SALVADOR, Brazil — This northeastern Brazilian city is famous for its Afro-Brazilian drumming traditions; the internationally acclaimed bloco-afro band Olodum has broadcast its colorful drums and pounding syncopation internationally for decades through music collaborations including Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us” and Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child”. To see that band — which is composed almost exclusively of men — or any of the city’s other renowned bloco-afros, like Ilê Aiyê, perform live in the streets of Salvador is a deep dive into the roots of this country’s musical traditions.
But traditions change. Or actually, traditions are changed. By women like the ones that make up Banda Didá, a group composed exclusively of black women, pounding out those same Afro-Brazilian rhythms, filling up Salvador’s night with its old sounds, played by new hands.
Banda Didá is a unique musical group breaking gender boundaries in the capital of Bahia, the state that is the epicenter of Brazil’s African cultural infusion. “Until Didá, no one here played like us,” said one of the band’s leaders and longest-serving members, Viviam Caroline de Jesus Queirós.
Formed in 1993, the band was believed to be the first all-female bloco-afro in Brazil. “We’ve brought visibility to a group — black women — that have been historically marginalized here,”Ms. Queirós said. “We’ve feminized percussion here.”
Though they’ve been around for years, Didá’s popularity today is representative of an atmosphere of female empowerment in Brazil. Didá, once a torchbearing group among dozens of all-male bloco-afros, now shares the streets of Salvador with a few other all-female groups. As Brazil’s power structure has turned more conservative in recent years, with many female politicians being replaced by male lawmakers who have pushed for legislation to limit women’s access to abortion, the country’s feminist movement has gained strength.
Banda Didá earned its visibility by taking on old social norms that pushed women away from drums. Historically, “drumming in Salvador has been considered a man’s role,” said Jeff Packman, a University of Toronto associate professor who specializes in the study of drum culture in Salvador. He and Ms. Queirós both report that the gender norms around drumming came out of particular beliefs about a woman’s role and place. One theory, the big bass drums are too heavy for women. The women could even get hurt, and then who would have the babies? Another theory suggested that playing drums in the streets in the night — especially during the bacchanalia of Carnival season, when drum groups perform most intensely — is too time-consuming and dangerous for women, who should instead stay home.
Good luck convincing the women of Banda Didá of those theories today.
On a recent weekend evening, a few dozen of the group’s 85 members gathered in the second floor of their headquarters. Women, some with children in their laps, listened attentively to the guest speakers, which included older local black women sharing their experiences of finding strength in their feminism and their blackness. “It is our responsibility to share with the world the power that is within us as black women,” one speaker told the group.
Two nights later, the band was busy rehearsing its Carnival performance; the celebration is just weeks away. During the captivating rehearsals, which take place in the street in front of their headquarters, the women not only play bass drums — called surdos — strapped around their shoulders or waists and resting against knees protected by thick kneepads, but also swing the heavy, keg-sized drums up into the air, balancing them above their heads with one trembling arm, as the seconds tick by and the gathered crowd cheers, in an act symbolizing their defiance of those old gender rules.
Adriana Portela, the first female conductor of a bloco-afro in Salvador’s history, attributes the debunking of the myths around female drumming to “the power of the uterus.” She said this just before rehearsal, while pulling on kneepads and helping the group’s young singer with new lyrics. Jean Jesus dos Santos, one of the younger members of the group — part of the next generation of Didá — was one room over and painting blush onto her cheeks.
“They used to say drumming wasn’t for women because the instrument was heavy,” said Jean. “But we’re warrior women, and yes, we can play. And the proof of that is there in the street: we play just as well as the men.”
An hour later, after their rehearsal and backstage at an Olodum show a block away, Olodum’s vice president, Marcelo Gentil, said he can’t disagree. “They are from Bahia, so they drank from the same source as Neguinho,” he said, referring to the man who is regarded as the founder of the samba-reggae rhythm that drives much of the drumming in Salvador. “And they play that rhythm a lot better than men who aren’t from Bahia.”
Neguinho do Samba, a former leader of Olodum, founded Banda Didá in 1993. Neguinho died several years ago, but his daughter, Debora de Souza, remains an integral part of the administration of Banda Didá. While counting out registration forms in a yellow folder labeled “Carnaval,” Ms. de Souza recalled the passion that led her father to form Banda Didá. "My dad was a feminist. He cared about women, and while he was with Olodum he saw that there was a need for there to be a female drum group.”
According to Ms. de Souza, Paul Simon felt so grateful to Olodum for helping him earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year in 1992, that he helped him acquire the three-story colonial mansion where Banda Didá in now based. Neguinho’s vision was long-term: to form an all-female drum group, but also ensure the perpetuity of the group by offering free instrument-making workshops and music lessons for women and children at the house.
Despite the financial uncertainty that troubles most Brazilian cultural groups thatreceive little government support, the Didá project has been a success. Today, 130 women and girls take drum lessons at Didá — still for free — creating a diverse pool of candidates for inclusion in the band. The group finances itself through private events and donations. Mornings at the Didá house are filled with the muted sounds of private tutoring in tambourine or conga drums behind closed doors. In the afternoon, young girls scamper down the central stairway after their drum lessons, and on a recent afternoon, older women waited in line to register to volunteer during the group’s Carnival performance.
The uniqueness of the city’s first all-female group, and the luxury of the group having a physical headquarters, means that Didá’s reputation now precedes it. The group used to go out to the poor neighborhoods around Salvador to recruit talented young drummers; now, on a typical day, a steady stream of young women show up at the house to inquire about drum lessons or joining the group.
"This is the place where I found myself,” said Maiana Santos Bonfim, another young member of the band. “It's where I learned to accept myself, my hair, my body, my race. And I just love playing drums.”
Ms. Queirós was just 16 years old when she started playing drums with Banda Didá. She is now 34 and pursuing a Ph.D. in samba-reggae ethnomusicology in her free time away from the group. “I feel like I became a woman through this group,” she said with steady conviction, between sips of passionfruit juice at a local Afro-Brazilian cafe.
"In my opinion, the drum could be the great technology for women this century. It redefines the body of a woman — especially black women,” said Ms. Queirós. “I think it’s a weapon; it’s a tool. It gives us power, and makes us more beautiful. And it makes it so that our message is heard farther and farther away.”
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