Batalá HEY! (My Life in Red, Black & White)

Some background on Ellen Rice’s project on Batalá Washington

Ellen’s project explores the world of Batalá, an Afro-Brazilian percussion band with members around the world. Batalá began in 1997 when Brazilian musician Giba Gonçalves had the idea for the group while he was living in Paris. Gonçalves had first visited Europe while touring with popular Samba-Reggae bands such as Olodum and Ilê Aiyê from his home city of Salvador, Bahia. When he decided to stay, the lack of community outlets and ‘saudades’ for his home prompted him to create his own Samba-Reggae band in Paris and teach people to play.  Not seeking to remain in strict control of the band but rather to allow it to grow organically, Gonçalves allowed band members to start new groups in various cities as they moved and interest increased. It has since spread to include bands in 15 countries and on 4 continents. Ellen’s work for this project focused on Batalá Washington, one of the newest groups (formed in 2007) and one of two all-female Batalá bands.

Since the organization and music of Batalá are so charismatic, many people are interested in it.  One of the challenges Ellen encountered was that the band has already been documented thoroughly both in the U.S. and abroad. This was an asset because it was helpful to be able to watch mini-documentaries, interviews, performance footage and photo montages of bands from around the world.  It also made it difficult to find a new angle to pursue with her research that had not already been covered.  In the end (partially facilitated by lucky timing), Ellen decided she would point the lens inside, focusing her ethnography by becoming a member of Batalá Washington herself, and exploring the culture of the band from the inside.

Many of the fascinating things about Batalá, and Batalá Washington in particular, are really experiential: the music, the costumes, the feeling in your gut when the interlocking polyrhythms suddenly line up and stop at a cadence, the feeling of camaraderie, the power and energy you get as part of a group of 80 fierce women drumming in synch with one another.  There is really no substitute for the experience, yet as an ethnographer, part of Ellen’s job is to explain that experience to those who can’t have it but still want to understand and appreciate it.  She hopes that her work here brings someone to better know and appreciate Batalá!

There are two podcasts that go along with Ellen’s project, found below:

“The Batalá Experience”

“A Day in the Life”

How the project changed over the semester

Ellen first found out about Batalá because of her love of Brazilian music and culture.  In July 2008-09 she spent a year living in Recife, Brazil as a Rotary Youth Exchange student and her passion for the area has continued ever since.  She was already familiar with Samba-Reggae as a fan of the Salvador-based band Olodum, so she was immediately drawn to the rhythms of Batalá.

Initially, she was interested in exploring the micro and macro cultures of the band, starting on the local level with what she would experience as a participant.  This proved to be the core of her project as she learned more about what motivates people to join and stay in Batalá, what it offers them, and the role the band plays in the local community.  While she did learn a little about the international community based on what D.C. batalettes told her about their international travel experiences, she wishes she could have had more direct contact with other bands, or with Giba Gonçalves.  Unfortunately this part of the project did not take shape the way she imagined. Ellen also encountered initial difficulties with obtaining permission to record the band, which changed the form of her first podcast. Understandably, Batalá needs to keep people from pirating its music, which is all composed by Giba Gonçalves and is consistent for all the bands.  After she had fulfilled the membership requirements for attendance of rehearsals and performances, Ellen was given the go-ahead to record rehearsals and performances. Still, she wishes she had had more time to record audio, video and take photos.  As she learned, being a batalette is a large time commitment and it is easy to forget about whatever else you were doing once you pick up a drum. It’s the kind of hobby that can consume your entire life, but once it does, you’re not likely to regret it.  Perhaps Batalá is not a hobby at all, perhaps it is a way of life…


Ellen is indebted to so many wonderful women who have helped make this project a reality and ushered her on her path to becoming a new band member.  Without every person who welcomed her as a sister, offered her a ride, taught her how to strap on a drum or play a song and especially those who have become her friends and shared their stories with her, this project would not have been possible.  Women of Batalá Washington — thank you so much!  Special thanks to Paula for letting Ellen interview her, to Alison for giving Ellen permission to record the band and to all the ladies of the newcomers team for initiating me into the Batalá fold. Batalá HEY!

Ellen received oral permission to record the materials posted here for academic purposes, including the interview which appears as part of the podcast “The Batalá Experience” and the sound recording of a Batalá performance used in the podcast “A Day in the Life.”


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