Samba Instruments - The force behind Samba Music

Samba is a Brazilian musical genre and dance style that originated in Bahia, Brazil, and became a country sensation, being the main rhythm for many Brazilian states, namely Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, the most influential places for the history and development of Samba. Samba Instruments, drums, and Rhythms are very varied, as is the nature of Brazilian culture.

From rural and traditional Afro-Brazilian traditions to the major cities’ characteristic rhythmic patterns and popular music, there are many forms of percussion making up the Samba genre. Samba, while extremely varied has a predominant 2/4 timing focusing on the off-beat, syncopated rhythms, and is passed down by oral methods.

Samba de Roda was the primary form of Samba, created from a blend of West Africa and the Bantu group’s culture, brought by African enslaved people. Samba rose in popularity in the early 20th century when the samba schools, or “Escola de Samba” and the Radio innovations came to Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil.

Bahian Samba came into play in the late 20th and early 21st century, alongside the rise of Salvador and Rio’s Carnival celebrations. Today, samba is enjoyed by people all over the world. It continues to evolve and merge with other rhythms, while also the traditional forms of Samba are still thriving, such as the Samba Roda, the kind of Samba found alongside Capoeira and the Afro-Religions of Brazil.

Two Boys playing Timbau in a Samba Duro celebration

Young boys playing Samba Duro: A direct descendant of Samba de Roda. Source: Correios

There are hundreds of percussive instruments in Brazil, and Samba rhythms are based primarily on drums, played with the hands, sticks, and even with rings (Ring-Repique). Dozens of different styles of various shakers are also present. Samba instruments can vary from Afro-Brazilian traditional designs of different Samba instruments to contemporary Industrial versions.

The origin of Brazilian music: Percussion instruments

A Knife and a plate, an Atabaque drum and the Pandeiro, a Brazilian version of the tambourine, and the Caxixi shaker, and an Agogô bell were the instruments used in the original Samba de Roda. As samba traveled within Brazil and around the world, dozens of new instruments were added to the mix.

Brazilian Samba de Roda group in Bahia playing Brazilian instruments, such as the Atabaque, pandeiro and knife and plate

The traditional form of Samba de Roda – Knife and Plate were an instrument traditionally played by women – Source: Bahia Gov- Diffusion

At its most Traditional level, Samba exists since the 17-18th centuries as Samba de Roda in Bahia. To read more on the origins of Samba, you can read our Samba Origins Guide.

The percussive instruments used for this form of Samba are:

  • Atabaque—which is a tall barrel drum, one of the main Samba drums, a fundamental part of Capoeira and Candomblé.
  • Pandeiro- a handheld tambourine used as both musical accompaniment and solo instrument.
  • Agogô – The African Style couple of metal bells linked together;
  • Caxixi or Ganzá– Shakers made of natural fibers and filled with seeds,
  • Knife and Plate – The ancestor of the Reco-Reco, an instrument made of improvised kitchen utensils;

Woman dancing Samba in the middle of a Samba de Roda celebration

Samba de Roda, where Roda means circle, is a tradition where dancers come to the middle of the circle to dance. Source: IPHAN

These instruments combined create a unique percussion score connected to different Brazilian rural and urban forms of the classic Samba de Roda. This is the form of Samba associated with Capoeira, and the one most closely associated with the one played in the Terreiros, the Afro-Brazilian Worship centers.

What instruments and drums would you find in a Samba Band?

Samba bands are full of soul and rhythm, fueled by the percussive instruments of Brazil. With time, many bands have opted to use either traditional, modern, or a mix of both for a richness of timbre (qualities and characteristics of sound).

Modern bands which play Samba music have incorporated the following instruments:

  • Congas – A barrel drum from the Cuban Diaspora adopted by its versatility and ease of use
  • Timbau – A inverted cone-shaped drum, played while standing, with plastic head and striking sound
  • Repiques – Small high tuned drums played with plastic head and sticks, often played alongside the bacurinhas – Smaller and higher tuned version of the repique
  • Surdo – The bass drum which is one of the hallmarks of Samba groove
  • Ganzá – Metal and aluminum versions of the shaker were introduced

Most of these drums are made with plastic-head drums for weather and water resistance. The Timbau and Repique are high-tempo instruments used in leading riffs and breaks within songs. Many bands incorporate animal skin Atabaques, pandeiros, and other traditional instruments alongside contemporary instruments.

Atabaque made with Sisal Rope

Traditional Rope Atabaque – Made in Salvador Bahia. For Sale on our Shop

Samba music and rhythm variety are enormous, and there are contemporary bands that only use traditional drums. According to each particular variety of Samba, each band may introduce different instruments. The Atabaque and Pandeiro for a Samba de Roda Sound, Repique and Timbau for Carnival songs, Pandeiro and Surdo for Rio’s old-school samba styles, and many more combinations.

There isn’t a definite Samba instrument, because each format has particular instrumentation. Samba duro for example does not use the Pandeiro, as well as Samba Schools. The Atabaque, surdo, and pandeiro however are some of the most frequently used.

