Jambalaya 2012 – Wellington Batucada gig

Quite possibly the best gig EVER

Jambalaya isn’t the biggest festival in New Zealand, but it’s certainly one of the most participatory. A large percentage of the people at the festival are there to take part in one of the immersion courses, which means they’re most definitely up for a bit of participation – and that “up for it” attitude seems to rub off on everyone else, turning virtually every gig into madness and mayhem on the dance floor.

We’d seen a bit of it first-hand on the Friday night when AKSamba played an awesome gig on the main stage. The crowd went nuts, dancing like mad things, and it was altogether rather impressive. I reckon there were probably 50 band members performing – some of whom had been at the immersion course with us – they were wearing their brightly-lit LED costumes and even had the word “AKSAMBA” spelled out in lights worn by a line of drummers at the back.

AKSamba differ from Wellington Batucada in that you have to be invited to join the band – so only the best drummers get an opportunity to stick around after their beginners classes are over and rehearse with the main group – and eventually, if they’re good enough – to perform with the band. This means that technically they’re pretty awesome, and they also play at speed – quite a bit faster than we do down in Wellington.

Having experienced the might of AKSamba in concert, I have to confess I was somewhat intimidated and a wee bit nervous about our upcoming gig the following night. Only 21 of us, our basic (though very cool) black uniforms (no pretty lights!) and Darren our director only just back with us after about a year of travelling the world with his band, Batucada Sound Machine. It was going to be a hard act to follow…

Darren very sensibly decided we’d keep it short and sweet, and play just a couple of pieces that he (and we) were completely confident about playing – samba and samba merengue. We’d include a bunch of breaks that Fred taught us at last year’s Jamabalaya immersion, and Darren would do the directing for samba with Vladko taking over for the samba merengue. We had a bit of a run-through in the afternoon after immersion was over for the day, and then all we had to do was enjoy the main festival and await our moment in the spotlight at 8:15pm.

This year the main stage was indoors in a huge shed-like building. There’s a raised stage at the very back, and then an enormous wooden dancefloor in front of it, with bleachers reaching up towards the roof in front of that, facing the dancefloor and the stage. We were playing at the back of the dancefloor, just in front of the raised stage, which meant there was a considerable distance across a wide expanse of dancefloor until you reached the audience sitting on the bleachers waiting for us to begin.

21 isn’t a large number for a Wellington Batucada gig, and it meant that we only had one full-time repinique player – Dr Phil – with Darren and Vladko backing him up on repinique when they weren’t directing. We also only had one timbau player – Carin, returning to the timbau for this gig after many months of playing repinique with the band; and one surdo secundo player – Lisa – who only joined Wellington Batucada a few months ago after the most recent beginners’ course. Quite a challenge for all of them!

We walked out on stage, settled ourselves in formation, and Darren began the call and response that signals the opening of our samba piece. I’m not quite sure what happened – whether it was the really rather good acoustics in the shed, or the excitement of the occasion, or our fervent wish to show how good we were in response to AKSamba’s wonderful performance – maybe it was a combination of all three – but whatever it was, those first few notes from Darren and our answering drum beats seemed to lift the roof off the place – and lifted our playing into the stratosphere along with it.


Dr Phil played his solo repinique call-to-action the strongest I’ve ever heard him play – and we were off into the samba. It seemed as though the crowd were just waiting on the edge of their seats for the signal to get up and dance, and the moment the samba began, they were up on their feet, filling the dancefloor to capacity and leaping around like mad things.

Have you ever done a gig where the audience is so fantastic, and so into-it, and so energetic and joyful that they inspire you to play the best you’ve ever played – and your playing in turn inspires them to dance more, and respond more, and smile more – which in turn inspires you to even greater heights?

This was that gig.

One of the beautiful samba dancers who’d been performing at Jambalaya had offered to dance with us, so on she came in her full costume – the crowd was so tightly-packed around us that she barely had room to move, but they made way for her and danced with her as they danced with us.

I remember watching a little old lady in the middle of the dancing crowd – getting her groove on like she was a teenager – and I remember thinking “Go for it, little old lady! You rock!”. I remember seeing the grinning faces and flailing limbs of many of our friends from the other New Zealand samba schools who were at the immersion course with us. I remember the entire audience leaping in the air in time with us during our “Jump” break at the end of samba, and laughing at themselves when they all jumped at a moment where there isn’t actually a jump (but sounds like there’s going to be).

I remember Vladko waving his arms around in time with our playing during merengue, and then turning round to face the crowd and realising that they were all waving their arms around in time with him. I’d love to have seen his face as it dawned on him that he could get them to do anything he wanted them to – which he then proceeded to do, much to everyone’s frantic enjoyment.

We didn’t play for very long – maybe 20-30 minutes – but it was one of the best 20-30 minutes of my life. It’s such a huge rush to play so well, for people who love what you’re doing and who respond so positively and energetically to your music. We couldn’t have asked for a better audience.

Afterwards we all gave each other massive hugs backstage and jumped around (quietly) in our excitement – and then wandered outside into the cool night air (playing like a crazy person makes you very SWEATY). On my way out I was accosted by a woman who wanted to know where we rehearsed, and how often, and until I told her she should find out about joining AKSamba, was all set to move down to Wellington just to come and play with us. It was a perfect end to a perfect show…

The feedback we got afterwards was that people love dancing to Wellington Batucada – they love our vibe, and our groove, and they say that when we play, they just have to dance. Now that’s the kind of feedback that would make anyone happy!

PS: You may be wondering where the video is – or even photos – or something. We haven’t found any yet, sadly. Everyone we know tells us they were too busy dancing to take video or photos, which is a real shame, because we’d love to see and hear ourselves in the Best Gig Ever. Get in touch if you have any footage of us that you’d like to share, mkay?

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