By Tyler Baker and Cecilia Ferreyra
On May 4 2023, the Brazilian congress, under President Lula da Silva enacted Law 14,567 declaring that Samba schools, their parades, music, rehearsals and traditions be recognized as expressions of national culture. This highly significant political development provides a timely backdrop to this discussion of women leadership in Samba.
While the African diaspora in Brazil sees Samba as a movement of cultural resistance and resilience, many within Brazil and in other countries are socialized into Samba solely through the Rio Carnaval, the biggest show on earth, a commodity that generates millions in revenue in tourism and television.
Tia Ciata, Dona Neuma, Dona Zica, Tia Surica, Vovo Maria do Jongo, among others, are names that marked the history of Samba as women that through their faith, religious practices, cooking, dancing and teachings became real vehicles for the preservation and dissemination of Samba. One of our goals in our collaboration with Soul Brasil was to find out more about women in leadership in Samba, their experiences and their perspectives.
During our trip to Rio de Janeiro in February 2023 we had the privilege of interviewing six women who have achieved a distinguished position in the Samba world, and who have inspired us with their stories, journeys, and experiences: Pipa Brasey (Samba and Bossa Nova singer, member of Portela), Thai Rodrigues (Passista and Queen of Rio Carnaval 2022), Mari Mola (Passista and Queen of Carnaval 2023), Nilce Fran (Coordinator of the Passista Wing of Portela), Cintya Santos (First Flag Bearer of Mangueira) and Tereza Azevedo (Samba artist and teacher based out of France and lead of the Project Ta no Pe).
Together they brought us to a richer understanding of the current meaning as well as the future for women leadership in Samba, particularly in the context of the Rio Carnaval, the iconic symbol of Brazilian cultural across the world. Leadership in this article is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal or value.
Their first introduction to Samba and first source of inspiration was found in their extended families and communities: their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, fathers. All six leaders had in common that although they came from working families who may had struggled financially, they provided them with the treasure that is the Samba culture. They talked about being raised around dance and music within their homes, in the street parties, or in the quadras of the Samba schools in their communities.
“I had my sisters as my reference, because my family breathed Samba. I grew up seeing my father dancing, playing Samba. My house was the sambista cradle” said Nilce Fran. To them, Samba is community, culture and expression, a way of life that was part of their upbringing, and the Samba schools were place where they found their identity as black women. Importantly, these female leaders also recognized the key role that Samba has had in their lives in terms of creating opportunities for personal and career development, and how they are invested in giving back to Samba.
They highlighted as one of the main challenges for Samba the need to retain a connection to its African roots while evolving to adapt to changing times and interests. Issues of representation are central to this challenge, not only in terms of the skin colour and body frame favoured for high profile positions like queen of drums but also in terms of the style of dancing.
Cintya Santos, Mangueira’s First Flag Bearer, talked about how being black and “fat” make people not believe on her potential as a dancer, and about gaining their respect only after they see her dancing. As many dancers from outside their communities and with classical training start to join the Samba schools, interviewees described a growing effort to try to codify Samba and make it more graceful, forgetting that it comes from the favelas and the African diaspora. Samba’s uniqueness is that it involves strength, musicality, and power, favouring variety and self-expression over the homogeneity and highly choreographed movements of western dance.
The 2023 Rio Carnaval Queen, Mari Mola, stated that although she has many worthwhile causes to pursue at this time she wants to use her power to help advance and preserve the Samba de “Raiz” (roots). Tereza Azevedo remembered that she started from a community project and today living in France, she still struggles to represent her culture in its essence.
The most surprising insight emerging from the conversations had to do, however, with their abundance mindset. We had expected to hear from Pipa about the challenges as a singer of making it into Rio Carnaval, as traditionally the singers who accompany the Samba schools during the parade are men. Pipa noted that she sees the women singers and composers as complimentary to the men: in her view, there is space for everyone, and she sees the need for the trend to continue. Similar sentiments were expressed about the foreigners who come to dance at Carnaval.
What we did not expect to hear was the extent of the challenges faced by the Samba dancers. For anyone who had the amazing opportunity to be part of the Rio Carnaval, it is abundantly clear that women are an essential part of Samba as a cultural expression. Starting with the baianas, who are a beautiful reminder of the African roots of Samba, continuing with the flag bearer, representing the Samba school wherever she goes, and finally the queen of drums and the passistas, capturing our imagination and admiration with their powerful dance.
We discovered that up until two years ago, when Thai Rodrigues was crowned Queen of the Rio Carnaval, passistas were overlooked for the Queen role in favour of lighter-skinned women who were body builders but could not necessarily dance. We learned that neither performance of the queen of drums nor that of the passistas’ wing is part of the scoring of the Samba school parade. Furthermore, it takes significant financial effort for the passistas to partake in the Samba world as they are responsible for buying their own costumes in order to participate.
Thai Rodrigues, the 2022 Carnaval Queen said: “I was Queen of Carnival in 2022 and represented a whole class of passistas because I went up with them on that stage, because for me in this system that we live the one who must defend the place that is our right is ourselves, we who dedicate all year round to the role of passista, investing time, money in this position that is not even mandatory in a Samba school. So for me it has the potential to be a profession, yes!”
Ultimately, what we learned from these female Samba leaders is that they are demonstrating personal leadership within a system that is working against them to a certain extent, or at least a system that does not value nor nurture them as it should. Most prominent roles in the hierarchy of the Samba schools are not occupied by women; positional leadership is not available to them. In this context, these women developed their personal leadership, investing their hearts and souls in a labour of love and act of resistance very much in synch with the origins and foundations of Samba as a cultural expression and a movement of resistance.
Their personal style of leadership goes beyond a desire to take charge of their own life; instead, they have become inspirational leaders who are leading from a deep sense of purpose and a sense responsibility to create positive change not only for themselves but for others in their communities. Women leadership in Samba, in this context, takes a much more significant meaning.
Let’s look beyond the feather and glitters, and ask ourselves a question: how can we contribute to women leadership in Samba? What is our responsibility as participants in the parade? How can we contribute to the evolution of the Samba schools and the Rio Carnaval as a place where women leadership is encouraged, supported, valued, appreciated, nurtured! We sincerely hope this article starts a much-needed conversation!