Moving To Their Own Beat

SambaDá is making some serious noise, percussive and political.

In the midst of a typical Santa Cruz summer, wind blowing off the shore and throngs of beachgoers swarming onto sandy beaches, the members of Sambadá succumb to their fatigue by satiating their appetite on the sunny terrace of Café El Palomar. With a new album to follow up their sophomore album Salve a Bahia in the works after extensive touring with Sila and the AfroFunk Experience, a little time out would do anybody good.

Paper plates filled with burritos and tacos crowd the round table as the band’s woodwind player, Anne Stafford, looks up from her eclectic fiesta platter on the verge of speaking. Although her eyes are shielded by dark sunglasses, her unbridled eagerness to talk about the upcoming album cannot be masked by tinted lenses.

“I think you can hear a new sound in the upcoming album because we’re still continuing to grow and develop,” she says. “As musicians and artists you always want to reinvent yourself at the same time that you're connecting with what you've done in the past with what audiences like about your sound.”

That sound, traditionally Brazilian with its dynamic percussion and horn arrangements, and even more distinctly a fusion of samba, funk, reggae, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and salsa, is a natural consequence of combining the musical experiences of five Americans and two Brazilians into one group. Led by founding member Papiba Godinho, Sambadá crosses cultures and personalities and meshes them into a hodgepodge of styles and genres, giving their sound a layered complexity.

“I had in mind a Brazilian band with Brazilian sounds playing traditional Brazilian music,” Godinho recalls of his intentions when SambaDá first began. “For the first three years of the band I really pushed us to learn samba and bossa nova. I also wanted to create a community-based band who all knew each other and who could learn music together. But I soon realized that it was only me bringing in traditional Brazilian music and that the Brazilian audience was very little as opposed to the American crowd, so we started to introduce a lot of new elements. Gary [Kehoe] and Will [Kahn] both had their rock and funk, Anne was involved with hip hop and jazz, while Kevin was involved with rock and salsa.”

Although fusing so many elements into one sound may seem like a daunting feat to most, Stafford easily finds a way to simplify the task. “It’s like having a bedroom,” she compares, “If you’ve got a lot of stuff, you simply have to find a way to organize it.” Nods of approval and agreement from the other members ensue. And Sambadá’s sound does finds its direction and inspiration from the genre-blenders of Brazil who have managed to do so with graceful ease.

"Brazilian musicians listen to a lot of music which they know how to blend together,” chimes in Stafford. “They hear music from countries such as the United States, Cuba, and Africa and are able to synthesize it but still retain a sound that is very Brazilian and unique.” The Música Popular Brasileira, which mixes samba, with folk, pop and rock influences is just one example.

But as percussionist Kahn explains, confronting the task of re-challenging their sound by finding fresh ways to incorporate newer, more intricate elements into their repertoire would not be possible without the help of three-time-Grammy-nominated producer, Greg Landau. “While recording Salve a Bahia, Greg told me that if SambaDá can’t compete or function on the same level as our favorite Brazilian bands, we’re wasting our time,” Kahn recalls. “In Santa Cruz, anything goes in a lot of ways. You can be mediocre and everyone will still support you. But Greg really pushed us to get serious about our music.”

If you ask Sambadá about their unique collection of percussion instruments that produce their high-energy world dance music known for sending audiences reeling head over heels in rhythmic ecstasy. The ensemble bursts out with names of foreign instruments such as the pandeiro, surdo, and timbal, and members give uncontrolled interjections recalling moments of instrumental ingenuity. Amid the echoes of many voices, Stafford’s becomes singled out.

"We try to take a common band instrument and use it in a different way,” she explains. “For example, Kevin, our bassist, has taken the berimbau stick - which is an instrument used in Capoeira - and has played it on one of his bass strings, which sounds really unique.” After mimicking the ‘chi tong ding ding’ of the berimbau with practiced ease, Stafford continues, "One day I discovered that by using some over-blowing notes on my saxophone I could get these really high squeaky notes like a cuica (a Brazilian friction drum). When I would play, people would look for the drum and then be amazed as they realized that the sound was coming from my sax.”

Stafford and lead singer Dandha Da Hora start to playfully recreate the squeaky ‘we-oo-oo-wee’ sound of the cuica in unison. Laughter from the diverse group erupts followed by Da Hora’s humorous air drum display resulting in her ‘tack-ta-tack-ta’ imitation of the tamborim. SambaDá’s energetic display of spontaneity and ingenuity, which the band is known for, will be interpreted on the Moe’s Alley stage when the group reveals its new material this Friday in a celebration of music, rhythm, and dance.

However there is a serious note to SambaDá’s good-humored cheerfulness, which drummer Kehoe brings up. While performing at the Stern Grove Festival on July 27, Da Hora decided to start a percussion chant by repeatedly shouting “Obama!” into the mic. The crowd matched Da Hora’s expressive utterance by chanting back with equal enthusiasm. Following the event, an email from an angered fan expressed the idea that music should not be a place for politics.

“I think it is a part of music to express politics,” Kehoe declares with outspoken candor, in response to any judgment of the band’s political activism.

“Let’s go back to the ’60s where musicians were constantly and freely speaking politics. Today, our society is filled with blind sleepwalkers who aren’t even able to mention, ‘Is there a war going on?’ But music is politics.” Stafford adds in supportive agreement, “Politics is an important part of what we’re doing since ultimately a musician has got to play what he or she believes in.”

As SambaDá’s fusion of sounds without borders proves, it’s OK to believe in many things.

Originally appeared in Good Times Santa Cruz.