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We all have rhythms inside, we only have to discover them, says Edy Portella

Many bands, performers and musicians playing the music of different cultures have played in Slovakia, some coming as guests for one-off gigs, but only a few have made it their goal to teach Slovaks to actively explore and develop their musical talents. One musician trying to do just that is Edy Portella, who founded the open formation Batatimba to play Latin American rhythms.

Many bands, performers and musicians playing the music of different cultures have played in Slovakia, some coming as guests for one-off gigs, but only a few have made it their goal to teach Slovaks to actively explore and develop their musical talents. One musician trying to do just that is Edy Portella, who founded the open formation Batatimba to play Latin American rhythms.

In September, Portella started training those interested and on June 30, the group’s members made their first public appearance as an ensemble, in the Klub za Zrkadlom in Bratislava. Portella, who himself is of Peruvian-Slovak origin, says that learning any rhythm is a question of will and openness rather than nationality, mentality, or familiarity with certain types of music.

“I personally think that all people have rhythm within themselves – they just have to discover it. This is – sort of – a matter of concentration, like learning a foreign language, or driving. After some time, it becomes automatic,” he told The Slovak Spectator soon after Batatimba’s premiere.

“I did not try very hard to find the percussionists for my band, and I definitely did not set any recruitment tests whatsoever. I rather let everybody know I was looking for drummers, and people found me, not the other way round.” He adds that the less people knew about drumming, the better it was to work with them as they had fewer bad habits. The band is a loose grouping, and is open to more fans of Latin music: Portella’s dream is to bring 40-plus people on stage and conduct them playing the rhythms.

On their first evening, Batatimba was joined by other bands playing Cuban (Azucar Cubana), ethno (Sherpa Band) and African-reggae-inspired (Thierry Ebama) music. But the most surprising piece was a combination of Latin and Slovak folklore, when Batatimba and the Prvosienka folklore group joined forces to perform Slovak traditional pieces, mostly from the village of Plachtince. Portella says that he considers Slovak folklore to be very rhythmical, and he cannot understand why Slovaks have practically no percussion in their musical tradition except for the ozembuch, a kind of combined percussion-membrane instrument, and hands, clapped either against one’s thigh, calf, or each other. He insists Slovaks do have rhythms within themselves.

Asked about how he started drumming himself and later came to teach it, Portella answers that he has had artistic support in his family. He started with dancing, and only later came to play some smaller percussion instruments (or clapping his hands) in flamenco bands and later in Mango Molas. One summer, he quit his job and concentrated fully on learning percussion – and felt immediately that this was what he wanted to do in life. He has actively played music since 2000. He admitted, however, that since he learned everything he knows about music in Slovakia, he has been inspired by Latin tunes more via the internet than by direct contact with Latin culture.

More recently, he has trained Roma youths as part of the Divé Maky (Wild Poppies) project. The project strives to find and support talented Roma children from across Slovakia, train them during the school year, and then send them to a summer academy lasting one week. They then display the results of their (and their teachers’) effort at the Bašavel (Roma Feast) in August. This year, Portella offered his help and ideas, and taught the trainees how to make drums from scrap plastic and metal, and how to play them.

He told The Slovak Spectator that he had chosen a mixture of Brazilian rhythms and Roma music, together with some popular tunes (e.g. well-known tracks from the football World Cup in South Africa) so that they are catchy and also easy enough to be learnt in a short period of time. Portella again stressed that he preferred children who had no previous contact with this type of music, as they were easier to train. And he confirmed that Roma do have a strong feeling for rhythm, but they still have to be guided. Although geographically distant, the Latin American and Roma cultures (not only in terms of rhythm, but also in terms of communication, family life, etc.) seem to be very close, he says. And the children seem to be fond of Brazilian music and eager to learn more, and to create – maybe one day – a formation playing it. Referring to Afro-Lata, which mixes people and elements in Latin America of at least partial African origin, Portella concludes “I would call it Gypsy-Lata”.

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