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Alison on Batala

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

“I was always drawn to D.C. because I was fascinated by other cultures. I was born in Normal, Illinois and raised in rural, northeastern Iowa, areas which were pretty much all-white with the exception of the kids who were adopted from war torn or poverty stricken countries. In D.C., you could walk down the street and hear so many different languages and see so many different people. It always amazed me.

Music is, without a doubt, the international language. It transcends everything.

“As a college student, I went to Japan to study and then moved there after school for three years to teach English. It was in Japan that I developed my love for drumming when I was introduced to the taiko. In Japan, they were constantly having festivals and you could hear the drums from kilometers away. The drums were made of ancient woods and the songs told stories of animistic gods and the seasons. I eventually joined a taiko group that was led by a father and son. When I was growing up in Iowa, girls didn’t play drums. I always wanted to play them and the french horn, but those were the instruments for the dudes. Girls played the clarinet or the flute, which is what I played.

“The more time I spent in Japan, the more passionately I felt about drumming. At the same time, the more time I spent in Japan, the worse my English was getting. I was living in rural Japan and only speaking English with other expats and with my students. I would call my parents to talk and they would say, ‘Honey, we love you, but we have no idea what you’re saying. Please just write us.’ I forgot vocabulary and my accent was all messed up. I figured it was about time to come back. I went to college in Virginia and had a lot of friends in D.C. I knew they would be patient with me and help me revive my English.

“When I got here, I first worked at Sushi Taro before I went off to do other things. They used to laugh at me because I speak redneck, trucker Japanese like an old man because of the area of Japan I lived in. In D.C., I tried to join a taiko group, but I wasn’t really into the music I found. I had a drumming drought until I found Batala, an all-woman percussion band that plays Afro-Brazilian and samba-reggae rhythms, on Mother’s Day 2008. I remember being nervous the first day I went to check them out. I was watching them play and air drumming really aggressively hoping that someone would see me and give me a drum. Eventually, someone did see me and gave me one of the drums that you wear around your waist. I ended up playing so hard that I got a scar on my leg from the drum that I still have today.

“Batala is pretty amazing because you don’t need to have any musical experience to join. They will teach you everything that you need to know. Even though I knew how to play the taiko, afro-Brazilian rhythms are completely different. The music also has so much meaning, beyond just being really fun and uplifting. Samba’s roots come from Bahia where a lot of the slaves had been taken from West Africa. The colonists learned about their drumming and reversed the sounds, so rather than the traditional bom, bim, bom, bim, they flipped it to bim, bom, bim, bom. They took the sound to Rio, sped it up, and created Samba. As Rio developed, people forgot about Bahia and the area plunged into violence and poverty. There was a civil rights renaissance and music was a big part of it. Groups started reverting to the original rhythms and took the sound back to bom, bim, bom, bim. So, the music that we play is also very powerful and has a lot of meaning. Our music is not written down on a score, it is all orally taught.

“While we are an all women group, our founder is a man. There are only two all-women Batalas in the world: here and in Brazil. The rest are all co-ed. The founder was tired of seeing women being objectified. He knew that women could move, and thought that they could play too. Some members of the all-women group in Brazil ended up in Washington with the usual World Bank and school type situations and helped bring Batala here. Now, we have 60 members from over 13 countries. Since starting, I have been to Brazil twice to play in Carnaval. We have a sister group down there that is based in the favelas and we play with them.

“Once you join Batala, you will never be the same. A lot of people come in very timid, but you will see them transform before your eyes. I believe that drumming teaches you how to be yourself. Plus, it is nice to express yourself as a woman and be able to move and play like a woman since what we are doing something that is traditionally male.

“In life, I have always been a wandering soul and constantly thinking about where I am going next. Batala encouraged me to stay in Washington and work to make my community better here. Batala supports women and youth and helps to build community. Every Friday, we teach youth how to play and dance to our music at the Marvin Gaye Riverside Community Center. While we get booked a lot for shows, sometimes it is nice to just go out and play guerilla style in different neighborhoods. We recently played out in Columbia Heights and people went nuts. Everyone was clapping and dancing. One guy brought us flowers and thanked us for brining the community together. That’s what it is about. Music is, without a doubt, the international language. It transcends everything.”

Learn more about Batala here.

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  1. Great interview! Very inspiring. We HEART BATALA!

    Comment by Carolina M. — July 15, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

  2. ” I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried…” We, Batala collectively think this way, and equally share spirit and percussion Ask any of us,our passion is as one. We drum because we want to drum. We also know that we have a friend in Alison, a humble leader, a selfless conductor,who teaches and shares her knock- your- socks- off gifts of music.
    Bom, bin,
    Surdo 1. Julia V.
    (Quotation taken from Amelia Earhart in her last letter to her husband)

    Comment by Julia V. — July 16, 2010 @ 11:40 am

  3. Ditto and love the bike too!

    Comment by Melanie L. — July 16, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  4. Batala HEY!

    Comment by Jewel Everhart — July 20, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

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