Why I love Samba
Adam Ramsay, you are wrong about samba and this is why:
Actually first, before we inspect your analysis, lets clear up one thing. If, when you hear the bass of the big samba drums in the street, it doesn’t make you want to run towards the music, join the crowd and jump up and down and move your body, I can’t make you. You either feel it or you don’t. And is you describe samba as “cheering”, my guess is that you don’t.
But let’s get into the politics now. Regardless of whether you like the music or not. I’d like to tackle the recurring theme of “Britishness” which permeates your sentiment filled argument. Here we go.
Assumption number one: Everyone who goes on demonstrations “gets slightly embarrassed” about being on a demonstration and this has something to do with being British which you imply is natural to one’s Britishness. I do not know anyone who finds demonstrating embarrassing. They must be out there, and apparently you are one of them. I find this so fascinating, that I’m coming up to Oxford for a pint with you so I can get into the social psychology of that statement. In my experience, people may feel emancipated, bored, worthy, helpless, empowered, belonging, tribal and all sorts of other things by demonstrating, but I’ve not come across the People’s Front of Embarrassed Citizens cos we’re British yet, maybe it’s because I’m too busy playing samba, or maybe it is because they don’t exist. Or that there are few of them. Or at least fewer than you think. And I think they’re embarrassment has little to do with being British, and more to do with their life experience.
Assumption number two: The “dressing up” we do is some kind of quintessentially British Monty Pythonesque cum Carry on Occupying affliction to hide this apparent embarrassment of demonstrating/being in a public space. Like we wake up in the morning and think I’m going to a demo, I better hide my true self behind my strippy socks. Adam, it’s not that you don’t like “dressing up” at demos, you just don’t like “dressing up” on a day-to-day basis. There are three issues here. One you assume that since people are dressed a certain way that they are 1) dressed wildly out of the ordinary, normal, “British” etc. I am dressed today quite similarly to how I would dress at most samba gigs and demos. And yes I work in an office. 2) Why are your staple baggy chinos and checked shirt look, or wearing suits on a daily basis any less of a costume than what some of us wear? 3) That people wearing things that you don’t wear is alienating to other people. The logical argument stemming from this is that we should all wear exactly the same to make sure that they don’t judge us by how we look. This brings me onto 4) Rule number one of progressive politics – never ever judge people by how they look. We all do it and make assumptions about those people, and activists are just as bad as other groups. The uniform makes us feel secure, I know. But judging by what you see is wrong. That is what you are doing. So at least recognise that’s what you’re doing and start apologising now. In that very British way please.<
Assumption three: Samba is not British. Our activisty street demo style samba is as Brazilian as Chicken Tikka Masala is Indian. Ie it is not. Or it is it kind of sounds and smells “not from round here” (we’ll deal with THAT in the next section) – but there is definitely some time and space fusion going on. And a back story. Our samba has a back story. I’m not going to go into it. But I can assure you that Rhythms of Resistance and Barking Bateria’s samba would make the Brazilian crisp white trousered samba purists cringe. That’s if they even recognise it as samba. I don’t like purists. It’s the racism of art. And anyway, over the years we’ve created bits of song to the rhythm of the beat so that new people can remember the rhythm that go “Doing the Lambeth Walk” and “You’ve got custard in your underpants”. Custard is pretty British. It’s definitely British by your criteria. Lambeth is pretty London. Lager features in one song we do. Point being if you think we’re all practicing our Portuguese and polishing our Carnaval costumes and sipping caperinias at rehearsal, you’ve got another one coming mate.
Assumption number four: Britishness is definable, exclusionary and exclusive. It includes things like Dubstep and Morris Dancing but not samba. This is underlies everything you’ve said. I’m quite shocked. Not that this view exists, but that you hold this view, because I thought I had at least a vague understanding of your politics from working with you. I’ll go back to the purist thing. Your argument is borderline nationalist in the worst sense. Just because you threw rap in there doesn’t make your argument any less conservative and judgemental. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’re a nice guy, by suggesting that you are confusing your dislike for the sound with your dislike for the participation of those people and that action making the sound, and their fundamental right to not have to explain their origins or authenticity before participating in collective public action. Just as your Perth school band was real, so is this. Welcome to London, Adam. We don’t all drink tea, like queuing and saying sorry for no reason. There is of course a stereotype (which the tourist industry relies on) and we’re here to break it. I’ve got a “funny” accent. Guess what it’s a “not from round here” accent. “Not from round here” or “not authentically British” is just another way of saying, something about you/what you do/how you look makes me uncomfortable so I am going to alienate you by claiming ownership over a space/time/event/word. Isn’t that a major part of what we are fighting against?
