Saturday, December 08, 2007

Practising the traditional grip

Wellington Batucada at the Cuba Street Carnival. A few months ago I did something I've been meaning to do for ages - I applied to join Wellington's samba percussion group, Batucada.

I first saw Batucada performing at the Petone Fair a few years ago. Giles and I had been wandering along the street catching a performance here and a performance there, when we came across a stage filled to bursting with about 50 percussionists who were playing with such joy, and such syncopated rhythms, we just had to stop. And then we just had to dance. We absolutely couldn't keep still to the sound of Brazilian samba! It was fantastic!

I plucked up the courage to ask one of the performers whether they were accepting new members, and how one could join, but then I never got around to doing anything about it. Every so often I'd see them performing in a carnival, or a festival, or a parade, and each time I'd think "Oh I would LOVE to be in that band!" And then I wouldn't do anything about it. Again.

A few months ago they were leading a march/parade which passed by our balcony at Shift, and I decided "Right! I'm finally gonna do something about joining." So I emailed them, and they replied with info about their upcoming beginner's class...

We've been doing the class for 4 weeks now - tomorrow is our last class. We learn for a couple of hours each Sunday, before the bateria members themselves come in for rehearsal. I've been sticking around for the real rehearsal, too, because I'm loving it so much. You'll find me standing near the back, off to one side, keeping time with my drumsticks playing in mid-air, wishing I could grab a caixa and play with the band for real.

I got my wish last week, because there were a few people missing at rehearsal - they'd had a full-on weekend playing at the Wellington Phoenix football league game on Friday, and then again at the Phoenix game against LA Galaxy (with David Beckham) on Saturday. I was sitting on the stage with a couple of the other beginners, and one of the directors pointed to us and mouthed "come and join in!" So we did. WOOHOO!

God it was fun. The group was learning a new piece, so the director was moving around all the different instruments, showing the players their new rhythms, while everyone else continued playing the basic beat. When I was in Many Hands, years ago, we did a great deal of improvisation (especially at Drum Circle), as well as developing and performing specific pieces. I got pretty good at picking up a new rhythm very quickly - generally after hearing the pattern only once or maybe twice - and it was great to see I've not lost that skill.

It's so loud - being in an enclosed space with about 50 other percussionists - that everyone wears earplugs to protect their ears. Hence much mouthing of instructions, and lip-reading. And hand signals. That's how the director tells the band when a change is coming up, and what the change is going to be. He whistles madly on his whistle, too, both to get everyone's attention, and also sometimes to demonstrate the "bridge" between rhythms, before we play it.

I loved the challenge of learning the new patterns at speed and then playing them alongside the "proper" members of Batucada. I was concentrating SO hard... trying to work out how the bridge worked (which of course everyone in the band already knew), while playing it, was especially fun. I only found myself doing an accidental "solo" once, which I thought was pretty good going. Tee hee!

Caixa. The instrument I'm drawn to is called the caixa (pronounced "kysha"), and it's the samba equivalent of the snare drum in marching bands. Batucada has two types of caixa on show - the not-so-authentic type, which is worn in front of your tummy and attached to your body by a waist strap; and the more-authentic type, which is worn more to the side with the head at an angle, and is attached to you by means of a diagonal strap over the opposite shoulder and across your chest.

The caixa is played using a pair of drumsticks, and its rolling, accented rhythms underpin the sound of the whole band. I guess you could say that the huge bass drums - the surdo - keep the time, and the caixa keep the groove. I like being an "underpinner' - that's where I felt most comfortable in my conga-playing days with Many Hands. I liked to be the "rock", holding it all together while the boys went off on their rhythmical adventures, and providing a strong place and a consistent rhythm to which they could return.

I find it interesting that I'm drawn to a stick drum, rather than the more familiar hand drum and conga equivalent, the timba. I think it's partly because learning to play with sticks is MUCH more of a challenge than just learning new rhythms on an instrument I already know how to play - and I'm all about the challenge. Plus I just love the sound of the caixa, and I love where it "sits" within the overall samba sound.

At last week's rehearsal, when the director was directing the caixa crew and watching how we were going with the new patterns, he noticed my completely out-of-control left hand. He made some comment like "twist your wrist!", to which I mouthed back "I know! It's hopeless!"

I've been having some major trouble getting my left hand to do what it's supposed to. With the caixa, you have to play using what drummers the world over know as the "traditional grip". And it's hard to do!

