Drumming in the Name of Tradition, Fun and Justice: Batala DC

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Batala DC, one of two all-women drum corps (the other is Batala NYC – our cover story for the newest issue of our print magazine) that comprise Batala Mundo, is all you could hope for in a drum corps. They are politically salient, full in sound, and mesmerizing to watch. Their determination to remain a relevant part of the Washington, DC music community while maintaining a connection to the origins of samba-reggae and Brazilian dance give this drum corps a fervor that extends beyond the music itself. Simultaneously centering the power of women and the thrill of percolating percussion, Batala DC achieves a sound and fury that can’t be ignored.

The name “Batala” refers to several international drum corps that all play the same samba-reggae songs written by Giba Goncalves, the founder of Batala. The rhythms of Batala originate from Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, Goncalves’ birthplace. In 1976, the first Afro-Brazilian bloco Ilê Aiyê gate-crashed the internationally recognized Carnaval festival, which until then did not allow black groups to play. The mix of reggae aesthetics with samba rhythms and choreography intimately ties this music to social movements focused on black empowerment and social justice.

Afro-Latino diasporic fusion shines in the drums Batala DC uses in its performances. Samba-reggae is traditionally played on five types of drums: surdo, fundo, dorba, repique, and caixa. The surdo and fundo are essential rhythmic components for samba. The dorba is an instrument unique to the genre of samba-reggae. The caixa (similar to a Western snare drum) and surdo are rhythm drums, while the dobras and repique are melody drums. During practices and performances, Batala DC arrange themselves in a rectangular formation with surdos along the sides, dorbas in the front row, caixas toward the middle and the repique rounding out the sound at the very center. With up to 75 members playing during performances, the group creates an unrivaled wall of power and sound.

Surdo 1 player Erin Schmieder describes the surdos as “the heartbeat of the drum corps. The surdo 1 and 2 are large bass drums, with the surdo 1 as the larger of the two.” The dorba and repique almost seem to talk to one another, in call-and-response fashion. For Schmieder, “the drums each draw in different colors, and it comes together to make a painting.” Indeed, samba-reggae reflects the colorful, explosive culture and political history from which it emerged.

The progressive politics of samba-reggae is evidenced in Batala DC’s commitment to the arts of Washington DC, their membership accessibility, and their influence in the local economy of Bahia. The instruments and costumes used by all international Batala groups are manufactured in Salvador, supporting workers of the region. Alison Rodden, Batala DC musical director, describes the societal importance of an all-women drum corps: “Our mission is to empower women…Men are encouraged to be loud and be themselves, [but] with women, there are constraints. It’s important for women to be leaders and to be comfortable with themselves.”

Batala honors its commitment to social justice and belief in the power of women who drum with an economically accessible membership structure. Any woman regardless of income level, race, age, sexual orientation, or nationality can join. The group also supports social programs in Bahia and has a service committee to teach underserved girls in the DC area how to make drums and learn to play. Dobra/caixa player Kate Morgan describes her link to samba-reggae as central to Batala DC. “A lot of women that are in the band had no drumming experience before Batala,” she says. “Sometimes members are being exposed to people, places, and cultures they haven’t been exposed to before through Batala and that relates to our mission of empowerment.” In addition, Morgan notes that members range in age from 21 years old to 60 and everyone starts at a different level.

Above all else, the potential for Afro-Brazilian music to unite and uplift marginalized communities is central to Batala DC. Rodden describes Batala’s drumming as a humanizing force that draws people together. Playing and practicing in public whenever DC’s weather permits, Batala’s energy is infectious and often surprisingly powerful. The choreography and costumes that accompany all Batala DC performances are specific to Afro-Brazilian music, and this flamboyant visual component is often the first thing that catches the attention of passersby. Schmieder notes, “Conductors stop to give the crowd a bit of history of the music during shows, which gives the crowd and musicians more of a connection to the music.” And the connection the crowd feels at their shows is palpable with everyone from young children to older community members united in joy, and at times, wonder.

For Batala DC, it’s all about the personal relationship between the drummer and the music. “Listen to your drum,” Rodden says. “All of the other socialization, all that you bring with you into the practice, the drum is the place to be yourself, and find out who you are if you don’t know.”

By Jade Fair

Photos by John Shore from Tom Tom Magazine’s Rad Ladies that Drum Showcase

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