Beto González's Apprenticeship Blog
I’m happy to (finally) be making a new post, following my group’s performance at the World Festival of Sacred Music. In the two months leading up to the performance on October 6, I was incredibly busy working out arrangements of traditionally “secular” sambas to incorporate the sacred rhythms of candomblé. My apprenticeship with Mestre Amen Santo was instrumental in helping me to musically connect the sacred and the secular aspects of samba into a theatre performance that included 12 musicians and 3 dancers.
Samba Society, an 11-member traditional “roots” samba group that I formed in early 2009, does not usually play a repertoire that could be considered “sacred” and I was questioned on several occasions as to why our group was playing in such a festival. Several friends, Brazilians no less, were somewhat surprised that I would be presenting a samba performance. However, samba (often deemed to be the national music of Brazil) is deeply rooted in the spirituality of its Afro-Brazilian heritage.
For the Festival, I wanted to curate a special set of music and dance that would demonstrate this inherent spirituality of samba by choosing songs with themes related to the candomblé tradition. After consulting with Mestre Amen, I felt confident that I would be able to present a show that was reverent and respectful. The musicians that I worked with, along with the additional dancers interpreting the sacred rhythms, helped to create a beautiful show that took place at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park.
I was also fortunate to be able to bring the renowned composer Moacyr Luz to perform an opening set of his compositions. Though he is a popular samba composer, his music also visits themes of spirituality, especially with regards to the cosmology of African-influenced religions of Brazil.
With this performance, which I intend to present to the public once again, I wanted to present samba as more spiritual in nature, far beyond the common stereotype of the carnivalesque that is so often attributed to the tradition.
The following video is the opening set of Act 2, following Moacyr’s opening set. In keeping with the festival’s theme of being environmentally conscious and “Water is Rising,” I wanted especially to invoke the powerful deity of the ocean, Iemanjá, and the keeper of the forests, Ochóssi.
Performers:Beto González / director / vocals / percussionSimon Carroll / percussion / drums Bobby Easton / percussionMitchell Long / cavaco / guitar/ vocals Keith Lungwitz / percussionDana Maman / percussion / vocals Mauro Monteiro / vocals Kátia Moraes / vocalsEmina Shimanuki / vocals Kana Shimanuki / vocals Colin Walker / 7-string guitarplus very special guestsMestre Amen Santo / percussion / vocals Gisella Ferreira / dancerRachel Hernández / dancerShelby Williams-González / dancer
(Mestre Amen Santo and Mestre Val Boa Morte)
Yesterday I had the most amazing rehearsal!
Working with Mestre Amen, and having known him for many years, I have come to learn and appreciate to expect the unexpected…
Since the beginning of the year, as you know, Mestre Amen and I have been working on building my repertoire of candomblé rhythms and songs. For the last several weeks, we have been working on a special public presentation to be performed at Capoeira Batuque’s annual batizado, or graduation ceremony taking place all this week and coming weekend.
I arrived at the new studio space of Brasil Brasil Cultural Center for our weekly meeting. We were supposed to be joined—for the first time since beginning this apprenticeship—by a few cohorts so that we could complete the drum section and run the program with a couple of dancers. These rhythms are properly executed only when played by four musicians playing percussion and singing, including three atabaques (drums) and one agogô (double bell).
I was expecting to see my fellow capoeira colleagues and longtime students of Mestre Amen joining us to complete the group for the rehearsal. Once inside the studio, I found Mestre Amen, and two visiting mestres, Mestre Val Boa Morte from Australia (Capoeira Filhos da Bahia), and Mestre Tonho Matéria from Salvador (Capoeira Mangangá). Both gentlemen are originally from Mestre Amen’s hometown of Salvador da Bahia and accomplished musicians. Mestre Tonho, in fact, has even performed with the legendary Bahian groups Ara Kêtu and Olodum.
While we waited for the dancers to arrive the mestres began to play around on the drums. Still thinking that the colleagues I was originally expecting were going to arrive at any moment, I approached the drums. Then, in his most typically casual manner, Mestre Amen asks me to sit at one of the drums to play the lê part. Mestre Tonho and Mestre Val then flank me on both sides, each taking a drum with Mestre Amen commanding the agogô. I could almost see a smirk on Mestre Amen’s face as they simply launched right into the repertoire that we would be performing for the batizado.
(Mestre Amen Santo, Mestre Tonho Matéria, Beto González, Mestre Val Boa Morte and Salamata Diallo)
For the next hour and a half, I had the privilege of accompanying three mestres, all masters of their tradition. Aside from the occasional gaffe, I believe I actually held my own.
(playing samba de caboclo)
(playing for Xangô)
I couldn’t have asked for a better lesson!
