Instruments, Funding, Somewhere to rehearse, Members, Getting Gigs, Workshops, Transport and Insurance
Have you thought about starting up a Samba percussion group and don't know how to go about it? Well, this page conatins a few tips.
The three main things you need are people, instruments for them to play and somewhere to practice. Samba bands generally can have twenty or more people playing although if you play 'together' you can make a great sound with five people. In a five piece band you might have Surdo, Caixa, Ago Go, Chocalho/Ganza (Shaker) and Cuica, Pandeiro or Repenique. To an extent it's optional but you need to have Surdo, Ago Go and Shaker. Then, a quieter band may have Pandeiro and no Caixa (because of it's loudness) together with a Cuica for atmosphere or repenique for breaks. A small band going for maximum volume in outdoor performances might have Surdo, Ago Go, Caixa, Ganza and Repenique.
If you were able to attract twenty or so regular players and had the luxury of choosing what instruments you used the breakdown for a Carnival performance might be,
One (or more) Repenique
Four or Five Surdos
Two or Three Caixas
Three Ago Gos
One or Two Cuicas
Four or more Tamborims
Four or more Ganzas
One or Two Triangles
A couple of years ago all of these instruments might have cost approx. £2,000 to buy new but these days Brazilian instruments are more common and easier to buy in the UK, so, with careful purchasing, and the odd second hand drum, you might be able to equip the above line-up for around £1000.
If you are not able to fund the initial outlay yourself, you may have to think about applying for a grant from whatever Arts body you can prise the cash out of.
1 Local - Your local council should have an Arts Officer who doles out small amounts of cash to worthy projects every six or twelve months.
2 County - Similarly, your County Authority should have an Arts Officer who does the same for projects that serve the County (Yours will if you are available for carnivals in neighbouring towns).
3 Regional - South East, North West or whatever, there will be a regional Arts body who have the most cash to distribute. In my experience these prove to be the most difficult to deal with and give the impression of being loyal to their favourite applicants. I am just managing to avoid using the word corrupt here.
4 National - ie Lottery. get yourself an application pack to see what it is all about.
5 Commercial - Any local or National business you can persuade to sponsor you.
The key phrase is "Partnership Funding". A successful Lottery application would see a portion of funding coming from each of the above and this is called Partnership Funding. Above groups 1 to 4 are very very keen on this.
If you are holding weekly workshops that are open to the public it is normal to charge a weekly subscription fee. How much depends on how accessible you want to make the band. £2 or £3 should keep the experience within the budget of most people and you could include a concession for Benefits/Students etc. At the beginning you hope to attract enough people to each workshop or rehearsal to cover the direct costs but beware that your attendance may vary or indeed dissappear. Read on.
Attendances at "Open" workshops can be large and enthusiastic in Spring and Summer when the weather is fairer and the majority of outdoor gigs take place. In the middle of Winter, when your only gig in the books was over at Christmas, even the most enthusiastic Sambistas can find it difficult to bother turning out in the freezing cold rain. You may even find that after a couple of years some members only want to be involved in the glamorous events in which your band are starring.
If you are trying to start up a band and there are a series of workshops with poor attendance while you have to pay rent and transport costs, you may have to make up the difference from your own pocket. Further down the road, if you set up a special workshop with a guest Brasilian or a Float and Costumes for a Carnival, then the local and Regional Council are two months late in sending out the Arts Grant cheques, you may find that you have to dig deeper than your pocket to come up with cash to cover it. This actually happened to me, so beware.
For this kind of reason, at some point after you have gotten going you will have to decide where the band is going, and I don't mean musically. As founder of a band you may have to step to one side because the monster that you created has taken on larger proportions than you intended and has started to think for itself. Don't be like me. Be graceful about it.
Joking apart, these bands are very potent when they play well together and it should be no surprise that they evolve and change. When this happens you have to have a constitution of some kind and some kind of democratic agreement
Let me take this opportunity to warn you of potential damage to hearing through regular prolonged exposure to the high noise levels of a Bateria without the use of ear protection.
It may not be too much of a problem with a five piece band as referred to. But the twenty piece band using the instruments listed above pumps out a very loud sound when in full swing. Rehearsing and performing indoors without using earplugs will almost certainly damage your hearing after a couple of years or less. I myself now suffer from Tinnitis which consequently prevents me from playing or teaching a full Bateria anymore.
Therefore you need to do everything possible to protect your own and other peoples' hearing. If you can help it, don't rehearse a large band in a small area. This increases the pressure on the ears. Use ear protection and always advise people (especially newcomers) to use earplugs.
For a larger space consider approaching Arts Centres, Church Halls, Schools and Clubs where you might be able to negotiate some performances for your rent. You will almost certainly expect to pay some kind of rent for wherever you go and this is one of the first essential expenses that you have to cover whether you have any Gig Fees/Grant money or not. That is of course associated with the larger concept of managing a large and cumbersome entity that is the volunteer led sponsored community band with open doors. Follow the ongoing discussions on the Sambistas list which is linked at the top of the page.
If you have the idea to start up a band then you probably have in mind at least two or three people to join you. Well that's enough to get going. You could even do a performance with that many if you all knew your Samba Breaks.
To build a bigger band you need to do some advertising. Posters and Flyers left in the right kind of places will help to get the ball rolling although it may take some people several weeks to respond. As organiser of a band you need to make yourself known to your local Arts Officer at the earliest opportunity and they may be able to help put the word out. Armed with whatever encouragement you can derive there, contact your local press and see if they will send someone to see you. tell them you have some drums and they can take a photograph.
