Batala NYC: All-women, Afro Brazilian Drumline
Interview with Stacy Kovacs about Batala NYC and the motto of Afrolatino Festival NYC 2015 (Affirm, Educate, Celebrate).
Transcription: Interview with Stacy Kovacs
My name is Stacy Kovacs. I’m the director of the Batala NYC, New York City’s only all-women, Afro Brazilian percussion drumline. We’re part of a global arts project, with more than 30 bands around the world, four of which are all-women, the rest are coed. It’s us, Washington DC, Brasília, Brazil and Mendoza, Argentina where the all-women groups are. I was given a choice, so for me being a woman and a female drummer for much of my life, I figured a female band of drummers was probably the way to go, because New York City doesn’t have it and also it’s pretty powerful.
Affirming for us, I mean, we’re about women’s empowerment, so to speak. I don’t really like the word “women’s empowerment” because I believe empowerment comes from within and while we may give the tools to empower you, you ultimately have to do it yourself, in my opinion. We’re about women’s empowerment, getting women to do something that is so traditionally male, especially in Brazil. Women were dancers, they didn’t play drums. It was actually part of religious rules at one point that are now changing. So, affirming that women can do this, that it’s not a gender-based thing.
We’re trying to educate the public more so on Afro Brazilian rhythms that are specific to that part of Brazil [Salvador de Bahia in northeastern Brazil]. A lot of the rhythms are religious-based, so you’ll hear them in religious ceremonies. A lot of them are rhythms of Orixas that we are taught, that we play. They’re call-and-response. A lot of them are also heard in popular music from that part of Brazil. So we try to educate culturally in that way.
I learn as much as I can, I watch, I talk to my maestro, I go to Brazil, I try to pick up as much as possible, I bring that back and teach the band. We watch films and movies and listen to stuff, so educate the band. And then musically I try to educate the band, teach people how to play the drums, specifically these drums and these rhythms. So I’m trying to educate the band, the public and anyone who really has an interest in this, because I think it’s fascinating and isn’t really well known.
Celebrating because we just love the music. The music we play is music of Carnaval. Specifically we play rhythms that are heard by our sister group Cortejo Afro. They’re a big Afro bloco in Brazil with drumming, a band, art, they have a big telheiro we they make all of their costumes and it’s a big community, neighborhood group. Batala is loosely affiliated with Cortejo Afro, so we celebrate, we go to Carnaval and we play with them. And also here in the city, we try to get the culture out, the music out, the rhythms out. We don’t play samba. Everyone’s thinks we’re a samba band. Everyone thinks we play a bunch of djembes. We don’t. We play these giant drums that people don’t traditionally think when you hear women drumming. We just played for the Women’s National Team at the ticker tape, but not in the parade, we played at the ceremony after, with the mayor and the team and it was pretty awesome.
“Afrolatino” to me… I’m actually Caucasian, so for me it’s not something I’ve grown up thinking about. For me, the group I’m with is specifically Afro Brazilian, but Afrolatino encompasses that, because Brazil is in Latin America. For me, I’ve always been drawn to Latin rhythms, music rhythms on drums, salsa music, all sorts of drumming, anything with that clave in it, I’ve been drawn to.
For me it’s something I’ve always wanted to play, I’ve never really been given the opportunity. I’m from a suburb of Buffalo, New York, and we played marches. [She’s from Buffalo] I’m from Orchard Park. Yeah, so we played marches, typical marching band music, and so every time we did play something with Latin rhythms in it, I was like, ‘Yes!’