Och aye, it's that old Brazilian beat
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Arriving late for the opening party of the Fringe Festival last week, my arm was gripped by a slightly sweaty stranger. 'You should have seen it earlier,' he gasped enthusiastically. 'Dozens of people were dancing and shaking cans full of dried beans all around the bar.' And indeed, with the energetic beat of their tambourin drums, the visiting samba band called Fire Water Ensemble had briefly turned a drinks party in Ice House Street into Carnival in Central.
They come from far away. No, not Brazil where samba was born, but Scotland - a land less known for hot sun dance music but, as the seven members of the ensemble told me later, very keen on drumming. They sometimes play in villages outside Edinburgh as a support act for marching bands, pipers, caber throwers and drum majorettes, and apparently the villagers love the imported tradition.
'The local councils are pretty keen to get away from just having marching bands, so they keep supporting us,' said Rick Bamford, blues drummer, actor, composer and one of the founders of the group.
The members of the band include full-time musicians, community workers and people from a range of different backgrounds.
Gus Dow is a joiner, who has - since he became interested in samba a few years ago - become a drum-maker because Brazilian instruments are hard to find in Europe 'and they fall apart easily'.
Karen Slawek is a psychologist, while fire-swinger and dancer Chloe Dear organises pagan fire festivals. They were all drawn in by the sheer fun of the percussion form that started in Brazil a century ago after slavery and the once-forbidden capoera dances were legalised.
Samba is a peppery mix of Portuguese military music and West African rhythms, but has been much changed over the years for use in carnivals and parades.
In the Rio Carnival, the biggest samba fest of all, the music can be played by up to 1,000 people in what is called a batteria. The performers, who sometimes work all year to make and pay for their costumes, wear extraordinary, feathery body pieces over shorts and bikinis so tiny they are known as 'dental floss'.
Samba landed in London with a bang in the 1980s, and danced through the country. Groups sprang up in Birmingham, Liverpool and Hull as people began to realise how enjoyable group percussion could be.
The Edinburgh Samba School was formed in 1992 as a community group, with a manifesto that required access to everyone regardless of age and ability.
Samba has mutated in Scotland: there is a punk band called Bloco Vomit which meshes Brazilian drum rhythms with old British punk favourites. They are due to play in Hong Kong next month.
The music is more popular in Britain even than the gamelan - Indonesian percussion orchestras also involving large groups of people beating out rhythms, but which require a special and expensive set of instruments.
'And you can't parade a gamelan down Princes Street,' Bamford pointed out, referring to Edinburgh's most prestigious shopping street.
Now Fire Water Ensemble, the Fringe Club and the British Council are hoping the baton of samba will be passed from Edinburgh to Hong Kong. A workshop this weekend, open to anyone regardless of previous experience and which culminates in a parade performance next Sunday in Sha Tin, could be the beginning of community samba in the SAR.
'We've brought lots of instruments over, which we'll be leaving in Hong Kong,' said Mat Clements, who is mestre, or band leader. There is always a mestre, who plays a series of codes on whistle and drum to tell the other players when to stop and start, and where to change rhythm.
And among a varying range of drums, there is also always a surdo or large bass drum, which provides the heartbeat to the music. 'It's what makes you dance,' Slawek explained.
There is also a cavaquinho or little ukelele, played in this ensemble by Dave Troughton.
The pandero is the Brazilian national instrument - in English called a tambourine - which provides the swing, and which can be spun on the hand by showy bandleaders, while the tambourin is actually a little drum.
The Fire Water Ensemble is not, in its rhythms, particularly pegged to Scotland, but there is a professional group in Glasgow called MacUmba which combines Highland piping with samba to make a cool-country-hot-country mix that is apparently far from tepid. 'The Brazilians really liked it when MacUmba went there, although they didn't think much of the name.' Macumba is apparently one of several voodoo religions in Brazil, and taken too seriously to allow frivolous foreign bands to treat its name so lightly.
Fire Water Ensemble found a happier coincidence with their own name in Hong Kong. The Chinese characters for fire and water together mean paraffin, which is exactly the drink that Dear uses for breathing (or probably more accurately spitting) fire during some of the outside shows.
She has brought her experience of pagan fire ceremonies and a leather Vikingesque costume to help give this Scottish samba a Celtic identity of its own.
Rio is too professional and competitive to host foreign drummers during its carnival ('the people in the shantytowns know there are only three ways to get out - football, drug-dealing and samba - and they're determined to get good at samba') but Fire Water Ensemble spent the last Carnival playing in northern Brazil.
Wearing dental floss? I wondered, imagining how pale British skin might appear in mini-bikinis. 'No, we wore kilts and used woad on our faces.' Fire Water Ensemble has the heartbeat of Brazilians and the soul of Scots: a heady blend that can be seen today and Tuesday in free lunchtime shows at the British Council, or tomorrow and next Friday at 10pm at the Fringe Club for full performances. Tickets cost $120.
The Samba Synergy workshop begins tonight from 7pm-10pm and continues tomorrow from 2pm-5pm, and Sunday 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm, with final sessions on January 18 in Sha Tin. The workshop costs $850.
Details from the Fringe on 2521-7251.