Samba School Brings Rhythms of Brazil to UC Davis

By Michael Accinno, Arts Initiative Story Corps

On Thursday afternoons in the UC Davis Arboretum, the infectious rhythmic patterns of the Samba School permeate the idyllic scenery.  Passersby may only hear distant echoes of the group’s propulsive droning, but upon closer inspection, the energetic playing style is both thoughtful and methodical.  Sponsored by the music department, the ensemble pays homage to the Brazilian Samba School tradition, a multifaceted, colorful endeavor that typically includes elaborate performances of dancing, singing, and drumming.

At the heart of the ensemble is the bateria, the drumming section composed of traditional Brazilian percussion instruments.  For those unaccustomed to the group’s groove-based sounds, its musical layers can be unpacked as follows: After a “call-in”—a solo passage introduced by the lead drummer—a brief call-and-response passage ensues in which various rhythmic patterns are passed back and forth between the lead drummer and the rest of the ensemble. Finally, the whole group enters and plays the primary groove passage, or ride.  The acerbic energy of the moment is palpable; percussive beats saturate the performance space, and the drummers themselves become dancers.

For participants of the Samba School, the group provides them with a means to enrich their relationship with a different culture and its music.  For UC Davis graduate Daniel Eisenberg, former assistant director of the Samba School, the ensemble inspired him to extensively travel and study in Brazil: “The group allowed me to start thinking of myself as someone culturally connected to Brazil and its music. I am certain that my history with the Samba school is one of the main reasons I was accepted to an engineering research internship in Brazil.”

Eisenberg was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship for further study in Brazil.  For undergraduate Augusto Guimarães, part of the small Brazilian diaspora community at UC Davis, the Samba School represents a way for him to stay connected to Brazil: “I was very fortunate to find the samba school.  I left Brazil at a pretty young age, so it helps keep me grounded in my home culture.”

According to Samba School director Chris Froh, applied instructor of percussion in the music department who founded the group in 2004, membership in the close-knit ensemble has grown mostly through word of mouth.  An accomplished and gifted percussion player in his own right, Froh admits to knowing little about samba before helping to start the group at Davis.  “The department already owned the instruments and had a strong desire to start a group, so I began studying with a samba instructor in the Bay Area.” Froh’s affable teaching style is free flowing and energetic, much like the music of samba itself.

Froh’s most memorable performance with the Samba School took place a couple of years ago at a festival of African diaspora cultures: “We started playing, and all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, we were approached by a drumming group of small, adorable children who challenged us to a drum-off. Never compete against a group of adorable children, you are bound to lose!”

The group frequently performs by invitation at multi-cultural celebrations throughout the greater Sacramento area.  Performances are free, but ear plugs are recommended.

Upcoming Performances:

Whole Earth Festival, Saturday, May 12

UCD Brazilian Culture Day, TBD (likely late May)