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August 2022
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Tuesday, 5. September 2006

Richard Feynman On Playing Samba

There  was a man  at the U.S. Embassy  who knew I liked samba  music. I
think I told  him that when I had been in Brazil the first time, I had heard
a samba  band practicing in  the street,  and  I wanted  to learn more about
Brazilian music.
He said a small  group, called a regional,  practiced  at his apartment
every week, and I could come over and listen to them play.
There were three  or  four  people  -- one  was  the  janitor  from the
apartment house -- and they played rather quiet  music up in his  apartment;
they had no other place to play. One guy had a tambourine that they called a
pandeiro,  and another  guy had a small guitar. I kept hearing the beat of a
drum somewhere, but there was no drum! Finally I figured out that it was the
tambourine,  which the  guy was  playing  in a complicated way, twisting his
wrist and hitting the  skin with  his thumb.  I  found that interesting, and
learned how to play the pandeiro, more or less.
Then the season for Carnaval began to come  around. That's  the  season
when  new music is presented. They don't put  out new  music and records all
the  time;  they  put them  all out  during  Carnaval  time, and  it's  very
It  turned out  that  the janitor  was  the composer for a small  samba
"school" -- not a school in the sense of education, but in the sense of fish
--  from  Copacabana  Beach,  called  Farqantes  de Copacabana, which  means
"Fakers from Copacabana," which was just right for  me, and he invited me to
be in it.
Now this samba school  was a thing where  guys  from the favelas -- the
poor sections of the city -- would come down, and meet behind a construction
lot where some apartment houses were being built, and practice the new music
for the Carnaval.
I chose  to play a thing called a "frigideira," which  is  a toy frying
pan  made of metal, about six inches in diameter,  with a little metal stick
to beat it with. It's an accompanying instrument which makes a tinkly, rapid
noise that goes with the main samba music and rhythm and fills  it out. So I
tried to play  this  thing  and  everything  was  going all  right.  We were
practicing, the music was  roaring along and we were going  like sixty, when
all of a sudden the head of the  batteria section, a  great  big  black man,
yelled  out, "STOP! Hold  it, hold  it  --  wait  a  minute!" And  everybody
stopped.  "Something's  wrong  with  the  frigideiras!"  he  boomed out.  "O
Americana, outra vez!" ("The American again!")
So I felt  uncomfortable. I practiced  all the time. I'd walk along the
beach holding two sticks that I  had picked up, getting the twisty motion of
the wrists, practicing, practicing, practicing. I kept working on it, but  I
always felt inferior, that I was some kind of trouble, and  wasn't really up
to it.
Well, it was getting closer to Carnaval time, and one evening there was
a conversation between the leader of the  band and another guy, and then the
leader started coming  around,  picking  people out:  "You!" he  said  to  a
trumpeter. "You!"  he  said to a singer. "You!"  -- and he pointed to  me. I
figured we were finished. He said, "Go out in front!"
We went out to the front of the construction site -- the five or six of
us -- and there was an old Cadillac  convertible,  with its  top down.  "Get
in!" the leader said.
There wasn't enough room for us all, so some of us had to sit up on the
back.  I  said to the guy  next to me, "What's  he doing -- is he putting us
"Nao se, nao se." ("I don't know.")
We drove off way up high on a road which ended near the edge of a cliff
overlooking the sea. The car  stopped and the leader said, "Get out!" -- and
they walked us right up to the edge of the cliff!
And sure enough, he said, "Now line up! You first,  you next, you next!
Start playing! Now march!"
We would  have marched off the edge of the cliff  -- except for a steep
trail  that  went down.  So our  little  group goes down  the trail  --  the
trumpet, the singer, the  guitar, the pandeiro, and the frigideira --  to an
outdoor party in the woods. We  weren't picked out because the leader wanted
to get rid of  us; he was sending us to this private party that  wanted some
samba music! And afterwards he collected money to pay for some costumes  for
our band.
After that I  felt a little better,  because  I  realized, that when he
picked the frigideira player, he picked me!
Another thing  happened to increase  my confidence. Some time later,  a
guy came from another samba school, in Leblon, a beach further on. He wanted
to join our school.
The boss said, "Where're you from?"
"What do you play?"
"OK. Let me hear you play the frigideira."
So  this  guy  picked  up  his frigideira and his  metal  stick  and...
"brrra-dup-dup; chick-a-chick." Gee whiz! It was wonderful!
The boss said to him, "You go over there and stand next to O Americana,
and you'll learn how to play the frigideira!"
My  theory is that it's  like  a person who speaks French  who comes to
America.  At first they're making  all kinds of mistakes, and you can hardly
understand them. Then they keep on practicing until they speak  rather well,
and  you find there's a delightful twist to their way  of speaking  -- their
accent is rather nice, and you love to listen to it. So I must have had some
sort of accent playing the frigideira, because I couldn't compete with those
guys who had been playing it all their lives; it must have been some kind of
dumb  accent.  But whatever it was, I became  a rather successful frigideira
One day, shortly before  Carnaval time, the  leader of the samba school
said, "OK, we're going to practice marching in the street."
We all went out from the construction  site to the  street, and  it was
full of  traffic. The streets of Copacabana were always a big  mess. Believe
it  or not, there was a trolley line in which the trolley cars went one way,
