Toronto's samba bateria (drum corps) history dates back about 20 years. It's said the first samba drumming performance group evolved by way of a desire from within the Brazilian community to represent during the city's summer festivities. Many of the original players from the first project in the early '90s, Viva Brazil, remain active in samba groups in the city today.Throughout the early 2000s a few new baterias formed, and for about the last 10 years, four different groups in the city have co-existed as Toronto's interpreters and representatives of the Brazilian samba bateria tradition.This past April 7, the four groups came together to play as one bateria in a historic encontro, or meeting.The event was instigated by Negin Bahrami of Batucada Carioca, who was inspired by a bateria encontro between various samba schools in Rio.(Video below: TV news item in Portuguese)Bahrami -- who has traveled to Rio several times and has paraded in a top-level samba school bateria and with several samba blocos -- explains what inspired her to initiate the Encontro:
"The reason behind the event was to give people here who have never been to Rio a chance to experience a taste of what it feels like to be a part of a large bateria rehearsal the way it's done there -- generally between 150 - 300 players rehearsing one song [the school's Carnaval anthem] for the parade that year.
"In Rio, the samba schools and mestres are all friends (not rivals) and they invite each other to their quadras [rehearsal halls] as guest to perform. It is very common for players to play in more than one group and get together. It is a massive samba community and the only time they are in competition is when they parade through the Sambódromo (and even then it is in friendly competition).
"Samba is a passion there; it is community and unity. This is what I wanted to promote in Toronto, and by uniting the four groups, everyone was able to experience that vibe and energy that gives you goosebumps, with the heavy and powerful sound of a bateria made up of 100+ players."
After much gestation, the idea took flight with an initial meeting in fall 2012 between the four directors and some other key players. (Jon Medow, who is my co-director for Samba Elégua on this project, says it all reminded him of a mafia meeting -- a clandestine coming together of Toronto's samba bateria bosses!).The agreement was struck: They would participate in an Encontro de Baterias, the leaders agreeing to create a musical project everyone could work on to prepare something for all the groups to play together.The four samba bateria groups of Toronto that participated in the event and came all together for the first time are:Escola de Samba de Toronto (a.k.a. Toronto Samba School or TSS)Led by Alan Hetherington, the city's bateria pioneer who started things up for that first group, the "Escola" was the first Toronto outfit organized instruction in the samba bateria style. Many of Toronto's samba heads have participated, and the classes are offered through the Royal Conservatory of Music, where Hetherington also teaches other styles of samba percussion. Under his direction, the group has traveled to Brazil several times, and as an ensemble have performed, studied and recorded with professional Brazilian artists. The group mostly sticks to the samba-enredo and bateria styles, which Hetherington teaches with encyclopaedic knowledge and years of technique. They play some other Brazilian rhythms as well, and in fact have performed complex arrangements and time signatures, but for the most part this Escola de Samba keeps the rhythms traditional.Samba Squad As we have mentioned, Samba Squad are not samba purists. Founded and led by percussionist and teacher Rick Lazar, another old-schooler, Samba Squad is a powerhouse of diverse rhythms and perhaps the group that most represents Toronto's cultural diversity in its repertoire of rhythms. Samba Squad's projects are wide-ranging, from elaborately arranged recordings and stage shows like their recent CD release party (and turns performing with Jesse Cook) to an entire youth arts and music non-profit wing; Drum Artz studio, the org's home base, hosted the Encontro, and Samba Kidz, the youth performing/workshop group, incorporates entire steel pan racks into arrangements for samba, soca and more. Samba Squad has taught and nurtured many local players and samba addicts as well, and to the general populace of Toronto is one of the most visible samba baterias around. For more, read our recent article about Samba Squad and their latest album.Batucada CariocaThis group came onto the scene around 2003, a few years after Hetherington, while visiting Brazil, met Maninho Costa through samba school rehearsals. A native of the Ilha do Governador (Governor's Island) area of Rio de Janeiro, Costa has played in baterias since the age of seven -- his uncle, Odilon Costa, is one of