I SAW BATALA DC PLAY LIVE for the first time at a Tom Tom show
in their city last year. They were over 50 members strong and were a commanding presence even before they began to play. In red, white, and black uniforms reminiscent of something a capoeirista would wear, they began their set right outside the venue and kept it loud, energetic, powerful and joyful until the very last beat. When I heard there was a New York-based group, I eagerly sought out their director Stacy Kovacs to ask her a bit about the international drumming phenomena that is Batala. TOM TOM MAGAZINE: WHEN DID THE NEW YORK BRANCH OF BATALA BEGIN? STACY KOVACS (DIRECTOR OF BATALA NYC): Batala NYC began in my
head Labor Day weekend 2011 after seeing a group of Batala members from around the world play at the 2011 Brasilian Day in NYC. They were being directed by the founder of Batala, Giba Goncalves. His mere presence got me addicted to the music and the band. After many long Skype conversations with Solange, the founder of Batala Washington DC, and Paulo, the director of Batala Brasilia, Batala NYC was formed officially in January 2012. We had a first members meeting on March 9th and our first rehearsal on March 31st. WHY DID YOU FEEL THERE WAS A NEED FOR A BATALA NYC? New York City
is such a hub for art, dance, and music, and Batala is present in 26 cities around the world, so, why not NYC? In the US, the only one (besides us) is in Washington DC. NYC is such a melting pot of culture and music and Batala NYC offers something different that doesn’t already exist here. HOW WAS THE DECISION MADE TO MAKE BATALA NYC ALL FEMALE? DOES GIBA GONCALVES (THE FOUNDER OF BATALA) HAVE ANY ISSUES WITH THAT?
Making Batala NYC all female was an easy decision. It’s what I wanted, I had always dreamed of having an all-women band of some sort. I honestly thought Batala, as a global organization, was made of all-women groups. Then, I learned (about three months later) that in fact, it was co-ed, and only five of the 27 groups are exclusively women. To my knowledge, Giba doesn’t have any issue with us being all female. Batala Brasilia (in Brazil) is the largest Batala group including 120 women in the band and Batala Washington is a close second made up of 90 women. WHAT DO ALL THE DIFFERENT BATALA GROUPS HAVE IN COMMON? We are
all the same in that we all share the love of the drum and this style of music. The music is Samba Reggae, typically heard in Bahia, a northern state in Brazil, with its roots in West African drumming. It’s not samba, and we are not a samba band. All Batala bands wear the same style of clothing and use the same drums, all of which are hand made in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. The drums are recognizable as they all have the same painted patterns and our costumes have similar designs. We also all play the same arrangements of music and communicate via the same hand signals. If I were to go conduct the Athens band, it would be easy for me, as they know the same music and hand signals. WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF DRUMS THE MEMBERS OF BATALA PLAY AND HOW DOES EACH MEMBER DECIDE WHICH DRUM THEY WILL PLAY?
We have five drums. The surdo, or Fundo comes in two sizes, 22-inch and 24-inch tuned a 4th apart, they are the bass drums. They alternate beats 1, 2, 3, 4. We call them the heartbeat, the “boom and the bing”. The next drum is a small surdo 20-inch
called the Dobra. This drum is tuned pretty high and plays the syncopated rhythms and has the most choreography. The next is the repique (pronounced he-pee-ki), it is a 12-inch drum resembling a coffee can that is tuned really tight and played with two plastic whippy sticks. This drum plays the complex patterns and calls known to samba reggae. The last is what we call a snare drum. In Portuguese, it’s called a caixa (kyesha) [and] it means box. You play it like a snare drum here in the US, but the function isn’t so much to be the forefront like most American marching bands. The caixa is the engine, the drum who never stops playing, they play repetitive patterns that offer white noise you only notice when they stop playing! We generally start most beginners on the surdo. It’s an easy drum to play, and allows you to be able to learn it quickly. This gives women the chance to listen to the music and how each song sounds, so that if they eventually want to transition to a different drum, it’s easier for them. If a woman comes to me with drumming experience, I generally ask her to play a repique or snare. If a dancer comes to me, I generally want them on the dobra. The problem with dobra is that everyone wants to play it. Right now we have a waiting list for dobra because we don’t have enough dobra drums for everyone. No waiting list for the other drums though! HOW MUCH WORK GOES INTO YOUR ROLE AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR? A lot.
None of the music is written down. I rely on YouTube videos and Skype conversations to learn it. I have to learn all of the parts and all of the hand signals on my own. Aison Rodden, the musical director of the DC band helps me (she leaves me voicemails of how the songs sound), but I don’t want to be a clone of her. Plus, on top of that, I store the extra drums and parts at my apartment, as well as the merchandise we have for sale. I have to teach the band the music, I have to teach them how to care for their drums, I have to deal with the inevitable drama of an all-women band, and I still have to be accountable to Giba and the mundo Batala family. It can be stressful. WHAT DO YOU HAVE IN STORE FOR THE FUTURE? I have this idea in the
back of my head that we will have 150 women drummers in the band. That poses an issue for rehearsal space! Jade wrote a story on Batala’s DC chapter which you can read online at www.tomtommag.com
This issue of Tom Tom Magazine features Batala NYC, Shonen Knife, Radical Marching Bands, Crocodiles, Alexey Poblete, Veronica Bellino, Jaka...