Tony Watt: The Samba School Director and Musician Bringing Brazilian Rhythm and Carnival Performance to Manchester’s Streets
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Tony Watt is a musician, composer and musical director specialising in Brazilian rhythm and percussion. Since 1995, he has been the director of Manchester School of Samba (MSS), the first samba school in the North West of England, which combines Brazilian rhythm and melody with puppetry, costume and dance, in the tradition of Brazilian Carnival.
"What I run is like a club of people who are all interested in Carnival- Manchester School of Samba. I founded it in 1995... And so it's like a social thing as much as it is a band, we make our own costumes, and we make our own puppets, and I write all the music, organise it all."
Tony's Musical and Life History
Born to a Jamaican family, Tony's mother was a state-registered nurse, and his father, a Sergeant in the British Army, served in the Royal Engineers becoming their champion sprinter and boxer.
"He joined the army to get off the island, because he very quickly realized that Jamaica wasn't going anywhere fast ... The only war picture I ever saw was my dad, as the sole black face, and this, this long line of white faces- and they're all German, because he was looking at these German prisoners of war, he organized them into football teams [laughs] ... If you like, my dad is from * the * lowest of the working class - when he when he joined the army, he couldn't read or write ... And he, he kind of, knew about in quite an instinctive way about engineering. But then while he was in the army, he learns to read and write and gets a degree. So he emerges from the army, able to teach- and he ended up being a lecturer, training engineers in what's now EDF [energy]. "
Tony's father played the mouth organ and sang, and whilst his parents were not professional musicians, they were very invested in music, particularly in relation to dance and rhythm. This is something that Tony credits as an important foundation in his love for samba. "
My mum and Dad were into jitterbugging, there’s picture somewhere... Of my mum being thrown over my dad’s back [laughs]" "I was a child, you know, a very small child in the 1960s... And they used to have this, this program [on the radio] that I think it was on one particular day of the week- it was a weekday program, and I remember my mum- she used to, she worked nights, so she would usually be there doing the washing up, listening to this program or making a meal. But she knew all the different rhythms, you know, I'd say, “What's that?” “That’s a cha cha cha.” “What's that?” “That's a rhumba.” “What's that?” “That’s a samba.” So I asked her, what were all these different rhythms, and all the ones that came from Brazil- samba, I think there might have been a maxixe, which is a very old rhythm, popular in the 19th century. She was able to identify them, and so I decided I wanted to learn how to write sambas. Samba really appealed to me... So I, when I got a piano, one of the first things I did was to try and work out how to include that rhythm in the thing I was playing, and learn how I taught myself how to write sambas."
In school, Tony learnt piano, guitar and Eb bass, and sang in the choir. His experience of attending a military boarding school played its own role in moulding both his musical and political sensibilities: "
I mean, they sent us off to boarding school, because they thought that was the best way of combating the racism that you have to face, basically. And there's good and bad things about that... When I was growing up, I had to actively seek out black history. And that was one of the advantages of going to a public school, is that they have good libraries. And I was there reading about Black Power, [laughs] whilst they were trying to convince me of other forms of education… They had all these books- because it was a military school- they had all these books in the library. And I remember thinking, “Kind of strange that they have all this quite radical stuff…” I could read the works of Eldridge Cleaver, whilst they were [teaching] the complete opposite, politically.”
From Rural Kent to Manchester
Tony grew up in a small village called Lydden, about five miles from Dover. Living in such a rural area was a far cry from the industrial landscape of 1960s and '70s Manchester:
"You know, in my village, you could go sit on a hill, and my mum could come to the back door and say, “Your tea’s ready!” And I come down leaping, you know [laughs]."
Living in a border town, Tony had friends on both sides of the English Channel. He credits this with informing an important part of his European identity, and his opposition to Brexit.
"I used to get drunk with French friends [laughs]... I noticed that if I looked in [my] fridge, and then I went to some of French friends and went to their house and opened up their fridge, they had the same thing. But they hate each other, because they spoke different languages and are in different countries, but basically they lived the same way. A French tinge on one side and an English tinge on the other... I always regard myself as being Afro-European, that’s kind of the source of my irritation about Brexit [laughs]. [affects Kent accent] It’s just the other side of the bloody water!"
Tony left Kent in 1979 when he came to Manchester for University, initially studying Economics, then switching to Sociology and Politics.
