After months of pandemic isolation, many people in South Florida have been looking for an outlet. For some, coming together to bang the drums was what they needed. Since COVID, amateur musicians have been flocking to the Miamibloco association’s Brazilian percussion classes to learn how to play and create a community around samba.
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“We’re a small, community-driven band, it’s really a teaching set, where you don’t need to have any previous experience with Brazilian music or percussion,” said Brian Potts, manager and founder of Miamibloco.
Potts received his doctorate in music from the University of Miami, where he studied with Ney Rosauro, a Brazilian percussionist and composer.
Rosauro inspired Potts to travel to Brazil, where he was blown away by Rio de Janeiro’s blocos – the loud street groups that take over the city during Carnival.
“People who come from all different parts of Rio and from different backgrounds, classes, different races, everything different. Music brings them all together. Samba brings them all together,” Potts said.
Miamibloco started out as a group of professional musician friends playing gigs around town and playing in backyards.
“We would do classes around town in the parks,” Potts said. “And then the world changed. The pandemic has happened. Everything stopped. I realized that I missed it terribly.
Once he felt safe last summer, Miamibloco set the drums back. “We started doing workshops again and it really exploded then,” he said.
Since the pandemic, Potts has worked to refocus the band on teaching and bring together people who had never played drums before.
“[Blocos] are a community-building technology, an old community-building technology that still works to this day and holds that community together,” Potts said. “And frankly, we need it here.”
On a recent Monday night, about 40 drummers flocked to the North Beach Bandshell for a Miamibloco workshop. For some, it was their very first lesson. Others have been coming for months and have made up for it with sips of colada.
“The way we start every Miamibloco rehearsal is to sing and learn the parts vocally first,” Potts told the band.
“So if you’re new here, you’re gonna get ridiculous with us and we’re all gonna have a good time together, okay?” So let’s go. Sing after me,” he told them.
Potts began pumping out samba beats, leading the band in a call and response as they marched to keep time.
“That’s the magic of Miamibloco, to begin with, you know? To be able to dissipate this barrier between who is professional, who is not professional, as long as you really follow the rhythm, right? said SuOm Francis, community outreach artist and social media manager for the group.
Like many, she was a little intimidated when she came to her first workshop. But she says the accessibility of the teaching style and the joy of playing together won her over.
Potts said Francis, who is also his girlfriend, has been a driving force in the group’s expansion and promotion – and in its mission to bring people together around samba.
“We have people who are 70, six, 17 and everything in between,” Francis said. “I focused more on that aspect of building a community and how…you don’t have to be awesome to start with, but you’re important in the group.”
Potts divides players into sections like an orchestra and guides them through the different rhythms of each instrument, as they sing and tap their feet to the beat. He brings one section at a time, layering their voices like a human drum machine.
“So we have surdos here, who are the big boys. We have the lines, which are kind of like the main drum, you’ll see me playing that a lot,” he said. “The caxias here, which are like a snare drum. And then we have here, the tamborim and the ganzá and the agogô. And it’s a lot of our high frequencies that give us part of the melody.
Once the group has a solid idea of the rhythms, they distribute the instruments and train the musicians.
“If you have a caixa, go left. If you have a repique, go right,” he said. “Let’s start with the caixas.”
Potts calls out one section at a time and they start building the groove. The music echoes through the headband and continues down the street, where passing neighbors are drawn in to listen.
For Clara Andrade, playing with Miamibloco brings her home.
“It felt like I was back in Brazil for a little while, like for a few hours,” she said.
Now she shares that feeling with her son Luca. They picked up the tamborim.
Petra Cleary was drawn to Miamibloco by her love of samba dancing. Born in Jamaica, she says she is drawn to the music and dance of the African diaspora.
“What’s important to me is having a better understanding and a broader understanding and embodying that and developing that for myself,” Cleary said. “To be more connected and rooted to this ancestral line and really just to be able to share it.”
Maria Llorca reunited with the group earlier this year, when she felt safe again to participate in in-person events. She has always loved music, but struggled to find classes that weren’t just for kids.
“It’s almost like you learned an instrument out of high school or college or you missed the boat,” she said, “and that shouldn’t be the case.”
After months of isolation and pandemic disruption, Llorca says there is some kind of magic at work together.
“It’s just…it’s joy,” she said. “And being with other people and creating a sound that is impossible to create on your own but only possible through the sounds and the silence between the sounds that a community can create. It’s incredible.
For Potts, Miamibloco isn’t just about samba. It’s about creating a community of people who might never meet otherwise and helping them find their rhythm together.
“Every time after that, the first thing I hear is ‘thank you, I needed it,'” Potts said. “Going back to the pandemic, it’s a great way for me and I think everyone else who’s been involved to come back to it and share that kind of space together again.”
Miamibloco’s last performance of the season will be on Memorial Day at the North Beach Bandshell at 6 p.m. More information about the band and how to get tickets is available here.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the instruments played. It’s a caixa, not a cuica.