Rocinha: inside the bateria

Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular carnival is famous worldwide, and every year British newspapers are filled with photos of beautiful women in glittering costumes. But what of the music, the oft forgotten power behind every samba school parade? Jeremy Shaverin goes to the favela to investigate.

To prepare for their carnival parade past stern judges, partying revellers and almost half a billion TV viewers, escolas de samba (samba schools) are given one rehearsal in the Sambódromo, Rio’s grandstanded parade road, to iron out any technical issues. On Sunday 19th January I arrived with Sergio Naidin, a carnival judge for the past five years, to watch the three groups rehearsing that night. We tried to get as close the bateria (drum section) as possible, and were aided by security staff buying Sergio’s story that I was his translator working for the league the escolas compete in. As the excited public looked on from the stands, we stepped out onto the avenida (parade road) itself, touching sweaty shoulders with the musicians. Lucky I brought earplugs.

On Sunday 26th January, I got even closer as I was parading in the bateria of Rocinha school of samba. Named after the largest favela in Brazil – lying just around the coast from the glamourous beaches of Ipanema and Leblon – G.R.E.S. Academicos da Rocinha was established in 1988 and won their first three carnivals to quickly climb through the divisions. With the exception of two years parading in Grupo Especial, the ‘Premier League’ of Rio samba, they have generally remained in the division below, Grupo de Acesso. I chose to play with Rocinha as I have always been impressed by the quality of their bateria and, despite an overcrowded bus marathon from central Rio, I have attended almost every rehearsal. Sergio recalls the first time he heard Rocinha play: “I was surprised, it was really good. I told the president of the league I would give them ten points out of ten.” Rocinha’s bateria, grandly titled “Bateria Ritmo Avassalador” or bateria of overwhelming rhythm, has a team of young and energetic musical directors who, led by Mestre Maurão, teach and rehearse the bateria clearly and efficiently. Maurão in particular is an excellent motivator, but has a hard stare ready for anyone who makes a mistake.

Each year, escolas compose a song telling the story of their carnival theme, to be accompanied by 7-string guitar, cavaco (small 4-string guitar) and 300 percussionists. At first, Rocinha took their musical blueprint from some of the larger escolas already established, but twenty-five carnivals later they have developed an identity of their own. With their colours of blue, green and white and their symbol of the butterfly, Rocinha are a young and progressive school who welcome members from all classes, races and genders equally – indeed there are a higher proportion of women allowed to play the larger drums of the bateria, traditionally reserved for men, than I have seen elsewhere. With regard to their musical identity, Maurão believes the tempo at which his bateria play is key. “Today it is the most ‘cadenciada’ (relaxed) in Rio de Janeiro. That is the big difference because when we arrived here it was the fastest in Rio de Janeiro. To push the music forward is very easy. To hold it back is much more difficult.” In my personal opinion, Rocinha’s strongest identifying feature is the precision and complexity with which Maurão arranges his surdos (tuned bass drums). While other mestres allow musicians to improvise, he requires surdo players to memorise long passages, which played in unison provide a strong and varied accompaniment to the song. Frigideiras (small frying pans) add a sound to the bateria not used by many groups.

Maurão can also see the influence of his teachers: “There were two great mestres I had, Mestre Celinho and Mestre Odilon. I had the pleasure of working with them in [Unidos da] Tijuca and Grande Rio…I took a little of the tuning of the surdos from Celinho and I took a little of the work ethic and the distinctness of the instruments from Odilon.” Sergio too feels the surdo tuning defines Rocinha’s sound: “They sounded like tubas. They were tuned low and from far you don’t hear the attack.”

Rocinha have ambitions to once again parade in the limelight of Grupo Especial, however the step up is a big one and it is common for the newly promoted school to immediately drop back to Grupo de Acesso as Rocinha experienced in 1997 and 2006. Could this be their year? Their theme, Barra da Tijuca – the area known as Rio’s answer to Miami, will allow carnavalesco (carnival designer) Luis Carlos Bruno to be very imaginative with his costume and float ideas, and Maurão insists there is a good chance Rocinha could be victorious. He will certainly not allow his bateria to let the school down.

Anyone interested in the full live experience of an escola de samba can buy a ticket to Rocinha’s carnival parade in the Sambadromo on Friday 28th February at www.rio-carnival.net or watch a full rehearsal for free along São Conrado beach every Thursday until carnival. Those without a flight booked to Brazil can listen to Rocinha and watch their 2013 carnival parade on their website at www.academicosdarocinha.com.br.

 

Jeremy Shaverin is a musician and researcher, specialising in the music of South America. After playing and teaching for several years around London, the UK and internationally, he is currently in Rio de Janeiro to study and participate in the various forms of music on offer in one of Brazil’s cultural centres. http://www.jeremyshaverin.com 

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