July 10, 2002

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Bat Makumba
June 4, Elbo Room

Two days after Brazil's first World Cup soccer game, the Mission is hopping. A good Brazilian band is always sure to draw curious, if not dedicated, dancers. Having arrived early to an empty house, we breathe a little sigh of relief to see people start to pour in at about a quarter to 11. Soon we can barely move.

It's good to come back to San Francisco from overseas and see it still holding its own as a place with a good Brazilian scene. We heard about Bat Makumba and decided to go see them. "Bat Makumba" is the title of a song written by MPB (música popular brasileira) icons Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. It's a reference to playing the spiritual or religious drums of the candomblé religion, practiced for 400 years in Brazil, a direct link to West Africa and the Yoruban civilization.

As DJ Madi plays Latin and Asian electronica, we sit at the tiny table admiring a pink fake-fur bodysuit and a pair of gold lamé pants. Suddenly there is a commotion behind us. Bat Makumba lead singer Alex Koberle and percussionist Emiliano Benevides explode from the back of the room on cordless mic and triangulo, in a typical northeastern embolado-style sing-song chant. (An embolado is a vocal duel; the one who freestyles the best lyrics and demonstrates the most agile tongue wins.) Wading through the crowd, the two join the rest of the band onstage for a percussion-jam intro. The song morphs into an Alceu Valenca standard, and a stomping crowd rushes the dance floor. Riding gleeful waves of synthesized accordion, the music sets a frantic pace with no reprieve in sight for the hipsters who are samba'ing as fast as their hips will go.

The sound is predictably heavy, drum kit fortified by surdos (the big Brazilian bass drums), congas, and timbales. Benevides is a captivating, charismatic force. One of the busiest musicians in the city, he plays at countless dance classes, schools, and camps and also gigs with Nobody from Ipanema, the funk band Ripe, and a string of other projects. The floor is shaking – as it often does in the Elbo Room. The lamentable sound system is stretched just slightly beyond its limits.

For the next couple of hours Koberle and crew put the tenacious dancers through the paces with relentless 6/8 time and aggressive vocals, Koberle's lanky frame twitching with inspiration. Manu Chao's "Desaparecido" acquires some fierce polyrhythms, yet for the most part the originals outdo the covers. A weighty maracatu called "Tropico" fades into the reggae-flavored "Minina," bringing the audience (now dripping with sweat) back to a more sensible level of activity.

We're listening around to see how many people are Brazilian, but no one is speaking in Portuguese. Once again we renew our conviction that Brazilian music is universal. This regular old Tuesday feels like Saturday night of Carnaval. Summer is surging through the Mission in a flurry of drum solos, World Cup fever, and wiggling behinds.

Unlike many other stateside Brazilian bands, who seek the safety of perfectly executed arrangements, Bat Makumba have a hard-edged, raw quality that, if they can keep it, might be the key to their success. Bat Makumba play July 23, 10 p.m., Elbo Room, S.F. Call for price. (415) 552-7788. (Mara Weiss and Nego Beto)