In the late 1960’s, Brazilian president Costa e Silva ordered the construction of a bridge connecting Rio de Janeiro with the city of Niteroi, on the other side of Guanabara Bay.
Eugene Rausa, a young civil engineer from New York, packed his bags and left for Brazil to work on this extensive project.
Rausa found himself placed in the middle of fate’s hands. He fell in love with Rio instantly. The vivacious culture ignited something in his heart that permanently bound him to the city for the rest of his life.
It was there in Brazil that Rausa met his wife. His two daughters were born there. And Rausa, who had performed as a jazz pianist in New York while in college, became completely immersed in Brazilian music.
Thirteen years later, Rausa and his family moved to the Philadelphia area. With him he brought an intense passion and love for samba, the musical genre that is the soul of Brazil.
And just like magic, a Brazilian music scene was born here in Philadelphia.
Orlando Haddad’s eyes twinkle as he gazes across the table at his wife, Patricia King, whom he met on a beach trip in 1975 while both attended the North Carolina School of the Arts. During college, they discovered they shared a love of Brazilian music. Haddad plays guitar. King plays piano. Both sing elegantly. By the time they finished college, they formed the band Minas, named after Haddad’s home state in Brazil, Minas Gerais.
They performed up and down the East coast for a while and then went to Brazil, where they recorded their first album.
They returned to the United States in 1984, arriving in Philadelphia with only an old, lumpy mattress and an uneven card table. They looked around Philadelphia for a slice of Brazil. To their surprise, they found very little.
But they did find Rausa.
Haddad and Rausa, who studied with a cuica drum master while in Brazil, became friendly while taking samba classes at the University of the Arts. They wound up continuing their drum practices in Haddad and King’s basement in Lansdowne. Within a short time, the basement sessions included dozens of people.
Eventually, Haddad and King launched a samba school, PhilaSamba, with the help of Rausa and the Latin American Musicians Association. Every Wednesday evening, musicians would come over and turn their family home into a mini Carnival.
“The whole house would just shake and our neighbors would dance outside,” King explains.
It was fun and educational, a cultural experience as well as a good time.
The PhilaSamba workshops launched a Brazilian music revolution in the region. While the original crew disbanded after a few years, others groups followed – Banda Bacana and Samba Nosso, for example. PhilaSamba was the predecessor of today’s local crews like Philly Bloco and Alo Brasil.
“Brazilian music is really great for education and schools and for bringing young people together in a group of percussion,” King says. “They can express themselves because it’s an instrument that kids can get their hands on.”
“It unites communities with young people who are looking for a positive outlet in their lives,” Haddad adds.
In several ways, Alex Shaw, of Alo Brasil, represents the old guard of the Brazilian music scene in Philadelphia as well as the new. Shaw, a drummer, truly believes in the traditions and legacy of the Afro-Brazilian musical styles that have found a home here. Alo Brasil focuses on a concoction of traditional and modern day drumming where African rhythms converse with Brazilian styles.
“As a percussionist, understanding the folk traditions behind the music and where they come from is very important,” Shaw, 34, points out.
With Alo Brasil, Shaw performed alongside Rausa, who passed away in 2006. Shaw says that Rausa was the endless reservoir of gusto that gave the band it’s prodigious flight.
Shaw isn’t shy to mention his practice of Capoeira Angola, the dance-like martial art that is put to Brazilian drums. He credits it as a major source of traditional inspiration. This practice of dance-fighting, which was originated by slaves during the transcontinental slave trade, goes hand-in-hand with Afro-Brazilian spiritual traditions that are intricately woven into the Brazilian music scene today.
“What is it about these traditions that are so powerful that it unifies communities and starts movements?” questions Alex. “It’s that the percussion traditions are so empowering. They gratify the need to be heard as well as celebrate life and culture.”
Alo Brasil’s 12 members teach the history behind the music as well as put on shows. Shaw, for instance, has run workshops at the University of the Arts.
“Bands like Alo Brasil and PhillyBloco have done a lot to shift and facilitate this interest in Brazilian music,” Shaw says. “People didn’t really have a reference for it before.”
The amazing thing is that Alo Brasil only sings in Portuguese.
“How many groups do you know of that speak another language and have hundreds of people turn out?” Shaw asks.
PhillyBloco is the new kid on the block and is making the most noise in the Brazilian music scene right now. The group, which launched in 2006, is the brain child of the industrious Michael Stevens, a previous member of Alo Brasil.
“A bloco is two things,” he says. “It’s a big parade organization at Carnival where 200 to 300 drummers take to the streets. But there are also smaller versions that go out to shows with their best drummer and build the rest of the band around them. The core is the samba-style drums.”
Stevens, a self-taught drummer, shares Shaw’s passion for educating the masses about Brazilian music styles. He served as the musical director of the University of Pennsylvania Samba Ensemble. He founded Unidos da Filadelfia, a samba school. He teaches drumming at Circle of Hope on Frankford Avenue.
“Ultimately my goal is to bring samba to as many people as possible,” Stevens says.
The majority of the people banging and tapping on the drums, he says, aren’t musicians at all. They are just captivated by the lure of Brazilian drumming.
“Brazilian music is awesome,” he adds. “It makes people feel good. It makes people happy.”
PhillyBloco performs with 23 members but the line-up changes as instruments are added. The 12 drums are regularly joined by bellowing singers, guitars, an accordion, a full brass section and a dancer. When operating at full force, it’s hard to find someone not dancing to the rousing melodies during a PhillyBloco performance.
“It’s a very open and appreciative community we have that turns out for our shows,” says singer Adwoa Tacheampong. “Native Brazilians and non-Brazilians love to feel good and have fun. Brazilian music gives them what they want. That’s why people keep coming back.”
The band released their first CD in March. It’s a fusion of funk, samba, reggae and other genres, all backed by frenetic drums and Stevens’ whistle-blowing.
“The Brazilian music scene in Philadelphia is exciting, appreciative and growing,” says Stevens. “Native Brazilians feel like they are experiencing a slice of home.”
The legacy of Eugene Rausa, the local “Godfather of Brazilian Music,” is wildly living on. The Brazilian music revolution continues to force people out of their seats.