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High on drums


It’s more than a Brazilian drumming class. It’s a (very loud!) community

Words can’t capture the sheer wall of sound of a samba bateria live, but they’ll have to do.

If rock drums are the muscular growl of a Ford Mustang, then a bateria is like a fleet of trucks that can start and stop — together — on a dime. The bateria is beyond loud. It is a cosmology of sound, a real-time manifestation of an entire culture. It is, one supposes, the entire world. Or life itself.

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It doesn’t make you tap your feet. It doesn’t make you shake your hips. Rather, it wraps up your entire being, body and soul, in an ecstatic wave of sound, and turns you inside out. To absorb it all — its thundering rhythms, its intricate syncopations, its flamboyant excess and its marvelous exactitude and precision — is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. It requires everything you have as a listener.

This is Kurt Rasmussen’s day job.


The beat goes on

In 2004, Rasmussen started Mocidade Rebelde at UNLV, a class on Brazilian drumming — basically a small-scale bateria — and over the years word has gotten out about Rasmussen’s spirited course — though spirited might be an understatement. Last year, the university listed it in its continuing ed curriculum, and non-students began showing up. Today there’s a mix of drumming students and professionals; this semester’s class is expected to have more than 50 people, bringing a taste of the ripe rhythms of samba to Las Vegas. His class is unusual in that it draws both seasoned professionals and non-musicians. Rasmussen writes the charts out for those who can read music — those who can’t, he teaches by rote.

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“He has an amazing level of patience,” says Jack Steiner, a former student who is now a music teacher in Pennsylvania. “He has an amazing level of understanding.”

Rasmussen’s group rehearses a new piece every semester, at the end of which they put a video on YouTube demonstrating their work. While the music is important to Rasmussen, so is the sense of community — which makes Mocidade Rebelde so much more than just a class.

“There’s a camaraderie,” Rasmussen explains. “If you come to the class you will have fun. That’s the point.”

“The music is very good, but for us it’s also a good social thing,” says Dina Emerson, a vocalist at Mystère who took Rasmussen’s class last year and is coming back for more. “We’re so wrapped up in our jobs we don’t always get to meet people.” For her, Mocidade Rebelde is a “tight knit group that can also play kick ass music.”

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That’s the idea. “I try to instill in my students the honor of what we do,” says Rasmussen. “I’ve always felt a spiritual connection with drumming.”

[HEAR MORE: Listen to Kurt Rasmussen on the wild world of Brazilian drumming on " KNPR's State of Nevada ."]

And to think that when Kurt Rasmussen began teaching percussion at UNLV, he had no background as an educator. But he certainly had a musical background. He’d spent decades as a touring percussionist traveling the world, backing artists such as Brazilian musical pioneer Sergio Mendes and other pop luminaries such as Paul Anka, Diana Ross, Tania Maria and Quincy Jones. He was particularly drawn to the mesmeric drum baterias, large percussion ensembles hundreds strong, that lay at the heart of Brazilian samba parades. He’d made several trips to Brazil and had acquired enough drums from friends there to outfit a 60-piece bateria. In São Paulo, they’d never seen an American play Brazilian rhythms so well, and he was invited to participate in Vai Vai, one of Sao Paulo’s largest samba schools. It was a rare honor.

He played in Carnaval competitions from 1998 to 2001. Rasmussen’s Brazil was a heady, sensual, always magical and sometimes dangerous place. But what really shook him was the sense of community at the samba schools. The schools were social clubs, communities, places where all sorts of people could come together and work toward a common goal.

Many of them were “economically and socially beat-down people.” Artists and artisans worked for months on crafting elaborate floats and costumes, choreographing dance movements and writing and performing sophisticated samba songs — all to present at yearly Carnaval parade competitions. Loyalty and passion for particular samba schools run deep — it is, as author John Edgar Wideman has noted, a moment where the poor in a country such as Brazil take center stage and the well-to-do become spectators.


Got that swing

Rasmussen grew up in Latino East L.A. He remembers drummers playing rumba in the park when he was a kid. He didn’t know he was not Latino until he was 8. But he always knew he’d be a drummer. He got into Afro Cuban music at 13, and gravitated to Brazilian music at age 17. He’s spent his whole life, basically, playing percussion.

There was a lot about the Brazilian rhythms, particularly the samba, that drew him in. He liked the instruments — the snare-like cuica, the otherwordly, string-like berimbau.

“The slaves that were brought from Africa, the Bantu and Yoruba tribes, were also brought to Cuba,” he says. He found he could play Brazilian rhythms on Cuban instruments, and vice versa, and get a similar vibe. But the Brazilian music had an extra quality of swing — that subtle, hard-to-grasp, sense of propulsion that makes a piece of music come to life. And the baterias could swing with the best of them.

“Three hundred to 500 guys playing together,” Rasmussen marvels. “You just don’t get that in any culture. It called to me.”

That many players could fill several orchestras. The sound is tremendous — it’s like the cannons at the end of the 1812 Overture. Only louder — and swinging harder. (“You have to be fit,” Rasmussen says of the demanding, 90-minute song cycles that are common at a samba parade.)

“Most people here, especially in the collegiate system, are familiar with marching corps,” says Jeremy Meronuck, a graduate percussion student at UNLV. “With the samba school, it’s basically all drums, too. ... It has a certain type of unique funkiness to it, a swing, that really draws you in. It’s really different. It’s something you want to know better.”


‘A celebration of life’

Now Rasmussen’s students are going full circle — and exporting the sound they’re creating at UNLV. Last year, several of Rasmussen’s students went to Rio and participated in the Carnaval parade inside Rio’s legendary 90,000-seat Sambadrome. Rasmussen had a connection with a samba school there. True, no one gave them drums to play — just little shakers that weren’t loud enough for discriminating judges to hear (after all, competitions often come down to tenths of a point, and millions of dollars and pride to last a lifetime are on the line). Nevertheless, percussion student Daniel Alameda describes the experience as “almost unworldly — especially going down the middle of that aisle that is amplifying the bateria.”

What opened his eyes, he says, is that everybody sings. Dancers, drummers, audiences.

“It’s like a celebration of life. They have what they have and on those particular weeks it’s a big celebration of life. It’s hard to explain. The sound is ... thousands upon thousands of people ... it puts off this mood, and that’s projected in the music as well.”

That’s a lesson that can’t be taught in the classroom.

“I want these guys to feel connected to this ancient lineage,” Rasmussen says. “It’s something you have to uphold.”