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After months of confinement and membership changes, Batalá Philly is picking up steam. The pandemic could not crush the power of this small group of drummers loudly sharing a global message of joy and inclusion.
Eleven members of the ensemble pounded two 30-minute sets of samba reggae during a performance in mid-September at Bok Bar, an open-air hotspot on the roof of the former Bok Technical High School in the 8th streets and Mifflin. It was the group’s third paid concert, and the longest, since their reorganization in the spring. Composed mostly of inexperienced players on five types of drums, the group is one of some 30 international chapters of the non-profit musical project Batalá Mundo.
Performing in front of an audience is nerve-racking at first, some members said, but once the compositions start and the beat starts to flow, the fun takes over.
“Once I’m in the groove, it’s really happy to hear everyone come together and be a part of it,” said Aruni Jayatilleke, who works as a rheumatologist at Temple Health.
Word of mouth is essential for the growth and formation of the group. Jayatilleke heard about Batalá Philly from her stepmother, Lynne Shepsman. Shepsman stumbled across a performance by the Batalá Chapter in Washington DC a few years ago, as she was taking one of her grandchildren to the National Gallery of Art.
“I was totally mesmerized,” said the 70-year-old retiree. Although she only played the flute when she was younger, Shepsman signed up for the New Chapter in Philadelphia. She said the Philadelphia music director “isn’t just a great conductor, he’s a fabulous teacher.”
It would be Ingrid Marti, a 33-year-old transplant from Barcelona who has kissed Philadelphia with all her heart. Marti arrived in 2017 to work at the University of Pennsylvania as a cardiovascular researcher.
“When I came here I wanted to try to learn English, and after a year I really wanted to play the drums because back in Spain it’s very common,” said Marti. She found Batalá Philly via Google search and joined in December 2018.
“It was a win-win because it was making new friends, speaking English, having a new hobby,” Marti said.
Batalá Mundo was founded in Paris in 1997 by Giba Gonçalves, a revered musician from Salvador Bahia, Brazil, according to the chapter’s websites, with a mission to “disseminate Afro-Brazilian culture and music to communities around the world.” .
All of the emerging chapters – from Mexico City to London – play compositions by Gonçalves. The musical directors of each locality teach the pieces to the members with universal hand signals. No one needs to know how to read music, and there are no barriers to differences in spoken language.
“So we can be invited to play with the Parisian group and we could do that and not know French,” said Jennifer Nelson, a member of the Philly chapter.
Since they play the music of the people of Salvador Bahia, the chapters buy drums made by the people of Salvador Bahia. Travel restrictions over the past 18 months have forced Batalá Philly to employ creative logistics to secure the necessary instruments.
“People in Athens had extra drums, so a woman from Philly on vacation brought them here,” said Marti, the music director.
Batalá Philly members pay $ 30 per month in dues, which helps cover drums, repairs and the cost of interior space when winter returns. The payments for their performance also go towards the expenses. The group is headed by five leaders – a president, a vice-president, a secretary, a treasurer and a general member.
Rosa Barreca joined the section in 2019 and was elected president in the spring. The Philadelphia immigration attorney was happy to help revive the group. “It was hard not only to miss the drums, but also to lack camaraderie.”
The group trains on Sundays and Wednesdays for about two hours at a time, often in Fairmount Park, just east of the Abraham Lincoln Statue on Kelly Drive. Members wear earplugs during training and during performances to protect their hearing from long-term damage. Stretching helps protect against pain in your lower body after all of those swaying and swaying.
Although physically taxing, the drum is a great stress reliever, band members agree.
“To feel the energy that comes from hitting the drumhead and how immediate it is,” said Lynn Lasswell, who is 70, along with the other Lynnes in the group. “It makes me feel younger, like I can still do physical things.”
While some chapters are purposely all-female, the Philadelphia group is not. Michael Reynolds, who heard about the opportunity from an acquaintance, joined the weeks before the COVID lockdown.
By day, Reynolds is an artificial intelligence researcher, but he maintained a deep commitment to drums and music in general for most of his 33 years. He was unable to attend the Bok Bar performance, but is otherwise a regular attendee. “I always struggle with the choreography,” he said, but “if you make a mistake, you play through. “
Bok Bar patrons Brian Gatheru and Phila Sozombile each felt an immediate connection to their home continent when they saw and heard Batalá Philly. Gatheru, from Kenya who has been in the United States for 20 years, said in Batalá’s music that he hears a lot of Congolese rhythms, in addition to Afro-Brazilian.
Sozombile, his wife, said the outfits reminded her of the designs worn by the Swazi people of South Africa, where she is from. “It brought me back,” she said of Batala’s performance. “I felt like I was home again. “