Samba in Toronto: O Encontro de Baterias

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.Chocalhos and agogôs (shakers and bells) near the front of the formation at the Encontro de BateriasNegin Bahrami on surdo de terceira and cuíca at the April 7, 2013 Encontro de Baterias (Photos: Dave Burke (left); Avital Zemer (right)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 group leaders show off the four t-shirts of the four Toronto samba bateria groupsThe group leaders together at the EncontroThe 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 ArcusRaphi 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.Tamborims (small frame drums that deliver a high cracking sound essential to the feel of samba, played in a specific turning style) -- this section has the most complex arrangement, including for this first Encontro projectWith 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.Maninho Costa calling a bossa (percussion break)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.Negin Bahrami lays down a beat on the surdo along with guest musicians, from left: Avital Zemer (seven-string guitar), Carlos Cardozo (cavaquinho) and Wagner Petrilli (guitar). 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.Alan Hetheringto calls the bossa (break) for the bateria while Maninho Costa sings.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).Samba group leaders from Toronto baterias, from left: Jon Medow, Alan Hetherington, Maninho Costa, Rick Lazar (Photo: Avital Zemer)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).Rick Lazar of Samba Squad leading during the closing procession at the Encontro de Baterias (Photo: Avital Zemer)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.Happy samba drummers! (Photo: Dave Burke)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

David Arcus: A Composer's Sonic Approach

Musician and composer David Arcus is a true original. Even in Toronto's many diverse musical scenes, he's carved out a special nook for himself. With a background and tastes that include classical music, retro film soundtracks, indie rock and jazz along with Brazilian and West African styles, Arcus manages to bring together subtle touches and intuitive emotional intelligence to his work. As a composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist performer, his ability to create compelling songs and arrangements -- from raw ingredients like a percussion or horn section, a vocalist, or a few killer sounds he's been dying to use -- never fails to please. 
 
The producer and arranger of the Juno-nominated Aline Morales album Flores, Tambores e Amores, David Arcus told us about blending Brazilian music with otherwise unconventional sonic pairings and more. All of this comes ahead of the first show he's putting on under his own name in June at Toronto's Music Gallery.
 
 
When did you know you wanted to work with music full-time?

David Arcus: Believe it or not, my original major in university was biology. Even though I had a love for music, especially composing, I didn’t quite have the confidence to take the plunge and commit myself to music full time. A big shift happened at the end of my second year of biology. I was unhappy and basically realized if I didn’t give music a try I would always regret it. I ended up dropping out of sciences and enrolling in classical composition at U of T.Even though classical music was my main area of study, my musical interests have always been very broad. I listen to everything from rock to jazz to film scores. It was during university that I was first exposed in a serious way to the music of Brazil. That’s also when I met and started working with Aline Morales.

Influences and touchstones

The Aline Morales record in particular includes a lot of "indie rock" (for lack of a better term) influences alongside various ones from Brazilian music and culture. How do you see the mix working? Were there challenges putting these two kinds of sounds together? What was your bottom line when producing and writing the album?

The blend of influences you hear on Flores, Tambores e Amores was the result of a long process of exploration. When Aline and I started working on Flores, we did so without any real gameplan. We’d been writing together for a while but I think we both felt we hadn’t quite found our sound yet. As the writing sessions went on, for whatever reason, the music that we were writing started to change. Whereas before it had been more strictly Brazilian sounding, the new songs were incorporating more diverse influences. I think we were just freeing ourselves up – we both listen to so many different styles of music, it didn’t makes sense to limit ourselves to just one thing.From that point on, things progressed very organically, and at a certain point I remember feeling like we had come across a sound that represented where we were at at that time. That’s when the album really started coming together.

Collaborative process

You do a lot of collaboration, especially with Aline Morales. How does it work? How do other collaborations work? How do you figure out who does what, and how much of the collaborations you do (including but not limited to working w. Aline) are you, and how much the other person? When we we listen to a piece, what is it that we'll hear that will make us say "that's Dave"?

For me every collaboration is different and has its own dynamic. With Aline and I, it tends to be very fluid – we’re both constantly throwing in ideas, to the point where it’s hard to say which elements come from whom. Often, I’ll have a vague idea for a riff or chord progression and I’ll show it to Aline. She’ll come up with a melodic idea and we’ll kind of go from there, bouncing ideas back and forth. I wrote a lot of the melodic arrangements on the album, but even in that department Aline had input at every stage along the way.If there’s one aspect of Flores, Tambores e Amores in particular that carries my stamp, I would say it’s in the sonic approach. As a producer, I’ve got a real love for analog sounds. I love vintage gear and we used a lot of it on the album (tube mics and preamps, tape). I spent a lot of time experimenting with different recording techniques and I worked really closely with the mixer, Chris Crerar, to craft the sound of the album.

