Sharing Samba

He stands on a gray folding chair in the front of the room, whistle in mouth as he holds up his stick in front of him. The crowd knows what this means. They rattle and smack their instruments slightly faster now, trying to keep in sync with one another as they listen for the next whistle.

Barrel-sized hollow drums line the back of the room. Farther up front, some wear snares on their waists, held up by elastic bands woven through khaki belt loops or wrapped around tight dresses. Bright pink and orange earplugs peek through many shades of hair. Some, instead, resort to a makeshift sound barrier provided by their iPhone earbuds to minimize the booming that echoes in the performance hall.

Two students off to the side look at each other, exchange a few imperceptible words and laugh softly. Even with all the clamoring instruments, the man in the front catches them quickly, telling them to save it for later.

"It's not like this is an Ivy League school or anything," he says before returning his attention to his whistle.

* * *

One day in 2008, Michael Stevens was wrapping up his usual samba class at Unidos da Filadelfia, which he personally founded to spread his love of Brazilian percussion. Darien Lamen, a philosophy graduate student at Penn at the time, put down his instrument and approached him.

"You know, we had a samba class for a little while at Penn," he said to Stevens. The class was a bust - only about 10 students signed up, and the professor left the University after a semester. But Lamen, who had coordinated the class, wasn't ready to give up on the idea.

"I can pay someone to teach a samba class at Penn," he said. "Do you want to do it?"

The question began the most recent leg of Stevens' samba career. He first took samba as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. It changed everything.

He left home for Brazil to learn the craft from professional Samba performers and then made his way to Philadelphia, where he still performs with his Brazilian band PhillyBloco. He also continues to teach at Unidos da Filadelfia, which lives in a little studio on Greene Street in West Philadelphia.

"The moment I heard the music, it completely grabbed me," Stevens said. "I was thinking to myself, "I definitely have to do that.'

"It sounds cliche, but music moves me."

Now, Stevens teaches three sections of Penn's increasingly popular samba drumming class every Monday night in a small performance hall wedged into the side of Irvine Auditorium. Students can sign up for the ensemble, MUSC-007-009, as a half-credit course, and all are encouraged to take it for two semesters.

It is also Penn's single easiest course, at least according to student evaluations on Penn Course Review, which mark it a 0.717 out of 4.0 on "course difficulty."

The class is one hour straight of following Stevens' instruction and playing percussion without reading music or learning about the history or culture behind samba music. No work outside of the Monday evening gatherings is required either, except if students miss one or two classes. Then they'll write a paper on a samba musician or a cultural aspect of the music. Missing three classes or more will drop a student's grade by a full letter.

Stevens knows the easiness of the course contributes to its popularity, but doesn't consider it a negative. "It's definitely easy compared to a typical full-credit class, but I wouldn't say it's easy compared to other half-credit ensembles," he said.

All of Penn's ensembles fall below a 2.0 on Penn Course Review. At a flat 1.0, the Arab Music Ensemble has the fifth-lowest difficulty rating of any course.

"It's not meant to be a highly strenuous class," Stevens said. "The main requirements are that you be present, be on time and be engaged as you engage your instruments."

* * *

Sarah Lindstedt navigated her way through Penn's activities fair with the vigor only reserved for bubbling college freshmen. She surveyed table after table, eagerly taking flyers and marking her name down for every listserv she could. Then she saw the samba table.

"I signed up because I consider myself musically inclined," she said. "Then I showed up that Monday to find out it wasn't a club. It was actually a half-credit class."

It was 2011, and samba was still behind the scenes, lost in a sea of hundreds of other courses students could opt to take. Lindstedt snuck her way into the intermediate class, feeling overly prepared for the introductory level considering her background in piano, clarinet and guitar. A few classes in, after trying out the options, she settled on her Samba equipment: the tamborim, a tambourine-like instrument - stripped of the jingling bells - that must be played using intricate movements of the wrist and hand.

And she stuck with it. She played the tamborim for four full years, each of her Penn semesters, eventually becoming a samba teaching assistant as a senior.

"It was just the best hour of my week," she said. "It was the hour every week when I forgot about everything else going on. The rhythms, especially in the advanced section, were complex enough that my brain could focus solely on what was happening in that moment."

The rhythms are a mixture of samba and other Brazilian beats, both modern and historic and each with their own story. Samba music itself originated from the slave trade that brought the percussive sounds of African peoples to Angola, Brazil and other South American countries. When Portugal colonized Brazil, the blended musical sounds produced new rhythms.

When Stevens' samba instructor from Brazil went on a world tour stopping in Philadelphia, he came to Lindstedt's class and taught them beats they had never heard before. Lindstedt described it as one of the coolest experiences she had ever had.