"I didn't want to go to Canterbury, just because it wasn't far enough away. I thought, “there's got to be more- there's got to be more to life than Kent!" [laughs]. Then I came to Manchester, to go the go to Manchester Poly. And I was just coming to university because it was what you did [laughs]. I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted." "When I came to Manchester, it was fantastic, you know. I like industrial cities anyway, and so it was very much learning how to live in the city, pursuing- for fun- playing music, and then last of all, studying [laughs]."
The Manchester of the late '70s greatly differed in terms of its musical and social landscape, and Tony recalls how the Council's mass movement of families out of the poorly-constructed housing estates of Hulme paved the way for the historic Manchester music scene that he would come to participate in: "
They moved families out [of Hulme], and rented out a lot of those flats to students. And, you know, if you give like, accommodation that should have been for families to 18 year olds, what [are] they going to do? Knock the walls through, they’re going to make one room into the control room, the other into the club [laughs]. It was great- this whole kind of, alternative creative scene started up in Hulme. I mean, there was bad aspects to it as well- drug dealing and stuff like that. But there was something very vital about it. And out of that came Hacienda... I was a member of the Hacienda, I went along to the first one and I used to dance there regularly. Yeah, we played New Years Eve three times, at the Hacienda."
Becoming a Manchester Musician
Although Tony already played music for leisure, his musical experiences in Manchester during his degree solidified his interest in samba and Brazilian rhythm. Through a series of musical connections and jams, he joined the band Inner Sense Percussion, which propelled him into a career as a touring musician. From this, he became extensively acquainted with the UK touring circuit, as well as performing in more far-flung destinations.
"I wanted to get into the music scene here- I met up with some people who formed a band that doesn’t exist anymore, it was jazz, effectively. But I was really then, even more into Brazilian music and samba. And I really wanted to learn more about- I didn't know that they played percussion in Brazil. And I was learning more and I suddenly, a Brazilian friend introduced me to- he just phoned me up one day, you know, and said, “Hey! You know I said I wanted to make a band? I did, I did!”, and I walked into this flat, and there were about 16 or 17 people in there all played percussion, but I recognized the rhythm of the samba. And there was a keyboard in the far corner of the room- I walked over and started playing one of my, one of my pieces I'd written, and it just fitted together. So then I ended up writing loads of dance numbers for them, and touring all over the country- and to Singapore, and to Houston, Texas, and a few other places. But it was eight and a half years living in a van. [laughs]" "I’ve been to every bit of the British Isles, apart from the Isles of Scilly... And the Shetland Islands... But I’ve been everywhere else- there’s loads of places where I hear the name, and I just think, “oh, yeah, I've been there.”
The Formation of Manchester School of Samba
After eight and a half years touring, Tony decided that he wanted to remain in Manchester for longer, and more stable, periods of time. After leaving Inner Sense Percussion, he decided he wanted to play and teach samba more permanently within Manchester. "
We had tried starting a samba school in Manchester, in the bits in between touring where we were actually in Manchester, different bits of the band had tried to start a samba school, and it never worked because it would just get going, and then we go on the tour, and it would all collapse again. So once I was actually living in a house in Manchester, I had a relationship breakdown, and I was quite depressed about that. And actually… It meant that I decided to start the samba school. I had to explain what it was, to my friend [laughs], and then we started. And it was just, I was lucky, it was just the right thing at the right time."
Finding appropriate venues for both the rehearsals and performances for ventures of the size and scale of a samba school can be difficult- but Tony struck proverbial gold during Manchester's continually developing club scene of the '90s. "
A friend of mine had started a club called Sankey’s Soap, and he allowed me to- he gave me the opportunity, I paid a pound a head for each person that came through the door, as rent. And within, I think we started off with 12 people. And within a month, that was about 20 people, then within three months, that was about 150 people. And then within a year, it was 300 people turning up every Wednesday, just because it was the right thing, in the right place, at the right time."