and the automobiles went the other way. Here it was rush hour in Copacabana,
and we were going to march down the middle of Avenida Atlantica.
I  said to  myself, "Jesus! The boss didn't get a license, he didn't OK
it with the police, he didn't do anything. He's  decided we're just going to
go out."
So we started to go out into the street, and everybody, all around, was
excited. Some volunteers from a group of bystanders took a rope and formed a
big  square around our  band, so the  pedestrians wouldn't walk  through our
lines. People started to  lean out  of the windows. Everybody wanted to hear
the new samba music. It was very exciting!
As soon as we  started to  march, I  saw  a policeman, way down  at the
other end of the  road.  He  looked,  saw  what was  happening,  and started
diverting traffic! Everything  was informal.  Nobody made  any arrangements,
but it  worked fine.  The  people  were  holding  the ropes  around us,  the
policeman was diverting the traffic,  the pedestrians were crowded  and  the
traffic  was  jammed,  but  we were  going  along  great! We walked down the
street, around the corners, and all over the damn Copacabana, at random!
Finally we ended up in a  little square in front of the apartment where
the boss's  mother lived. We  stood there in  this place,  playing,  and the
guy's mother, and aunt, and so on,  came down. They had aprons  on; they had
been working in the kitchen, and you could see their excitement -- they were
almost crying. It was really nice to do that human stuff. And all the people
leaning out of the windows -- that was terrific! And I remembered the time I
had been in Brazil  before, and had seen  one of these  samba bands -- how I
loved the music and nearly went crazy over it -- and now I was in it!
By the way, when we were marching around the streets of Copacabana that
day,  I  saw  in a  group on the sidewalk two young ladies from the embassy.
Next week  I got a note from the embassy saying, "It's a great thing you are
doing,  yak, yak, yak..." as if my purpose was to improve relations  between
the United States and Brazil! So it was a "great" thing I was doing.
Well, in order  to go to  these rehearsals, I didn't want to go dressed
in my regular clothes that I wore to the university. The  people in the band
were very  poor, and  had only  old,  tattered  clothes. So I  put on an old
undershirt, some old pants, and so forth,  so I wouldn't look too  peculiar.
But  then  I couldn't  walk out of my  luxury  hotel on Avenida Atlantica in
Copacabana Beach through the lobby. So I always  took  the elevator  down to
the bottom and went out through the basement.
A  short  time  before  Carnaval,  there  was  going  to  be  a special
competition between the samba schools of the beaches -- Copacabana, Ipanema,
and Leblon; there were three or four schools, and we were one. We were going
to march  in  costume down Avenida Atlantica. I felt  a little uncomfortable
about  marching in one of  those fancy Carnaval  costumes,  since I wasn't a
Brazilian. But we were supposed to be dressed as Greeks, so I figured I'm as
good a Greek as they are.
On the day  of the  competition, I  was eating at the hotel restaurant,
and the head waiter, who had often seen  me tapping on  the table when there
was  samba  music  playing, came over to  me and  said,  "Mr.  Feynman, this
evening there's going to be something you will love!  It's tipico Brasileiro
-- typical Brazilian: There's going to be a march of the samba schools right
in front of the hotel! And the music is so good -- you must hear it."
I said,  "Well, I'm kind of busy tonight. I don't  know if  I  can make
"Oh!  But  you'd love  it  so  much! You must not miss it! It's  tipico
He was very insistent, and  as I kept telling him I didn't think I'd be
there to see it, he became disappointed.
That evening  I  put  on my  old  clothes  and  went down  through  the
basement, as usual. We put on the costumes at the construction lot and began
marching  down  Avenida  Atlantica,  a  hundred  Brazilian  Greeks in  paper
costumes, and I was in the back, playing away on the frigideira.
Big crowds were along both sides  of the Avenida; everybody was leaning
out of the windows, and we were coming  up to the Miramar Hotel, where I was
staying. People were standing  on  the  tables  and  chairs,  and there were
crowds and crowds of people. We were playing along, going like sixty, as our
band  started  to pass  in front of the  hotel. Suddenly  I  saw  one of the
waiters shoot up in the air, pointing  with his  arm,  and through all  this
noise I can hear him scream, "O PROFESSOR!" So the head waiter found out why
I  wasn't able to be there that  evening to  see the competition -- I was in
The next day I saw a lady I knew from meeting her on the beach all  the
time, who  had  an  apartment overlooking the  Avenida. She had some friends
over to watch the parade of the samba schools,  and  when we went by, one of
her friends exclaimed, "Listen to  that  guy  play  the  frigideira -- he is
good!" I had succeeded. I got a kick out of succeeding at something I wasn't
supposed to be able to do.
When the  time came for Carnaval, not very many people from  our school
showed up.  There were some special  costumes that  were made  just  for the
occasion,  but  not enough people. Maybe  they  had  the  attitude  that  we
couldn't win  against the really big samba schools  from the city;  I  don't
know. I thought  we were working day  after day, practicing and marching for
the Carnaval, but when Carnaval  came, a lot of the band didn't show up, and
we didn't compete very well. Even  as we were marching around in the street,
some of the  band wandered off. Funny result! I never did understand it very
well, but maybe the main excitement and fun was trying to win the contest of
the beaches, where most people felt their  level was. And we did win, by the

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