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Chicago Fun Times: gotta samba!



Lorene Vilela grew up dancing, singing, and drumming the samba--both in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and at one of the samba schools where thousands rehearse year-round for Brazil's famous Carnaval. Since marrying an American rock musician and moving to the United States nine years ago, Vilela has made a career of promoting the Afro-Brazilian rhythm. But though she was codirector of the Chicago Samba School and a performer in the band Da Cor do Samba, she didn't discover the music's true magic until one evening last September in Wicker Park, of all places.

Looking out her window at the crowd assembled for last year's Around the Coyote art festival, Vilela decided to call together her fellow band members. By nine that night Da Cor do Samba's six drummers and two guitarists had formed a circle on the sidewalk at the intersection of Milwaukee, Damen, and North avenues.

The band, which plays a version of samba known as pagode, figured to do a set, have some fun, then go home. Fat chance. Motorists stopped their cars, neighbors leaned out windows, and onlookers cheered while the band drummed into the night. Around two in the morning the police showed up with paddy wagons and threatened to arrest everyone. As the music came to a stop, some 200 people booed.

The 30-year-old Brazilian had never seen anything quite like it. Not that she hasn't seen any samba-induced marathons (Rio's carnival parade runs from afternoon until sunrise for two days). But what surprised Vilela was the music's effect on unwitting Chicagoans experiencing samba for the first time. "The people didn't know the traditional samba steps," she said. "They did their own dance, feeling the beat of the drums, moving to the rhythm and saying 'One more, one more.'"

The scene was much like those brought on by drumming jam sessions that erupt throughout Brazil on weekend nights and Sunday afternoons. A crowd gathers outside a neighborhood bar where musicians play different patterns, called batucada, on a variety of drums. Nobody gets paid to perform a batucada. "It's just something people really like to do," says Vilela. "They do it with their hearts." The exercise keeps Brazilians permanently primed for their annual pre-Lenten festival.

Da Cor do Samba (Portuguese for Heart of Samba) takes to the stage in Grant Park and to the streets of the near northwest side again this Saturday, this time accompanied by the ornately costumed dancers from Vilela's Chicago Samba School. The two groups will perform at the Viva! Chicago festival in Grant Park and later that night at HotHouse in Wicker Park, where the Around the Coyote festival will again be in full swing. In addition, the band regularly performs one Saturday night a month at HotHouse, often ending the show by leading a procession out the door.

When she moved here four years ago, Vilela missed the dynamic music that flowers on the streets of Brazil as well as contact with compatriots. Chicago's Brazilian population numbers less than 10,000, and unlike immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Brazilians tend to be well dispersed throughout the area.

About a year and a half ago, Vilela met Ze Moacyr, another Brazilian musician, and the pair founded the band and samba school. They hoped to give the Brazilian community a focal point--a local samba school folded years ago--and Chicagoans a taste of carnival culture.

Samba schools--there are at least a dozen in American cities nationwide--are a way of life in the South American country of 135 million. Often underwritten by carnival sponsors, the schools operate in gymnasiums where rehearsals take place two nights a week for ten months. "People starving in hillside slums on $60 a month wages save up to buy expensive costumes they wear for dancing one night a year," Vilela said, noting the tradition may seem inexplicable to Americans. "It's just something in our blood."

Last April Vilela approached the Mayor's Office of Special Events and landed a gig at Viva! Chicago, the last of the summer's free Grant Park music festivals. The fourth annual Latino-oriented program, to be held this weekend, will present 12 acts representing six countries.

Viva! Chicago has evolved differently than the blues, gospel, and jazz festivals, which are broadcast live by WBEZ and carried nationwide on National Public Radio. Public radio also used to point its microphones at Viva! Chicago performers, but stopped after the second year. Former WBEZ program director Ken Davis says, "By then it was pretty much owned by Channel 44. They dictated how it ran mechanically and also exerted great control of the acts."

This year Channel 44 donated $45,000--about one third of the festival's corporate funding--and claims to have kicked in a promotional/advertising package worth $200,000. Channel 44 will air 14 one-hour Viva! Chicago specials. Moreover the station reserves one time slot each day for a children's talent show; the performers were winners of a year-round competition on Brechita 44, a program the channel is trying to syndicate nationally.

In addition, the Spanish network Telemundo films the entire festival, and produces a two-hour program that appears on 39 stations nationwide, including twice--on October 4 and December 26--on its Chicago affiliate Channel 44.

Evidently such exposure has its price. Festival coordinator Enrique Munoz recently received a suggestion that pointed out that production costs could be saved by having performers lip sync the songs. Munoz refused: "I told Channel 44 management this festival is for the people, not for TV."

Vilela couldn't imagine pretending to sing in front of a live audience, but she is delighted with the TV exposure. Da Cor do Samba will play 25 minutes, and then five dancers from the samba school will join them onstage for 25 more minutes.

The stage directions suggest that performers exit through the bowels of the band shell. The Brazilians, of course, have another idea. They intend to dance, sing, and drum their way down the stairs to merge with the crowd. Vilela, who'll be the one in the butterfly costume, says, "An electric band couldn't do that but since we have the advantage of being an acoustic band, we can get closer to the people. We want to break the barrier between the stage and the people and share that feeling of everyone becoming one."

Da Cor do Samba is scheduled for 4:10 PM on Saturday at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park. Admission is free; call 744-3315. Later, at 10, they'll perform at HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee. There's a $6 cover; call 235-2334 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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