When Sankey's Soap eventually had to close, Tony was tasked with finding a new meeting place for the samba school. Over the years, MSS has met at a variety of locations across Manchester, but the closing of classic Manchester nightlife hotspots, as well as difficulties with residents as a result of poor venue soundproofing, have led to further searches and challenges- until the samba school's new and now permanent home was found at Sacred Trinity Church in Salford. "
We had a period where we went from venue to venue all over central Manchester, because I discovered that if you have a Samba School that's for the whole of Greater Manchester, there are certain areas that you can't base it in- I couldn’t base it in Moss Side, because then people from the North of Manchester wouldn’t go there. I couldn't base it in North Manchester, because then people from Moss side wouldn’t go there." "I’m always very ashamed telling this story, because somebody who was in the samba school at the time, said, “have you thought about trying Sacred Trinity Church, and I went, “It’s in Salford!” [laughs] And he went, “anyway, just come and have a look,” because he lived in one of the flats, just down the road further into Salford. It was one of those, you walk into the door of a building, and it just. Feels. Right. It was a beautiful building, really nice atmosphere, and they, they couldn't do enough for us. So we'd only been there a week, and they put in shelves. It’s *lovely*... Because we've made some of our costumes there, and little bits of our puppets, we’ve rehearsed there, and we've put on showcases there as well."
Currently with over 50 members, Manchester School of Samba has fostered a real community spirit among its participants and audiences. Tony recalls fond memories that have taken place playing at Sacred Trinity: "
There was one week- it was my 60th birthday, so three years ago, and I'd kind of, I told a few people earlier on in the year, like in January or February, that I was due to be 60. And they said, “what are you going to do for?” “Nothing.” It's just like a speed limit sign, you know? [laughs] So that, that that Wednesday of my birthday, I turn up, and there's one or two people that I haven't seen for a while, you know. I thought, “oh this, this is good. A few extra people- great.” And then some more people turned up, who I hadn't seen for a long time. And I'm like, “hmm, that's good. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this” - you know, bigger pieces basically, more drummers. And I started getting more drums out of the cupboard. And then even more people came- so it was about, I think, 70 to 100 people there. And then it was only when one particular person came in, and I hadn't, she used to be a member of the samba school, and hadn't seen it for about three years, I’d seen her to say hello to, but I hadn’t seen her for about three. I thought, “there's something going on, they've arranged something”. And they'd all arranged it unbeknownst to me, via Facebook- a secret group I wasn’t part of. And they all turned up. It was great! Like, I'm always amazed by how long it took me to actually twig [exaggerated voice], “they’re doing it for my birthday!” [laughs]"
Manchester School of Samba has found a great deal of acclaim, both in Manchester and the UK, and in their performances in countries across Europe. Although this has formed both brilliant opportunities and fond memories for members of MSS, this is also bittersweet; Tony is both aware of the effects that Brexit will have on the freedom of movement of British musicians across Europe, and concerned about its impact on the samba school. "
We've also played the biggest Samba festival in Europe, although we haven’t done that for a long while, in Germany, in Coburg Samba Festival. My favourite thing we've ever done was a one off, it was in a town in the south of France. And so we got together and hired a villa between us- well it was a large house- between a group of us, and some other people were in accommodation provided the Agricultural College, which was provided by the festival. And that was just a glorious two weeks in the South of France. That was great. It took them three years to organise it, and a lot of money, and they did it in conjunction with the local Jazz Festival, there was one point where all the samba schools were put on coaches and bussed to the Jazz Festival to play these spots in the Toulouse jazz festival and then bussed back again, and they put out these tables in the streets and fed us all. It was fantastic, so well organised." "We’ve always had tentative links with other Samba schools, in other parts [of Europe] which aren’t possible now- for instance, we get invited to the Queen’s birthday in Copenhagen, and it would be nice to go one year. We would have to, you have to have all this paperwork, you have to insure every single instrument and itemise it, and you have to get international driver’s licenses and carnets… I think [Brexit] will be bad for a lot of people."
Showcasing The Carnival Ensemble
The combination of the musical ensemble, dancers, and carnival puppets and their animators are all intrinsic elements of Manchester Samba School. A member of MSS learned the process of puppetry creation from an established samba school in Barcelona, and now new puppets are created every year for their parades. These puppets take on ever-evolving forms in response to different Carnival and processional themes.
"There's an arrangement [to the samba procession]- you're kind of telling a story when you go down the street." "[One of the puppets] is a carbon atom [laughs]! But that's how my mind works... The theme that year for Manchester day was ‘out of this world’. So I thought, when people say “out of this world”, they usually mean “out of this universe”- most of this world, most of the universe is made out of carbon, well if it’s on this planet, it is. So why not have a carbon atom? The great thing was I can go to- well, I went to my best friend and asked, “can you build me a 12-ft high carbon atom?” He said, “yeah.” And that’s what he did! [laughs]"
Dancers are also an integral part of the samba school, both in terms of the visual and aesthetic elements they bring to a performance, but also because of the musical functions they provide.