An important thing is to get out and play in public. Even if your band can only bash out one rhythm, when people see you outdoors you will be amazed how many approach you and say "How can I do that".
In order to minimise confusion it is sensible to have one person responsible for chasing and arranging gigs although in time enquiries will come from all directions. By then it is even more important to have one person in charge of the diary.
Again your local (and regional) Arts Officer is a good place to start. Community percussion groups fill their bill very well and they should be keen to help you in many ways. They should be able to squeeze you in on some Council event or other and they should be in the know about what big events will be occurring in your area and who organises them.
Fundraising events for Churches or Schools are often held outdoors and these are good no pressure gigs to cut your teeth on. Ecological organisations are often a favourite partner as the principles are often upheld by the kind of people attracted to playing in a percussion band.
Most towns have a Carnival of some sort and you can bring a great deal to any Carnival that doesn't already have a Samba band. Beware however some inexperienced bookers confusion of a Steel Band with a Samba Bateria. If the words Steel Band are used be sure to explain the difference between what you do and the Carribean Steel band which features tuned drums or 'Pans'.
Someone in your circle will have a Computer which can be used to knock up Posters Flyers and some publicity material. One sheet of A4 with some blurb about the Carnival music you play and the excitement you generate with a couple of photos pasted in and contact details should do the trick. Mail it to anyone remotely connected with arranging events. Here your Arts Officers should have been able to help you with some kind of mailing list. Get someone to design a logo and use this for your heading on the publicity sheet and on T Shirts. Fliers left in the usual places, of course.
What do you do when you all get there. More than likely you will lead the proceedings so you need to do some preparation for that. It is a good idea to have some kind of loose plan, a bit like an agenda. So you can say "right we are going to do this first and when we have done that we are going to move on to such and such. Without a plan you are likely to lose the plot yourself when questions, comments and ideas start coming at you from all angles. Also you may only have two hours together once a week and you have to try to use the time to the best advantage.
Most groups begin the session with a warm up and this is recommended by most professionals. It gets the blood flowing , losens everyone up and breaks the ice.
You should do some exercises to loosen up the muscles, so as to avoid strains and sprains. I often do something like this:-
Stretch up high
Stretch down low
Shake your arms
Shake your wrists
Wiggle your fingers
Rotate your head one way then the other
Rotate your shoulder one way then the other (do each shoulder)
Stamping and clapping is a another method of warming up. Right Foot/Clap/Left Foot/Clap repeated in time is a simple one to start. Later on you can introduce more complicated clapping and stamping sequences with things like triplets in them and so on. You could even introduce song in the grand African tradition. You can use the warm up in other ways too. Even the above simple sequence will help you to determine at a glance whether a newcomer has rhythm or picks things up quickly. This can help when making suggestions for things for them to do that are not beyond their co-ordinative range. You might be surprised to see how many people have difficulty keeping up with this exercise or indeed responding with left and right correctly. Try it slow then faster. It's a good idea to put a bit of practice in yourself to make sure you can perform all the things you are asking others to do.
After the warm up everyone will be itching to play the instruments so you can start the rehearsal. What you do next may depend on a number of things such as impending gigs or Carnivals. If you are trying to attract people to your band you may have one or more newcomers and it is important to get them involved right at the beginning. So you need to get them sorted out with something to play and shaking isn't always the answer. If you can, give them something to hit. As you are working on a rhythm, it's intro or a break you will often need to stop and explain what is meant to be happening.
If you have got a fair bit of work done you could devote the closing period of the session to an improvisation or swap round on the instruments so that the people who play bells and so on get the chance to have a go on a drum. How you use the time depends on your priorities and peoples expectations.
After a while you may have a band with 15-20 members and up to a dozen drums to move about every time you do a gig, at least. If you aren't able to store the drums at the place where you rehearse, then you have to move them twice for each workshop or rehearsal as well. Transport becomes more pressing the farther you travel and it is something you should consider carefully when you quote a fee to appear in an event.
When you start off you may be able to manage to ferry things around in your car, if you have one, or several members cars. After the novelty wears off though, you may encounter problems with peoples availability. It is a good idea to at least cover members petrol if they are helping out with transport. A group van or minibus sounds like a fantastic solution but as band organiser you must be aware of the legal requirements regarding seatbelts and Insurance, among other things.
Insurance is a difficult area for a large Samba band. The best thing you can do is watch the input to The Sambistas mailing list where there are dedicated people working to find the best and cheapest way to fully insure a performing Samba band. As well as vehicle insurance you must have public liability insurance to perform in public. Like most insurance you hope you will never need it. But, if you are organising a band and taking them out to perform you could be the one held ultimately responsible for an accident caused by any member of the band, such as dropping an instrument from a stage onto somebody or something equally silly. If you are performing in your local town you may be able to add your activities for that day to the local Council insurance. Hastings Borough Council used to charge me £10 for a days cover.
There are lots of things that you can do to develop your group and, most importantly, the Music that you make. You can have a lot of fun too. These are just a few ideas to help you get going. There are well over fifty Samba percussion groups in the UK and more starting up all the time. Many of them subscribe to and discuss all areas of this subject on the two Sambistas mailing lists. You can find out how to join the Sambistas lists at,
I hope you find page this useful. If you have any comments, questions or requests please e-mail me.
Photos by Michael Kenna, Greg, Jenny Challacombe and Mike Carrington