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After months of lockdown and shifting membership, Batalá Philly is getting its beat back. The pandemic couldn’t crush the might of this small group of drummers loudly sharing a global message of joy and inclusiveness.
Eleven members of the ensemble pounded two 30-minute sets of samba reggae during a mid-September performance at Bok Bar, an open-air hotspot on the roof of the old Bok Technical High School at 8th and Mifflin streets. It was the group’s third paid gig, and its longest, since reorganizing in the spring. Featuring mostly inexperienced players on five kinds of drums, the band is one of about 30 international chapters of the nonprofit music project Batalá Mundo.
Performing in front of an audience is at first nerve-racking, some members said, but once the compositions get going and the beat starts flowing, enjoyment takes over.
“Once I get into the groove of it, it’s very joyful to hear everybody come together and be a part of it,” said Aruni Jayatilleke, who works as a rheumatologist at Temple Health.
Word of mouth is essential to the group’s growth and formation. Jayatilleke heard about Batalá Philly from her mother-in-law, Lynne Shepsman. Shepsman stumbled on to a performance by Batalá’s Washington DC chapter a few years ago, while taking one of her grandchildren to the National Gallery of Art.
“I was totally mesmerized,” said the 70-year-old retiree. Despite only having played the flute when she was younger, Shepsman signed up with the fledgling Philadelphia chapter. She said the Philadelphia music director “not only is a great conductor, she is a fabulous teacher.”
That would be Ingrid Marti, a 33-year-old transplant from Barcelona who has embraced Philadelphia with her whole heart. Marti arrived in 2017 to work at the University of Pennsylvania as a cardiovascular researcher.
“When I arrived here I wanted to try to learn English, and after a year I was like I really want to drum because back in Spain it’s really 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 chapter websites, with a mission “to spread Afro-Brazilian culture and music to communities across the world.”
Hand signal communication = no language barriers
All of the emerging chapters — from Mexico City to London — play compositions by Goncalves. Musical directors in each locale teach the pieces to members with universal hand signals. No one joining needs to know how to read music, and spoken language differences don’t present barriers.
“So we can be invited to play with the Paris group and we could do it and not know any French,” said Philly chapter member Jennifer Nelson.
Since they are playing the music of Salvador Bahia people, chapters buy drums made by the Salvador Bahia people. Travel restrictions over the last 18 months forced Batalá Philly to employ some creative logistics to obtain needed 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 a month in dues, which helps cover drums, repairs and the cost for indoor space when winter returns. Payments from their performances also go toward expenses. The group is run by five officers — a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and a member at large.
Rosa Barreca joined the chapter in 2019 and was elected president in the spring. The Philadelphia immigration attorney was glad to help get the group running again. “It was hard, not only missing the drumming, but missing the camaraderie.”
The group practices on Sundays and Wednesdays about two hours at a time, often in Fairmount Park just east of the Abraham Lincoln statue on Kelly Drive. Members wear earplugs during practice and at performances to protect their hearing from long-term damage. Stretching helps protect against soreness in the lower body after all that swinging and swaying.
While physically taxing, drumming is a great stress-reliever, members of the group agree.
“To feel the energy that comes from hitting the drumhead-and how immediate it is,” said Lynn Lasswell, who is 70, just like the other Lynne in the group. “It makes me feel younger, like I can still do physical things.”
Though some of the chapters are purposefully all-female, the Philadelphia group is not. Michael Reynolds, who heard about the opportunity from an acquaintance, joined weeks before the COVID lockdown.
By day Reynolds is an artificial-intelligence researcher, but he’s maintained a deep commitment to drumming and music in general for most of his 33 years. He wasn’t able to make it to the Bok Bar performance, but he’s otherwise a regular attendee. “I still struggle with the choreography,” he said, but, “if you make a mistake you play through it.”
Bok Bar patrons Brian Gatheru and Phila Sozombile each felt immediate connections to their home continent when they saw and heard Batalá Philly. Gatheru, a Kenya native who’s been in the U.S. 20 years, said in Batalá music he hears a lot of Congolese beats, in addition to the Afro-Brazilian.
Sozombile, his wife, said the outfits reminded her of patterns worn by the Swazi people of South Africa, where she is from. “This took me back,” she said of Batala’s performance. “I felt like I was home again.”