(Beto González and Mestre Amen Santo)
I am thrilled that Mestre Amen’s BBCC/Capoeira Batuque has found a new home. The new space is about twice the size of the old location, beautiful, airy, and bustling with energy and creativity! Mestre Amen and I continued our lessons after a pause for him to pursue the new space, travel, and make preparations for the upcoming capoeira graduation ceremony in June.
The break allowed me some time to reflect on what I have learned so far, where I would like to go, and to realize how little I still know. The candomblé repertory is so vast, I will only be scratching the surface after this year’s apprenticeship. I have also confirmed to myself that learning the basic rhythms of the canon is only part of the process, and it is actually the easy part. After learning the various rhythms, the context for which each one is played (or for which specific orixá, or deity, a rhythm is played for), and learning two of the three parts, there is still the lead parts and the vocals to consider. As I have found (probably not to Mestre Amen’s surprise), even the basic repertory takes many, many months to learn, and years to master.
The candomblé rhythms are played on a set of three atabaques, which are conical drums of West/Central African origin. They are not unlike the familiar congas, and in fact, we often use congas instead for reasons I will outline below. The complete set of atabaques are tuned in three pitches (as are congas). However, where the congas are sized differently by the diameter of the shell but the same height, the atabaques are sized differently in both diameter and height. The atabaque (low to high or large to small) are called rum (pronounced “hoom”), rumpi (“hoom-PEE”), and rumlê or just lê (“hoom-LEH”).
(set of Umbanda atabaques, from left to right: lê, rumpi, and rum, next to a conventional conga drum)
Playing with congas, as opposed to the traditional atabaques, allows us to sit more comfortably, whereas we would have to stand or sit in high stools to play the atabaques. The congas also allow for easier tuning, and better sound control. The artisanal atabaques in the photo were purchased in Rio some years ago and are actually from the Umbanda tradition, which is a highly syncretic variant of candomblé that fuses Catholicism, Kardecian Spiritism, and indigenous lore, and is sung in Portuguese. Umbanda is much more prominent in Rio than in Mestre Amen’s hometown, Salvador da Bahia, and thus why I was able to easily find these rather than the atabaques found in Bahia, which are a bit smaller in diameter. Aside from the use of congas we also often resort to the use of regular drumsticks instead of the traditional agdavi, sticks made from long, thin branches. Commercial drumsticks are more readily available, are consistent in size, and don’t break as easily. There’s actually another interesting reason for using thicker, heavier drumsticks. Playing the rhythms with these is harder and more fatiguing to your arms, but when you switch to the thin and light agdavi, they feel so light!
The parts I have been learning are played on the small and medium drum, rumpi and lê. The lowest pitched rum is reserved for playing the lead parts of the master ogãn (master drummer). Though I am still far from being able to partake in learning the lead parts, on occasion, Mestre Amen insists that I try playing the lead parts. For the rhythms that are played with sticks (the Yoruba-based rhythms for the most part) both the rumpi and lê parts are identical, with the lead rum doing variations based on the orixá’s (interpreted by the dancer) movement. For the rhythms that are played with the hands (the Candomblé de Angola rhythms, or the secular rhythms of Bantu origin such as samba de roda) there are usually distinct parts for both the rumpi and lê, with the rum again doing the lead parts.
In order one to learn the lead parts, it is essential to watch how dancers interpret the movement of the orixás. I have sat in on drums (playing support parts only, never the lead drum) for dance classes many times in the past. But now that I am more consciously trying to learn the rhythmic patterns that echo the footsteps and gestures of the orixás, I have watched dancers with a different perspective.
(Shelby Williams-González dancing orixás)
I am looking forward to our upcoming performance at Capoeira Batuque’s batizado (“baptism” or graduation ceremony) later this month. I will be joining several of my musical cohorts and capoeira colleagues with Mestre Amen in a repertory dedicated to the orixás Xangô, Iansã, Oxum, Ogum, Omolu, and Oxóssi.
During my first official lesson as an apprentice of Mestre Amen I asked him about my role as a student of the music of candomblé. Since I was not initiated into the religion, nor am I an active practitioner, I had some misgivings about taking on the serious study of the drumming of candomblé solely for the purpose of learning its rhythms. In a way, I think I was looking for some sort of approval or endorsement from Mestre Amen, telling me that it was fine for me to learn outside of the formal and devotional context of the religious space in which candomblé initiates undergo their training.
Over the years—as a student of ethnomusicology and through my own life experiences—I have learned about Afro-Brazilian music and culture, the legacy of African traditions in Brazil, the history of the slave trade, and the complexities of “race” relations in Brazil and the systematic discrimination of so-called “black” religions. I have taught and given lectures in my area of study and dedicated a significant part of my research to Afro-Brazilian culture.
