Carolina Freitas came to D.C. from Rio de Janeiro in 1996. She was 21, studying English in an immersion program. Most of all, she was bored and lonely.
“I missed the beach, and I missed always going out and being social,” Freitas said. “I found it very difficult for people to have a social life here.”
That sense of displacement lasted more than a decade. Freitas came across a Facebook post from a Brazilian woman looking for talent to join her band. She attended a meeting about the group and left confident that she had filled a void in her life.
That filler was Batala Washington.
Batala (pronounced Bah-tauh-lah) is an international all-women’s percussion band that started a D.C. chapter in June 2007. The group plays Afro-Brazilian / Samba-Reggae rhythms.
All Batala hopefuls have to attend an orientation before joining the band. They must also attend seven practices, one workshop per month, and one show per month. The band also plays over 40 songs, but and about 90% of the band didn’t know how to play a drum prior to joining.
Freitas enjoys the band because it keeps her active and social which are two things she misses about home in Rio. Freitas studied ballet back home, and several of her friends played soccer and volleyball. She also lived near the beach. “I was always running and active and there was always something to do in Rio,” said Freitas. Delving deeper into life back in Brazil, Frietas says that “people back home are very warm, welcoming and fun-oriented.” In comparison to all the other places that she has visited around the world, Freitas promises that Rio is the most beautiful. “There is an amazing contrast of nature and urban. You see beautiful beaches, the mountains and there are rainforests in the city and it’s surreal.” Freitas promises that visitors don’t even realize that they are in a major city as a result of that contrast. Brazil is also the largest country in South America, and it is the only country on the continent where Portuguese is the official language.
Brandi Stevenson, 34, is a Hampton University graduate who will be celebrating two years with the band in July. “I heard them playing near the Farragut North Metro Station,” Stevenson said. Stevenson also remembers seeing a banner with the band’s website. “I went home and looked them up, and I joined shortly after.”
Stevenson gave more insight on the band’s Brazilian facets. “Our founder’s name is Giba GonÃ§alves who is from Salvador, Bahia in Brazil, and 15 years ago while he was living in Paris he started the band…He had a vision to share Bahia music with the world.” Bahia is an impoverished area in Brazil, and Stevenson says that all of their costumes and materials are made in Brazil which adds to the band’s authenticity. Most importantly, “it’s our way of giving back.”
Freitas likes to think that she and the other four Brazilian women in the band of 80 women are having a necessary and cultural difference in the band’s structure. “I have started the Portuguese lesson of the week where I may teach them a word or a couple of words in Portuguese.”
The band’s musical director Allison Rodden has referenced Freitas on several occasions to show the other women how they should dance. Frietas is also on the chorographer’s team which naturally works because “we have the rhythm in our blood,” says Freitas.
On April 16, the band played at American University’s Take Back the Night event sponsored by the Student Council which was a march against sexual violence against women. The bands lead the march. Sitting outside in AU’s Greek inspired amphitheater I was handed a miniature green tambourine by a bright face girl with an alarming voice who said “make sure you have a noise maker. We want to be as loud as possible!” There were many students in student council hoodies that were passing out noise makers and chatting amongst each other. With so much energy in their hearts, you wouldn’t have known that the temperature was below 50°C. Just then a boom sounded from a distance and what looked like 15 women or so had lined up by the entrance steps of the amphitheater.
They began to march down with illuminating smiles on their faces. They shuffled side by side taking small steps proceeding to the stage. In between drumbeats noise makers rattled. Over 30 women ended up on stage. The band was equipped with several types of drums of many different sizes. Their drums and their costumes were splattered with red, white, and black designs. They wore long pants, t-shirts, and most of them had bows tied around their necks. They played a song or two with Allison leading all the arrangements. She then turned around and introduced the band, and with a commanding yet welcoming tone she invited everyone to join the party. At that, students rushed to the stage competing for the small standing area that lay between the front of the stage and the amphitheater seats. The energy of the crowd and the band mirrored that of a rock concerts. After 15 minutes of nonstop dancing and drumming, Batala begin the exit the stage. As if it were on cue, the students lined up behind them, and for another hour or so a parade took place all throughout campus and the surrounding community with drums beating and students shouting “1, 2, 3, 4 we won’t take it anymore. 5, 6, 7, 8, no more violence, no more hate” to help onlookers understand their anti-sexual violence agenda.
Freitas played at this event, but her favorite show was last year’s Puerto Rican parade in New York. “It was a challenge because it was a long parade. My friends couldn’t believe that I danced so long.” Freitas also remembers being ridiculously hot to the point that the used her drinking water to pour over head and body. Freitas says that the “the vibe and energy was so amazing.” Freitas remembers hearing people scream. People even came out of the crowds to dance with the band in the street.
Freitas teaches at Walter Johnson High School and has shown her students and co-workers her performances with Batala. Freitas says the response is positive. “It’s important for them [students] to see me do something active, something healthy, something different,” Freitas says.