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Photograph by Marsha Quackenbush
Carnies: SambaDá's Carnivalesque vibe is a co-creation of (left to right) Will Kahn, Gary Kehoe, Anne Stafford, Dandha Da Hora, Papiba Godinho, Marcel Menard and Kevin Dorn.

A Brazilian Thing

SambaDá marks a decade of making Santa Cruz think it can dance the samba.

By Garrett Wheeler

Wandering lost through the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains on a recent baking afternoon, I reach a junction of several dirt driveways, each looking as strangely untraveled as the next. It's no surprise that a Brazilian-fusion group would be wary of neighbors and their potential noise complaints, but SambaDá's practice location is beyond out of the way--it's downright remote. With an ear to the wind, I catch a wisp of sound, a faint taaah-tah-tah-taaah-tah-tah above the silence, and like a percussive beacon of light, the way to SambaDá is made clear.

Making my way down the overgrown path, I cross a small wooden bridge before entering a clearing dominated by an enormous Victorian house. The dilapidated two-story building sags from years of apparent neglect, old paint peeling from its walls. A bizarre sight, indeed, even by Santa Cruz standards. There, I'm greeted by drummer Will Kahn, who informs me the band is gearing up for a three-day, five-show stint in San Francisco, where it will perform an array of Carnival-inspired numbers. For any band affiliated with Brazilian music, "high energy" is part of the job description, but five shows in three days? "It's going to be crazy," Kahn laughs, "but it should be fun."

Once inside, Kahn takes his place behind a massive hand-drum, rejoining his band mates as they play through the remainder of an up-tempo samba number. Lead singer Dandha Da Hora is dressed in all white as she guides the group with her commanding vocals. SambaDá founder Papiba Godinho strums his guitar and sings backup. Kahn and two other drummers, Gary Kehoe and Marcel Menard, lay down a powerfully intricate foundation of percussion. Kevin Dorn adds a funky bass line to the groove, while Anne Stafford's saxophone shimmers across a jazz-tinged scale. Nobody is without a smile. The song is festive and rhythmic, and I quickly find myself toe-tapping to the beat, entranced by the voluminous output of melody. As the group works up to the song's final climactic segment, it becomes clear that SambaDá is a band that, above all else, simply loves playing music. After the song ends (it's tough to rouse an encore by yourself), we head to the shady recesses of the back porch, where I ask the band about its upcoming 10-year anniversary show at Moe's Alley, and what it means to headline back-to-back nights a decade after starting out. Responses vary, but one theme runs through all of them: community. "We have a good relationship with the Santa Cruz community," says guitarist and vocalist Papiba Godinho. "We love and respect our community. We love to play here." And of course, the Santa Cruz community loves to hear SambaDá play.

Making It Happen
Ten years ago, Godinho began playing solo shows in and around Santa Cruz, fueled, oddly enough, by the economic principal of supply and demand. "There were a lot of [Brazilian] dance classes happening, and capoeria, but there wasn't much music, so I started playing solo shows by myself and with drummers," says Godinho. Nearly instantaneously, support from audiences was strong. "Our first gig was packed," he recalls.

The band, then called Papiba and Friends, began booking gigs at various small venues around Santa Cruz. The lineup often included Marcel Menard, now an integral member of SambaDá, on drums. Menard remembers his first time playing with Papiba and friends.

"Papiba had a little Fender amp, with his guitar and his vocal mic plugged through it. We had a bunch of drums, and it was just so rootsy--the place went wild." After landing a steady gig at Costa Brava, and later Rosie McCann's, the group began to expand to include bassist Kevin Dorn and drummer Gary Kehoe. By August 1998, Papiba and Friends had become a full band with electric instruments and three drummers (all seven current members can and do play percussion). Enter SambaDá.

The name SambaDá is derived from the word "samba," the popular form of music native to Brazil, combined with both the Spanish verb "to give" and a Portuguese expression that loosely translates to "work" or "make happen." So, added to Samba, SambaDá literally means "samba gives," or "samba makes it happen." Either way, the central theme is dance. At any given SambaDá show, you'd be hard pressed to find somebody not dancing.

