Questions regarding Samba instruments have been a constant since we started to write about the Brazilian Carnaval. I guess there is a fascination upon the subject, which can be easily understood. When we think of a regular orchestra or band, we might know by the top of our heads a few of the instruments like saxophones, clarinets, piano, etc. We have been listening to them, learning about them, seeing people play since very early stages of our lives. Samba instruments, by the other hand, are very specific and some of them only “exist” formally since the 1950s.
Another possible reason for this curiosity is probably due to the fact that many instruments simply were not industrialized or used on a large scale outside of Brazil. They are truly very recent samba phenomena, we could say. For this reason, we are writing two specific sections on the entire samba instruments used at the Brazilian Carnaval; one relative to what we call the “Light Samba Instruments” and the other commonly called “Heavy Samba Instruments”. As you may have read, most of them have African roots and slowly were adapted to samba-school use. On this page you will review the heavy samba instruments group. Let´s see their descriptions!
Surdo de Primeira (First surdo):
This is the largest surdo (bass drum), the one that gives the crucial ‘boom’ sound marca [the second, stronger beat] to the samba, the base. The Surdo de Primeira is responsible for the primary beat, so everyone could 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, 10, or more big surdos.
This double-headed bass drum is perhaps the most recognizable of all of the samba instruments, with its deep ‘doom’ sound providing the fundamental beat of the samba rhythm. The surdo is played with a soft-headed mallet and a bare hand (to dampen the head and change the pitch of the drum), or with two mallets (as in samba reggae and other styles from the north-east of Brazil). The word surdo literally means ‘deaf’ and it is the heart-beat of the bateria.
“Bum Bum Paticumbum Prugurundum” – the name of a theme-samba that made 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.
Surdo 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. The Surdo de Segunda is also smaller and tuned higher than a primeiro surdo. The second surdo plays on the first beat of the samba, (the downbeat) providing a counter beat for the first surdo. Physically, it is the same drum itself.
Surdo de Terceira (Third surdo):
The “Surdo de Terceira” 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 by each samba-school, but each one has its own way of adding the third surdo, sometimes called the surdo de corte.
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.
Caixa de Guerra (Snare drum of war):
This is what gives character to the samba. The Caixa is a double-headed snare-type drum which is played with two sticks. Unlike the snare drum, the Caixa has its snare composed of 2 or 4 wires/cables on the top head of the drum. It generally plays in a variety of different ways to produce interesting cross-rhythms within the bateria. This drum can be played at navel level, “em baixo” or held with one arm at head height, “em cima”. They are what I call the “soldiers” of a samba drums section! If you have plenty of them, the Bateria will be vibrant.
Only through the sound of the caixa can you really identify a certain school. 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].
The repique is a 12″x 14 sized drum. Played with one stick and a bare hand, or with two flexible plastic sticks, the repique is a small, double-headed drum that is tuned very high. This instrument leads the bateria, signaling breaks and internal cues, and playing improvised solos. It is equivalent to the tom-tom in the non-Brazilian drum kit or to the tenor drum in marching bands. It is tuned very high to produce a tone that cuts through the sound of the rest of the bateria.
Typically its body is made of metal. The heads, made of nylon, are tightened through the use of metal tuning rods. The instrument is usually smaller in diameter than the Brazilian Caixa (snare drum) but several inches longer in height and lacking a snare. It is carried using a shoulder strap attached to one of the tuning rods. The Repique is definitely the master of 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. This samba instrument is normally played by the top samba percussionists!
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, Mangueira, the sound of the repique is prevalent. Portela, Tradi, Caprichosos e Mocidade Independente Samba-School from Rio, highlight the repinique.
Now you know a little bit more about samba instruments, give yourself a try! Join your local samba-school and have some samba fun!