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The Difference Between Here and There

Updated: Feb 6

As we've seen in the last post, the concept of a 'samba band' here can be quite different from the reality of groups in Brazil. Here, I explore this difference and ask whether it's a problem.

A fair warning that this post is intended to provoke conversation and individal thought. I don't intend the following to sound preachy and certainly don't direct any of the following criticisms at anyone in particular. This post is not me trying to be holier-than-thou or be passive-aggressive in any way. I've been guilty of much of the following in my time as a professional tutor but am always keen to maintain integrity, look deeper and grow better year after year.

Below are some of my thoughts (embellished as I write now) from an evening in the Pelourinho after a day of watching multiple performances and parades.

Thoughts from Salvador

The blocos afros here are happy to play the same basic groove (with small variations) for hours, hardly losing intensity, feeling strong and powerful to the end. Are we happy to do that back home? I’m guilty of being afraid to do that - afraid my drummers and the audience would get bored. To me as a 'tourist here, someone studying the music, sometimes it feels like I want more from them - I want them to show off what they can do. But who am I to think that!?

Then a performance and workshop pops up on Instagram that evening from a group back home (I won’t name them) and it feels so far removed from here. 'Quaint' and 'jolly' come to mind. It all feels as awkward as anything compared to the performances and rehearsals here. The difference is almost comical. It’s just not the same thing. But why not?

The difference is not a question of skill. The group on Insta were playing reasonably well, and even if they were playing flawlessly I can imagine feeling a similar way. By contrast, we have just seen a performance from Maestrina Elem Silva’s children’s group, Meninos da Rocinha (and here) where some of the playing was technically very ropey but the whole thing was a fantastic, powerful thing to witness.

Needless to say, I have nothing but respect for the Maestrina’s experience and skill, and my respect extends to the young children in the group, regardless of their technical prowess. The Maestrina knew it wasn't perfect, of course, and was happy to smile about it. She was smiling and proud of them despite glaring at them for their mistakes and the fact it was clearly important to them all to do their best. I post this video here because I think it's important for us to see some authentic Brazilian performances that aren't flawless. I loved it, despite it's wobbliness (and many of the young players were excellent too, of course).

So what’s the difference then? Why did one feel more right to me than the other? Is it because one group is all White and one is all Black, and they are playing music that is so overtly Black? Is it because one was on a drizzly UK high street and one was on a warm evening in Salvador’s Pelourinho? Is it because this style of music is from here and not from there? Maybe these are all part of the answer.

Is the problem that the British leader is masquerading as an ‘expert’ in something that they haven't actually all that much first-hand experience with? Is is that they think they ‘get it’ when most Brazilians would say they don’t?

Maybe, as Tan suggested to me, part of the answer is the intent and integrity behind the performance. The Maestrina’s intent is to give these kids something to empower them with something that’s their own and something to identify with (documentary about her). Her integrity is plain to see. She grew up in Salvador with her life centered around this music. In the Maestrina's words on an instagram post [translated]:

"21 years fighting honestly to resist and transform the lives of children and adolescents through Arts education"

By comparison, the intent of the British leader is… to run a fun group? To bring the community together? To genuinely share an aspect of another musical culture? I don’t know, but I know this is a question I have to ask myself too.

Maybe a big part of the answer is that it will never feel like the same style of performance across the Atlantic because it will never mean the same thing. Kids or not, it’s not a novelty here. It’s not (just) something fun to do of an evening. It’s a question of identity. It’s a music borne out of a struggle against racism, of Black oppression. It's become woven into the fabric of the culture here.

Is it a problem?

Is it a problem for people in the UK and around the world to create ‘samba bands’ that really don’t feel like the ones here?

On balance, I don't think so.

Mestre Memeu of Olodum is delighted that his music is so much a force for good, a way to unite people across cultures, religions and languages. He is always happy to see groups learning his music. He made the point that it's very rare for other groups outside of Brazil to sound quite right, but that this isn't a problem. (See interview Brazilian Beat Podcast ep.42).

Mestre Mario Pam of Ilê Aiyê would agree, but adds that he thinks it's important that teachers of this music really understand the roots of it - who created it and why. This is their responsibility as a teacher. Otherwise they are just teaching meaningless rhythmic patterns. (Hence this blog! We will be exploring more about this 'who and why' in other posts)

Where it might be a problem is to assume that playing it and 'getting' it are the same thing. It would be wrong to assume that if you can play an arrangement from a Brazilian group that you really sound like them. To teach a rhythm of a new style of music and think, 'job done', maybe that's a problem.

It's also wrong to assume that it means the same thing as when they play it over there. Why would it? If everyone performing and watching the music is from a different country, a different culture, a different ancestral story, and the setting in which it's being performed is completely different, how can it mean the same thing!?

So, again, maybe it's a question of intent and integrity on the part of the teacher. There's nothing wrong with sounding a bit different from the Brazilian groups we are inspired by, as long the intent and respect are there.

Is it possible to really sound Brazilian outside of Brazil?

I would say so. There's nothing preventing anyone playing how anyone else plays. But I would say I've only heard a handful of groups outside of Brazil (let alone in the UK) that come close.

The challenge is at the level of both the individual and the group. Individually, it takes a great deal of musicality to really relax into the feel of a different musical style. It also takes a lot of personal listening time to internalise before even trying to mimic it. Then, there's the challenge of bringing together a group of similarly experienced people, as the best player in the world will not sound like it if playing alongside a mediocre one!

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in order to sound Brazilian is the music's swing. We'll look at this in a specific post.

It also comes down to the response of the audience. How can and why should a group play exactly like those in Brazil if the audience wants something different or reacts differently? Is it possible to put on a truly great roda de samba in England if the crowd is more interested in the tea and cake?

However, none of this is to say that there's no value in playing something that doesn't quite sound Brazilian. Just look at the positive reactions on the faces of people in the audience. Even if a group doesn't sound totally authentic, that doesn't stop the audience loving it!

I suppose it all comes down to intent and integrity again. If you are performing with the right intent for that audience, teaching with the right integrity to do the people in the group justice, and respecting the roots of the music you're learning, then it's surely a good thing.


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