By Rob Lester~
We tip our hat to a man who knows and shows that music is the great communicator, the universal language that brings people of different cultures together. And, boy, do we need that understanding now! Music connects us and it truly nurtures us. “If music be the food of love, play on!” Shakespeare first wrote it and it’s true in the labors of love that come through in the music played and shared and felt and passed on with passion by talented guitarist/singer/teacher Michael Walz. He is our NiteLife Person of the Week.
I met him some time ago and was immediately struck by the warmth and gentleness of his soul that come through immediately, whether talking with him about music and life or watching him perform. Youtube is all the evidence you need, for starters!
“Samba de Aviao” by Antonio Carlos Jobim with drummer Léo Bandeira https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwHD93qWX8Q
I happened to reconnect with Michael by chance as I passed by one of New York’s 34,876 Starbucks locations where he was seated by the window and recognized me when he looked up. He waved me in and I was fascinated by his current work with a mentor and master of the samba, percussionist Ivo Araujo who in 1990 founded Manhattan Samba, which has performance and educational arms. And Michael has become HIS “right arm” in a unique and invaluable way, I soon learned—from both of them when we all three met soon after.
Their mutual admiration society is obvious. They complete each other’s sentences and complete each other professionally — Ivo has the history in his body and soul, though something is lost in the translation (not just the language translations from Portuguese to English; it’s more complicated and more subtle). The revered Mr. Araujo feels the music and just DOES it—it’s rather elusive and can’t be explained totally in words. Michael has the education via his music degrees and the articulate and rich vocabulary to put words to paper to communicate what Ivo takes for granted and just DOES. Michael also has serious computer “chops” as well as impressive musical ones to document and preserve the music that could die or become diluted or distorted as the originators age and pass on, if not handled and handed down with the needed loving care. Ivo feels that Michael is THE person to bridge the gap and pass the torch to. They have a rare connection, musically, professionally, and personally. Music flows through both of them like an electrical current, back and forth. Of course, it all takes time, that precious stuff we don’t have enough of when Ivo is in his 70s and Michael is here on a Visa which, at least for now, has an expiration date. Tick, tick, tick.
Michael Walz’s international experiences inform every part of his being and manner. Born and educated in Germany, he’s also lived in Spain, and performed as guitarist/vocalist and explored various genres of music in those countries as well as the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. But wherever he is, his heart and soul remain connected to Brazil and its music, and he’s worked in that country, too. Currently he lives in New York where he wears many musical hats and is especially committed to working with others to continue the traditions of Brazil’s native music, introducing it to students and other newcomers to it, nurturing the style with young musicians, and absorbing the elements from the “real deal” masters of the rhythms and sounds, especially the samba.
Yes, this column may be published on America’s Independence Day—and that brings up many stories for Americans, from our colonial days and breaking away from England in a reverse “Brexit” to the next chapters in a young country currently recalled in the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton to each generation’s strife and struggle, war and worry, politics and patriotism. Michael first saw Ivo play on Brazil’s own Independence Day, in fact. In the current climate of debate about immigration, let’s not forget that this land has owes a great debt to those who come here and enrich us in the best examples of the great melting pot of interesting and valuable people who share their culture with us.
Music IS collaboration. Guitarist/singer Walz has paired up with various instrumentalists and vocalists. Here’s a favorite example with him sharing vocals on several songs with Simone Santos including Brazilian classics by Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Triste” and “Agua de Beber”), Chico César (“Mamá África”) and Djavan (“Samurai”).
I wondered how the German-born Walz got so immersed in Brazilian music. He explained that it goes back over a decade, telling me, “2003 was the year I studied abroad: Brazilian guitar in Rio de Janeiro as part of a music exchange program. One day, I went to see Beija Flor’s pre-carnival rehearsal; one of Rio’s famous ‘Escolas de Samba’ (Samba schools). More than 300 percussion players electrifying a 5000-person, dancing and singing crowd! One can feel the deep frequencies of the powerful surdos (drums) vibrating in your body. The cutting high frequencies of the tambourins and chocalhos mark the timeline while the caixas (snares) function as the driving engine of the band. The extremely strong swinging grooves and people’s body moves while playing and dancing I will never forget. This made a huge impact on me and on my later life. Samba is an art form that you can’t just switch on or off. It is a life style. Once it gets you, it asks you to live it whole-heartedly.”
Seeing Ivo that first time was very special for him: “The first time I saw Ivo was when he was passionately conducting Manhattan Samba, playing in Manhattan in midtown’s annual mega event: the New York ‘Brazilian Independence Day Festival.’ I remember the compact and strong band sound and all the people dancing to it. They played for hours non-stop. It was just wonderful! I felt as if I were back in Rio. However, it was only in 2015 when we randomly bumped into each other in front of the ‘Brazil Expo’ event at Casa do Brasil, also in midtown New York. I had just returned from a 13-state US tour that I had played with Léo Bandeira, a fellow drummer from Rio. We played some grooves on our instruments (pandeiro and caixa) while walking down the street, when there was Ivo with his Samba drum ensemble unloading their percussion instruments. Spontaneously, we ended up jamming on the street, and he invited us to his band rehearsals. There it was again: the very distinct Brazilian swing from Rio’s Samba schools. Immediately, we clicked on a musical and personal level. Ivo and I had the same vision of how Samba grooves should swing and be musically amplified and expressed through body moves.”
