Slave to the rhythm

Last updated 05:00 29/01/2014
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FEEL THE BEAT: Performers from Grupo Orunmila dance at National Day of Samba celebrations.

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Brazil is a country that swings. Its people seem to shimmy to a samba beat, whether they're strolling along the beach or playing football.

On previous visits, I've watched, wincing, as tourists have clumsily tried to imitate those joyous Afro-Brazilian rhythms.

But finding myself in Salvador de Bahia, famous as Brazil's most musical city, I decide to take the plunge and sign up for a percussion lesson. I remember playing the triangle in Ms Wilde's class back when I was six. If I could do it then, I can do it now, right?

That's how I come to spend the morning with Giba. Giba is the type of person who makes you feel instantly at ease.

That's just as well; otherwise I might feel intimidated by the knowledge that my instructor is a famous performer who has played with the likes of Gilberto Gil and Paul Simon.

Smiling happily - something he does a lot - Giba hands me an instrument I recognise. "Tambourine!" I exclaim proudly. Um, no. This is actually a pandeiro, a smaller instrument ringed with metal jingles. Giba uses the pandeiro to demonstrate the six-beat rhythm which is the basis of all samba music. Confusingly, it starts on the fifth beat, so the count is five-six-ONE-two-three-four-five-six.

Thanks to Giba's demonstration, I grasp the rhythm fairly quickly. Mastering the technique is more difficult. I struggle to duplicate the resonant sound Giba gets from his pandeiro, slapping it first with his thumb, then with the pad of his hand.

Finally the sound tells me I'm doing it right. That's when Giba tells me to stand up. We start marching like they do in a samba parade, synchronising the pandeiro beat with the one-two of our footfalls. Once Giba sees I have the hang of it, he grabs a large drum and adds a more complex beat. This is starting to sound like music!

Giba then shows me how to add a little scratch of my fingers on the pandeiro between beats. I try it a few times, before collapsing into laughter. This requires a degree of multi-tasking that's beyond me. Time to bring on the next instrument.

Giba has plenty to choose from. We play with the drums, another instrument that requires more skill than I would have imagined: first hitting with stiff fingers on the edge of the drum, then using a different technique to produce a more muted sound in the centre. We work with onomatopoeic instruments such as the recoreco, which makes a sound like a frog, and the agogo, a multiple bell instrument named for the sound it makes: a-go-go.

The agogo is another instrument that's more difficult than it appears. You hit the bells with a wooden stick to get two different tones, then squeeze the bells together to make a clacking sound. By now we're permanently on our feet: I find it is much easier to nail the rhythm when your whole body is involved. My confidence level is higher than before, and we're jamming well, but the more I get into it, the more small mistakes I make. I'm clacking when I should be donging, but at least I'm staying with the beat.

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Making music, I realise, requires an odd mix of skills. The best way to get the rhythm down is to switch your brain off and just let it flow. However, part of your brain needs to stay focused, to ensure you're using the right technique and therefore getting the right sound. It's challenging but fun.

Many of Giba's instruments are African in origin. Despite its celebratory air, samba is actually music created by slaves, captured in Africa and shipped to Brazil to labour in plantations. It's a reminder that this affirmation of the human spirit was born out of the darkest conditions.

If samba is one of Brazil's essential music forms, the birimbau is one of its essential instruments. Also used in capoeira, it is one of the oldest instruments in the world, and was adapted from a bow. The technique is particularly difficult and the wavering wail it produces is an acquired taste.

The cuica is another matter. This friction drum has one end open, so you can reach the dowel fastened inside. Rubbing the dowel with a cloth produces different sounds, depending on the pressure you use. Giba amazes me by making it sound like a treble sax, a whining pup, and even a violin. A similar instrument is used in certain African ceremonies to talk to the leopard: Giba conjures up a low growling sound that, to my ears at least, is a convincing leopard imitation.

Before I know it, the session is over, and I'm amazed by what we've crammed in. I have a new understanding of samba and the role of African culture in Brazilian music. I have a much better appreciation of the talent of the percussionists I see on every street corner. I've laughed, I've danced, I've drummed and dinged. I feel virtually Brazilian.

The writer travelled courtesy of LAN Chile and the Classic Safari Company.


PLAYING THERE Percussion lessons with Giba Conceicao can be booked through The Classic Safari Company.

STAYING THERE Villa Bahia is an old colonial house located in the heart of Pelourinho. Rates start at about $280 including breakfast. See


- FFX Aus

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