This has been a busy weekend. After getting to bed at 2.30ish for two nights running I am surprised to find myself awake and alert at 6.15am. Living on a narrowboat does not make the storage of percussion and p.a. easy. I rent a lock-up, stacked floor to ceiling, front to back, with musical equipment. It is, unfortunately, several miles away and often in the wrong direction from where I would prefer to be heading.
Following last night's wedding reception gig at the hotel I took a chance and left the gear in the van. I don't like to do this, but since I was barely going to have time to sleep I took the chance. I need an early start to get to the lock-up, stow the p.a. and exchange it for percussion because today, my friends, is SAMBA. I need to get to the performance area early because roads will be closed. My samba band has been booked to accompany the pounding feet of a thousand runners. As I load up the van the only pounding apparent is the rain. The rain continues - pounding, pounding, pounding.
The gig is outdoors and we do not have shelter. This year will be our third year playing for this event and shelter has never been offered. It seems a little pointless raising the subject, since we are simply a noisy spectacle quite incidental to the business of the thousand-plus runners who will be punishing their bodies running ten kilometres past the visitor attractions of our coastal market town and heritage port. They are doing charitable works. The fastest will complete the course in half an hour. We are hitting drums and dancing without stopping for three hours, when the last stragglers make it to the finish having walked and sweated their way round the course. I am in awe of people who are prepared to undertake such exertions. In previous years we have been more at risk from heat exhaustion or wind erosion than deliquescence. We Brits love our weather and if we don't always feel the love, we learn to tolerate it. I am not convinced that our Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish performers feel the same.
I have referred in a previous post to our mercurial dancers. I never know who is coming and every time we perform people I have never before seen appear amongst the troupe. Today they do not disappoint. Several of them have travelled some hundred miles or more to be with us. Most of them have been at a party till gone 4am and they decided to come straight over. This means they have actually been here in town since about 6am. Two people I was expecting have apparently hit the caipirinha so hard they are in a state of collapse on another coast that hundred miles away. The ones that spill and bubble along the street towards where I have decided we are playing today look amazing. Feathers, beads and the amount of flesh on display exceed all previous records. Once again it won't matter a damn how well or poorly the band plays; no one will be paying attention ... or so I think.
The arrangement with the race organiser has always been for us to play for a while in the market square where runners, well-wishers and spectators mingle. This year more music has been booked, so there will be a choice of acts for us to drown out. Fifteen minutes before the race we are expected to make our way to a bandstand platform on the quayside where we normally remain until the last runner returns. The rain is still pouring out of the sky like a bucket being emptied and I am worried about my instruments and the costumes. I realise that birds are built to withstand a certain amount of precipitation, but I am not so sure about the dyes used in the feathers or the beads and minimal fabrics to which they are attached. Shrinkage is not an option one could decently contemplate. Fortunately one of our musicians has been restoring and has recently moved into a listed property on the route very close to the start and finish line. Her house is adjacent to a brickwork archway leading into the yard of what was, many decades ago, a foundry. It will provide us with a perfect base for performance offering shelter, nearness to a source of refreshment and an acoustic reinforcement for the modest sound produced by our shrinking number of players. It also has the advantage of allowing us to be audible from both sound stages where we are expected to play AND, apart from our musician, no one else lives close enough to be bothered by the sound. The only other buildings are occupied by estate agencies, solicitors' offices and the local council, none of whom are likely to be bothered much by us on a Sunday morning. I don't know why we didn't do this years ago. I think this will be our spot for this gig from now on.
As we assemble I begin a drum groove. It surprises me that so many people fail to recognise that what we do is samba. I've lost count of the number of times we have received booking enquiries for "the steel band". My drumming is soon locked into by others in the band. The exhaustion of all night revelry is shrugged off as feathers and beads begin to sway and rotate. I give the whistle call for one of our more moderately paced rhythms and we're off. The groove of this trance rhythm from Bahia is infectious. The band sounds great. I encourage the dancers to push through the band to where they can more easily be seen. They form a nine-strong line in front of us. After we've been going for a while one of the women surprises me by dancing out on to the pavement and into the rain and that sets the tone for the rest of the performance. They are everything an exotic dance group should be, smooth, slinky, overwhelmingly charming with the adults amongst them appropriately (or inappropriately?) sexy. Everyone is smiling and I know once again precisely why I put myself through the anxiety of doing these events.
As we play, spectators smile and sway as they cheer on the runners. It is interesting to watch the response of the runners. It is on the return that the biggest differences are noticeable. The leaders are clearly very dedicated to their own performances and are not obviously distracted by our presence. As the later arrivals approach us many respond by running in time or breaking into dancing, skipping, leaping or twisting steps, they applaud us as they run by and they smile. Not surprisingly a number of people, mostly men of course, are distracted enough by the dancers to risk breaking their own flow. At least one man turns his head and runs without looking where he is going with near calamitous results amongst the pack. One disdainful spectator manages also to look appalled and disgusted as he walks by on the pavement ... several times.
When everything is over, many people take the trouble to come back to our spot and thank us for the cheer we brought to the event. As it happens the weather has deterred all the other expected musical interruptions. There was no acoustic guitar music in the square, no string quartet in the park. I don't know whether the amazing sax man turned up to play outside Argos as he told me last night he would be doing. The organiser is fulsome in his appreciation of our performance. We have done a good job and I am proud of everyone in the group. I make sure I speak to them all to thank them.
Two days later I receive an e-mail from the organiser. He has received A Complaint From a Member of The Public. The organiser passed the message on to me because he thought it was funny. I read the message and feel rather sad. I thought it was going to be the usual complaint about the decadence of our dancers. We don't perform to upset people deliberately. I put myself in the Mr Angry's situation and have some sympathy although I do wonder why anyone who does not like the effects of annual festivals, fairs, races and special commemorative celebrations would buy property in a place subject to road closures, diversions and the inconvenience of regular and frequent celebratory ambient sound. Mr Angry had been forced to "accept grudgingly" that the road closures had trapped him in his house for four hours. Far worse than that though was that he had "been subjected to an incessant racket from that Samba band in *** St." Having believed for years that no one paid attention to the "steel band" music when the dancers were around I have to admit I am rather pleased that someone not only heard the music, but recognised it as samba. 2-0, I think.