Ok, so we’ve dealt with the Britishness issue – lets get into the politics of music. One thing that seems to pain you is the fact that you don’t think any of us really listen to samba, so why should we tolerate it at demos. Weird argument. For two reasons. One I haven’t gone through the playlists/CDs/tape decks of everyone I’ve ever played samba with but I’m pretty sure some will have some sort of samba, but most wont. Regardless how many, yes Adam there are people out there who listen to samba and play some form of it too. Secondly, the whole point of our brand of samba is that it works best in certain settings, i.e the street/warehouses/fields etc rather than amplified through your ear phones. Do I have to commit to enjoying certain sounds at all times of day, everywhere in all contexts? I’m pretty sure I don’t have any electronic music on my player, but I sure like a good psychedelic trance party. Sometimes the birds sing and I think, ah, that’s lovely, other times I’m indifferent. Sometimes I get into 1980s white male punk band sounds and sometimes I can’t stand it. Surely that’s ok, acceptable and, dare I say it, normal?
One more thing on the politics of samba and carnival as resistance. There is a long tradition of this around the world. I wont go into it all here. But there are also tactical reasons why having a big band of people bashing big drums has been very useful in demonstrations and public actions. And music is important. The spirit of Tahrir and countless successful movements were held together by music keeping the spirit up and the steadfastness strong. It may not be to your taste sometimes, but you cant deny the role it has played and continues to play.
Lastly – the culture of our samba collectives. I will only speak of those in London, that I know well. This is important. Unlike your definition of Britishness, we are all inclusive. Way more inclusive than many political groups I’ve come across. Anyone or everyone can join my band. Some are very musical, some borderline tone deaf. Some have been playing for 13 years, for some it’s their first week. Some have been around for ages, some come and go. It’s transient and that works fine. If you go, you can always come back. And we’ve got as our post-Thatcher class obsessed society would say, people who are working class, upper class, underclass, middle class. We’ve got 80 year old and 8 year olds. We’ve got the mums and daughters, the electricians, the unemployed, the disabled, the teachers, the students, the uni lecturers the alcoholics, the teetotallers, the hyperactive, the shy, the quiet, and the downright mad.
And that is exactly it. We are a collection of different people and we are all being ourselves. You are obviously concerned about people being authentic and true to their selves and I’ve never seen a less oppressive, less controlled more free space than the one that samba creates for people to express themselves.
Which brings me onto another point. Not everyone has the background, education, training, or simply the will or the want to express their politics, or their anger through writing or talking. Street samba allows a lot of people who don’t belong to a distinct, neat, well trained and culturally self reinforced political grouping (by exclusion or choice) to be part of something bigger, to be counted to join in. To me that is very very very important. I want to live in a society which accepts all sorts into the mix. Where people feel they have an entitlement over public space, and where they can bring themselves into that inclusive space. Surely that is that is what is most commendable and fantastic thing about the Occupy movement is that inclusiveness. It’s not just about the demands, it’s about the space and the voice.
And finally, a personal point. As a mixed race Egyptian, Turkish, Irish, English, Celtic, Anglo, Arab (you get the point) woman, when I moved to the UK in 2002, I took solace in the infusion of smells, colours and sounds of the mish mash that is London. I felt at home. Because not everyone was playing, singing sounding the same, which would have been alienating for someone like me. I’m really happy that I’m exposed to cultural elements, that yes may have been (shock, horror!) influenced by other cultures. I really like to move my body. Nature or nurture is arguable, but samba makes me groove and makes me happy, and crucially it makes other people happy when I play it with other people. Also, “the British” are, according to the stereotype, not known for their warmth. But I have never found a more loving, welcoming, generous, accepting, non judgemental and fun bunch of people as I have through samba in London. That’s why I keep coming back for more. And so do many others!
And the music may not move you, but it moves a hell of a lot of people on the street. It fills the space and people feel they own the space, which they should. That is the first step to activism. People should feel a sense of collective entitlement of public space and the urge to reclaim it is healthy. And sometimes that comes through the power of music, rather than words. We also don’t take ourselves too seriously. And we like to party. We like that freedom. We reject pointless rules telling us where, why and how. And so do many others.