The Handphibians take Madison to samba school

The band’s annual Carnaval celebration marks 20 years on February 9 at the High Noon and February 10 at the Majestic.

The band’s annual Carnaval celebration marks 20 years on February 9 at the High Noon and February 10 at the Majestic.

The Handphibians' 2017 Carnaval performance at the Majestic. Photo by Paddy Cassidy.

The Handphibians’ 2017 Carnaval performance at the Majestic. Photo by Paddy Cassidy.

Brazilian Carnaval—an almost 200-year-old celebration associated with the Portuguese Lenten tradition—takes its most visible form in parades in Rio de Janeiro, filled with colorfully adorned costumes, choreographed dance, and high-energy drumming. But Carnaval spans many regions of Brazil, incorporating the disparate musical styles and traditions developed in these specific regions, as well as the African heritages threaded into many Brazilian communities.

For years, The Handphibians have hosted Carnaval in Madison, performing in collaboration with and alongside a mix of about a dozen local music and dance groups. A bunch of them will be on display on February 9 and 10, when the Handphibians host a special two-night Carnaval event at the High Noon and then the Majestic, to mark 20 years of this particular celebration in Madison.

Some groups on this two-night bill play various Brazilian musics, such as Grupo Balança—who perform Samba de Pagode, a music that originated in Rio de Janeiro—and Metabaque, who combine hip-hop with northeastern Brazil’s Maracatu. Because Brazil’s Carnaval incorporates traditions of different Latin American countries, many of those musics are featured at Madison’s own Carnaval. The Panchromatic Steel Band plays music of Trinidad and Tobago, performing authentic Calypso, a folk music of Trinidad, and Soca, a dance music originated later from a mix of both modern and traditional influences. Drum Power, a youth ensemble and organization, also make an appearance, performing Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian and West African rhythms. Local Brazilian dance and martial arts troupes—Ótimo Dance and Capoeira Roda—perform too, in collaboration with Handphibians.

In the summer of 1997, Madisonian and Handphibians founder Robert Schoville took a trip with a few friends to Brazil. After traveling the country for about a month, taking classes and acquiring instruments, Schoville invited UW-Madison music students and community members to join him in playing what he learned during his travels. For over 10 years, Schoville hosted an educational jam session with these students and locals, teaching them the instruments and specific rhythms and parts associated with the various regional traditions. The Handphibians emerged from this process. Now, 20 years later, Handphibians celebrate not only the foundation of their group, but the founding of their Escola de Samba (Samba School), which they formed eight years ago, now boasting a roster of 50 members.

The Escola de Samba in Madison is a curriculum-based class for new members to cultivate percussion techniques and learn the samba repertoire. Within the school, a large group of performers (who are featured at Carnaval) play a number of shows in Madison, as well as engage in community outreach and education. In addition to Carnaval, an International Fest at the Overture, and an annual appearance at the Terrace, the Handphibians work with the Madison Children’s Museum, and contribute to music programs in Madison’s public schools as guest educators. The Handphibians’ Escola de Samba is one of several samba schools throughout the United States—most of which started in the Bay Area after attracting teachers from Brazil—and echo the intentions of Brazil’s samba schools, which function not only as musical centers, but as community resources.

“If Madison was Rio, there would be an Escola de Samba on the east side, the south side, the north side, and each would serve the particular needs of that particular community,” says Handphibians Music Director and President Tom Ross, who is also a percussion instructor at UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. While many big cities in the US have samba schools, Ross is proud of the size of Madison’s, adding that “having a samba school of 50-plus people in a city this size is bizarre.” The Handphibians teach students a range of instruments that come from Brazilian, Portuguese, and African origins. Some of these include a large bass drum called the Surdo, the Cuíca—a friction—and tension-controlled drum with a large pitch range—a small frame drum called a Tamborim, and auxiliary percussion such as a Chocalho (a shaker).

When teaching these rhythms, instruments, and lyrics, the Handphibians take care to respect the traditions and cultures represented, and openly discuss the issue of appropriation both within the group and amongst non-Madison samba groups. Ross adds that “when we go to Brazil to study, learning that material thoroughly and teaching it with the same type of integrity of which we learned it is of paramount importance.”

For Carnaval 2018, in celebration of Handphibians’ 20 years, the group composed their own Samba Enredo (en-HAY-doo). In an Enredo—a theme-and-variations-like structure performed at Carnaval by the various Escolas de Samba throughout Brazil—percussion-backed singers communicate stories and histories relevant to the schools’ community. The Handphibians named their Enredo “A Nossa Bateria” (our Bateria, our drums), and adhere to the songwriting traditions by singing about their group in Madison.

Handphibians member Josh Pultorak says that “drumming in a large group is warming to the soul.” Perhaps attendees of Carnaval can sympathize amidst the harmonious nature of group drumming and dancing, the lively and colorful history of Carnaval festivities, and the communal feeling of neighborhood celebration.

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