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Strictly samba

Lorraine Bowen tuned into rhythm while on holiday in Cuba - now she runs a junior school samba band

Poke your head around the door to find out what the cacophony is all about, and you'll see 25 children, focused, concentrating, looking ahead, not fidgeting... It's the school samba band.

Our junior school samba band has performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, played with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms Out and About 2004 and reached the finals of the South East regional heats of Music for Youth 2005, organised by the Associated Board of Music. Always on tap for the summer fete, school carnival and Christmas play, the band never fails to rouse a massive cheer -Jand even dancing - among the audience. A samba band is a bonus to any school.

But let's make this clear - I'm not a percussionist. I never meant to start a samba band, it just kind of happened. I'd always had a secret passion to learn percussion. While on a holiday in Cuba I was the unlucky tourist volunteer who had to play the clave along with the band and felt ridiculed when I couldn't keep the pattern going - in spite of my music degree.

Sometimes, anger with one's inability (and education) is the best way to get motivated, so I signed up at my local college for evening classes in Latin percussion.

Success... after a year, I could easily stamp my feet, play a cowbell and sing at the same time. One day, while practising at school in break-time, a pupil asked me what I was doing and if she could have a go. With only three minutes left before class, I showed her the bell pattern and she caught on really quickly. Next day she and her brother came to show me they could both do it.

Their enthusiasm from the quick sense of achievement spurred me on. I started slotting a few samba rhythm exercises into my normal five-minute warm-up routine for Year 5s. First clapping, then sticks (I call them rhythm sticks, cut from thick pieces of doweling). We progressed to shoeboxes. We didn't have drums then - but, hey, many great drummers started on boxes.

For samba you need a steady "clock" ticking away in the back of the brain.

You don't learn it, you live and feel it - physically. I initiated some class disco dancing (in rows). Stamping feet, arms in the air, fingers pointing -anything to get some physicality into the beat. It was fun. The children were slowly getting "in time" and "in tune" with each other. Maybe a daily dose of "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge wouldn't go amiss in the national curriculum.

Breaking down the samba rhythms into easy speech patterns was another success. Say these phrases with a swing as you beat four. "Would you like a cup of tea" suits the agogo bell. "We are the champions (rest) O K!" was used for the tambourine part. I put masking tape on our old tambourine bells to get the effect. Shakers shook themselves up and down in a co-ordinated dance and the drums played "one, two, three alligator". I found that, while concentrating so hard on their rhythms, the children stopped chatting.

I managed to buy one surdo (the biggest drum - the heartbeat of samba) and a whistle to conduct the band. Joy for a bossy music teacher. Discipline was easy, as the children couldn't compete. After a while I applied for funding from the music service and was delighted to be able to buy some portable hand drums, five agogo bells, plastic shakers, and two portable "snares" called Caixia (pronounced "casha").

The band was rocking. But, after two years of playing the same patterns, I needed help. The headteacher paid for my evening class tutor to come to the school for four sessions. He incorporated a second pattern, which switched nicely with a simple sign of the hand; the band had a new beat and we could do instant arrangements.

When an advertisement was sent to the school to buy tickets for a samba festival, I emailed the organisation to ask if we could be in it. Our first gig was at the South Bank, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We looked good on stage: we had sparkle and we could smile.

The BBC were looking round for a few groups and found us by word of mouth.

We had the fabulous chance of wearing BBC t-shirts and seeing ourselves on big screens at the Hackney Empire. It was an exciting challenge to be playing alongside the BBC orchestra and at times had to tone down so they could be heard.

I soon realised that if we were to progress to the next stage a specialist samba leader was needed. The music service has now bought us a collection of professional instruments and employed the evening-class tutor for a weekly after-school scheme. I now act as co-ordinator and sometimes help in the agogo section. Viva samba ecolese - long live the school samba band!

For courses and classes, visit your local FE college or adult evening classes, or go to


Lorraine Bowen is a singerperformer and teaches part-time at London Fields School in Hackney. She also appears features in Mick Jackson's new book Ten Sorry Tales (Faber)

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