How a local percussionist put Philly on the Brazilian map with PhillyBloco

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Before there was PhillyBloco, Mike Stevens was already on the local scene calling the changes with Alô Brasil.

Marie Ubaldini Mike Stevens PhillyBloco
HARD TO HANDLE: PhillyBloco builds on what founder Mike Stevens heard in Rio de Janeiro, but adds accordion, violins and more.
Marie Ubaldini

Before there was PhillyBloco, Mike Stevens was already on the local scene calling the changes with Alô Brasil — drum sticks in his hand, whistle gripped in his teeth. Playing with a top-notch Brazilian group was great but Stevens, still in his 20s, had dreams.

“The more people I can get excited about Brazilian music, the happier I am. That is my goal,” says Stevens. That’s why he started his own samba school to nurture newbies to the tradition. “Many of my students have never played drums before and don’t start off knowing Brazilian music.”

Clearly he’s doing something right. The school, Unidos da Filadelfia, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Drawing from the best students in Unidos, Stevens formed PhillyBloco in 2008.

“Originally we started out like the Rio blocos: drums, one stringed instrument and a singer,” he says. But Stevens, who professes a love for New Orleans brass bands and James Brown, had to add some horns, a minimum two trumpets and a trombone. And, why not, an accordion, some keyboards, a violin, a little of this and that and … “You look up and there are 24 people on stage!” laughs Stevens.

People who already know Brazilian music may be stunned and delighted by a PhillyBloco set. Yes, samba is at the heart of the sound, with all the percussion in a typical samba school represented, but that’s just the foundation. Stevens explains that after getting the Brazilian bug in college he began to travel to Brazil each summer to study with some of the “hotshot young percussionists” there. It wasn’t long before the bloco sound — born at block parties and carnivals in Rio de Janeiro — won his heart with the way it takes samba drums and adapts them to other rhythms like funk and ashé.

This has led PhillyBloco to some fantastic adaptations like Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” set to a Northern Brazilian beat with accordion and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” done up as samba funk.

PhillyBloco plays the Folk Festival at 5:25 p.m. Saturday.

See Also: Mary Armstrong picks the highlights at the 2015 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

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