"Dancers will immediately show you things that work rhythmically, although they don't necessarily start at the same point that the musicians do [laughs]. They usually start a few beats after(!) [laughs] But they’ll, you can see by just because they, they display in the entire body. And so you can immediately see the things that work, or if you're not feeling quite up to it, the things don't work. But then, them dancing to the music you're playing, then spurs the audience to join in their own way. And the whole thing builds on itself."
Musicianship in Samba
Although already an established musician and ensemble player, directing a samba school has granted Tony a degree of malleability to his musicianship, both in terms of the conducting and improvisational arranging of the samba school itself, and in relation to playing music by ear: "
One of the things about having [a large] number of people, is you can just think of something in your head you know. You say, “right you play that, you play that, you play that.” And then if you want to experiment and change, it you just change it. And it astounds other people, but it’s not actually that astounding that you've always got it in your head anyway [laughs]" "If I had to I’d read, I could read music, but I've always been somebody really plays by ear. There’s loads of advantages to reading music, you can see the shape of things, but... It's also analytical, I think in a deeper way."
Percussion itself is a source of fascination for Tony, and the spatial properties of the acoustic ranges of varying forms of percussion also factor into the way that music is taught at the samba school. "
One of the things I like about percussion is it really goes down to the fundamentals of sound- you know, funk means sound, as well as having an association with black American slang [laughs] Like, you start thinking about the funk in something, in all the senses of it, and the actual qualities of it, so that you can just have one note that fills a room, and then you start thinking about how it does that. And you can then abstract that into dance music, or you can hear, you hear used in classical, you can hear it used in a different way in jazz. In a way, if you think about how one bass drum sounds- whether it's a taiko, you know, the Japanese things. Enormous, great fantastic, fantastic drums. When you think like, this one note from that, or one piece from a gong- there’s a piece called ‘blues and the absolute truth’... It’s a fantastic piece of music. It's the same kind of idea where you've just got the quality of the notes, filling the space in a in a similar kind of way. And percussion really makes you go back to that idea of noise and space, we start by teaching people the relationship between the two."
The musical cultures of Brazil have been a major source of inspiration in this work. Having seen Carnival and Brazilian rhythms firsthand in Brazil, Tony has taken considerable note of the ensemble capabilities of Brazilian Samba schools, and the ways in which these musical traditions are deeply endemic to Brazilian culture.
"The one time I went to Brazil, I saw that because, take one of the instruments, there’s a little round drum called the tamborim... Well, there were some people who were playing it like: [beats drum softly], there was some people were playing: [beats drum harder] Or some people were playing [beats drum aggressively and mimics rhythm with voice]. All different, you know, there was no one technique, it was just whatever makes the sound. But they were all playing- all the notes were in exactly the same place." "I remember watching one of my favourite samba schools, Mangueria, and off to one side of the stage, and I'm looking up- and they’re all on stage, I'm off stage- I'm looking up at this, this phalanx of about 16 teenage girls, and they're all playing this really- we're talking really complex- it's, it's like, it's like, it was like a script if you like. Samba parts are, and they're playing the script of different, different sections that goes with a piece of music has been played, that's been written. But while they're doing it, they're talking to each other about on the telenovela last night. You think [laughs], how can you do that?! ...Absolutely incredible. ‘Cause it's just part of their [culture]." "One of the great joys of running a samba school is people approach playing music, and dancing, for different reasons. And sometimes they think, they'll arrive and they think that they have to be as good as the best instrumentalists they've ever seen. And it's not actually about that, because it comes out of a tradition in Brazil, and other other Carnival traditions where everybody takes part... In a profound way, in the, to make that sound, that that richness of sound that we hear on YouTube videos, it needs the people who can't really play as well as the people who are virtuosos."
