Friday, September 22

Who's the Bossa?


Afro-Brazilian ensemble spices up classic samba music with modern elements, percussive flair

A&E


Percussive elements can often be the driving force behind a
piece of music, encompassing its energy and guiding the direction
of the song. But they are often limited or underexplored in popular
music, as the melody tends to dominate the listener’s
attention.

Of course, that’s mostly with regard to what you hear on
the radio. However, the “Fowler Out Loud” series at the
Fowler Museum of Cultural History, together with UCLA’s
ethnomusicology department, works to expose the various styles
brewing in other parts of the world. Thursday night at the Fowler
Museum, the destination is Brazil.

UCLA’s Afro-Brazilian ensemble, led by ethnomusicology
graduate student Beto Gonzalez, will explore both the new and
already-established styles of music popular in Brazil, including
samba and emergent funk. The group’s name,

BatUCLAda, plays off the name of a subdivision of samba music
characterized by its fast-paced approach to percussion.

“I like to keep it entertaining, so we’re blending
together the modernity of Brazilian music, as well as the
traditional music of the country,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez developed the program for the show by first listening
closely to the construction of songs performed by popular Brazilian
bands, such as Olodum and Ile Aiye, and then transcribing the music
for his performers.

The bands are most well-known for their African influence, both
in lyrical subject and sound, and how their members integrate those
qualities into the energetic and danceable aspect of Brazilian
music.

Fusing together the sounds of reggae and samba, the music in
Thursday’s program imposes a trancelike environment in which
listeners become absorbed in the steady, complex rhythms of the
drums on stage, all playing in concise syncopation with one another
while the players engage in call-and-response vocal lines.

In other words, it drops the elevator-music element of bad bossa
nova and adopts the fervor of a living room jam session.

The ensemble is made up of 20 people, which makes it difficult
to synchronize drum beats because they are actively changing
throughout the entirety of the song.

But the performers in the ensemble are far from new to this
style of music. Most have been involved in the ensemble for several
years, leading them to develop both individually and on a group
level. The result allows for a unified, communal experience.

“It’s nice to have a group of people who come in and
have been playing for a while. They’re the backbone of the
class,” Gonzalez said.

While there will be some singing during the performance, the
foundation lies in the percussion. The instruments used consist of
Brazilian drums similar to the snare, bass and tenor drums often
heard in popular music today.

It’s like breaking apart a basic drum kit, Gonzalez
explained, and assigning each performer a role on a single
instrument out of the kit. All of them range in tone and pitch so
that, when combined later on, the individual roles grow into a
full-bodied, melodic sound, like an “orchestra of
drums.”

To create this harmony between the rhythmic and musical aspects
of the piece, Gonzalez guided the students through the theoretical
notation of each song. But the true essence of the music lies in
the emotion within the performers themselves.

“The approach to the music is very much based on natural
intuition. So how do you teach people who didn’t grow up with
it or spend years listening to it what is intended to be
natural?” Gonzalez said. “It’s definitely a
challenge, but a fun challenge.”

The type of connection required between the musician and the
song helps to reflect the convivial nature of the music
overall.

In Brazil, the performances are closely associated with the
highly musical Carnival festival, in which drum ensembles similar
to UCLA’s play in the streets of Brazil’s cities as
citizens enjoy various street fair activities throughout the city.
Thus the music demands an interactive approach from both the
position of the musician and the audience.

The program follows the essence of the “Fowler Out
Loud” series by eliminating mediums like the radio or an MP3
player from the process of listening to music. It puts the band in
direct contact with its audience, allowing the music to be
experienced as it was originally intended.

“We share the space in the theater so we’re
literally on the same floor as the audience,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s always more fun when everyone in the theater is
either playing or dancing or singing along, and the Fowler has the
perfect setup for that.”

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