Samba schools are popular associations focused on having fun through samba dance and music. This tradition takes place in a number of Brazilian states, but is currently most visible and popular in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where different samba schools compete for titles such as best school of the year. Samba schools march in parades during Carnival, but they spend all year mobilizing their community, the necessary financial resources, and their artistic design.
In general, these parades are characterized by the grandeur and splendor of participants' costumes, sambas-enredos and floats. During the performance, each school is divided into sections, known as alas (wings). Each school brings an Opening Troupe (Comissão de Frente), a Grand Master of Ceremonies (Mestre-sala) and Flag-Bearer (Porta-bandeira) duo, which is responsible for carrying the group's flag and wearing a costume that can weigh up to 90 pounds, majestic floats with passistas (dancers), a sound-equipped car with the performers that sing the samba-enredo, and the Drum Group, a group of up to 300 percussionists, which, along with the Drum Queen, the Drum Master and his whistle, command the rhythm and energy of the group. Each school marches in the parade with an average of 5,000 members.
Though it wasn't named as such during its time, the Deixa Falar school is considered the first ever samba school. It was founded in 1928 in Rio de Janeiro by sambistas from Estácio street, including Ismael Silva. At the time, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro was made up of Ranchos and Cordões, formed by participants from the lower classes, and by Grandes Sociedades Carnavalescas (Great Carnival Associations), groups with members of the Rio de Janeiro elite which organized Carnival processions and competed with each other.
The idea of Deixa Falar was to create a different kind of Carnival block, which would dance and progress to the sound of a samba, unlike the Ranchos, which had fun to the sound of marchas-ranchos, which had a more gradual pace and used woodwind and string instruments.
The term "Deixa Falar" arose because, close to the spot where the group rehearsed, there was a public school, and Ismael Silva perceived his group as a gathering of samba teachers: "Deixa falar, nós também somos mestres. Somos uma escola de samba! (Let them say what they will. We are teachers, as well. We are a samba school!", the sambista said.
Initially, samba schools were quite simple, with a few members and small floats. Over time, they began incorporating new elements at each march until they established their own identity. In the beginning, competition was not the most important factor, but rather joy and fun.
Although there are variations in the instrumental configuration, nowadays, most samba schools are made up of: surdos de primeira (first surdo), surdos de segunda (second surdo) and surdos de terceira (third surdo), the caixa de Guerra (snare drum), the repique, the tamborim, the chocalho (rattle), the agogô, the cuíca, the reco-reco, the pandeiro and pratos (cymbals).
There are currently several outstanding samba schools, such as: Portela, Estação Primeira de Mangueira, Beija-Flor de Nilópolis and Imperatriz Leopoldinense in Rio de Janeiro, and Vai-vai, Nenê de Vila Matilde and Camisa Verdade Branco in São Paulo, among innumerable others.