"There were two guys and neither of them spoke English, but we didn't need to speak the same language as them," she said. "Language wasn't a barrier with this music."

* * *

"Have we done this one: da da da blacka da?"

Some shake their heads. Others nod.

"Anybody remember the bell part?"

He picks out a student near the front who tries to remember the rhythm from last semester.

"You're about 68 percent right," he says, the class grumbling with laughter.

One percussion group at a time, he reintroduces them to the beat. Few words are exchanged as he points to each faction and plays a beat for them to mimic. First comes the surdo, way in the back - the bass drum that set the tempo for the ensemble. Then comes the caixa, the snare-drum-like kit that blares a rattling noise. Then the repinique (pronounced hip-uh-nick-ee), a gallon-sized drum that produces a hollower sound. Then the agogo - a double bell - and the tamborim, which yield high-pitched sounds that sing above the rest of the instruments.

Finally, he's ready to hear them play together. He stands on his chair and gives the cue. As they play in unison, he closes his eyes, covers an ear with his hand and rocks his head back and forth.

A moment passes. His eyes are open again, and he jumps off his chair, now weaving through the instruments and making his way to the back of the room as students continue to get a feel for the beat. He grabs the sticks of a surdo player and shows him the correct drumbeat until the student finally picks it up.

He helps out a few more stragglers before hopping back up on the chair and cutting off the music, letting the deafening silence ring.

"If I come over to you, I'm not picking on you," he says. "In an ensemble like this, we're all working together."

* * *

Day one of each semester is a little - or a lot - more hectic than the rest.

Upwards of 80 students will sit cross-legged on the floor, creating haphazard patterns on the otherwise plain carpet. Stevens will then start partitioning the room. "Go over there if you're a senior," he'll say. "All of you - you can stay. You'll get in. You in the back can leave."

Stevens has worked to keep up with the growing demand for his samba instruction, but finds himself using waitlists and making special accommodations for different groups. Seniors always get priority, and 10 or 15 underclassmen might find themselves waiting a semester or longer to enroll.

The introductory section has grown to 60 or 65 students a year - a deafening number of percussionists in a studio built to hold two drums and perhaps only a dozen performers. In the fall, Stevens resorted to letting some students with no prior experience spill over into his 8 p.m. intermediate section. The result has been lukewarm.

The classes are now called "Beginners 1" and "Beginners 2," the "intermediate" title stripped altogether. The 9 p.m. advanced class remains audition only.

"It's a balance," Stevens said. "I have to find a way to teach it basic enough to brand new folks so they can learn to feel comfortable, but challenging enough that experienced people will not be bored." He worries he may not have accomplished either, but knows he can adjust his teaching style in future semesters to balance the scales a little better.

Lindstedt has her own concerns - that prioritizing the seniors will cause the advanced section to die out, since the younger students have to be the ones who make their way to higher level classes over the years.

"I think that one of the things to troubleshoot is to figure out a way to incorporate younger kids so there is a little more longevity in the program," she said. "I really hope that samba class stays alive and well in Penn's curriculum."

* * *

"I'm beyond caring about grades," said Derick Olson, a College senior finishing up his degree in computer science and East Asian languages and civilizations. He'll be headed to San Francisco after graduation to work for a tech company, and when he does, he'll remember samba unlike any other class.

"If you go to a lecture or a seminar, you're not present. Even though it was just one hour, if you're actually there, it flies by as a cool experience," he said. For Olson, it doesn't matter that the class is easy, just that the class is fun.

"It's almost like a study break that happens to be a class," he said.

College sophomore Leo Kensicher is studying mechanical engineering, but relegates samba to "absolutely one of my favorite classes at Penn." He plans to continue samba in his junior year.

Kensicher admits the low time commitment factored into his decision to take the class, but has found that even those who choose samba solely because of its ease still learn to love it.

"In the American education system and at Penn, we are so grade-focused," he said. "It would be great if other classes would be able to emulate samba in the sense that you're there enjoying yourself and trying to learn."

All of that learning was put to the test on Friday at the class' annual Spring Fling performance, which is unilaterally described as the "highlight of the year" by students. Of the introductory section, only about five students opted not to come.

Each section staged a 10-minute performance in the upper Quadrangle for a total of 30 minutes of drumming. Fling-ers laughed and danced and clapped to the beats. Stevens, who is bald, wore a brown afro wig that shook as he rocked to the rhythms.

"I have seen samba make people happy. It makes people want to move and want to dance," Stevens said. "I'm not religious person, but I enjoy spreading the gospel of samba."