By Barbara Muniz
As energetic as the beat of the Batalá musical group, Abel Damasceno found his calling. He is the founder of the international samba reggae band Batalá in San Francisco (2012). The afro/reggae musical group was actually founded in Paris (1977) by Brazilian from Bahia, Giba Gonçalves, a renowned percussionist who took part in different Afro Reggae bands (Cortejo Afro, Ile Aiye, Olodum, Muzenza, Male Debale, Jimmy Cliff, Tupi Nago and Kaoma).
Abel, a music enthusiast who knew about Cortejo Afro, saw in the Batalá origins a resonance of his own mixed Brazilian roots from Salvador. “When I saw the players with its colorful costumes, the pounding beat of their snare drum, the electric swing movements and their authenticity, it simply fascinated me!” He recalls. “I then contacted the organizer who has a branch already settled in New York since 2011, and the already worldwide network of musical drummers gained the third branch in the USA, being Washington D.C the first one, since 2007. Apart from the US, and the already mentioned Paris as the origin of the group, the fans cheer worldwide (Brazil, Spain, Wales, Portugal, Belgium, Austria, Angola and South Africa).
Although new, the Batalá group in San Francisco already has 33 drummers. Abel had his musical debut far long in his home town, Salvador, at the age of 11. He welcomes whoever is open to a new artistic adventure. “All these people from different backgrounds eager to learn about a culture so far away from them… it’s amazing!”. He adds.
The mix roots of Afro, Brazilian and reggae sounds show in itself the recipe of diversity that encompasses the band. “One (tambour player) tells a friend who in turn brings another friend. Advertising is important but the experience that one has at the studio strapping the “surdo” (drum) around their body, while flipping the sticks up in the air and hitting the colorful cylinder, seems to echo more effectively than any other marketing campaign.” Abel cites. His objective is to use the fused reggae/samba rhythms also as a therapy for those who want to try something new from abroad, and is willing to interact with a diverse crowd that enjoys dancing, singing and eating.
“My goal is to combine art and community, outreaching for youngsters curious to try a mixed beat from a Latin/Afro culture”. He says with a melodic speech typical of his home town, Salvador “Coalition is a way to make a bond of my own roots and background with those who live here and are open to learn”. Proof of such, is the long time partnership with the Multicultural Outreach Institute Oya that ships, directly from Salvador in Northeastern Brazil, the costumes, snare drums and all other equipment used by the sister bands worldwide.
Batalá is pronounced literally as the syllables show, Ba-Ta-Lá and its accurate meaning is unknown as there are two different accounts. Batalá meaning ‘beat there’ (in the drum), or Obatala, a deity from Afro religion Candomblé – considered to be the creator of all bodies. The group is prominent in the biggest religious event in Bahia, the “Lavagem do Bonfim” which happens on the second Thursday of every January month. Also well known for playing in the famous Carnival from Bahia, where the entire sister groups fly from different Lands to meet for joy and festivities.
The first colonial capital of Brazil welcomes the International group from all around the globe to take part in the “Lavagem do Bonfin” washing of the church, where a mix of people with diverse creed (Afro, Christian, Orthodox) walk to the famous Catholic Church “Igreja do Bonfim” for praying. This event dates back from the 18th century and it started with the slaves, later inherited by the “Bahianas” – a group of Bahian ladies dressed in a well elaborated white lace costumes – for purity purposes, with beaded necklaces, who wash the Church front door steps and surroundings with scented, perfumed water, claiming for peace, love and compassion.
The five miles walk to the hill where the celebration takes place is done by locals, far away residents and tourists. Some of the fervent devotees make the eight kilometers stroll in their knees to show devotion, until they reach the top of the church to pay respect. After the religious encounter, Batalá and other rhythmic groups come into place, adding electric sound to the fourth most populous Brazilian state, Salvador (after Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro).
The Batalá Group meets at 2629 Harrison Street in Oakland for practice and Abel plans to bring all Batalá sister bands around the world to the Bay Area. Abel is so emotionally imbued with music that without realizing it, he follows to a certain extent the old adage “do what you love and you won’t have to work again”. He lives the Brazilian/Afro reggae tradition with respect and passion for the group as an art.
As a long time percussionist himself, when he isn’t involved with the ensemble, he is doing what he loves most – feeling the musical beats! ‘When I am not working toward the expansion of the group, I am listening to music and being inspired by Batalá founder Giba Gonçalves” he says. Strolling around Oakland area relaxes Abel, while cooking and keeping fit makes him happy.