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Samba de Morro: The Brazilian music made in Favelas

While on the Radio Samba-Enredo and Samba-canção were predominant, the people of the Favelas played the Samba variant which became known as Samba de Morro. It is a massive force behind the music of Brazil, yet often overlooked.

Samba de Morro origins are tied to Terreiros – a type of Afro-Brazilian, ancestral Temple that held spiritual and ceremonial activities where drums, percussive instruments, and vocal chants were used to honor the Orixás, Voduns, and Nkissis – African spiritual entities- and the Caboclos, Boiadeiros, Preto Velho and Marujos – Brazilian spiritual entities. The Samba instruments overlap with the instruments used in Candomblé, namely the Atabaque and Agogô, the main ones used in all forms of Samba and Candomblé.

The powerful connection between Terreiro rituals and Samba de Morro has its roots in African heritage, as most of the Favela inhabitants were Afro-Brazilians. Many of the Bahian women who were Candomble practitioners and came to Rio de Janeiro were responsible for the development of Samba, such as Tia Ciata.

Terreiro in Salvador Bahia - Picturing a respected Woman of Candomble

The inside of an Angola Nation Candomblé House in Salvador, Bahia. Terreiro Tumbeci and Mametu Maria Neném pictured. Source: Cá te espero no Tumbeci

To read more about this Afro-Brazilian Religion, see our Candomblé Guide


The first favelas in Rio, home to mostly Afro-Brazilians coming from Bahia since the change of Capital from Salvador to Rio, and the Bantu enslaved descendants in Rio, configured the type of Samba that marked the rise of Favela musicians into the mainstream for the first time in Brazil.

Samba de Morro was made nationally popular through the extremely vast combined discography of Cartola, Bezerra da Silva, Moraes Moreira in Rio, Adoniran Barbosa, Dona Inah in São Paulo and Batatinha, Riachão, and Panela in Salvador, among many other musicians who, though less-known, were part of the Samba cultural movement.

Album of Bezerra da Silva, Samba do Morro Singer

One of the central singers of the Samba de Morro, originally a percussionist, Bezerra da Silva embodied the Malandro culture and is one of the best-known representatives of his genre. Source: Bezerra’s Album – O melhor dos Partideiros

The main instruments used in Samba de Morro are:

  • Caixa de Fósforo: A iconic Samba instrument, a matchstick box, used as a shaker
  • Pandeiro: Classic part of the Favela’s samba, often used for its versatility

Pandeiro - Brazilian Hand frame drum

Traditional style Pandeiro – Made in Salvador Bahia. For Sale on our Shop

  • Tamborim: A very high-pitched 4″ drum held in one hand and played with a plastic stick
  • Surdo: The bass-drum became a staple in most forms of Samba, becoming part of the basic ensembles
  • Reco-Reco: A friction instrument made of serrated wood frictioned against a wooden stick
  • Cuíca: deriving from the Angolan Puíta, is a friction drum, played from inside the shell with fingers applying pression from outside on the drum head to change tonality.
  • Tam-Tam: a drum used for hitting bass notes with the hand on the skin, while the hand plays on the shell of the drum.
  • Repique de mão: A repique that is played with one hand on the head and the other holding a wooden stick. Similar use as the original repique.

Historical pícture of Samba de Morro in Rio de Janeiro

Traditional tamborims were made of Wooden frames and had animal skins. The same instrument was present in Bahia. The Surdo is the large drum at the front and the repique at the right. Source: Fernando Rabelo

Samba de Morro is a traditional style of samba originating from the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It originated in the late 19th century and spread through Brazil, mixing with different styles, while being mainly the source of modern Samba Carioca (Samba from Rio).

From Pelourinho to the World: Samba rhythms mix with the Jamaican Sauce

Brazilian samba reggae results from a powerful and unique cultural collision, having Mestres (master teachers) Neguinho do Samba and Mestre Prego as some of the rhythm pioneers. New among Samba rhythms, because of its combination of Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Diasporic such as Reggae and Merengue, it became one of Bahia’s signature sounds.

From Repique drumming conventions and Surdo responses now famous throughout Olodum’s vast song catalog, this mixture of traditional and modern techniques, with lyrics focusing on African and Afro-Brazilian references, Samba-Reggae became a worldwide synonym for Brazilian music.

The main drums used in Samba-Reggae are:

  • Repique: The 8″ and 10″ small plastic-headed drums are used for classic introduction and break instruments of Samba-Reggae
  • Surdo: These are dividivided in two Categories, the medium-bass ‘Dobras’ 16″ and 18″ which evoke reggae’s bass lines and the 20″ and 22″ – the ‘Fundos’ which mark Samba 2/4 earth-bringing beat
  • Timbau: The conical Hand-drum is the go-to introduction and break for several other Samba-Reggae groups, as well as other popular rhythms which are played together with Samba-Reggae, such as Brazilian Merengue and Samba Duro
  • Caixa or Taró: The Brazilian Version of the Snare drum is used to give texture to rhythm, filling gaps and making the rhythm full-bodied

The Samba Master Neguinho do Samba, pictured with Olodum playing Samba-Reggae

Neguinho do Samba – One of the pioneers of Samba Reggae, in Pelourinho, Salvador. Source: Margarida Neide

Samba reggae combines influences from both African and Afro-Brazilian heritage. Timbalada, Olodum, and Araketu played a huge part in its popularization through Bahian Carnival. Samba Reggae is now an essential part of the Brazilian Carnival, marking the culture from Bahia as one of the essential parts not only of Samba origins but also a source of its contemporary forms.