Says Kahn of his first appearance with the group: "I was replacing Gary because he had a show with his other band. When we were getting set up, Papiba started tuning his drum, and already, there were like 30 people dancing, and I remember thinking, 'These guys are so fucking spoiled.' In my other band, we'd have to play for a half hour just to get that first person on the dance floor. There was just that support around this band right away--it was really unique and beautiful." Call it magic, spirit or just damn good music, there's no denying the uncanny ability of SambaDá to get people moving to the groove.

Perhaps it was the magic that enticed Dandha Da Hora to join the group in early 2004. Da Hora, a native of Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil was a longtime dancer with Brazil's Ilê Aiyê. She first caught a glimpse of SambaDá during a concert at the Catalyst and instantly, the band's sound struck a chord with her, Da Hora says. "When I saw them, I said, 'Wow, that is huge.' I felt like I was home."

Though her interest in the band was immediate, it wasn't until a chance meeting with Menard and a subsequent invitation to sit in with the band that Da Hora actually began singing with SambaDá. "I was afraid at first to sing with the guitar and bass," she says. "My whole life I heard mostly percussion, but this was different--it was challenging. I had to work to really shine." The other members of the band are more outspoken about her talent. "She's naturally a very musical person," Godinho says. The addition of Da Hora completed the group's transition from local one-man-band to pre-eminent Brazilian music troop, diversifying SambaDá's repertoire to include the Afro-Brazilian sound, a style often missing in traditional samba renditions. "When Dandha joined the group, [the music] became this really cool fusion of the more European-based samba from Rio de Janeiro that we had already been doing and the African-influenced sound, which is a really strong force in Brazil," says Kahn.

Along with Da Hora's contributions, SambaDá's diverse musical tapestry is woven from an assortment of artistic backgrounds, including saxophonist Anne Stafford's jazz influence. Stafford, who trained under the late trumpet player Frederick J. Coleman, studied jazz and ethnomusicology at UCSC and Cabrillo before lending her craft to SambaDá. With such an array of influences, the group delves into an endless variety of styles and tones. When asked to name a few leading role models, the members list wildly diverse influences like Bob Marley, James Brown, Ozomatli and Sergio Mendez, as well as a handful of groups less known to American listeners, such as Caleños Brown, Yerba Buena and Leniñe.

The band's eclecticism, both in culture and time-period, is certainly present on its newest LP, 2007's Salve a Bahia. The group's first album to be recorded with three-time Grammy-nominated producer Greg Landau, Salve A Bahia represents the latest incarnation of SambaDá's approach to Brazilian fusion.

"It's the next step for us musically," says Kahn of the 12-song disc. "Greg really pushed us to develop our sound and take it to a new place." The move to record with Landau proved fruitful, as Salve a Bahia showcases the band's ability to churn out well-polished material capable of attracting mainstream audiences. Together with a newfound approach to songwriting and producing, SambaDá seems ready to launch itself into a bright future.

Feeling the Joy
Though Brazilian music is not a top-selling genre in the United States (actually, Menard contends it's one of the worst), the growing interest in the recently coined Latin Alternative category indeed lends hope to SambaDá's commercial viability. "It's one thing for someone to put their album on iTunes, but it's another thing to sell it," Menard says. "For us, commercial success isn't getting a record deal and then we've made it--it's really about maintaining our creative integrity while still getting back our share."

Clearly, selling albums is less of a concern for SambaDá than growing as musicians, a point reiterated by the group after I ask what exactly success means to them. "In 10 years, we have experienced so many possibilities," Menard says. "We're really living a dream that a lot of musicians aspire to. To able to expand on our energy and our vibe--that would be success."

Anne Stafford mentions another important role for SambaDá: speaking up. "One thing that's always fueled us and will hopefully carry on is what we're trying to say with our music. It seems like now more than ever a lot of things need to be said about the direction of the planet, and finding new ways of bringing people together despite our differences."

Along with the group's vision of uniting communities in Santa Cruz and beyond, the members of SambaDá are well aware that the scope of their craft depends most on the breadth of their music. Says Godinho, "I would feel successful if our music could spread and be heard more. To make people feel the same joy that our songs bring me, and open people's minds to certain fundamental feelings of love and togetherness, that would be success."

SAMBADA plays Friday and Saturday, May 30-31, at 9:30pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $12 adv/$15 door;; 831.479.1854.

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