Mestre Amen pointed out to me my own work as a student of Afro-Brazilian culture and told me that he felt that it was indeed just fine for me to learn the music of candomblé. He again told me the story of how he was “called” to the religion by his patron orixá (deity) Oxaguiã to become an ogan (or, ogã, a master drummer). I then recalled that I once had a “reading” by a mãe de santo (literally, mother of saints or preistess) in order to determine which orixás were my guides. During that consultation I was told almost immediately that I was a son of Oxaguiã, along with Iemanjá and Oxóssi.
Mestre Amen told me that my interest in the music, history and culture of candomblé was also a “calling” of sorts. He stated that each person finds his or her own path to determine what level of commitment he or she will dedicate to candomblé. He pointed out the importance of learning the history of struggle in order to teach people about candomblé. As more people appropriate Afro-Brazilian traditions into a globalized world culture, the more there is a need for the tradition to be faithfully represented and taught.
My goal with this apprenticeship is guided by this principle. I don’t intend to become an ogan (though I don’t rule out what may come “calling” in the future). I don’t pretend to be a practitioner or initiate of candomblé, or to superficially evoke the orixás. I hope only to be able to teach people about candomblé so that some day all manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture will be accepted into the national consciousness of Brazil without discrimination and disdain.
For my next post, I will show some specific examples of how candomblé has been alternately discriminated and romanticized.
It is an honor to be an apprentice under the guidance of Mestre Amen Santo. I would like to take this opportunity in my first official ACTA blog post to discuss how I came to know and work with Mestre Amen, a little about candomblé, and a few other musings.
I first met Mestre Amen many years ago, probably 12-13 years, maybe more, I can’t exactly recall. I knew a number of people who were training in the art of capoeira (the Afro-Brazilian martial art) under his tutelage, and I occasionally attended events hosted at his school Capoeira Batuque, then located in Santa Monica, CA. One particular event I remember attending—and even performing during an open mic session—was NOMMO, hosted by one of his dedicated students, Ismael “Versátil” (his capoeira name, meaning versatile). On other occasions, I would watch a capoeira training session, fascinated by the physical exertion that the students would happily put themselves through during the class. They would be drenched in sweat, running drills and exercises, practicing various kicks and escapes in a continual motion inside the studio space. The class would usually end with a roda, the circular formation in which practitioners play music, sing and clap while two people take turns playing each other in the middle.
Looking back on those early days, I remember meeting some of his most devoted students like Dana “Minha Velha” (My Old Lady), Phillipos “Muito Tempo” (Too Long or Too Much Time), Marcelo “Girafa” (Giraffe), and of course, Versátil—all of them still in their early years of training. Today, I still see these same students training harder than ever. They have become his top students, now advanced instructors in the art of capoeira.
I finally became a member of the Capoeira Batuque family a couple of years ago, later than most but never too late. At my first batizado (literally “baptism” for the name-giving ceremony), I was nicknamed “Descalço” (Barefoot or With No Shoes) by Mestre Batata. Later during the weeklong event, I was taken down in the roda by a rasteira (a leg sweep that knocks an opponent to the floor on their behind)—ceremoniously executed by Mestre Doutor—earning me a “green cord” in capoeira. How I wish I had started training back when I first met Mestre Amen…
Over the years, I have watched Mestre Amen teach an ever-growing body of students, and on many occasions, dance and perform music. In recent years, we have increasingly played music together, mostly in my own group Samba Society. I have since learned that Mestre Amen is not only an accomplished martial artist, skilled dancer and percussionist, but also a knowledgeable practitioner of candomblé.
Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion that has its roots in West African deity worship primarily of Yoruban origin, but also significantly influenced by Fon, Ewe, Igbo, and Bantu traditions that were brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans over hundreds of years. Today, in Brazil and throughout the world, candomblé is alternately misunderstood and discriminated, or romanticized and folklorized. It is extremely important to note, however, that candomblé is a living, contemporary culture practiced by millions of people. Many practitioners—like Mestre Amen—are devoted followers, initiated into the religion through an extended family history, while others are non-initiated performers of the music and dance with little or no connection to the religious practice.
There are numerous reasons why people are drawn to the rhythms and dances of candomblé, the most common being the incredible depth and beauty of the tradition. Long before taking on this apprenticeship, I have had many misgivings about my role as a student of the music of candomblé. During one of our first sessions together, I discussed some of my uncertainties with Mestre Amen, and what he told me was very interesting…
Stay tuned for my next post, as I will write more about my ongoing apprenticeship with Mestre Amen...