Juba do Leão at Pegada: The Sound of the True Underground

2017 March 27


Juba Lighting

It’s not every day I get to cover something so personal. Between the ages of about 12 and 18, I was heavily into Brazilian Samba drumming. Three times a week, for no reason less than complete obsession, I traveled from Crewe to Manchester: forty miles there, forty miles back. My parents facilitated this madness because they knew I was good at it; everyone did. It was my life, my love, my talent, and my future. It took me around Britain, playing gigs to thousands: at football stadium half-time shows, a host of carnivals and parades, the Millennium Dome and more. I re-opened that part of Manchester destroyed by the bomb, I was in France for the World Cup celebrations, I played Paris for NYE 2001.

After a while, as passion turned to obligation and teaching others stepped ahead of playing myself, I stopped. So now, many years later, when news of an old friend’s new band slipped into my inbox, how could I resist? The universe was calling. I was to go back into the old, underground world of Samba.

It is a strange and wonderful thing, this culture of rhythm and colours, yet few in this country are even aware it exists. In Brazil, entire villages come together, playing drums, making costumes, dancing into the night. Hundreds upon hundreds of people, expressing themselves through music. Over here, it’s a much darker activity. Rehearsals happen in subterranean nightclubs, in stripped out warehouses and dusty, mood-lit studios. Especially in Manchester, the traditional Brazilian things are mixed with the best of drum ‘n’ bass, with jungle, hip-hop and all else thrown in for good measure. It treads the line between community funded arts project and hardcore, musical fight-club.

This gig that I had stumbled across was headlined by my friend, Holly Prest. I had not seen her in a long time. She was the one who taught me much of what I knew. Holly could lick any other drummer at the age of fifteen, and now, ten years later with her own band, ‘Juba do Leão’, I knew that this was going to be something worth seeing.

I stand in the crowd at Salford’s Islington Mill, memories flooding back, as faces I thought I’d never see again rush up to say hello. Another old mentor, Ian Mellor, the Godfather of the Samba community, is owning the stage; playing neck-snapping break-beats on an Indian Dhol drum. He is joined by a second drummer and two MCs: a live, half-improvised hip-hop battle to a crowd full of grinding beat-nuts.

Spoken word poetry, live painting, music; all in a dark and moody cotton-mill. Coloured silks hang from every exposed pipe; orange lamps light the stage like fire. The atmosphere is electric, eclectic and exciting. People from all over the world speak in a dozen different languages around me. They all interact like a close-knit family, but all who enter are welcome and know it. If ever you were to look for the creative hub of our fair city, this is where it lives and breathes.

Juba do Leão

Juba do Leão take to the stage, twenty-five drummers strong. They start subtly, high frequency instruments only: the snares, the shakers, the hand-drums and bells. Developing rhythms build tension to die for. They torture the audience to breaking point. “Are you ready for some bass?” shouts Holly to a riotous response. “I said are you ready for some bass?” Cheers go up, the band’s volume dips down: the calm before the storm. And then, on Holly’s cue, the line of ten surdo drums punch in single stabs at full volume. At around 20” in diameter each, they sound like bombs going off. Finally, to collective rapture, the whole band kick in and blow out the roof. I’d forgotten how powerful this music is. I’d forgotten how much I missed it.

The rhythms continue, no rest for the crowd, until five lithe dancers clear a space. Tightly choreographed and passionate to the core, the girls add spectacle to the feast of sound. They are part of the show but they’re in the audience. Hair flicks those of us who made it to the front. Lights glisten off sweat-flecked skin. They move in unison, their eyes catching ours. This is wild, sexy; I feel like I just got laid.

Juba’s set draws influence from everywhere. Holly knows Brazilian music backwards, and the expertise shines through. The rhythms, she says, are mostly of a style called ‘Maracatu,’ from the northeast part of the country. These patterns are traditional and ancient; some having never been heard over here, but their similarities to break-beats makes them interchangeable with western music. The result is complex and well structured, patterns being directed through a series of hand and whistle cues. By this logic, no two performances will ever be the same. It is creative composition in its truest form.

At the end, we say our goodbyes and I wander off into the night, clutching a handful of meaningless scribbles and my head swimming with endorphins. I already know what I will write but I put it off for days, fearing that all objectivity might have been burnt away with memories.

What I am about to say, I use not lightly. I say this, not because I know many of these people, nor because I’m biased towards the music, but honestly. I save these words only for when they are achingly true: that was one of the best gigs I have ever been to.

Holly Prest is amazing; she always has been. Juba do Leão was crafted out of a community project, mixed with the best Samba players the northwest had to offer. She put them all together perfectly. They are from all walks of life, all ages. Many have proper jobs and families. Because of this, they face an interesting future. The truth is, they will never be famous as a band. They knock 90% of touring artists into a cocked hat but they will never get a record deal or radio-play. This is the tragedy of true creative talent; it will never be accepted by the mainstream.

But this is also their silver lining. Samba drumming in this country will always be an underground activity. To take it out of the basements and warehouses would take something away from the magic of the experience. Take the dancers out of the crowd and you’d lose that physicality in the performance. For now, it will remain a dirty little secret that gangs of obsessives will flock to see. And I will too. I have been taken back into this world and I don’t want to leave. The addiction has been fed, and so it thrives once more.

Juba do Leão: ‘The Lion’s Mane.’ You need to see this band. Find them and watch what music is all about.

 Alexander Walsh




3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2017 March 27
    Ursula Jones permalink

    Hi Alex,

    Was good to see you at Pegada.

    Top article, glad you enjoyed it. Don’t be a stranger. we miss you (despite my lack of time for a proper chinwag).

    Love and samba


  2. 2017 March 27
    Stefano Oncesvelte permalink

    Excellent write up Alex, I was very frustrated not to have been able to be there but your review conjured the ‘feeling’ experienced before and will do again.

    You’re right about the underground experience and long may it be so.

    Salute to Holly and all the players and especially the dancers! xx

  3. 2017 March 28
    Sue Watling permalink

    I was there too, in mind, body and spirit, marvelling at what Holly has achieved in the few years that Juba has been together.She’s studying as well for a Degree at Manchester Uni….what a woman! I have had the privilege of being taught by Holly many years ago at Chorley when she led SambAfriq for two years.Sadly she left to go to Brazil but wow! she brought something special back to Manchester, her amazing depth of knowledge of Maracatu and her unceasing determination to create her own unique band which we all experienced the other week. Absolutely fantastic and let’s have more Holly. Suedotty

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