Composing Brazilian-inspired Music
In addition to these roles as a musician and samba director, Tony began his musical career as a composer and arranger. He has largely been commissioned to write music for parades and processions, and draws his influences both from Samba and Brazilian rhythm and melody, as well as from varying unusual and unexpected sources:
"One of the pieces that I've had to do for the closing of the Cornerhouse, and that was just called Blackbird. And the reason why it's called Blackbird- I love telling this story!- was because the director, there was a whole closing ceremony that was called ‘The Storming’, that was devised by this artist Humberto Vélez- and he wanted me to, to write a piece, a processional piece for this particular occasion. He said, “Can you can you write a piece of music in the style of Burt Bacharach?” and stupido here said, “yeah, course I can!” [laughs] And then I went and listened to a piece of Burt Bacharach’s, because he said he wanted it to be in the style of Casino Royale... That is a really- it’s a really clever piece of music [sings tune of Casino Royale]. It’s a big circle. Very clever, really clever. I listened to it and I went, “oh, no!” [laughs] I thought, “what do I do now?!” Because I had a little bit of a tune, but I was kind of stuck, you know? I didn't, I thought about how I could make the bit of a tune that I had in my head into a circle, but I thought, “nah, nah, that won’t do really.” [laughs]. And I kind of like, had partially written something, and I walked out- I walked down the street here to go to the bus stop, and here was a black bird in the tree. And it went, [demonstrates tune], and I went, “thank you!” [laughs] Because as soon as I heard that, I heard the entire tune!"
In previous years, Tony wrote and composed with more regularity than in his current musical career- this is something that he hopes to remedy: "
The main thing I want to do is maybe start to think about, one of the things I miss, which is having the chance to write music more than once a year. Because what I have been doing is writing stuff for Manchester Day, and unless I feel like it, and I want to write another, another percussion piece, [I don't] really getting the chance to write music, whereas I used to just write for the fun of it. And I think I've got to get back to doing that." "There's been times when I've, there’s a tune I’ve written, and I've looked up from the keyboard- I've always liked being, being at the back- and I've looked up from the keyboard- and looked at the audience, and I remember there was this one, somewhere down Salisbury, or somewhere like that. And there was this, this couple in the audience, a man and a woman, and they were lost in each other, and they were lost in the music. And I thought, “that's why I write music”. "
Music-Making During COVID
The pandemic has had a substantial effect on musicians across Manchester, and Tony is no exception- Manchester School of Samba, a substantially large musical ensemble which needs face-to-face interaction as an intrinsic part of its group functioning, has not been able to meet on a regular, non-socially distanced basis for almost a year. "
One of the weird things about this year, 2020, that may be cursed forever [laughs], is that I haven't played- I've played one, one musical instrument once in the whole year, possibly the first time in my life that I've gone that long without playing any music. That tells me there's something wrong, that this has had a profound effect on me really... As far as the samba school goes [in terms of] starting it up again, I really, I miss all of the people, and seeing them once a week. And I also miss performing, I definitely miss performing."
In the period over the summer when restrictions were briefly eased, Tony recalls the last time Manchester School of Samba met outdoors in a socially distanced capacity, and the effect this had on the band and their gathering audience: "
The last [meet up] was interesting, because it was the day before the last lockdown came in. And we met up in Whitworth Park, and I’d forgotten the effect of a group of people doing something they love, can have, when we all start playing together. As soon as we started playing, people started gathering. People wanted to get involved, joining in the dancing. And you know, a little boy wanted to know how to play the instrument I was playing. And, it reminded me of the value it had, really."
Maracatu (See Video)
Maracatu is a piece named for the Brazilian rhythm of the same name; it was composed and arranged by Tony, and recorded by himself and members of Manchester School of Samba. The piece, recorded take-by-take, has five agogo bell players, four bass drummers playing with beaters and sticks, three snare drummers, and improvisational elements played by Tony on grand piano. "
You’ve got a choice when you choose to record a samba school. If the people who are playing are musicians, and they’re used to listening to what's been recorded before them on headphones, and then playing along to it- which is a skill in itself- then you can do it and you can overdub, but actually most people that is really off putting, because either the level in the headphones isn't right, or it’s too loud and they can’t really themselves- it’s something that’s a skill you acquire from being in studio. So what I usually do is group them according to instrumental groups. They'll call the people that play the shakers, and the snare drums, and some of some of the big bass drums, “the kitchen”, that keep the whole thing going. And then there's lots of things that go on top- there’s tamborims, and the agogo bells, and any singing that’s going to happen. There's the agogo bells in the background, and [I'm] improvising over the top.... [One performer] made this horrendous mistake. So I decided I wanted to cover it up, so I just improvised on the top. But I’d had a number of ideas in my in my head for a few days, so it just turned into this whole piece basically, building it up one bit at a time."
This video is accompanied by a series of photos from Manchester Samba School's performances.
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Tony Watt: The Samba School Director and Musician Bringing Brazilian Rhythm and Carnival Performance to Manchester’s Streets
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