After spending the fall of 2014 doing research in the Netherlands, I have moved home to Aalborg, Denmark and returned to the samba group Poco Loco. The group has dancers and percussionists; I’m one of the latter. Starting again after my half-year break reminded me of how it was when I first started playing samba. While you enjoy the video of the group here, I’ll geek out on the drumming below.
In my gymnasium (high school) years, I played the drum kit, mostly rock music. On the drum kit, you play with both hands and both feet simultaneously, so coming from this background, I thought playing a single drum at a time should be fairly easy. It turns out it’s not!
For example, there’s the tiny tamborim which, despite its modest size (6” ≈ 15 cm), contributes a lot to the character of the sound of a samba bateria. Its basic pattern plays every 16th note, indefinitely, with one hand. That requires good technique, first to be able to play at high speed at all, then to keep going. (I hope I’ll be able to do it some day!)
The caixa (snare drum) also plays every 16th note in the basic pattern. Unlike with the tamborim, you can alternate the hands. But like the tamborim, the rhythm is played with “samba swing” which gives an eager, energetic feeling. It takes a lot of time readjust when your musical background is rock-based. (You can hear the difference in this video, where he switches between exaggerated, medium, and no swing.)
The repinique is a drum that can make different sounds depending on how it’s struck. Below is a video of a guy showing how it’s played. The drum is used by the leader to cue the breaks and perform calls that the rest of the bateria answers. So it has a very important role. But playing it involves slapping your hand into its metal rim 100-150 times per minute. And it sports tuning rods that are always available for said hand to impale itself on. As one of my bandmates said: You are not initiated until you have bled on your drum!
Samba is hard, but it’s great. Both when we practice and when we perform on the street or on a stage. The driving, unending rhythm and the feeling of unity in a group of people or a whole carnival are just awe-inspiring.
The atmosphere is also happy and relaxed. Mistakes are made, but you just play on. It’s more important to keep going than to play perfectly (there’s an important life lesson in that!)
I was also surprised when I returned from my half year break. I could no longer consciously remember the many breaks and call/response sequences. But when the leader played the calls, my hands automatically responded. It’s like riding a bike – you can do it, but you can’t explain how.
Samba swing is in a way the opposite of jazz swing. Jazz swing/shuffle is “lazy” and delays off-beat notes. Samba swing is “eager” and plays some of the notes between the main beats too early.
You cannot keep time with your feet because you will be walking in a parade at speeds that are likely independent of the music.
I still geek out and write down drum tabs to learn and understand new sequences, but after that the automated learning quickly takes over. Most people in our group just learn by repetition, without writing it down.
Earlier in my life, the primary meaning of “samba” was a piece of networking software.
I have no idea why our group is called Poco Loco (a bit crazy) in Spanish, when samba is Brazilian. I guess even the name is a bit crazy!
If you live near Aalborg, and find this all interesting, we could sure use a few more drummers (also dancers!). All you need is the interest (and at least a hint of a sense of rhythm). See the facebook page.