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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Oh, let - Oh, I'm sorry. Yesterday the largest street festival in the world got underway. Carnival is back. This week millions of people will be dancing to the rhythms of that country's most popular music, samba. Betto Arcos spent a week in Rio exploring the samba scene. He returned with this story about Brazil's rich musical heritage.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: It's a Saturday night at the Mangueira Samba School in Rio, and Osvaldo Martins has helped organize a competition for the best samba enredo or samba story. Standing at the edge of the throbbing crowd, he explains that each group vying for a spot in the Carnival parade has to tell a story, kind of like a moving opera.

OSVALDO MARTINS: (Foreign language spoken).

ARCOS: And just like an opera, he says, the parade has a plot for the story being told. With that story in mind, a visual artist will take that plot and will carnivalize it; create the fantasies, the costumes and the floats.

MARTINS: (Foreign language spoken).

ARCOS: The Mangueira Samba School isn't really a school but a community organization that spends most of each year preparing for Carnival. There are more than 40 samba schools across Rio, and each school has 3,000 to 5,000 members. Here at Mangueira, what looks like about 100 drummers pound out a parade rhythm.

Today's samba school rhythms are very different from the ones played a hundred years ago when samba was born here in Rio. Alceu Maia, one of the most sought-after samba producers in Brazil today, demonstrates the old-style rhythm on the four-string cavaquinho, an essential samba instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALCEU MAIA: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: Now, here's today's parade rhythm. It's a little faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARCOS: A samba can be fast or slow, it can propel a parade or insinuate sensuality behind a song. It's the child of African rhythms brought to Brazil by slaves, born in Rio in the late 1800s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PELO TELEFONE")

ARCOS: The first recorded song to be called a Samba was "Pelo Telefone" from 1917.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PELO TELEFONE")

ARCOS: Today, the type of Samba played in Rio's clubs and recorded by most singers is classic or traditional samba. And composers are still writing in that style. One of them is Leandro Fregonesi. He says Samba is a complete music genre in terms of rhythm, melody and harmony. It offers a musician limitless possibilities.

LEANDRO FREGONESI: If you have a boy that plays power chords on the guitar, to play rock 'n' roll, he'll never play samba. If you get a boy who plays samba and choro, he can play everything. That's the difference, the richness.

ARCOS: It's That richness and its infectious, feel-good quality that's made samba a popular sound in the clubs of Rio's historic Lapa neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARCOS: At the Carioca da Gema, you can hear today's emerging Samba voices perform every night. Twenty-seven year old Julio Estrela lives near downtown Rio. He's been singing in a samba group for the last three years.

JULIO ESTRELA: For me, samba came to me like a surprise because I don't have musicians in my family, and I began to listen to music, and one day I began to listen to samba. I was playing cavaquinho. Cavaquinho is a little guitar with four strings, and I began to play and listen, listen and play and sing, and I began.

ARCOS: Samba is not just for those who work the scene in Rio. Singer Maria Rita is from Sao Paulo in southern Brazil. She recorded a samba album a few years ago and is about to release a second one this spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIA RITA: (Singing in foreign language).

ARCOS: Maria Rita says sambistas expect you to get their music right.

RITA: For the first album that I recorded, I was really scared that I could offend people more than I could add to it. You see what I'm saying? But that didn't happen, thank God. And every now and again, I'll be somewhere and meet a sambista, and they're like that was so good you did that, thank you, do it again, you know.

ARCOS: Much has changed since samba came of age in Rio. For decades, the music was a vehicle for black people to integrate into Brazilian society. But over time, samba helped to transform Brazilian culture. Francis Hime is a renowned composer and arranger of Brazilian music.

FRANCIS HIME: Today samba is already integrated; it belongs to everybody. Is not belong only to black people, as it was before. Before it was a kind of way of opening the door, for being accepted, no?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARCOS: As Noel Rosa, the great composer of sambas in the 1930s, wrote in one of his classic songs, "Feitio de Oracao": Samba doesn't come from the hills nor the city. Anyone who bears a passion can feel that a samba comes from the heart. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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