Batala Washington band brings Brazilian culture to the capital
By Chris Lyford,
For anyone who thinks their workweek could use a little less Capitol Hill and a little more Copacabana, look no farther than the women of Batala Washington.
For nearly five years, this local percussion band has been serving up Afro-
Brazilian samba-reggae rhythms for patrons throughout the Washington area. And while the all-female band is certainly boisterous, the music is tempered with heaping doses of sisterhood, soul and lessons on Brazilian culture.
“When I’m playing this music, I can’t stop smiling,” said Alison Rodden, 36, who as the band’s director oversees nearly 80 volunteer drummers — or Batalettes. When playing the drums, Rodden said, “you’re really understanding yourself and expressing yourself. And getting everybody around you pumped about it.”
The Batalettes — all of whom play percussion instruments and wear elaborately patterned dresses manufactured in Brazil — regularly offer free shows in public parks and on street corners. In recent years, the group has performed at Nationals Park, the Kennedy Center, the National Zoo and a handful of embassies. This weekend, they’re scheduled to play during the Hispanic Day Parade in New York, and on Oct. 28, they’ll set the beat for hundreds of runners at D.C.’s Marine Corps Marathon.
But Batala Washington’s mission runs deeper than just producing catchy beats. As one of only two entirely female Batala bands operating worldwide, the Batalettes have taken up the dual mission of spreading Afro-Brazilian culture and empowering women through music.
Drumming “is traditionally kind of a male style of music,” said Erin Schmieder, 28, a research analyst who plays with the Batalettes in her off time. But because Batala Washington is all-female, she said, “there’s a different kind of energy and support.”
That’s just fine by Batala’s founder, Giba Goncalves. In September, he arrived in Washington to shepherd the Batalettes through a new repertoire of songs. In only a few days, they’d debut them at Brazil Day, an annual event in Southeast, held this year on Sept. 9 — two days after Brazilians abroad celebrated the country’s independence day.
Goncalves, 50, makes similar trips to nearly 30 other Batala chapters, which span 12 countries including England, South Africa and Portugal. But working with an all-female chapter, he says, has special meaning.
Originally from Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, Goncalves moved to Paris in the 1990s to pursue an education in music. But he missed the renowned musical street parades — called blocos — in his hometown of Salvador, a place where music was everywhere. “My mother was a housewife,” recalled Goncalves. “But everything she would do, she would do singing. She would cook and sing.”
In 1997, Goncalves formed Batala, in part to have a cultural touchstone, as a way to bring people together, and as a nod to the complex drumming methods of West African slaves first brought to Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A decade later, two of Goncalves’s Brazilian students set up shop in Washington, recruiting Batalettes like Rodden, who “found her groove” after spotting a public performance in Farragut Square in 2008.
“There’s so much history, and there’s so much identity” behind Batala, Rodden said. “To be a part of it is so amazing.”
Filling a void
Before the Brazil Day performance, the women worked overtime, practicing five nights a week, up from regular Saturday rehearsals. Dozens of Batalettes, fresh out of school or work, or having just dropped off children with spouses or sitters, filed into the vacant gym at the Lab School in Northwest. As the sun began to set, the group fell into four lines and strappedthe drums against their waists.
Words on a canvas banner graced the gym: “Practice makes permanent.”
It was a concept that had special meaning for drummer Aparna Krishnamoorthy, a Batalette of three months and the group’s newest member. In 2011, she saw the band play at a surprise show on U Street. Music, said Krishnamoorthy, was “something I was missing. I hoped Batala would fill that void.”
Krishnamoorthy spent the next several months as a nonofficial member of the band, attending performances but without a drum of her own. She watched the band perform and air-drummed.
The day before her first official performance, the Batalettes took Krishnamoorthy aside and presented her with a drum.
“It’s a surdo,” said Krishnamoorthy, gesturing to the large base drum, which measures almost two feet in diameter and creates what Batalettes refer to as the heartbeat of a samba band. Staying motivated throughout the waiting period was difficult, she added. “But at the end of the day, Batala’s an absolutely wonderful group of people. It’s like my second family.”
With Goncalves at the helm, the Batalettes rocked back and forth in unison, swinging drumsticks that landed with careful precision. Rodden took up the center of the formation, quickly rapping on a snare drum that rose above the booming surdos.
Several Batalettes kicked off their shoes, gripping the hardwood floors as they made a staggered drop to the floor and rose again. Smiles appeared as drummers’ eyes met.
Before the night was over, Goncalvescalled the Batalettes aside. He spoke about how Afro-Brazilian drumming had once been considered taboo. He spoke about how, against all odds, it breathed life into an identity many never knew they had. And it created a family.
“Batala makes me feel normal,” said Tricia Simpson, 41, who is legally deaf but can drum by watching the other Batalettes and by feeling the beats vibrate through the floor.
“These women are as close as I have to family,” said Deb Jansen, 52, who has lyme disease. “For me, Batala is like medicine,” she added. “I put every ounce of strength, adrenaline and concentration into it.”
Attracting a crowd
For many Batalettes, the Brazil Day performance would be unprecedented in terms of scale and fanfare. Hundreds of spectators flocked to Yards Park in a sea of gold, blues and greens — Brazil’s national colors. Friends traded stories and jokes in Portuguese under the afternoon sun. And the smell of savory Brazilian street food wafted over the crowd as a DJ dished out Brazil’s latest chart toppers over a pair of loudspeakers.
“I can’t wait. We’re all super excited,” Krishnamoorthy said as the band made its final preparations. “This is awesome. I feel awesome.”
With plenty of daylight left and the crowd’s interest piqued by the arrival of the costumed, drum-wielding Batalettes, the women ran onto the lawn, single file.
“We’re very curious about how it’s going to sound,” said Cosme Lantigua, 34, who changed his afternoon plans after spotting several Batalettes on the Metro. “It looks like it’s going to be good,” said his girlfriend, Natalia Feliciano. “We were going someplace else, but when we heard about this we decided to stop.”
Rodden made her way to the front of the line, and with a flick of the wrist, the drumming began.
Heads began to bob. Feet began to tap.
Goncalves, dressed head to toe in white, stepped in between the rows of drummers with Rodden, pumping a fist and rallying the crowd. Just as they’d practiced, the drummers made a staggered drop to the ground in unison, never missing a beat.
“Que legal!” several onlookers whispered. “So cool!”
“Linda!” others remarked. “So beautiful!”
The group finished their last piece to resounding cheers from the crowd. “We have met people here that we may never have met had it not been for the music,” Goncalves said, as the Batalettes gathered offstage, finishing the afternoon with a flurry of hugs, laughter and tears.