Hertzman's book is a wonderful examination of the origins of Brazilian samba in the 1890-1940 period, just as the country's national identity was developing. In 1888, Brazil freed the last of its slaves, which kicked off a period --not unlike what occurred in the U.S. after the Civil War-- of consideration on what it meant to be a Brazilian. Sharp divides, racial, economic, and urban/rural confronted the nation, and samba emerged as a powerful building block of nationality, something unique to the country that could be embraced by all Brazilians. An American reader will recall that American music forms such as blues and jazz were emerging along a parallel track in the United States.
Hertzman's book is very readable, easily accessible to the layperson, with an excellent set of notes at the end. His observations are powerful -- he notes, for example, that samba was an important element of the evolving national identity ("brasilidade") yet its impact on either the individual artists, and on blacks more broadly, was much more limited. Again, this American reader could not help reflecting on the similarities to the American musical experience of the early 20th century.
Hertzman's launching point is "Pelo Telefone", one of the earliest samba songs, recorded in 1917 by Donga (you can still listen to that recording on YouTube), who is today revered as the original sambista. Hertzman demonstrates that in the environment of the time, intellectual property rights were uncertain and racial prejudices weighed down the nascent music industry --as they did Rio as a whole. In other words, it wasn't quite as simple as Donga walking down to the local recording studio and cutting a record. He succeeded by standing on the shoulders of many others.
Here the story echoes Cecil Brown's 2004 book "Stagolee Shot Billy", in which Brown similarly drills down into the seminal blues song that told of a St. Louis bar fight in 1895. Like "Pelo Telefone", "Stagolee" had an origin in a cultural time and place that was then appropriated and manipulated until the original story became lost under layers of historical evolution.
Elsewhere, Hertzman uses the story of João da Baiana as a jumping off point to examine the long-held view that samba was systematically repressed by law enforcement. The truth, naturally, is much more complicated. Samba emerged from something of a twilight legal realm, working-class, dark-skinned, and quite familiar with the inside of a jail cell, but not actually illegal. Other fascinating characters shine light on other shards of the history: there is the tragic Moreno Dias who challenged views on interracial relationships; the hustler Dudu Neves, and the original recording magnate Fred Figner.
"Making Samba" is a fascinating book. Samba today has a universal feel to it, something that appeals to all music lovers and musicians. Hertzman has done a terrific job placing it in its proper role in Brazilian history, in the period when the country struggled to establish a national identity that encompassed all Brazilians, included those who were recently enslaved. It is a remarkable story, told with a sharp eye and keen ear.