I’ve been meaning to write some articles about Seattle’s Latin bands for the Seattle section of my SeaLatin website. I was finally motivated to get started by my favorite local band - and one of my favorite Latin bands in the world - Sambatuque (samba.TOO.kie).
They became my favorite after I saw them perform twice and bought their CD. Their album Brazilian Songbird blew me away. But last night’s reunion performance (Jan. 16, 2009) was the best and most intriguing yet. When I got home, I was so inspired, so full of questions, I knew I had to write something.
This blog post consists primarily of my impressions of Sambatuque and thoughts on Samba and Seattle’s Latin music/dance scene in general. If you don’t want to wade through my rambling essay, please skip to the Help Wanted section, where I ask for input from Sambatuque band members and fans alike in writing a more informative article about Sambatuque.
Sambatuque is a tough act to analyze, let alone follow. It strikes me as a fairly bizarre band - or is it typical of Brazilian bands?
But Sambatuque isn’t really a Brazilian band; it’s a Seattle band that plays Brazilian music. The only member of the band that looks, speaks and acts Brazilian to me is Makala Wengelewski-Romero, a sexy Latin beauty whose vocals merit the title given their first CD - Brazilian Songbird. So I was shocked to discover that Makala is from Fairbanks, Alaska.
That isn’t a put down; it obviously makes Sambatuque cooler (hey, I went to school in Fairbanks, where twenty below zero can feel warm!), and I think it makes the band that more intriguing. What sparked Makala’s interest in Latin music? Does she really speak fluent Portuguese and Spanish, and, if so, when, where and how did she learn?
(I encourage everyone interested in Latin music and dance to learn the native language and tend to favor Salsa teachers who speak Spanish; I’m studying Spanish myself and hope to learn a little Portuguese some day.)
Of course, Brazil is a diverse country, with many citizens who would look right at home in Seattle. What really distinguishes Sambatuque is its menagerie of percussion instruments and noise makers, which, to my mind, suggest a fusion of Dr. Seuss and Road Warrior, with things that can be beat with hands, sticks and probably heads made out of scrap metal, animal hides and shells and just about anything else that makes cool noises. I don’t even know the names of these gizmos, except for the steel drums that made an appearance the third time I saw them perform and the tambourine some curly-haired Samba star balanced on his finger during their farewell performance a few months ago. (Makala briefly moved to Florida.)
To my mind, steel drums sort of fill a niche somewhere between percussion and instruments that actually produce musical notes. Of course, steel drums aren’t percussion instruments at all; I guess it’s just that they’re played with sticks, similar to drums, plus they’re exotic, similar to the various gizmos that make Sambatuque a rhythm machine that might be almost scary if unleashed for more than ten minutes.
Talented jazz keyboard and bass players help channel all that wild noise into something resembling a song, but even they are occasionally assimilated by the rhythm borgs as they exchange ivory and string for their own noise makers.
It seems the only person who can tame this noisy inferno is the Brazilian songbird herself, Makala. Yet even she’s occasionally assimilated by the rhythm warriors, and, even when she isn’t wielding drum sticks, she’s typically dancing Samba and chanting or cheering fellow band members and/or the audience, drunk on her own lyrical voice. The only time I’ve seen Sambatuque tamed is when Makala sings a slower, more serious or sensuous song, like E Morio (my favorite...and if you’ve only heard it played live, you have to get the CD).
Band, Meet Fans
Another weird thing about Sambatuque: It appears to be a band without borders, with new members and guest performers at each performance and individuals jumping back and forth between band and audience, members of which are frequently enlisted as performers themselves.
According to what I’ve gleaned from the Internet, Makala shares star billing with Jeff “Bongo” Busch who doubles as a vocalist and composer. The keyboard player (whose powerful background helps E Morio fly) and bass player are prominent band members, and a trombonist has performed with them at least twice.
The rhythm/dance section is where things get a little confusing. At the last performance, I forgot to count the people who were playing percussion (or background noise makers) full time, but I think there were about half a dozen, including a guy playing steel drums and local Salsa instructor Lance Loo, who was enlisted to shake what appeared to be a shell-covered gourd.
A curly-haired (and apparently Brazilian) Samba star played tambourine at Sambatuque’s farewell performance. He always puts on a nice Samba performance, too. His only rival as a dancer appears to be Dora - a native of Bahia, a city or region in Brazil - whose energetic dancing is eclipsed only by her spectacular costumes, probably the single element most recognizable as Brazilian.
At their reunion performance, Sambatuque was also joined by a group of beautiful young ladies who call themselves the Samba All Stars and who in turn helped coax members of the audience on to the too small dance floor. With people dancing next to Makala, who was dancing herself, it was hard to tell where the band ended and the audience began; virtually everyone in the building was part of the celebration of whatever they were celebrating. (If the French are known for their joie de vie, so are Brazilians; they just call it Samba.)
When I tack an “All Ages” tag onto an event on my Seattle Salsa Calendar, I’m generally referring to an event that people who are under 21 can attend. Thus, one can encounter a lot of high school students at HaLo’s Friday Salsa dances.
But when Sambatuque advertises All Ages, they’re talking children, and dancing children added yet another special touch at the band’s reunion performance. Unfortunately, no children joined the band, though I saw one boy banging on drums during a break.
