Mike Stevens: “Building Community Through Music and Music Education, That’s Why I Do Music.”

PhillyBloco2011Philly Bloco is a 23-piece, percussion-heavy troupe that performs samba, funk, reggae and other styles of music in the tradition of the blocos that perform on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

In July, 2016, our Ian Schobel spoke with Mike Stevens, who founded the group in 2009.

Was music a big part of your life growing up?

Everyone in my family was musical. We always had a piano in the house. When I was 12, I got my first drum set, which was something I just wanted to play around on. I never took formal lessons in drums. I did play drums in high school in a rock band but it was always more of a hobby thing. Even in college, after I discovered the Brazilian samba band at Wesleyan University, I thought to myself, “Okay, I love this, I want to do this but I didn’t really think about it as a potential career.”

It wasn’t until I came to Philly and started doing more music that it really dawned on me that, between performing and teaching, I could do this as my living. I’ve always been musical but never got really serious about it until my 20’s, post-college.

Can you talk about Philly Bloco and how it came into fruition?

Before Philly Bloco ever existed, I was in a group called Alô Brasil, which is a great group that is still very active in Philly. I was with them since early 2000. Then, in 2005, I started my own samba school, Unidos da Filadelfia.

I should say that “samba school” doesn’t necessarily mean just for kids. In Rio de Janeiro, a samba school is a community parade organization that plays samba drumming. So, in 2005, I started teaching samba drumming to adults and kids in the community. That was becoming very successful and I had students who were coming consistently and getting really good at percussion.

It was around 2008 or 2009 that I realized I wanted to do something different with Brazilian music than what I was doing in Alô Brasil, which was very traditionally Brazilian. I wanted to mix in other styles like funk, reggae, and New Orleans, and sing in English and in Portuguese. I had a lot of other ideas about ways to expand upon what I was doing so I took my core of drummers from my samba school and then added other musicians I was friendly with, like bassists, guitarists, singers, and that’s how Philly Bloco evolved. It came out of those classes I was teaching.

In the initial group of drummers in Philly Bloco, none of them were professional musicians, they were just people who learned Brazilian drumming from me. The other musicians, like the bass, horn, and vocals, were professionals. So, those two worlds came together and created this massive twenty plus person thing.

What is a bloco? 

There are drumming groups in Brazil that are more part of the “official” carnival parade, the massive festival and celebrations held every year around Easter, but the blocos are more informal neighborhood groups. They’re both based around percussion.

I got the idea for Philly Bloco from this movement. In Rio de Janeiro especially, where blocos are adding all these harmonic instruments and doing these live shows on stage where it’s not just 20 drummers, it’s drummers and dancers and singers that make up this whole big performance. And so there’s these groups like Monobloco and Bangalafumenga which are the groups I’ve been studying with in Brazil these past 15 years, and they sort of inspired me to do what I did with Philly Bloco: take my drummers, incorporate other musicians and create a full ensemble.

A bloco at its core is sort of a neighborhood drumming thing, but it’s become a lot more than that in Rio and it’s sort of what I’m trying to represent here.

How has Philly influenced you and your music?

I think there is a very under appreciated world music scene in Philadelphia. There’s a lot of good stuff. You’ve got your salsa bands, the Afro Cuban vibe, there are other Brazilian groups, and you’ve even got West African drumming and dance.

Apart from seeing other musicians and being inspired by the things they were doing, Philly and the Philly music scene definitely has a communal vibe. There’s this raw part of this musical community. I see that a lot in Brazil, you build the community around these musical endeavors.

Between teaching and doing Philly Bloco, I think an inspiration I got both from Philadelphia and Brazil was to make this something that’s a community-building experience. The people that come to see our shows, they’re sort of part of our family. Its not just like the band is on the stage and the audience is down below, we’re all part of one big unit. That feels like a Philly thing to me, that we’re all in this together.

What do you think makes music and the arts important to society?

That’s a big question. For me, what really drew me was the idea of building community.

When I was getting into teaching drumming, I saw these kids groups in Brazil who were basically after school programs where you go and you learn how to drum. And it was something where you could see the really positive impact it had, not only on kids but also on adults. This idea of building community through music and music education, that’s why I do music.

I especially love drumming because it’s very accessible and everyone reacts positively to drumming. You can really build something around music and people playing together. There’s something very special about bringing people together to do something like that. And whether it’s participating in a show or dancing at a show, or learning this music, I feel like music and the arts are such an integral part of any successful, happy society.

Think about it: what would life be like without music? It’s definitely a job well worth doing.

What does it mean to be successful as a music group or as an individual? 

I shouldn’t speak for other people but for the most part, the musicians I’ve met know that they’re not going to get rich playing music.

Of course, people have dreams of hitting it big and playing at the Grammys but for most people, that’s not realistic. Most kids who play basketball don’t make it to the NBA but you still play because it has value. It’s something you enjoy. I want to bring this style of drumming and this communal thing to an audience that might not be as familiar with it.

Turning people on to Brazilian music and getting people excited about drumming, whether that means they come to my class or go to someone else’s class, or they see Philly Bloco and they want to go to an Alô Brasil show or see another Brazilian group. That to me is what success is about. It’s getting people excited about this stuff.

