Part 1 – London
A Batucada adventure with Lisa, Christian, Nige, Debs, Dr Phil and AliG
It began in 1992 with 20 samba groups performing, and two years later it had grown to 40 groups and 1,000 performers.
Now, 22 years later, 100 samba groups take part, with over 3,000 performers.
It’s now the biggest samba festival outside Brazil, and for three days in July Coburg’s rather modest population of 42,000 swells to an impressive 200,000.
Our adventure began with a random “wouldn’t it be nice” discussion after band practice one Sunday in February – and ended with 5 of us performing on stage with the London School of Samba (LSS) at this year’s Coburg Samba Festival.
This is how it went down…
We arrived in London at the end of June, giving us two Sundays before Coburg. We’d been in touch with Fred at LSS, and our first Sunday was LSS’s monthly Quadra Night, where the percussionists and dancers rehearse for an hour separately, and then come together for a further hour.
Craziness! Fred was directing the drumming, and we soon realised that Sundays are dance and drumming classes, rather than band practice, which is on Wednesdays – doh!
But crikey – even these beginners were playing at speed – giving us something of an inkling of what was to come. It was very cool to be playing with LSS – we recognised and could play many of their breaks, even if the signals were a bit different.
The second hour was about as hot and sweaty as it gets. There were about 20 drummers and 50 dancers – all absolutely going for it. The dancers were lined up in rows facing the drummers, with their teacher at the front. Every few minutes the front row would peel off and move to the back, so that everyone got a chance to dance at the front. Very democratic. And incredibly energetic! We were all so completely into it, that none of us thought to get out a camera and record any of it. Oops!
At the Windmill Tavern after band practice we talked to Fred and many of our fellow drummers, and also met Mestre Mags, who was one of the original LSS directors. He now has a small offshoot samba group – Bloco Malluco – who rehearse on Tuesdays. He invited us along.
It was lovely playing with Bloco Malluco. It’s a varied group of people, very friendly and really welcoming. We were all squashed together in a tiny basement rehearsal room, which made for an entertaining hour or two! One of their shaker players is blind, so she has a samba-playing helper who gives her hand a squeeze whenever there’s a break coming up. Mags is also very good at giving whistle signals to indicate that something’s about to happen. It works pretty well.
On Wednesday, Christian and I played with Arco Iris – Cambridge’s resident samba band – at their weekly rehearsal. They’re a very happy and energetic group, who differ from us in that they have multiple directors – and it almost felt as though anyone could jump in and direct a piece if they wanted to.
Their rehearsal space is TINY, so they all stand in a circle around the director and just – play. Most of their samba is based around the Baião pattern, as opposed to the Rio-style Clave that we play, which made a nice change. They write pretty much all their pieces themselves, which makes playing with them a wonderfully interesting challenge. Great fun!
We noticed that their tam players don’t do virado like we do – they told us they’d never really done it and didn’t have anyone to teach them how.
Towards the end of the evening they asked us to teach them something new, in the spirit of us “leaving something behind”, so Christian and I decided to teach them one of our funk breaks. I realised halfway through the teaching session that I’d never actually taught a whole break to an entire bateria before, so that was a first! Christian played all the surdo parts and I played the caixa (and sang the tam parts so the tams could join in). We gave them vague instructions for the other sections, and then we all figured it out together. Heaps of fun!
After band practice we all headed off to the White Swan next door (how convenient!) and spent a lovely evening beer-drinking and samba-talking with the band. Most excellent. To cap it off, we managed to snaffle a couple of Arco Iris T-shirts – a good start to our SambaTour 2014 T-shirt collection.
I often think, if I ever moved away from Wellington (perish the thought!) I’d make sure my new place had a samba band, and it would be the first thing I’d join. It’s like having a ready-made family, full of brilliant people.
On Thursday, we’d planned to go and rehearse with Barking Bateria, who looked like they’d be a lot of fun to hang out with. Barking’s a bit of a hike from Central London, and entailed a couple of tube rides, an overground train and then a short ride on the DLR (and an earlier train ride from Cambridge to London for some of us as well!).
We were running a few minutes late so Christian texted to let them know, and received an urgent text in reply, suggesting that we not come, as they’d had a bit of a fight and needed to sort things out. Oh no!
It’s an amazing place – full of buildings of glass and steel, interspersed with little parklets, complete with fountains, tiny immaculate lawns and picturesque clumps of trees. We were really sad to have missed out on the Barking Bateria rehearsal, but Canary Wharf was certainly a good Plan B.
The following day, Friday, was our gig with LSS at the Waterloo Carnival. It was a stinking hot day, and we gathered at the LSS rehearsal rooms at lunchtime, ready to parade through the streets of Waterloo.
The LSS dancers were out in force as well as the drummers, which meant that we all looked pretty colourful.
There were heaps of schools and other community groups taking part, and the parade wound its noisy way through the schools, streets, markets and housing estates of Waterloo, sweating in the blazing sunshine.
I particularly enjoyed the bit where we were parading alongside a busy road, waving at the occupants of the big red London buses as they slowly passed us by. We finished the parade with a big drum-off alongside another samba group in Waterloo Park. Played the gig, got the T-shirt – hooray! Our bright green LSS T-shirts are pretty darned cool.
Waterloo Carnival photo gallery
The next day, Saturday, was a day of rest for us, and then on Sunday it was back to the Waterloo Action Centre for another beginners’ drum class with LSS. We were joined by Dr Phil, who’d just finished a conference in Italy which very conveniently dovetailed with the SambaTour. He hadn’t brought his drum, and was hoping that he could borrow other people’s repiniques for the duration of the holiday. This rehearsal, sadly, turned out to be the one and only time he was able to do that, and so after this point he became our Official Watcher instead.
On Monday, the Tour de France came hurtling through Cambridge and on to London, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t arranged to set off for Coburg that day. Some of us braved the crowds to get a glimpse of the cyclists, and others spent a peaceful day doing their packing for the 3-day journey to Coburg. Each to his/her own…
Part 2 – the journey coming soon!