Each Saturday without fail, the Batalá Washington gather to rehearse for four hours.
Eighty women make up this sisterhood of drummers based in Washington. The all-female Afro-Brazilian band plays samba and reggae rhythms, and when they rehearse, they are focused, swaggering and moving with the beat.
They are young, old, black, white, petite, large, tall, short — all working this indomitable, percussive cultural-delivery machine.
This group of women has been delighting audiences for a decade, bringing the Carnival rhythms of the Bahia region of northeast Brazil to Washington and beyond. They are a fixture at city marathons and street fairs. Batalá has also played internationally, led both big Women’s Marches in D.C., played with Wyclef Jean and opened for the Rolling Stones in 2012.
“How many people can say, ‘I opened for the Rolling Stones?’ ” says Carol Freitas, one of a handful of Brazilians in Batalá.
Although they are part of an international movement that began in France 20 years ago, Batalá Washington is still unique, says Alison Rodden, the group’s musical director.
“There are over 35 Batalás around the world and here in the U.S. there’s about to be 10,” Rodden says. “We were the first one that was 100 percent women.”
As much as they’ve accomplished in a decade, Rodden says, “it’s just a beginning for us. We’re taking the band to a new level. Some of our members have been in the band nine or 10 years now, so it’s important for those who are technically advanced and been around a bit, but we’ve also got people who started yesterday.”
Most newcomers are trained on the largest drum — the surdo — big as a Western bass drum and played with mallets — which provides the heartbeat of the sound. The nearly-as-big dobra offers a melody that plays in call-and-response style with the tom-tom-like repique, while the snare-like caixa offers the highest-pitched clatter.
“There’s something pretty incredible about having all women with these drums strapped around their waist,” Janine Sayles says. “It’s very empowering. And I think that we empower a lot of women who watch us.”
As children, few women were encouraged to take up the drums, Rodden says. When it came time in elementary school to choose instruments, she says, “they’re like, ‘What do you want to play?’ For girls, it’s flute or clarinet.”
Even now, the ranks of professional female drummers is fairly limited.
So when a big unit of female drummers marches noisily toward you, “it’s undeniable,” Rodden says.
Many are drawn to the energy surrounding Batalá, and the women who want to join sometimes outnumber the quantity of drums available to give them. Months often go by without accepting new members.
For some band members, Batalá is a chance to pick up on drumming they otherwise had to give up with college marching bands.
“I’ve drummed all my life,” says Ellen Arnold-Losey, a member since 2010 who is originally from Iowa. “Once you finish school, there’s not many opportunities to play anymore.
“I did a summer with a professional drum-and-bugle choir. I tried these hand-drumming circles. I tried drum set,” Arnold-Losey says. “They weren’t a good fit for me. And then shortly after I moved to D.C., I happened upon the band, and I was like: That’s the thing I was looking for.”
Charlotte Conley, a reading teacher in D.C., had seen Batalá at a street festival in 2014.
“Everybody was dancing and having a great time,” she says. “And it was also a strong group of women. You could feel the energy and the camaraderie.”
Conley decided to join “a couple months before my 65th birthday. It was my birthday present to myself.”
At 65, Conley is now the oldest current member of Batalá. And newcomers of all ages can be taught, even though there is no sheet music, video training or reference materials.
“The oral tradition of teaching and learning is really critical. That’s something we really embody with the music, and it also helps create community,” Rodden says.
It’s “consistent with the tradition of how the music was taught in Brazil,” Rosa Moreno says.