Brazil's most respected bateria masters -- starting in the kids' baterias and moving to the elite levels as a teenager. Following an invitation from Hetherington, Costa visited Toronto in 2000 and 2001 as a performer for the annual Brazilian Ball fundraiser; after the 2001 event, he stayed, later starting his own project. Batucada Carioca began as a smaller group in 2003, and in 2004 grew into a larger bateria; the band plays samba music with an emphasis on the heavy percussive swing of the Rio bateria tradition, performing famous Carnaval anthems along with popular Brazilian tunes and a few other grooves. Check out more about Maninho Costa and Batucada Carioca in our previous article here.Samba EléguaPerhaps the most community-oriented samba project of the bunch, Samba Elégua was founded in 2001 as a free-to-join music group by Itay Keshet, then a student at University of Toronto (who directed the project's first five years or so), and to this day it has managed to survive without anyone paying for classes or rehearsals as a kind of volunteer-based samba percussion collective. Of the four groups, it is the one whose leadership and repertoire have likely changed the most over the course of its history (more than 10 individuals including Jon Medow, David Arcus, Raphi Roter and myself have led the group in performance). Like Samba Squad, Samba Elégua plays both Brazilian grooves and a number of fusion rhythms that represent the sounds of multicultural Toronto. In recent years, the group has reworked and developed a stronger bateria samba groove along with other expanded repertoire pieces. We posted about Samba Elégua's sound in a video-based blog entry here.With participation confirmed from the four groups, the "samba mafia bosses" agreed to try a samba-enredo arrangement for the Encontro, one that all groups could learn ahead of time.Eventually the tune was chosen: Araxá (full title: Araxá - Lugar Alto Onde Primeiro Se Avista o Sol), which was the Carnaval anthem performed in 1999 by Rio samba school Beija-Flor de Nilópolis.Once videos of the arrangement were posted online and made available to all, the groups had a few months to practice.Allow me to speak from my experience: for Samba Elégua at least it was the first time many players had performed samba in this format, the way it is in Rio and São Paulo's samba schools -- not just a samba groove, but everything fitting around a song. We spent months encouraging players to review the videos as posted for each instrument, and rehearsed the whole thing several times; this even meant incorporating amplified singing in Portuguese along with the rhythm, which was also a new experience for many group members.Finally the erratic spring weather seemed to clear a little for the big Sunday, and by the time everyone was assembled in the Drum Artz studio, we had more than 100 players, making it the largest samba bateria ever in Canada. (We are pretty sure! Did anyone call Guinness?)Among the many drummers, several of the original Viva Brazil players were on hand for the big day, including Rick Lazar, Alan Hetherington, and musicians and members of Samba Squad, Batucada Carioca and a range of other projects like Tony Pierre, Trevor Yearwood, Lyba Spring, Janet McClelland and Gord Sheard.The day involved warming up the bateria, playing the arrangement's breaks, and then getting into the song with guest musicians Carlos Cardozo on cavaquinho and Wagner Petrilli on guitar, plus another guitarist, Avital Zemer, who also photographed part of the event. Maninho Costa was the day's interprete or samba vocalist.After organizing the bateria into a formation, the leaders directed a successful run-through for over an hour or so, each section of instruments playing its parts of the arrangement, and everyone playing the arrangement's bossa or break together through several repetitions of the song (I would guess around 20-25 times).Things then moved to call and response breaks with the leaders of the groups calling on repeniques (the high-pitched drum played in the bateria style with one hand and one stick, which takes on the role of calling the bateria into the groove and hitting the loud call notes for the bateria to respond).The afternoon was nearly over, but it wouldn't have been complete without a parade, so everyone marched outside with their instruments and made a loud block party to finish the Encontro in true Brazilian samba bateria style.All in all it was a greatly successful event: Happy people with a new collective experience, new friends made and a samba bateria community that wants to make it happen again.This first Encontro was a hit for sure, and with everyone asking when the next one is, we say: Summer is coming, anything is possible and it seems it may only be a matter of time before the next Encontro de Baterias.All photos used with permission of photographers: Dave Burke and Avital Zemer