My terrific teacher Chuck Redd has a wealth of information about Brazilian drumming from his years playing with Charlie Byrd. Several years ago he showed me his technique for emulating the sound of Brazilian eighth notes with brushes. This groove works so perfectly for low-volume samba that I wanted to share it with you all.
Brazilian music has it’s own swing
I have seen a lot of bad information floating around about Brazilian music being based on straight eighth notes, which really doesn't do it justice. Listen to Duduka da Fonseca playing brushes on this track for an example of why. This music, when played well, has a kind of lilt or swing all of it's own. To my ear this swing comes from accenting the upbeat which makes the eighth notes ever-so-slightly uneven. This is also what makes the music groove so beautifully. This may be obvious, but for those of you who don’t listen to a lot of Brazilian music, or know about the different percussion instruments used in samba, check out the motion/sound of the pandeiro on the left side of the video (starts around 1:00). This is what Brazilian eighth notes should feel like.
Hearing this eighth note is one thing, actually trying to incorporate it into your playing is another. This brings us back to Chuck’s brush technique, which you can see me using in the video at the top of the page. The real challenge of this technique is in getting the motion of the right hand down. Watch how my right hand slides out on the off beat, there is a slight wrist turn that accompanies this movement and emphasizes the upbeat.
Nobody has ever learned to play brushes by reading torturous “how-to” manuals, instead just watch and listen to the video. You can even slow it down to .75x or .5x speed to see the motion more clearly. After you have an impression of the movement clearly in your mind, start trying to reproduce it with just the right hand on the snare drum. Once you start having a decent sound with the right hand, add a simple bossa rhythm in the left hand and add the feet. Remember, in general the bass drum should be played very lightly, and should be slightly louder on beat three than beat one (watch the surdo on the right side of the samba video to get the feel).
Practice with music
Those of you who know or have studied with me know that I never leave something alone until I can play it with some music. At Chuck’s recommendation I practiced the brush samba with some beautiful music by Joao Gilberto, one of the greatest composers of the genre (and any genre IMO). This tempo and feel are challenging, but really force you to focus on getting everything right.