For about five years just after the turn of the century, I was percussing every Wednesday with a Samba School in Dublin. We drummed. In the marching season, we provided colour and spectacle for parades all around dull rainy Ireland: Ballymena, Clonegal, Drogheda, Dublin, Kilmuckridge, Maynooth, Waterford. We ran workshops for adults and we encouraged excellence in a youth wing whose membership is drawn almost entirely from the flats of Inner City Dublin. Rehearsals were open to all but you could get elected to “membership”, and save a dollar on the weekly sub if you were good enough and attended 4 consecutive rehearsals in any six-week period. You’d get bumped from membership and have to re-apply if you missed 4 consecutive rehearsals without a “sick-note”. Membership was fluid, turn-over high and critical mass sometimes hard to achieve, but the School is still going (without me) now after running for nearly 20 years.
One spring, one of our most effective and experienced drummers, who was also one of our two really effective social facilitators, went abroad for a couple of months. When she returned, she did her 4 consecutive rehearsals and came up for election to membership . . . and she was dumped! damned by a determined group of long-standing members. For whatever reason, they just didn’t like her. It was a heavy, ugly scene at the meeting and, in the aftermath, 4 or 5 more sambistas, including two members of the steering committee and the other effective social facilitator, resigned. As fortune would have it, I was off that night doing science instead of shaking.
Several weeks later, I met Ms Blackball in the street, gave her a big hug and apologised for having failed to be there at the traumatic meeting. She was much more upbeat about the night of the long knives than I was (so resilient and insouciant is yoof) and said that she was quite happy and drumming elsewhere. As we chatted, I realised that, dreadful as the experience had been, it was not without its silver lining.
Without her manifest social and musical skills, the rest of us had had to grow. We could no longer just follow her lead in the riffs, but had to engage more fully with the music, pay better attention, and take responsibility for even less experienced drummers. We also had to contribute more to the social glue of the group. When new faces appeared it was up to me and the others to step up and introduce myself, make small talk and make welcome. Indeed, at the next monthly meeting, we formally introduced a buddy system so that each rehearsal night someone was there, with an “I’m the buddy” badge, who was prepared to do this social facilitation.
What to learn?
1) Nobody is indispensable.
2) It shouldn’t take a pogrom or disaster for people to step up to the plate.
3) Samba, like soccer, is a team sport. It’s not only about, not even mainly about, the centre-forward or the bloke with the biggest drum. Without the likes of me quietly but reliably going shukka suhkka on the chocalho in the background, the guy hefting the Number One Surdo is just a big NOISE.