th note of each beat lands on a very close to the last note of a triplet, so the accenting of the 16ths sounds very close to the triplets below:

The two inside notes are not evenly spaced, but they're close, and should fall into place when the other elements are together. The volume each note is different as well; the first note is the loudest, the 'a' is second loudest, the 'e' is third loudest, and the & is softest. You can hear it through this example:

For many, quantizing samba rhythm like this is a musical atrocity, but my feeling is that performing the music with grossly the wrong feel is worse. Getting approximately the correct interpretation is more important than the means used to attain it, and anyone raised outside of Brazilian culture (and without very developed musical ears) has little hope of getting close by "feel" alone. I should also point out that in jazz the romantic view that swing is just something "felt and that's it" died a long time ago. You seldom hear complaints about approaching swing in jazz by reducing it to parts of a triplet, even though that is equally misleading. These things are tools to give people not raised in a given musical culture a toehold for at least acquiring correct interpretation. Swing is high art, and it's wrong to expect it to happen by itself, or to be the first thing to come together.

I want to invite anyone with anything to add (especially corrections!), to feel free to comment- this is a complex topic, and the more people heard from the better.

1 comment:

Ed Pierce said...

Great post, Todd! I'm no expert myself, but your comments seem dead-on based on my limited knowledge. My first real exposure to the Brazilian feel was attending a workshop many years ago with percussionist Chalo Eduardo--that was the first time I realized how much of a "triplet pull" there was in samba music. On first hearing it it was strange, and then I quickly came to realize how much cooler it was than playing "quantized" 16ths!

Ed Pierce