One final nice touch was the time. I’m still a little new to the Latin music scene, but I have the perception that bands like to start really, really late. El Malecon (a Mexican restaurant in downtown Seattle) advertised two live bands at the recent grand opening of its new Conga Room, so I expected to find at least one band playing when I arrived there, long after 9 p.m. At about 10:30, I gave up and went home.
At their reunion performance, Sambatuque was scheduled to start at 7:00, and they weren’t more than fifteen minutes late, as I recall. They played until 10:15, which is perfect for those of us who don’t ordinarily party until after midnight. Unfortunately, I’ll have to take a night off if they perform on a week day, as I work night shift.
Samba vs Salsa
I won’t go into the details here, but Sambatuque helped inspire me to tackle Salsa, about nine months ago. I’ve been taking classes and conducting research into Latin music and dance ever since. It’s something that appeals to me on an intellectual and philosophical level, not just recreational. But the Latin music scene can be very complex, and I’m still trying to get a handle on it.
Anyway, I think Sambatuque’s reunion performance helped me understand the difference between Salsa and Samba. To me, Samba seems even less rigid, more freestyle. Salsa appears to me as a dance form somewhere between Samba and ballroom dance. The irony is that Samba is an official ballroom dance, but Salsa isn’t - though Salsa’s nearly identical twin brother, Mambo, is one of five official American Rhythm dances.
If you’re confused, join the crowd. But Latin music and dance wouldn’t be so intriguing (and addicting) if it was as simple as learning how to waltz, now would it?
I haven’t yet thoroughly checked out Seattle’s Salsa club scene; as a beginner, I generally hang out at Century Ballroom and HaLo, the city’s most popular Salsa venues. Comparing a typical night at Century Ballroom (or HaLo) to a Sambatuque performance, I’d say that Samba appears to be more spontaneous, easier to learn and more energetic. I’m not knocking Salsa; I love it. But learning it can be beyond frustrating, and the social scene can be a little intimidating.
Which makes me wonder why Salsa is so much more popular than Samba. And since local Salsa DJ’s typically play an occasional Cha Cha, Merengue, Bachata or Reggaeton tune, why do they never play Samba?
Incidentally, Sambatuque’s album Brazilian Songbird does feature one Salsa song, Tanta Saudade. I rank it among my top ten favorite Salsa songs, partly because it’s so unique (I refer to it as Brazilian Salsa) but also because it’s so irresistible. The only problem is the song is part of a two-song medley, and the first song (Chegui Meu Povo), though beautiful, isn’t Salsa. In fact, it doesn’t even sound danceable to my ears.
So I thought it would be cool if Sambatuque could release a standalone version of Tanta Saudade, preferably a little longer, and persuade some local clubs to play it. But I’ve had the hardest time even figuring out whether or not other Salseros like the song, partly because I’ve had the hardest time linking to audio files, for some reason. Anyway, you can see my latest attempt on a Salsa forum, in a thread titled Brazilian Salsa (Tanta Saudade),
I launched my website SeaLatin.com after discovering that 1) Latin music and dance is damn complex and confusing, and 2) there’s amazingly little useful information about the Seattle Latin music/dance scene online. I still have a lot of work to do on the site, and my goals include a series of articles about local Latin bands, singers and musicians.
So far, my favorite local Latin band is Sambatuque. Guess what? There seems to be virtually no useful information about them online!
Makala has somewhere around 500 Facebook friends, but Sambatuque’s Facebook page lists just 85 friends, not much more than I have. Check out CD Baby’s Sambatuque page, and you’ll find just one review of their album Brazilian Songbird. It’s hard to find good photos or videos of the band or its members.
I’d like to write an article about Sambatuque, and I have a thousand questions. How and when did Sambatuque get started? What are the names of the bands’ members, and what are their stories? How did Makala learn Spanish and Portuguese - and where did she get her fabulous singing voice? What are the names of all those percussion instruments and noisemakers they play, and what are the stories behind them?
I’d like to get the ball rolling by inviting members of Sambatuque and its fan club to send me whatever information they care to. If you’re a member of the band, can you give me a little background? How long have you been playing whatever instrument you play? What got you interested in Latin music? What are your thoughts on Sambatuque?
If you’re a fan, what are your favorite Sambatuque songs? Has Sambatuque inspired you to take Samba classes? Are you also into Salsa or other Latin music/dance forms?
I thought promoting Sambatuque might be a fun project; none of the Salsa friends I’ve talked to have even heard of them. There are pluses to keeping Sambatuque our secret. For example, it’s nice having the feeling of community one gets in a small club with a small audience.
On the other hand, Sambatuque’s reunion performance in Cafe Solstice was a little too crowded. A dance floor two or three times as big would have been nice. And as Sambatuque becomes more popular, the numbers will inevitably increase.
Some Latin dance clubs offer drop-in classes before dances or performances. For example, people can take beginning Salsa classes at Century Ballroom and HaLo every Friday and Saturday. Similarly, it might be cool to have beginning Samba classes before Sambatuque performances. Do any of you think this would be a good idea to promote?
Another thing I’d like to promote is Sambatuque’s version of Tanta Saudade, which is one of my favorite Salsa songs. I think it would be really cool if the band could record a new, standalone version, preferably a little longer, and try to persuade local Salsa DJ’s to play it. I’ve had the hardest time getting feedback on the song. You can see my latest attempt here.
Anyway, feel free to offer any information or ideas you care to share. If I have time, I’ll try to get an article online in the next few days, before Sambatuque’s next performance at Nectar Lounge. I’ll be putting some articles about Samba (and local teachers) online in the near future, too.