Monthly Archives: August 2012

Manhattan Samba

Here’s a little history of the samba band I co-founded in New York in 1990, written by Jeff Zeth. Not sure I’d describe myself as a “big American band leader,” though.  😀

You can see the whole story here:

In the grand manner of Rio samba schools — though on a much smaller scale — Manhattan Samba is a band, a learning environment, and a social club all in one. Founder and director Ivo Araújo is known for bringing in people with virtually no musical experience and having them learn how to play traditional samba to be able to perform with the band within a short time. On the other hand, Ivo and Manhattan Samba (the two cannot be separated) have also collaborated with many established, professional musicians such as Paul Winder, Wyclef Jean, Gogol Bordello, Jimmy Cliff and Carlinhos Brown, and the band has been the inspiration for many other Brazilian music projects and baterias in New York City. Ivo has a knack for integrating samba rhythms seamlessly into the music of his collaborators; at the same time, the band’s own shows throb with energy and passion in a way that no other samba show in New York City does.

Ivo started Manhattan Samba in 1990 with pianist, composer, and big American band leader Amy Duncan at a time when there was very little live Brazilian carnaval music in New York. “Manhattan Samba was the first big group, together with Empire Loisaida, long gone,” he says.  He’d already been in the U.S. for ten years, playing as a percussionist for American jazz bands and directing his own Brazilian music projects; Ivo’s first Casa Grande e Senzala band after Kilombo dos Palmares once opened for Tito Puente. At first, he didn’t think many New Yorkers would be interested in learning batucada.  But after seeing him perform live, Amy urged him to gather students. “She encouraged me to play and teach.” Their first batucada show at S.O.B.’s was an instant success. Ivo showed up to play with 35 people — most bands playing there at the time had no more than six — and “for the first time I blasted S.O.B.’s.”  The group was so loud that a subway train conductor came up from the nearby #1 train station to investigate. “What kind of band was that?” he said.  For fifteen years after that, until around 2005, the band closed the weekly Saturday night samba show at the club, with a late-night act that the Village Voice called “the best way to wind up a Saturday night club crawl”.

Now in 2012, Manhattan Samba (known in Portuguese as the “União da Ilha de Manhattan”) remains the longest running Rio traditional-style carnaval band in New York, with a long list of successful live projects and an even longer list of current and former band members who were inspired to begin their own Brazilian music projects. Members have gone on to teach samba in high schools, start their own bands, create documentary films, and get advanced degrees in music. Every year, the band’s signature red and white can be seen in some of the great parades of New York City, including the Halloween Parade and the Gay Pride Parade, and the band still sometimes makes appearances at S.O.B.’s, thrilling audiences with late-night batucada that always brings the house down.

Brazilian music fans sometimes wonder why the school wears red and white, when the colors of the Brazilian flag are green, yellow, blue and white.  It’s because of Ivo’s connection with União da Ilha do Governador, the samba school in Rio with which Ivo has the closest connection.  Their colors are red, white and blue.  “It shows respect for União, which is my original samba school, together with Portela.”  Portela’s influence is seen in the image of the eagle holding a drum; the eagle was once part of that group’s symbolism.

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Filed under music, my history


in the gray hours of early morning,

My restlessness awakens me.

I reach out almost unaware

For some soothing hand

To still my unease.

My heart longs for peace,

A peace that grows from within,

Spreading its angel-wings

And calming my unrest.

I lie here, not moving,

Barely breathing, still.

And then it comes to me,

That soft, gentle touch

Of gentle tranquility

Washing over me,

Within and without,

Comforting, settling,

Reassuring, quieting.

I rise up in peace.


Filed under poetry

My hero Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch is my undisputed hero.

For those of you who may not know him, Fred is a jazz pianist living in New York. I met him back in the 1980s, when I recorded a couple of demos at his small recording studio in SoHo. After that we lost touch, and then I moved to Rio de Janeiro in the 90s.

Right around that time, Fred discovered that he was HIV positive and decided to make it public, along with the fact that he is gay. As far as I know, he may have been the first jazz musician to tell the world he was gay—no easy feat in the macho world of jazz at that time or any time.

Before long, Fred became seriously ill with AIDS, and in 2008, he developed AIDS-related dementia. Many times, it seemed he was close to death. Eventually he fell into a coma and remained unconscious for two months. When he finally came out of the coma he had lost almost all the motor function in his hands—a pianist’s worst nightmare.

But Fred hung in there. He went through months of rehabilitation and therapy, and today, at age 56, he has a new live double album recorded at the Village Vanguard and a string of tour dates into 2013.

These things alone could have made Fred my hero, but the real reason he’s my hero is because of his refusal to accept the dire verdicts about his life and career—his refusal to let anything deter or distract him from his goal of making beautiful, individual, eloquent music. In his own words, referring to the disease that tried to bury him:

“I am not going to acknowledge that it has the power to mess with me.”

Good for him—and good for us, too.












Filed under jazz, music, spiritual

Right on, C.S. Lewis!

My friend Rhonda posted this on Facebook today and I just have to share it:

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Why don’t people use their talents? … continued

Yesterday I posed the question: Why don’t people use their talents?

Apparently the answer is a complex one. There could be any number of reasons why someone doesn’t pursue something they’re good at. One commenter pointed out that it could be fear of failure, perhaps because they think they’re not good enough, or the opposite: fear of success.

