Wisconsin brothers drum to a Brazilian beatby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Two Wisconsin brothers who love samba, started a Brazilian drum group in the Twin Cities a couple years ago. But unless you know them personally, you might never suspect their fascination with the music of a country that's so far from home.
St. Paul, Minn. — When you meet Pat and Tim O'Keefe, you'd never guess their passion is samba.
First there's the name -- O'Keefe is not exactly the most common in Brazil.
And then there's their hometown.
"Tim and I, we're spawned in the mud-flats of the Nemadji River in Superior, Wisconsin," Pat O'Keefe said with a laugh.
The O'Keefe brothers admit it's unusual for two middle-aged Midwesterners to be consumed with the thumping, hypnotic beats of Brazilian drumming.
Their love for all things Brazilian started in the mid-80s, when Tim marched in one of the first Brazilian parades in Minneapolis.
He'd always been attracted to world music. Every time he discovered something new, he'd share it with Pat, who's trained as a classical clarinet player.
In 2006, Pat took a trip to Brazil just before the country's world-famous Carnival. He came back wanting to keep playing this music.
The O'Keefe brothers say the rest is history.
Their group is called Batucada do Norte. It's an all-percussion samba band open to any one, of any level or musical background.
Batucada do Norte means, "drum group of the north" in Portuguese. Other Brazilian drum groups have sprouted in the Twin Cities through the years, but none of them lasted very long, Pat said.
At a recent rehearsal, twenty people gathered inside an empty ballroom at Macalester College in St. Paul. They stood in a half-circle with their drums strapped around their bodies. Tim faced the group after the first set.
"I know some of you guys are brand new," Tim said. "You did great! You did really, really good!"
A few minutes later, Tim O'Keefe started a groove with six people playing the timbau. It's a cone-shaped drum held in a sling over the shoulder and played with bare hands.
There is no sheet music or stands for this group. Those who have been playing for a while help the newcomers with the instruments and everyone dances along.
Cassandra Lyons, 37, tried her hand at a timbau for one song, then switched to a tamborim. It's the smallest, and fastest drum, and it's hand-held.
Lyons lives in Minneapolis and works as a massage therapist. She joined Batucada in March, after years of playing in African drum groups. Week after week, she said Pat and Tim come to life as if they were Brazilian natives themselves.
"I absolutely love them," Lyons said. "They're so laid back, they're so fun, yet they're both equally talented, just brilliant musicians in their own work."
Nearby, Renzo Hayashi banged away on a surdo, the largest and deepest of the drums. It's made from aluminum and played with a single mallet.
Hayashi was the only Brazilian at the rehearsal this evening. He never played the drums when he lived in Brazil, but picked it up after moving to Minnesota for college in 1996.
Hayashi said he loves the fact that two Midwesterners are helping spread his music and culture.
"They're like, these small-town guys, really," Hayashi said of the O'Keefe brothers. "But then all of a sudden they start playing. It's just something you just don't expect and they start jumping around and dancing and they're so into it. It's funny to watch but you love it at the same time."
They may look funny, but Tim and Pat O'Keefe are certain they'll keep drumming to their own beat for years to come.
- All Things Considered, 10/30/2008, 4:54 p.m.