What drew me to the music initially was that it made me happy. It made me want to dance. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re playing or listening to samba. The people who have come up after our shows over the years said so many times, “Your music just made me feel good” or, “Your music made me happy” or “I never though I’d wake up this morning, walk down Broad Street and end up dancing and smiling.”

That to me is what this is about, making Philadelphia a better, happier, more fun place to be. Success for me is reaching as many people as possible, continuing to grow what we’re doing, staying musically excited about our own stuff but also never forgetting that we are here to excite and entertain and engage other people, and if we’re doing that, we are successful.

Are there a lot of similarities in the way you approach making music and teaching music?

Probably, because my role in a group like Philly Bloco is similar to my role teaching. I’m the musical director, and in most cases I have a lot more experience with Brazilian percussion. Most of the guys in Philly Bloco are not coming from the Brazilian tradition. They’re mostly getting that instruction from me. In that way, it’s a lot of teaching the group how to play certain rhythms, or teaching some of the other instrumentalists a different approach to what we’re playing, or in the case of the singers it’s helping them, if they don’t speak Portuguese, with their accent or pronunciation.

With Alô Brasil, I would think of myself more as a musician and a player in the group. I played a lot of different instruments. In Philly Bloco, I’ve got the whistle and I’m doing a lot of cueing. I’m basically the conductor. I get to play a bit but most of it is sort of keeping everything on the rails, which is similar to what I do when I’m teaching.

Can you talk about your samba school, Unidos da Filadelfia?

The samba school itself is in Mt. Airy and it’s all adults. I have about 15 students who come consistently. When we do performances, we usually have between 15 and 20 people, so it’s a nice group. I’m working on growing that. I also teach a half credit samba class to more than 100 students at the University of Pennsylvania across three sections: beginning, intermediate and advanced. For years, I was doing an after school program in West Philly called Play On Philly where I teach samba to high school students. That just started back up again.

I would like to add that when I’m teaching or performing samba, I know this is not the music of my culture. I do speak the language, and I’ve been there a lot, but I’m not Brazilian.

I still think of it as borrowing this piece of very important culture from another group. And so it’s really important to me that I go there essentially every year to study and stay up to date on what’s going on down there so I know I’m teaching it right when I come back here. If I’m going to be known as someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to samba, I need to make sure I actually am. It’s more than listening to records and reading a book.

I’m in classes every day and what I’m learning down there I’m bringing back with me with. I always ask the teachers there if I can teach this back in the states and they say yeah, if you do it right, go teach and enjoy it. I really appreciate that about the approach down there. It’s not a protective “samba is ours” attitude. The vast majority of Brazilians I have met are very open to the idea that they want people to take samba and go enjoy it.

I’ve spent thousands of hours studying and performing and thousands of dollars traveling to Brazil and buying instruments, so Brazilian music has become my life. As long I’m doing Brazilian music and teaching it, ill be going there every year if I possible.

Where do you go from here? What’s next for Mike Stevens and Philly Bloco?

I always have this goal of getting our music in front of more people, especially those who aren’t familiar with it. People who hear it for the first time seem to love it.

We just did a show in Roxborough, which is a neighborhood we’ve never played before. It was at this outdoor event and I think a lot of people were at the event just because they’re in Roxborough, not because they came to see us. So a whole bunch of new people got to see Philly Bloco.

That kind of stuff I really like.

Our public shows that are for our fans. We sell our tickets and go to World Café Live. I love those shows, and we’ll always do those. But I do have the additional goal of trying to find more types of events where it won’t be our regular audience. I was just talking to a guy today about a Latin American music festival in Lancaster, and we haven’t done anything in Lancaster but I’m sure Philly Bloco would be well received there and it would be great to go out there and bring what we do to a brand new audience, to continue to spread the samba gospel to as many people as possible.

Doing that through Philly Bloco, my school and my students, trying to grow both of those things and expand our reach.

We need to make enough money to support our musicians but it’s not about being famous or rich. It’s about getting this wonderful music in front of as many eyes and ears and dancing feet as possible. That’s where I want to go, to keep building.

In Rio de Janeiro, it seems like every different neighborhood has its own samba group. If we got to a point where North Philly had a samba school, and West Philly too, and all of a sudden there were five or six samba schools, that would be great. There are multiple samba bands in Philly and there are little pockets throughout the United States but it’s not huge here yet. It would be great if everyone was into samba. I would love that. That’s certainly a big goal, and I think continuing to do what we do is our part in that.

It’s easy to become complacent and say, well, our shows sell plenty of tickets, we’re doing good shows in Philly, and we do some shows outside of Philly. I think we’ve been on that plateau for a little bit, and I do think there is some intentionality about saying, “OK. That’s good.” But we could be doing more.

Focusing on different towns and markets where they might not be familiar with us, I think you have to force yourself out of your comfort zone to make that happen. And its important in this stage of my career, what I and we have established in Philly is great, and it could continue to exist exactly how it is for 20 years, and it would be fine. But I think there’s more that we can do. And the more people we get excited about it. They’ll go spread the gospel to their people and hopefully it’ll become a viral thing.

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