Volume 16 • Issue 46 | April 9 - 15, 2004

Learning the beats and dances of Brazil

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

Battery dancers groove with their teachers, Polar Levine, far left, and Curtis Watts, who run the free samba program.

Twisting, turning and bouncing his body to the beat, Wolfe Margolies, 11, uses all his youth force to pound on a shiny Brazilian surdo drum almost half his size. Next to him, a boy with a beaming smile spins his own drum stick in the air and taps his feet to the sounds of the drums, bells, and tambourines that echo through a small music room in Tribeca’s Borough of Manhattan Community College. The enthusiasm is infectious.

Margolies is one of 27 young percussionists and dancers of Battery, a free youth music program based on Brazilian batucada samba bands. New York musicians Polar Levine and Curtis Watts created the program last fall after noticing a lack of free after-school creative activities for children living in New York. Battery not only teaches percussion, but also exposes participants to a different type of music than most New York youths are used to, Watts and Levine said.

“What we’re teaching kids comes from folkloric tradition in Brazil,” Watts said. “If every kid had an opportunity in his or her community to see and understand other cultures, we would have a better world in 20 years.”

For both Levine and Watts, Battery is also about getting back to the heart of what music is all about, to energetic and soulful live performances. “Kids today aren’t living in an age where you just pick up your instrument and go to the park and play,” Levine said. “They think you buy the music, and other people do it. In other cultures, people take percussion instruments to the beach or the park; here you take your boom box.”

So, every Thursday from 4:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 77 Harrison St., Levine and Watts join Katy Barnhill, the group’s choreographer and dance instructor, to lead two lively jam sessions — one for beginners and the other for more advanced percussionists. With their own drums slung over their shoulders, Levine and Watts guide children from Tribeca, the Village and Staten Island, in exercises and songs in preparation for the group’s upcoming community performances.

But the two teach more than just notes. They also highlight the talents that members bring to the group. Margolies, who the two call Goldilocks for his kinky blonde hair, also raps, so Levine and Watts plan to put together a rap song for the group. Levine and Watts also show participants how to be successful and disciplined musicians.

“Kids have the idea that the only thing music is, is being a pop star. But if you’re really interested in being a musician, there are so many other ways to do it,” Levine said. “It’s not about being an idol, it’s about being a professional and having self-respect.”

Both Levine and Watts were born in New York and met 20 years ago when studying samba music in the city. Levine now lives in Tribeca and Watts in Williamsburg. Levine, who has been a composer, graphic designer, performance artist, visual artist, and actor over the years, took time off from performing to raise his 11-year-old son, who is now a member of Battery, and to coach Downtown Little League.

Watts has toured the world playing jazz, rock, and funk percussion. He signed with Warner Brothers and Epic Records, played with Vernon Reid, best known as a member of the hard-rock band Living Colour, and played drums on AfroPop star Salif Keita’s album Papa, which was nominated for a Grammy.

Levine and Watts reunited last summer when Watts was called away to Europe for a performance and asked Levine to replace him as a percussion instructor at New York City’s Convent of the Sacred Heart’s summer creative arts youth program. “I thought of about 20 people, and no one else had the whole package,” Watts said.

“As soon as I got there, I loved it,” Levine said.

Around the same time Levine formed a samba band at his son’s school, and later saw a group of samba musicians he used to know in the 1980s playing outside the World Financial Center. “Then I knew, it was time,” he said. “We decided we could do this, and take it city-wide.”

The Downtown Community Resource Center, an organization created to help revitalize Lower Man-hattan after 9/11, provided initial funding for Battery, and B.M.C.C. offered its music room free of charge. College representatives also gave the go ahead for Battery to use its 1500-seat theater for performances.

In the fall, Levine and Watts hope to start a monthly performance series featuring the Battery students, performers from other, similar after-school programs, and their own work. Levine composes music, sings and plays percussion for his own adult funk band, Polarity/1, and Watts has created a live hip-hop band, Raination, that plays at bars and clubs around the city. Both Levine and Watts also play in High Voltage Samba, an adult samba group.

On May 8, the Battery will play the Tribeca Family Festival Street Fair as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, and on May 22, the annual Taste of Tribeca.

“We’re trying to get kids’ performance level up right now,” Watts said. “We have a lot to teach them,” Levine said, “but they’re a lot better than they think they are.”

Levine and Watts are currently looking for additional program funding to help pay for busses for children who want to participate, but cannot because of distance and transportation issues. By winter, they hope the group will comprise up to 50 percussionists and 20 dancers from across New York. “We see this as a New York institution in a few years,” Levine said.

The free classes run year round and are open to children age 11-17. Those interested in the program can read the band’s Web log, Battery Blog, at http://polarity1.com/batblog.html or call 212-625-9585.


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