Carnival Kings: Escolas de Samba and the Blocos Afro Brazilian traditions

One of the Groups which pioneered modern Carnival in Brazil was the Escolas de Samba (Samba Schools). Starting in the early 20th century, the organizations quickly grew in numbers, with Samba-Schools becoming quickly the go-to carnival celebrations in Brazil’s major cities.

Samba drums slowly became the Carnival motif, and the popularity of Samba grew, especially in the 30’s and 40’s, with the nationalist policies supporting Samba, and the beginning of Radio diffusion of different genres of Samba music.

These Samba-Schools tell stories – called enredos. Each School narrates through original lyrics themes that range from historical, political, and social in the performance. There is the Percussion instruments section- the Bateria, and the Dancers Section. Each one has many individual sections. The Ala das Baianas – Bahian women wing – is the most traditional dance section, picturing the Bahian women who cultivated Samba music and culture in Rio.

Ala das baianas or Bahian women wing - representing Samba's Matriarch's

Ala das baianas or Bahian women wing – representing Samba’s Matriarch’s – Source: Portela Archives

The Bateria – Samba Instruments used in Carnival

The Surdo, the bass drum, as well as the Bateria – The Samba School or ensemble – are examples of adapting percussive instruments already present. As for the origin, many came from the drum set, such as the snare drum, sometimes changing drum head and ring to be played with the hands, such as the repique, developing the Bateria’s drum identity.

With the growing popularity of popular music, Samba instruments developed and gained popularity. The Samba Schools version of Samba music quickly became popular nationwide. The instruments were mostly already present in other forms of Samba cited above, so we won’t go over them. Still, they introduced greater rhythmic division, such as using three or more different sizes of Surdo, each with different rhythmic phrases and tuning. The Agogô, repique, snare drum or caixa, ganzá and cuíca were the main instruments used for the Bateria’s ensemble.

The Blocos Afro

The Samba Schools worked differently in each city. In Salvador, Bahia, one of the origins of Samba, these schools were restricted to a minority of the white middle and upper class. The majority of the population had only the Blocos de Indío, playing traditional Bahian Samba and portraying North American indigenous groups, made famous because of street cinema exhibitions, named such as the Apaxes, Commanches.

Everything changed for Salvador when the rise of the Blocos Afro took place in the 70’s and 80’s. Starting with Ilê Aiyê, and continuing with Badauê, Muzenza, and Olodum, they took the African and Afro-Diasporic and took the narrative of Afro-Brazilians as descendants of African slaves to Kings and Queens of African Heritage. Going beyond Carnival, these groups saw the rise of ethnic and political affirmation of black and mixed-race communities take shape in Salvador.

Ilê Aiyê Queens from 1976 and 2018 - The Bloco Afro heritages

The Ilê Aiyê Black Beauty contested elected Yearly Queen – Pictured are the 1976 and 2018 winners, who had to dance, sing, and dress according to Afro-Brazilian heritage.

The Bloco Afro – Hand Drums innovation and Samba School Influences

One of the main contributions of the Bloco Afro was the re-emergence of traditional Samba de Roda influences, alongside the use of hand drums such as Timbau, Atabaque and Congas.  Aside from the answer and call responses from Olodum, Ilê Aiyê and the Afoxé groups introduce Candomblé rhythms to Carnival, mixing  traditional forms of Samba instruments, such as the Atabaque with contemporary ones, like the Timbau.

The Bloco Afro incorporated drum variations present in Samba Schools, such as the 3 surdo sizes. They also incorporated traditional Samba de Roda influences, especially since there was already a contemporary Samba rhythm having evolved in Salvador, the Samba Duro. The use of many different influences made Bahia the Brazilian culture center for percussion once again, with its percussive rhythms influencing many different Brazilian rhythms.

To learn more about Brazilian Rhythms and Genres, visit our Brazilian Rhythms Guide

Tinho pequeno Playing Timbau

Tinho Pequeno playing Timbau- A Master from Samba Duro which started to play in the Bloco Afro and recorded several carnival sensations with Timbalada. Source: Samba Duro Patrimônio

Get your Brazilian Groove on!

We offer a percussion course that features direct contact with a Master Teacher!

You can start learning with traditional style teachings: no theory or textbooks!

Learn by oral teaching methods: Discover a new way to understand Rhythm!

To Observe and listen are the basic principle upon which our teachers, and their teacher, and so on for several generations, learned, and so can you!

You can also check out our Shop, to find Atabaques, Pandeiros, Agogôs, Caxixis, and many other Brazilian instruments, each one made by master craftsmen such as Mestre Dinho, from Pelourinho in Salvador.

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