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All-Women Afro-Brazilian Ensemble Batalá Washington DC Has Rhythm and Purpose

“We like for our audience to be empowered by the beats of the drums and the energy transmitted by the women in the group”

Batalá Washington DC discuss their impact, favorite songs to perform, and how being a part of the DMV creative scene influences the collective’s approach.

A picture of Batalá Washington DC's drums and sticks
Batalá Washington DC - Photo Courtesy of Marly Perez and Harvest Moon Festival Page

Within an industry that is historically dominated by men, all-women Afro-Brazilian percussion ensemble Batalá Washington DC is here to show us what they are made of. Launched in 2007 as the newest branch of the Batalá band and the first-ever in the United States, Batalá Washington, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, brings its powerful, invigorating sounds to the nation’s capital and across the globe as a means of empowering women to be change agents in their respective communities.

Join contributing writer Cynthia Gross as she connects with Marly Perez, board president and musical conductor of Batalá Washington DC, to discuss the collective’s impact over the years, their favorite songs to perform, and how being a part of the DMV creative scene influences the band’s approach.

A picture of Batalá Washington performing live
Batalá Washington DC - Photo Courtesy of Marly Perez and Harvest Moon Festival Page

In 2007, “Batalá Washington DC was started by Solange Amorelli with the musical direction of Mariana Studart,” explained Perez. “Both women moved to the Washington DC area from Brasilia Brazil and were part of the Batalá Brasilia Band,” an all-women ensemble. However, Perez notes that the origin of Batalá goes back much further.

Batalá Washington DC is part of a larger Batalá family created in 1997 by Giba Gonçalves. Born and raised in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil, Gonçalves was residing in Paris when he first envisioned the concept for the band. Open to anyone with an interest in learning the samba-reggae beat, the band began with 60 people in a single location. From Paris, it spread to other cities in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. In 2003, the band fittingly made its way back to its origins, brought to Brazil by Paulo Garcia, also the founder of the Portsmouth Batalá.

Composer and musical director, Giba Gonçalves enlisted the help of friends from the emerging bands and from Salvador to create the visual identity of Batalá. The instruments and clothing are all manufactured in Salvador, Bahia, where the band has a social program that provides a wealth of job opportunities to families in need. From there, the instruments and clothing are shipped to bands around the world.

Fast forward to today, and Perez notes that there are “46 and counting Batalá bands around the world.” Batalá Washington DC is “led by a group of women both in an administrative and in a musical capacity” in alignment with its mission of women empowering women. In addition to Marly Perez who serves as board president and musical conductor, the ensemble’s leadership team includes: musical director Ellen Arnold; musical conductors Donna Beasley and Kate Morgan; and board members Christal Gordon (VP), Lita Colon (treasurer), Sandy Rosengarden (secretary), and Jenna Converse (officer).

A picture of the Batalá Washington DC ensemble
Batalá Washington DC - Photo Courtesy of Marly Perez and Harvest Moon Festival Page

The environment inevitably shapes us, so it comes as no surprise that the DMV creative scene influences Batalá Washington DC just as much as the nonprofit invites individuals everywhere to experience the vibrancy of Brazil’s dynamic Afro-Bahian culture and samba reggae music.

“We are a diverse group of women who call the DMV area our home,” said Perez. “We love attending and supporting festivals and events around the city and are proud to have led many of them, such as the Funk Parade, the Pride Parade, Fiesta DC, Mardi Gras Parade, 4th of July, among many others.”

When you attend a Batalá Washington DC show, it is nearly impossible to stand still. The passion and energy with which the collective – now more than 50 women strong – puts into every one of their performances is riveting and inspiring. Clearly, Batalá Washington DC is more than a group of musicians. The ensemble is equal parts collective, sisterhood, and community.

In a society that has made significant strides over the years in increasing representation for women, Batalá Washington DC realizes that there is still a long way to go. And their efforts do not end with identifying the pain points; instead, the collective is committed to seeing their vision of equity and inclusion for women through to fruition by being a part of the solution.

A picture of Batalá Washington DC's drums and sticks
Batalá Washington DC - Photo Courtesy of Marly Perez and Harvest Moon Festival Page

Indeed, watching the all-women ensemble perform on percussion feels like another brazen act of defiance against the patriarchy. “We love to give the audience a piece of the Afro-Brazilian culture and music we represent,” said Perez. “We also like for our audience to feel empowered by the beats of the drums and by the energy transmitted by all the women in the group.”

Each of the four drums played by the collective has its own significance. The Surdo aka “The Heartbeat” is played with alternating beaters and functions as a “bookend” to the remainder of the drums. Surdo 1 is tuned low and played on the first beat while Surdo 2 is tuned higher, which positions it to respond with the second beat.  The Dobra aka “The Melody” is the mid-range sound, essentially a smaller version of the Surdo, and is unique to samba-reggae. The drum incorporates complex patterns that combine space and notes.

The Repique aka “The Caller” is played with two flexi sticks. The drum provides direction on the breaks and provides a “double layer” of clave to add to the snare. Per Batalá Washington DC, approximately 90% of the patterns played by the snare and the repique are the same. The difference is found in the sound made by the two sticks. And last but not least, the Caixa aka “The White Noise” is the snare, which fits within the upper range of sound. The Caixa allows for the most nuance and expression out of the four drums.

When asked for their favorite place to perform in the DMV, Batalá Washington DC replied, “We have way too many to name, but we definitely love it when we get feedback from our audience and women asking to join us!”

New and longtime fans alike have their own favorites of the ensemble’s songs, a number of which were composed by Giba Gonçalves. “Each musical conductor has a favorite song they like the band to perform, and there are many the band members love to perform as well,” Perez shared.

“Some of our favorites are ‘Batalá Hey,’ ‘Funk G,’ ‘Reggaela,’ ‘Direto,’ ‘Pirate,’ ‘Oya’,’ and ‘One Love.’ They resonate because they are upbeat, fun, some have fun choreography, and the audience responds well to them. It’s like a party!”

In the coming months, Batalá Washington DC will focus on a number of exciting projects. “We are looking forward to our Mestre Giba coming to visit us in July, as well as participating in the Afro-Bahian Festival,” said Perez. The ensemble will travel to perform with other bands in New York, San Francisco, Houston, and more. Their summer tour schedule also includes appearances in the UK at the Encontro Street Band Festival and the Notting Hill Carnival, an acclaimed Caribbean festival that draws more than 2 million people each year.

Follow Batalá Washington DC’s journey here and become a part of the movement.

Cynthia Gross

Cynthia Gross is a freelance writer and award-winning spiritual pop artist based in Maryland. With more than a decade of experience as an executive ghostwriter, she understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.

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