But another commenter reminded me of something I’d overlooked: sometimes we’re really good at something, but it simply isn’t our heart’s desire, doesn’t resonate with us, so we don’t pursue it. I think that’s often the crux of the matter for certain people.

Some folks are good at lots of different things and are able to pursue a number of interests without feeling undecided or conflicted. Others, though, have a burning desire to do one particular thing but are constantly distracted by all the other things they’re good at — especially if those things are an easier source of income than their true desire. And even if they do end up pursuing their real dream, sometimes they let themselves be influenced by other people as to exactly how they should be living that dream — you’ve got a great singing voice? Then why are you wasting your time singing in a choir when you could get yourself out there as a pop vocalist? Um, hello? Because I love singing in a choir!

I’ve always had a knack for doing a variety of things. When I was a kid I was so super-organized and detail-oriented that I told my mother I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up. I was also good at sewing and cooking, and I wasn’t half bad at drawing pictures and painting. And as I got to be a little older I really loved to write poetry. But the one thing that really made my heart sing was playing the piano. Nevertheless, even though that was my dream and passion, I found myself pursuing some of my other talents over the years, often out of financial necessity.

So, it’s no easy matter to find your “thing” and then just focus on that. Also, that thing can undergo permutations with time. I think we just have to be listening closely all the time to our intuition, and follow that as best we can. What do you think?


Filed under individuality, work

Why don’t people use their talents?

I’ve noticed something strange.

I have several friends who have special talents, but they don’t seem to pursue them. Some not at all, and others half-heartedly. Or they think of these skills and abilities as just hobbies and don’t take them seriously.

I see these people as successful — if they would only develop those talents.

I don’t know why I’m surprised, though. I myself have done exactly the same thing at times, and this is a theme that I’ve explored in this blog in different ways, and also in my book. It seems to be a pretty common phenomenon.

On occasion I’ve talked to some of these folks and tried to convince them that they could do something really worthwhile with their talents. Sometimes they’ve said, “Yes, you’re right,” but then have done nothing. As Ben Franklin said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

But what on earth would make anyone just shove their talents under the rug and not want to pursue and develop them? Writer Steve Pressfield calls it “Resistance.” (See his book, The War of Art). I know in my own life that there seemed to be a million distractions, some of them legitimate (like raising my daughters), that kept me from devoting myself to my music as much as I could have, but check out what Pressfield has to say about that: “Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting.”

Apparently there really are no excuses. So I figure the best I can do to help my friends see what a precious thing they’ve got in their hands is to develop my own talents and abilities the best I can and not be a slacker. If you’re familiar with the story in the Bible about the man who buried his talent in the ground, you’ll know what I mean. (Matthew 25:14-30)


Filed under individuality, work

Heading for the homestretch

I’m actually getting ready to send my book off to Book Baby, the e-book publisher of my choice.

Not without kicking and screaming, mind you. It’s much harder than I thought it would be to bring the thing to an end — an actual finish — and then place it in someone else’s hands to turn it into a book. There’s something so final about it.

I’m getting some photos together now to put in the book, and I’ll probably give it another quick read-through (although I’d rather give it ten read-throughs and wait until everything in my life is all settled and just right so I can write the perfect ending), before I take the plunge. I know I have to get real and cut the umbilical cord, already.

Today I spoke with a woman at Book Baby. I had quite a few questions about formatting, photos, cover design, and so on, and the folks at BB had said to call them any time — they’d be happy to help. The reason I chose Book Baby in the first place was because it’s an arm of CD Baby, where I sell my music, and I’d always had a really good, friendly, even cozy experience with them.

Things haven’t been all that easy with Book Baby so far. The woman on the phone wasn’t especially cozy, in fact she was downright unfriendly. I thought, that’s OK, she doesn’t have to be friendly. She’s just doing her job. But I also found the Book Baby site not all that clear — this is one of the reasons I had lots of questions. I’m trying to be a good sport here, but I have to confess I miss the old days at CD Baby when Derek Sivers (what a great guy) was at the helm. I had hoped some of his spirit would have rubbed off on Book Baby.

Anyway, onward and upward. I’ve got a book to finish.

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Filed under the book

Becoming who we are

“Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”

                                    – Steven Pressfield, from The War of Art.

Some of you may have read between the lines here and figured out that a guiding theme in my upcoming book, “Getting Down to Brass Tacks,” is the awakening to how I could have found my heart’s desire without making so many detours, how I could have done things differently, perhaps lived in a more expansive way, developing my talents better, recognizing them more clearly and appreciating and honoring them more.

It was a subtle thing, but I actually reached a point in my life where I thought that mediocrity would keep me safe. I hope you never reach that point. It won’t keep you safe, and it’ll just try to take you further down if you believe that it will. Even if that does happen, though, sooner or later your wonderful self won’t settle for being trapped in such a strait jacket.

So, can you really just become who you are and let everything else fall into place, or do you have to make special efforts to validate yourself by “putting yourself out there?”

Jazz pianist Bill Evans, in the documentary video “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, said that he once wondered how he could get his career started as a jazz musician. He said, “Ultimately I came to the conclusion that all I must do is take care of the music, even if I do it in a closet. And if I really do that, somebody’s going to come and open the door of the closet and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for you.’”

Even though everyone I know seems to be promoting what they do in the social media (including myself), I take Bill’s words to heart, because I’ve found it all too easy to be tempted to put myself out there before I’ve really taken care of the music.


Filed under art, individuality, music, the book, work