Czech band brings spicy samba sound to Central Europe

Tam-Tam Orchestra, photo:

The Tam-Tam Orchestra is the Czech Republic's only samba band. All three founding members of the band are native Czechs, and though none have ever been to South America, they've dedicated their lives to performing Brazilian and African music in Central Europe.

Tereza Petrasova sings of Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil. Samba, the official music of that country, fuels the Tam-Tam Orchestra's sound. Petrasova helped found the band in 1999 with her boyfriend, Milos Vacik and friend Martin Kreuzberg.

Vacik started out in a rock 'n' roll band, performing with a group called "Laura and the Tigers" before he first heard the samba sound.

"I was eighteen. I started with one Czech group called Laura a Jeji Tygri (Laura and the Tigers) and the leader asked me if I could play percussion. It was my first time playing percussion. I then met my professor in Stuttgart, in Germany, and he started to teach me about Cuban music, congas, and so on."

Life under the communist regime limited Vacik's access to the music that fascinated him. By then an accomplished percussionist, he spent a lot of time abroad to learn more.

"It was a very hard situation here in then Czechoslovakia. There was nothing. There was really nothing. No salsa, no samba, nothing. All that I know I learned in workshops in Western Europe. It was in Germany, in France and in Holland where I met the people who play this kind of music. When I listened to Samba for the first time, I thought, 'Wow, what is it? I don't know how they play it.'"

Vacik dedicated himself to the sound that he loved. He dreamed of starting a samba band, and took a step closer to realizing that dream when he asked Kreuzberg to fill in for him in his full-time band here in the Czech Republic while he traveled.

The two became friends and shared a fascination for the Samba sound.

"For me it's very challenging to understand or to penetrate into the world of polyrhythms, parallel rhythms and complex rhythms. They are very sophisticated in African and in Latin music. It's a great challenge. It's exciting learning them. It's exciting when you learn to play them and playing them, actually, with other people."

The two began performing with Petrasova as the Tam-Tam Orchestra in 1999. The group was quite a departure for Martin, a drummer since age 17. He'd played mostly in rock bands up until then.

"It's a different kind of communication than in a rock 'n' roll band, where you have one drummer, one bass player, one guitar player and so on. Here you have other percussionists and every one of them composes one structure. It's multi-layer. Every percussionist has one simple part that somehow fits into the part of the other percussionists, and so forth."

Soon after they started performing, the musicians found that they wanted to branch out beyond percussion.

"After the beginning we realized that it was probably necessary to expand the group a little bit. We incorporated chanting and switching instruments a lot onstage, so each of us would play three or four different instruments or drums. We had funny uniforms and masks and we were experimenting with all that. Now the orchestra is a six-piece where Milos is the band leader."

After years of small performances as a percussive trio, the Tam-Tam Orchestra now also features an electric bass player, a guitarist and a flute player. The group performed hundreds of gigs last year throughout the Czech Republic and beyond. The band recently released their major label debut, titled "Rytmikon," which is a collection of melodic world music.

Meanwhile, the group also performs as the Tam-Tam Batacuda - a stripped down, percussion-only show that's heavy on drums, dancing and tradition, Kreuzberg says.

"The orchestra plays original songs composed by Milos and Tereza. In the Batucada, we only play samba batucada. We play percussion instruments like the carnival style from Rio de Janeiro. That six piece that plays batucada is expanded sometimes by the members of the Samba school."

That Samba school, where the members of the Tam-Tam train apprentice drummers, is the only of its kind in the Czech Republic. The band opened the school two years ago as a way to get closer to realizing their dream.

"The dream was to have the group with the drums - lots of drummers. We want big energy, big sound, strong sound, because we love samba. The real samba orchestras in Rio or Bahia have lots of drummers: a hundred, five hundred drummers."

Vacik would like to see his group grow so large one day, but they're not there just yet. Right now more than 30 Czechs there are learning to play the rhythms of Latin America. Still, with each new member, the sound grows stronger and better, Kreuzberg says.

"The more percussionists that play one complex polyrhythm, the more exciting it gets. It just shoots you out into the universe. It's a great trip, I would say. (laughs)"