The Music Gallery and beyond

What can we look forward to for this show? What makes it special?

When I was first approached by David Dacks to put together a show for the Music Gallery, I have to admit I was intimidated. I’ve seen so many incredible shows at that venue over the years. But I knew the opportunity that was too good to pass up. The Music Gallery is one of those great venues where you can try out all those ideas that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.Some of the material for this show will be familiar to those who know the Aline Morales album and the music I’ve written for the Uma Nota parties. But I think people will be surprised at how the music has transformed. Along with some new pieces, the existing arrangements have been expanded and re-orchestrated for a new instrumentation.I’ve put together an 11-piece ensemble for this performance, featuring some of my favourite musicians in the city. We’ve got five horns, vibraphone, percussion, drum kit, bass and guitar, as well as some special guests. Musicians included members from the Heavyweights Brass Band, Kobo Town, Friendlyness and the Human Rights, Samba Elégua, Nick Teehan and special guest Aline Morales. This might be the only time you see all these musicians on stage together so don’t miss it!

What's coming up in the next few months?

Aline and I are currently at work on the follow-up to Flores. We’ve got a tour of Quebec coming up in August, finishing up with a show as part of the Summerworks Festival in Toronto. I’m also working on the debut EP for Hello Gumption, an alt-folk group I play with, due out later in the year.

David Arcus Ensemble performs at The Music Gallery's season finale on Friday, June 15th. Check out The Music Gallery online and their and Facebook event for more info.

Carnaval 2012 is here, from Rio to Salvador to Toronto

The famous, wild and irresistible "clima do Carnaval" has already been heating up all over Brazil for weeks.  From Friday until this coming Ash Wednesday, all bets are off, pleasure and hedonism rule and the world's most famous giant party takes over.Rio de Janeiro bloco 2012 Me Beija Que Sou Cineasta Fotográfos FoliõesOne member of the Uma Nota community taking part in this year's festivities is Jon Medow, the musical director of  Toronto's Samba Elégua and a drummer in samba master Maninho Costa's Batucada Carioca. He's been in Rio since early February on his first trip to Brazil (following a trip to Argentina), and he's arrived tearing it up on the samba front at just the right time.  A talented drummer who plays several instruments from the escola de samba bateria tradition like a hard-hitting Carioca himself, Jon has managed to get right in there with some of the Rio street blocos and now, we can confirm, in the bateria of an escola de samba.Jon Medow G.R.E.S. Inocentes de Belford Roxo Rio Carnaval  Escola de Samba Carnaval Rio de Janeiro  Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí Sambódromo Batucada Carioca Samba Up there with Rio, another of the most popular Brazilian cities during Carnaval -- for sheer music and joy overload, not to mention the definition of "multidão" (huge, packed to the gills crowds) -- is of course Salvador da Bahia, the birthplace of the "trio elétrico" (among countless other Brazilian cultural manifestations, predominantly Afro-Brazilian ones!). This year, worldwide viewers and social media-happy Brazilians can watch live streaming video of the many shows around Salvador on a new YouTube channel created to showcase the festivities and allow people to interact online to comment on them. (More from the Google Blog here, hat tip to Electric Joshua.)   [tubepress video=nEVzpKFxodQ]   Meanwhile back in "terras frias," Toronto isn't missing its turn to party down. This year the annual Brazilian community's Carnaval bash, produced by the lovely and talented (and "Brasileirissima") Angela Mesquita, also puts Bahia in focus as the region of Brazil selected as the theme of this year's festa. Local stars Banda Bracatum rock their mix of samba-reggae, funk, horns and Afro-Brazilian tunes along with Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder adaptations, all led by Contra-Mestre Bola of Capoeira Camará and more in the action-packed band. Singer Cibelle Iglesias and Adrianna Yanuziello's dance troupe Dance Migration will also perform a special piece prepared for the Bahia-themed party. And Maninho Costa, freshly arrived from his hometown Rio (where he just finished a performance run of the show A Febre do Samba, on the history of the samba-enredo), will lead Batucada Carioca in a set of classic Carnaval anthems by the great escolas de samba including two giants, the heavily Afro-influenced Vila Isabel and the often-Bahia-themed Mangueira. Toronto-bound (revelers) can get their fix this Saturday night. Details here. Feliz Carnaval a todos! Happy Carnaval to all!