In 2010, Julio Pabon was given the opportunity to start a Brazilian samba school at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Except, there was a problem – Pabon had no instruments to teach on, and no budget to fill that void with.
So, Pabon got creative. He started making his own instruments, using anything from retired kick drum shells to steel cans, barrels and buckets. In the beginning, when hospitals were still using the material, he stretched X-Ray film over the drum shells to act as a drum head. To make certain hardware pieces such as tension rods, Pabon found himself heating up, bending and forming metal pieces on his kitchen stove and quenching them in a cold pot of water.
In this way, Samba Da Vida MKE, the Brazilian school currently run by Pabon and Bony Plog-Benavides, was literally built from nothing. The group has since separated from the Conservatory and has become its own entity. Originally, Pabon had started the group with Max Day, trombone player for the Milwaukee ensemble De La Buena. Day has since moved on to other ventures, and has since been replaced by Plog-Benavides, who has been with the group since its beginnings. It was a perfect fit considering she had become fascinated with Samba and Brazilian percussion in grad school at Arizona State University.
“Upon moving to Milwaukee, I met Julio and heard about his dream of putting together a samba group – he wanted 100 people playing,” Plog-Benavides says. “I just knew I wanted to be involved somehow.”
In its current state, Samba Da Vida MKE consists of anywhere between 15-20 people. It’s a percussion ensemble that celebrates the traditions of Brazilian music while also creating a strong community bond through music and dance. The group performs at parades private parties and community events, and can be seen in the Wauwatosa Independence Day Parade every year. Samba Da Vida MKE often collaborates with other organizations in the city that celebrate cultures from outside of the United States, such as De La Buena and Bembe Drum and Dance.
“We all work towards bringing more diversity, music and cultural awareness to the city of Milwaukee,” Plog-Benavides says.
It’s a group that practices the diversity that it preaches, and encourages people of all ages and skill levels to participate, whether or not they’re familiar with samba or Brazilian music.
“I intend for everyone to feel welcome,” Pabon says. “I want them to feel comfortable and capable but challenged at the same time. And I want them to feel like even though its Brazilian music, they can make it their own and be a part of the creative process.”
For those who are curious but feel like there could be a level of cultural appropriation because they aren’t Latin American, Pabon ensures that the nature of Samba music and what the group does makes it unique to Samba Da Vida MKE.
“We’re bringing our own influence into it – its not such a strange thing because there are so many differences in Samba but we also always want to be respectful to the tradition,” Pabon says.
New members are offered the opportunity to make their own drum with the guidance of Pabon, similar to what he was doing in the infancy stages of the group. Eventually, if they’re willing to spend the cash, they can upgrade that DIY drum to one supplied by Grooversity, an organization started by Brazilian percussionist Marcus Santos that promotes music – especially drumming – as an educational resource and catalyst for social change.
Its a mission statement that Samba Da Vida MKE takes to heart, which is evident in even just the name of the group, which has two translations – “samba gives life” and “samba of life.”
“That name encompasses what everyone has described they experience with our group,” Pabon says. “We’ve become a tight knit family over the years, and all of us can safely say that one reason we play together is that it gives us life – it makes us feel better and brings us happiness.”
And happiness and healing was something that everyone could have used a little more of during the mostly grim 2020. But Pabon says that one of the aspects that kept him and the members of the group positive was the opportunity to get together – at first outdoors and socially distanced – and perform.
“We miss our audiences,” Plog-Benavides says. “We get so much energy from them.”
But as shows are returning, so too will Samba Da Vida MKE. Those who are interested need to just reach out on social media and then show up for a free trial. Pabon will have an instrument ready for you, and from then on, its a monthly fee. But that fee is just to keep the lights on at the studio – Samba Da Vida MKE is more concerned about its growing family, and would love to have any and all who are interested in Brazilian Samba music.
“Money isn’t an issue – where you come from, who you are, nothing is an issue,” Pabon says. “It’s all inclusive and everyone is there to welcome you in. Even if you leave for a while, the doors are always open.”