Batacuda in full swing. Kit drummers are able to choose between the "matched" grip - where you hold each stick with your hand over the stick, palm facing down - and the "traditional grip", where you do the downwards-facing grip with your right hand (or left if you're left-handed), and you flip the stick over in your other hand, so that your palm is facing upwards, fingers curled around the stick. The movement for the traditional grip is all sideways wrist-twisting, whereas for the matched grip it's more up-and-down-wrist twisting. It's not a particularly natural movement, especially when your other hand is doing something completely different.

You find jazz drummers especially using the traditional grip. And caixa players, and anyone else who plays a drum at an angle. This is because (try it out if you like!), using a matched grip on a drum which is slung at an angle at your side is NOT comfortable. Your elbow sticks up in the air and feels very awkward, and wouldn't be sustainable during a long march. This is why the original snare drummers in marching bands (who were generally marching at the head of a platoon setting off to war) developed the traditional grip. And how it got its name. Marching off to war with a jolly old band at the front being somewhat traditional...

So... watching me try to drum using the traditional grip has been somewhat like watching a hideously uncoordinated person trying to do - well, anything that required co-ordination, really. Not pretty. I knew I was hitting the skin at the right moment with my left stick, but you wouldn't really know it to look at me. As the rhythms got faster, you would see the small amount of wrist-twist I had managed to achieve getting less and less pronounced until eventually my arm would just be banging up and down with no twist in sight, like a five-year-old with her first drum (or upturned cooking pot and obligatory wooden spoon). Bleagh! Not cool.

I decided to get a new pair of sticks (Nancy, my caixa mentor, said the old ones I was using were too heavy), pull out my old practise pad (which I have hardly ever used) and - gasp! - practise. w00t! Breakthrough! The realisation that if one wants to get good at something, one has to practise. Haha!

I'd found my thumb getting very numb by the end of rehearsal last week, and I figured I must be holding the stick wrong and pressing on a nerve or something. I spent a while googling "traditional grip", and soon realised that YouTube was where I needed to be. Reading instructions on how to hold the drumstick properly, and how to move it in the right way, was not getting me anywhere.

I found this GREAT little lesson on YouTube by a guy called Derrick Pope, which was just brilliant, and helped me so much.

I sat on the sofa with the laptop in front of me, and the practise pad in front of that, and I watched and watched, and tried and tried, and learned and learned. What a great teacher!

It's all about muscle memory, really. Once you've got the proper grip sorted out, and you've started to to get the hang of the wrist-twist, you've just got to keep doing it over and over again. I started taking the sticks to work and practising in my lunch hour, or when I was reading something online, or trying to figure something out (as opposed to actually using the keyboard). I got my sticks out on the bus and started practising the wrist-twist there, too. I decided not to worry that my fellow passengers would think I was a bit of a nutter. "Hey!" I thought to myself in a self-justification kind of a way, "I'm learning how to be a samba player - I need to practise - even if I am on the bus!" Heh.

I'm getting much better, even after only a few days. I had a breakthrough moment on the bus the other day, when I realised that I'd reached a point where the thought of the beat had been translated simultaneously into the flick of the wrist and the sound of the beat. Aha! Brilliant!

I'm really looking forward to our beginner's session tomorrow. We'll see whether I can carry my improved technique onto the real drums, with the real rhythms. I know it's going to take a while to get proficient at this, but I really really want to get good at it. I want to be good enough to be in the band!

And to get there I know I have to keep on practising the traditional grip. I'll let you know how it goes!

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zef said...

This is awesome news Ali - getting involved with a creative community like this will open new doors, relationships - and is a great cognitive change from staring at a computer screen!

webweaver said...

God yeah Zef - it makes me SO happy, and it's SO much fun! I should have done it years ago!

Plus the people in Batucada are the nicest, friendliest, least-cliquey group of people I think I've ever met.

They're awesome!

PJ said...

Hey WW

Good on ya. Playing music can take you places nothing else can... and nice people as well? Perfect.

Das ist gut, c'est fantastique (you know the rest...)

webweaver said...

Oh yeah baby! And I have TWO rhythm sticks, not just one! How good is that?

We should do coffee before Xmas, PJ! How u fixed?

Mr Houseman said...

Thanks so much for this - I have just started Batucada as well and have just been copying the other players - until now!

It's great fun and like zef said, it opens up new doors and gets the creative juices flowing :)

Only downside is I now drum incessantly on every available surface, much to the annoyance of everyone around me!

webweaver said...

Ah but Mr Houseman - that's OK - you're practicing samba, and it's sacrosanct - no-one's allowed to be annoyed - it's the Rules!

And it is awesome fun, eh?