Saturday, May 12, 2012

Samba Revived!

How many moments do we get when our life is changed forever? How many times have we left the movie theater, walked out of the concert, turned the last page of a book and thought, “I’m not the same person I was before this happened?”

I can remember one such moment back in the old college days when I walked into the Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, Ohio to see a film called Black Orpheus. From the seductive opening notes of the guitar to the surprise of the samba dancers bursting through the screen’s curtain, I was lifted into a new world.  And what a world it was! Vibrant with color and motion, with soul-stirring drums and bells and heart-strumming gentle bossa nova melodies. People dancing in the streets, on the deck of the ferry, walking down from the mountain on dirt paths. All sizes, shapes, colors, ages in unfettered celebration of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. And then the story as old as Greece, as alive as today, that potent myth of the one who makes the sun rise with his beautiful music and plucks his beloved from the gates of Death, only to lose her again, so ingenously woven into the particular time and place and culture of Rio in the 1960’s. Still one of my top five all-time films.

That moment opened the door to samba, a door I walked through around 1980 at Cazadero Music Camp playing in the bateria percussion ensemble taught by Jose Lorenzo and taking a dance class with Josephine Morada. And then bringing it all to The San Francisco School, where I instituted the annual ritual of the Samba Contest. After showing basic dance steps to the kids in the music class, we let them loose to form their own groups, create their own choreography and costumes. Older kids and parents played the music, a special group judged and off the kids went. So many memorable moments, from the sublime to the hilarious and yet another chance for kids who aren’t going to score the winning basket or place first in the Science Fair to shine.

But as our kids got busier and the number of our ritual ceremonies increased, the Samba Contest started to fall by the wayside. Back in 2006, some kids petitioned for its return and we happily obliged. And then it faded away again—mostly because it was always at the end of the year and we music teachers simply had to much to do, what with Spring Concert, producing the school CD, report cards, etc. But thanks to the initiative of my colleague James, we have brought it back and the kids had their first rehearsal yesterday, inspired by some clips we showed from Black Orpheus.

And then I remembered how this event covered just about everything I care about in education and life. An exciting buzz in the air, kids working things out without adult supervision, the intense focus of the band alert to all the calls and responses and able to play at any tempo. Kids playing for kids dancing without a single plug or wire in sight. The preschoolers peeking in at the windows and then spinning off to try the moves, the teachers jumping in to get down with the kids. O le le! O la la!

While the outside world keeps trying to box schools in and reduce the whole adventure to papers computers can correct, we’re holding on to that thread that runs as far back as ancient Greece, as far away as Brazil, as close as our innate urge to revel, celebrate, publicly proclaim our joy with our neighbors, connect with sound and color and motion and just generally have a damn good time! All within school hours. While other schools are racing to the top, we’re dancing down the mountain and ain’t it fine!

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