Ivo, the early years
Ivo picks up the story from there, with his own perspective: “I remember, I got to know about Michael in September 2015 when I saw him performing in Brooklyn with a local Brazilian band, Mais Um. He had just recently joined. He was playing the guitar and was one of the singers, too. I immediately recognized his great musical skills and his great value to the band.” And soon they were working side by side. “Michael has the great gift to translate the many grooves, almost immediately when hearing, into academic language, something I wasn’t exposed to. And further, he could apply and teach it to people, demonstrating it with and without ‘ginga’ [swing]. I never saw this skill so well-developed in another musician. It’s like his left and right brain are both active at the same time. And so it happened that after only a few weeks, I asked Michael if he wanted to help me run Manhattan Samba. I had just turned 71 years old and was eager to see if my life work could carry on in him as standard-bearer for future generations.”
It was quite an offer. Michael recalls, “Although I had made plans to focus more on my solo career, I felt very honored by Ivo’s proposal and didn’t think twice. It was obvious to me that such an opportunity only comes around once.”
Manhattan Samba doesn’t just “entertain.” They are part of the larger community. After 9/11, they performed at the World Financial Center, uplifting spirits, playing with 40 people. They joined the non-profit Casa do Brasil events promoting Brazilian culture and lead Brazilian percussion classes, demonstrating Brazilian samba dance steps to US tap dancers at Woodpecker Studio, and joined the AIDS walk. Additionally, the organization gave free workshop for students at Juilliard, NYU, Cornell University, and CUNY. Upcoming projects include offering free workshops to children from low income families, and the elderly (Atria Residence Senior Living) offering social music encounters to help them stay active in their “third age.” They’ll also be working with the blind, which resonates with Michael who did music workshops at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. Manhattan Samba’s many appearances have included 15 years at the club S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil), appearing with Gorgo Bordello at Irving Plaza in a first cross-cultural music project, opening for Carlinhos Brown and the legendary Tito Puente, and they’ve been seen and heard at Red Bull Giant Stadium, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center Out of Doors programs, the Beacon Theatre, NJ PAC,Symphony Space, the Alumni Parade at Princeton. And that’s just a small sampling. Their aim in cross-cultural immersion is to set up meetings among American, Brazilian and other cultures, playing drums as an active social encounter and connecting element for people of different backgrounds, stating that “Playing drums can symbolically help people in developing a voice. It strengthens people’s self-esteem and has a socializing effect in group learning.”
There is the saying that Samba can’t be notated, because of its swing. “Yes, this is true to some extent,” Michael comments. “Many times its interpretation doesn’t allow us to use common music notation. It wouldn’t be accurate enough. However, when you understand the feeling of the groove’s swing, you know how to write it in standard music notation, and interpret it with Brazilian swing, called ‘ginga’.”
Ivo adds that “’Ginga,’ in its many forms, is a unique identifier of each Brazilian band. In band rehearsals, you are constantly aiming for the perfect ‘ginga.’ You can easily spend hours practicing just one groove – and it’s still fun! In particular, when you feel that the whole band swings together as one huge body, it’s like finding the zen of the Samba.”
Michael takes this comment as an opportunity to point out that “With Ivo it’s easy to feel this zen moment. He has the ultimate swing. He is very inspiring! Many times while we play together, it feels like our brain waves are in sync, like being on one frequency. That’s very connecting, relaxing and stimulating at the same moment.”
Hopefully, they can continue their work face to face, with the kind of communication only being in the same room at the same time can provide. Long distance technology will never replace the in-person human energy as musicians speak with words, samples of performance, facial expressions, and eyes lighting up with understanding, feeling each other’s souls and that musical current you don’t get from plugging in a device to a wall. These men recharge each other’s “batteries” and it’s beautiful to see and hear about.
I asked Michael to fill in more of his backstory and his other skills that make him such a gem for these projects. His wide range of abilities and work assignments have paid off, and his adeptness at transcribing make him ideal as the person to make a permanent and accurate record of the music that sometimes only lives in the heads and fingers of its players and could be lost —or at least have something lost in translation if not written down precisely: “Through the years, as part of my freelance work as a musician for publishing houses— and even back to the time I was still in high school — I meticulously transcribed hundred of songs reaching from classical music to jazz and Brazilian music. Transcribing music helps you to see how notes fall on an imaginary timeline grid. Significantly, in 2014, the time when I played with Dr. Philip Galinsky’s Saba New York! School, I transcribed all of the bands’ arrangements. And then in June 2015, I went to Rio on a six-week musical research trip to dive more into the rural roots of Samba. It helped me to understand still better each instrument, not only aurally, but also how its notes are visually represented on paper. Traditionally, Samba is not notated, but passed from one person to another by hands-on demonstration. Only in recent years, people are trying to archive and pass along the Samba-Enredo (fam. Carnival samba) music style in notated form.”
And he continued, “I also found in Dana Monteiro, the director of Harlem Samba at Frederick Douglas Academy, a musician who successfully notated Samba-Enredo and just recently published a book about Samba-Enredo by Contemporânea percussion company. He was kind enough to let me join his Samba-Enredo rehearsals at the FDA.
By the way, both musicians were former Manhattan Samba sambistas before forming their own groups. Now many years later, after my first Rio Samba school experience, I got the opportunity not only to play, but to team up with Rio-born Ivo, a Brazilian master drummer and band leader of New York’s longest-running Samba ensemble. I hope we will have many more opportunities to play and live Samba, to lay Manhattan Samba’s track for the future and to reach new heights together.”