Less than two weeks remain before the annual pre-Lenten Carnaval celebrations begin, and cities such as New Orleans (with Mardi Gras) and Rio de Janeiro (with Carnaval itself) have begun preparing for a mayhem of revelry.
But though you'll have to wait until May for San Francisco's own Carnaval celebration, that joyous mayhem is alive and well at the Elbo Room in SF's Mission district. Every Tuesday night, resident Brazilian bands such as Vivendo de Pão, Bossa Nossa, Superbacana and, most notably, Bat Makumba lay down the rhythm and soul of new-millennium Brazil, fueling a vibrant dance scene full of great, inventive sounds and grooves.
"Our hope is to conjure the spirit of Carnaval that is embedded in Brazil's tradition of miscegenation," explains Bat Makumba lead vocalist and guitarist Alex Koberle, "and create music where people from all walks of life can drop their inhibitions and join our renegade Carnaval party."
That party began a year ago, when Bat Makumba first started holding down the first-Tuesday-of-the-month slot at the Elbo Room. The high-energy world-rock band earned itself a nice following through those energetic shows and the release of its self-produced debut album in mid-2003. More than two years in the making, Bat Makumba earned favorable reviews and, surprisingly enough, decent public radio airplay.
So the band has started making a name for itself, but many people can't even pronounce it (baach maa-coom-baa), let alone explain what it means: "Bat Makumba" is the title of a song written by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso and made famous by Os Mutantes, part of the 1970s Tropicalia movement, which flourished at a time when Brazil lived under dictatorship and severe censorship.
"The song describes what we are doing," Koberle explains. "And it's a strong name."
Partly because bat also means "to beat," perfect for a band with such a powerful rhythmic foundation. Percussionist-singer Emiliano Benevides provides that pulse -- the Goiânia, Brazil, native arrived in San Francisco a few years ago, where he met Koberle and bassist/vocalist Cal Remde, who form the group's nucleus.
The idea: Create a band that combines the strongest, most prominent aspects of Brazilian musical culture. Which basically means, well, everything.
"Me and Alex were born in Brazil, and were exposed to many different things," Benevides explains. "When you walk down the street, you hear everything from traditional, punk, rock, and classical musics. We grew up listening to everything! So we try to take all those sounds and put them on a plate, with all of us contributing our flavors, to bring something new for people to digest."
Most bands lay claim to that kind of "little bit of everything" approach, but Bat Makumba has got the diversity to back it up. Coming from perhaps the most racially mixed country in the world, the group represents a new facet of Brazil's "mutable" art forms. By blending funk and rock with traditional and contemporary Afro-Brazilian beats, its influences are inherently Brazilian, but those influences get spit back out in an entirely new form.
Perhaps that's because the rest of the lineup -- Matt Swindells (drums), Ben Tergis (keys/accordion), and David Gibbs (saxophone, clarinet, and flute) -- doesn't always have Koberle's firsthand experience with Brazilian culture, though they do share his enthusiasm. "I am loving playing with this band," exclaims Gibbs, a seasoned player from Wisconsin who jams frequently in the local improvisational jazz scene. "I get to play flute, clarinet, sax, and percussion, and really get into the dance tunes we're playing. I met these guys when I was playing Brazilian chorinho music. I grew up in the US listening to rock, funk, and classic jazz, but I feel at home with this music. I haven't been to Brazil yet, but it's something I want to do soon."
Gibbs particularly shines on the tune "Uma Gota" ("A Drop"). With a round, resonant tone on his tenor sax, he embroiders a bold rap by Koberle that rides on a heavy 6/8 beat and then delivers a bold solo that cuts through the tune's multiple rhythmic layers.
You can dance to it, of course, but you can pump your fist to it as well. "The song itself is about the small drop of resilience that exists in all of us when faced by adversity," Koberle explains. "It's structured around eight repeated phrases, which are bracketed by call-and-responses that are evocative of Brazilian soccer stadium chants. These chants are sung by thousands of people, and each voice represents a drop of hope emboldened by their numbers."
To be clear, Bat Makumba doesn't sound anything like your parents' old Stan Getz/Antonio Carlos Jobim records. Instead, you get hard-edged dance music rooted in Brazil's strong percussive traditions, but willing to embrace any other cultural influences that come along.
This is perhaps best felt on the song "Morro de Saudade," which talks about the similarities between Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco. There are more than you might think, but Koberle realizes how unique and singular his home base really is. A lot of Bat Makumba's lyrics address exile and removal from the motherland, and if you're lucky enough to have ever been there, "Saudade" does leave you yearning for Brazil.
Thankfully, the group finds innovative ways to bring Brazil to us. "Saudade" is actually a long-distance collaboration with Velha Guarda da Mangueira (Old Guard/School of Mangueira). "They are like the Buena Vista Social Club of Rio," Koberle explains. "They're now in their sixties and seventies, and they have played samba all their lives. Emiliano toured and played with them in France, throughout Europe, and at the first Latin Grammy Awards show. Since he knows those guys, we said let's see if we could do something."
They could. "We contacted their artistic director, who said 'Sure, send us some material,'" Koberle continues. "We recorded some materials here and sent them a two-track. They recorded on top of that a multitrack of percussion, cavaquinho, and vocals, and sent it back to us on Pro Tools with something like thirty channels. So we put that into our system and recorded more stuff on top of it and mixed it. That's what you hear on the CD, and the feeling was definitely there, though we were never in the same studio."
If you doubt the depth of that feeling, just ask the Bat Makumba guys themselves. "We all almost died when we heard their version of it," bassist Carl Remde recalls. "I cried when I heard it," Emiliano adds. "The emotion I felt was like when Brazil makes a goal in the finals of the World Cup. You can't explain it."
But among other things, you can dance to it.
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