For the third in broadcaster and journalist Emma Warren‘s regular column on listening, she travels to São Paulo, Brazil and brings the story of the incredible deaf drummers of Som da Pele.
Our ears provide only one route to listening. That’s how it seems, watching the deaf drummers of Som da Pele playing on a street corner in downtown São Paulo, Brazil. The percussionists are led by teacher and musical supremo Irton ‘Batman’ Silva and are guided by a long panel of lights sat between the monitors, which flash to the beat and indicate volume through colour.
Karina, 31, plays the heavy-sounding alfaia drum and has been with Batman’s band for seven years. She hears the music in her arms, she says, signing the feeling of vibrations running up her forearm. “I always feel the other groups when we’re playing at carnival. I love playing and I love to feel this sensation,” she signs, explaining that she starts to feel the music in her feet, and then upwards through her body as the sound gathers momentum.
“Before joining us she was in a choir for deaf people,” says Batman who taught himself sign language to better communicate with his students. “She saw hearing people teaching music and she found it very difficult to understand what was happening. Now she understands music in a deaf way.”
Karina nods emphatically. “When people sing, I don’t feel it. When people play drums, I feel it.”
The distinction between the two musical forms became crystal clear later. The drummers, sat at the back of the minivan are lively and engaged when the conversation is percussive, banging out beats on the bus or playing the drums they’ve got piled up on the back seat. They go uniformly quiet when the hearing passengers strike up a singalong to Jorge Ben Jor’s gorgeous ‘Zumbi‘. It’s like someone’s put a stopper in their bottle.
Som da Pele are trying to liberate creativity, in the most inclusive way possible. “We try and show that playing music can be beneficial to all kinds of people; be they able to listen or deaf, or blind,” says Batman. “Music can act as nutrition. By playing music we exercise our memory, thinking, concentration, perception and motor co-ordination – all of which is fundamental for the development of each person.”
“People don’t think that deaf people can be that intelligent and I show with my drummers that this is not true. We show a new perspective for the relationship between the deaf community and the hearing community. I want to stop this division. My dream is that deaf people and hearing people living together with love and harmony and music.”
Even hearing people need visual props when it comes to the incredibly nuanced racket of a samba bateria. Carnival-famous outfit Monobloco are rehearsing in the Estúdio nightclub, Pinheiros, where the bar sells cachaça and where friends and family hang around the edges to watch the band go through their moves. The thirty-plus players are lined up according to their instrument as they would be at carnival: shakers at the front, followed by whip-fast tamborim players, then the alfaia players with their drums jutting out like hip-trays, and the tallest and strongest players at the back banging out heartbeats on their Daddy Bear surdo drums.
At the front of the bateria is the band leader, confusingly also called the bateria. He’s flashing hand signals to the band to indicate now and next, counting in breaks and grooves, indicating changes in intensity or focus with bespoke musical sign language. This is required not just because of the volume generated by all these incredible drummers, but because of the complexity, with everyone filling their own part of the patchwork that makes the whole sound. Light travels faster than sound and these hearing musicians need their instructions speedily and accurately, so they arrive with all the musicians at precisely the same time. They need sign language too.
Back with Batman and his students, the conversation has moved from drums to bass. How do the deaf musicians feel about basslines? The happy faces, rapid signing and exuberant body language answer in the affirmative: they love it. Batman started playing the Afro-Brazilian spiritual sounds of Maracatu when he was ten years old and moved over to bass at 17. It’s the next instrument he’s planning on teaching to his students.
The shift is partly inspired by one young musician, Gabriel. Batman explains that Gabriel’s jam is heavy metal, a point conveyed back to Gabriel in sign language and replied to by him by raising the universal metal hand-signal.
“His dad used to put his hands on the speaker so he could to feel the music. When he joined our group, he started by getting to understand the beats, then he asked me to teach him guitar. I’m working on this now, creating a new band to make metal.”
A translation follows, and then more universal metal hand signals from Gabriel and friends.
“We’d love to make a movie to tell his story,” says Batman with a smile. “We already have the name of the movie: Gabriel Wanna Play Guitar.”