The Sambistas: listen and learn

Andrea Hendrickson

The Sambistas, an extension of LUPE, is a performance ensemble that has been highly visible on campus this year. They have contributed to Celebrate!, Cabaret, and can be found practicing in the amphitheater on clear Friday afternoons. Dane Richeson, director of the group, calls samba “powerful feel-good music,” and emphasizes that above all, it’s about community.Richeson joined the Conservatory faculty in the fall 1984 as the percussion professor, and began the Sambistas the very same year. In recalling the first performance he reminisces about marching up the side isles of the Chapel to the stage, where the group jammed with Bobby McFerrin, improvised, and ended with a big number.

Richeson admits that there is “a little bit of selfishness involved” in teaching students Brazilian music. He remarks that everyone has a style of music that moves them. The kind of music “that you can listen to year after year and never get tired of.” For Richeson, Brazilian and West African music (from which Brazilian music is derived) fit that description.

Beyond spending 3 months on sabbatical in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he has also studied off and on with sambistas in the United States for the past 25 years, “watching and learning.” In an oral tradition, watching and listening is the only way to learn.

Percussionist Graham Thorbrogger concedes, “It takes a while to get used to the grooves.” His colleague Josh Musikantow agrees, saying “We don’t know what [Richeson] is going to do. We just have to listen and go with what he gives us.” This can apparently be random. Creative singing and chanting is a part of the expression of the music. According to Thorbrogger and Musikantow, once when a prospective student entered rehearsal, Richeson asked his name and had the group chant it.

Another creative aspect of the Sambistas is their wardrobe. People constantly inquire about the group’s penchant for dressing in drag. Richeson calls it “carnie dress” from the Carnival celebration in Brazil, where many people wear only body paint. Dressing festively is, to Richeson, about “self-expression” and “celebrating life.”

What many people on campus do not know is that the Sambistas are a celebration open to anyone on campus. Richeson emphasizes that focus and dedication is important, but if someone really wants to learn the music they ought to search him out and attend rehearsals. In fact, Richeson even extended an invitation of sorts to President Warch, who has been asked to compose lyrics to a fight song for the Sambistas, which Richeson is expecting any time.

The Sambistas have participated in some excellent experiences in the past. They were selected to perform for the Wisconsin Music Educators Association on three different occasions, invited to the Percussive Arts Society National Convention in Phoenix, AZ, appeared at the Isthmus Jazz Festival in Madison where their performance was filmed and used in a documentary for the Bravo Channel, and, of course, performances at Celebrate! and Cabaret, for which they have performed since the group’s formation 17 years ago. Richeson is hoping to cut a CD in the near future to complement this long list of achievements. Due to their enthusiasm and involvement, the Sambistas can easily be credited as one of the most popular groups on campus.