Yankee Samba School

California’s Cheremoya Samba School is both an oddity and pleasant surprise: the Escola de Samba in
which only the music is Brazilian. For ten years now, American teacher
Lee Cobin has been conducting his dream project, the fruit of his love
for Brazilian music.

If you are in Southern California and you have been to folkloric
shows and festivals, then you must know them. Every year they are one
of the main attractions at the traditional Los Angeles Festival of
Masks. They have also appeared at the Pasadena’s Doodah Parade, a spoof
on the world-famous New Year’s Rose Parade. They are the Cheremoya
Samba School, a heterogeneous group that reunites 60 people, with ages
ranging from 6 to 42 and is intent on divulging the Brazilian music.
Not for lack of invitations, there are no Brazilians teaching, no
Brazilians participating, no Brazilians period among them.

The Samba School, which gets its name from the Cheremoya Elementary
School, the place where they rehearse their sound and steps, is the
apple of the eye of two Americans who have fallen in love with Brazil.
One is Lee Cobin, who started teaching samba to his students 10 years
ago. The other is Linda Yudin, a dance ethnologist specialized in
Northeastern Brazilian dances, who joined Cobin, three years ago. Linda
and Lee do not profit financially from their work promoting Brazil.
They do this on their spare time and out of gratitude, as they say, for
a culture that enriched them so much.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and French in 1976,
Lee went to Brazil to live mostly mostly in Bahia for two years. To
survive he taught English and learned Portuguese. For fun and curiosity
he traveled around, visiting Săo Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro,
and Rio Grande do Sul. It would take him seven years to return to
Brazil. This time, however, he had some plans: like learning more about
Brazilian rhythms, mostly those from the Northeast. It was after his
second trip to Brazil, in 1984, that Lee, a Bilingual Coordinator at
Cheremoya Elementary School in Hollywood since 1980, had the idea to
teach Brazilian music, and samba in special, to his kids. Soon the
small group that he had created started to grow.

To learn what he was going to teach he joined a now defunct Los
Angeles samba group called Embrasamba and started to practice. For the
first five years the band, as Lee recalls, “was only a samba group.”
That’s when Brazilian sambista Renilde Flores came to teach some dance and the samba school was then formed.

As for Yudin, she has been involved with Brazilian culture for more
than 10 years. Her interest in Afro-Brazilian music and dance started
in 1986 when she had a course on Latin American Dances at the
University of California, Los Angeles, in which a Brazilian group
called Bahia Magia presented some shows. Linda fell in love with
Candomblé. She says “I fell in love with the Brazilian culture that
night I saw Bahia Magia for the first time.”

Besides teaching regional dances from Brazil, Linda shows her
students how the mixture of the influences and the contributions from
Portuguese, African, and Native cultures shaped the Brazilian folklore.
In her choreography she includes candomblé, samba, samba-reggae, maculelę, and maracatu.
Yudin was so infatuated with the Brazilian culture and rhythms that
when an opportunity appeared, she gave up a Fullbright scholarship to
study the influence of Egyptian culture in Israel to go to Brazil.

There, although not speaking Portuguese, she met Mestre King, or
Raymundo Bispo dos Santos, who directed her to produce the programs of
choreography and projects of dance she now teaches. “Dance and music
are cultural media to see Brazil as a whole. Mestre King was my main
inspiration to teach choreography to the girls,” says Linda.

One of Linda’s and Lee’s main links to Brazilian music is Meia Noite
and his Midnight Drums band. Since 1990, Lee plays with the Midnight
Drums, and Linda had a long term relationship with drummer Meia Noite.
Occasionally Meia Noite shows up at the rehearsals to give the kids a
feel of the real Bahian music.

Duílio Cosenza, Lee’s long time friend and mentor, and who played
with such renowned musicians as Jacó do Bandolim, is another musical
influence in Lee’s bloco. From Duílio, Lee learned to play the cavaquinho and inspired by him added the chorinho and samba-cançăo rhythms to the Cheremoya Samba School’s repertoire.

The participants in the Escola de Samba come from many countries,
but there is no one from Brazil. “It doesn’t make too much sense to
play Brazilian music without Brazilian people,” comments Lee. “I’d like
to see some Brazilian kids participating in the dancing or musical
rehearsals, and in the concerts. It would bring some true Brazilian
colors.” There is no fee involved. All the interested person has to do
is to show up. The two-hour rehearsals happen once a week.

The oldest member of the group is Steve Young, 42, who has been
playing for two years now. He came to Cheremoya drawn by the appeal of
Brazilian northeastern music. When he is not with the band he is a
doctor at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Medical
Center. Steve went to Brazil in 1985 for a two-week course at the Săo
Paulo’s Escola Paulista de Medicina and he has been in love with
Brazilian music ever since. At that time, he bought a berimbau and learned how to play it. Steve met Lee while taking Bahian rhythm lessons from Meia Noite.

Victor Garcia, 20, has been with the band almost from its beginning.
He used to listen to the band since he was 10, and joined it when he
was 11. He is a big fan of Olodum and Daniela Mercury, and intends to
spend some time in Brazil as soon as he ends his course on Mechanical
Engineering from Cal State University Northridge.

Janet Ventura and Fatima Bittencourt, two of the four girls who play
in the band, were the first girls to join in. Both are 15 years old and
have been playing for two years. For Janet, the exciting part is to
play the big drums. Fatima also says that the rhythm of the drums is
what has drawn her to the band. ”

Janet thinks that “girls should get into playing samba. I thought
that the guys would feel weird about us, but we actually bonded with
these people.” “We are like a family here,” says Fatima. “Everybody
gets along well,” adds Janet. The two girls listen to Brazilian music
at home, and all around their community because it has become popular.
While the band is mostly composed of males, the dance group is 100%
girls, who are currently attending Cheremoya Elementary School.

Linda believes that “art helps to educate. I like to work with
children, and this program is a free opportunity to teach them the
Brazilian culture.” She says that the lack of money has been the main
obstacle to continue the program. “The Los Angeles Unified School
District thinks that the program is excellent, but do not finance us in
anyway.” Some little support they have has been coming from
Robinsons/May Company and Remo Instruments, and from the Los Angeles
Administration.” “Brazilians like our presentations but they don’t
participate,” says Linda.

Lee says that the band is always getting accolades from those who
see them playing. “They always praise us,” he comments, “but very few
come up with some funds to help us improve. We showed the kids and the
music to the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles, trying to get some
sponsorship from them, but all in vain.”

For more information you can talk to Lee Cobin at (213) 464-1722.

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