Sue Riihiluoma had always loved Bermuda’s Gombeys and marching bands. The beat drew her in.
So when she saw the crowd of drummers on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue she stopped, gobsmacked.
“It was just outside the Apple Store,” she said. “A bunch of 80 women, drumming. The whole front of the glass building was shaking.”
The group was Batala NYC, part of an all-women Afro-Brazilian band that plays samba-reggae rhythms all over the world.
“It planted the seed,” Mrs Riihiluoma said.
Five years later she’s started a female troupe in Bermuda, Coral Beats.
The group of mainly untrained drummers made its debut on May 24, performing for runners and race spectators near LF Wade International Airport.
“We only knew one song and we stood at Stone Crusher Corner and drummed,” Mrs Riihiluoma said. “The runners loved it. They didn’t know we only played the one piece, because they only heard it for 30 seconds or so. The spectators, well that was a different story.”
It was an auspicious start for 20 people with little musical experience.
Mrs Riihiluoma pulled together the group, ranging in age from 25 to 70, from all parts of the island: friends, friends of friends and people who just happened upon them as they practised at Warwick Academy each week.
The jump-start came after a trip with her husband, Jay, to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil for the 2016 carnival. She’d been told she’d be able to see Batala in action and buy drums and costumes for the band she had in mind here.
“My children laughed before we left and said: ‘Mom, dad, you’re going to the biggest party in the world. What are you thinking?!’ I should have listened. I didn’t realise carnival starts at 10pm and ends at 5am, way past my bedtime.”
Mrs Riihiluoma returned home empty-handed, thinking her dream “was never going to happen”. She wasn’t completely defeated however. She decided to take drum lessons while she figured out her next move.
An introduction to musician Kim Deuss, stepdaughter of the late vet and ocean conservationist Neil Burnie, proved “serendipitous”.
She’d studied drums for nearly a decade, performed and recorded with bands in New York City and Los Angeles and recently played at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
“I love music,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what instrument, what genre, I love it all. I had a period where I was obsessed with samba and when Sue approached me I liked the concept — all female, the drums especially. It’s not an instrument you think of females as playing. I found it very empowering.
“I’ve done theory training and composition so I can interpret music and write. We had no sheet music and I hadn’t studied Brazilian music but I went on the internet and did research. The first song was my interpretation of some Brazilian music I’d heard.”
The pair started practising and then had to work out the next hurdle, finding drums to accommodate the band they had in mind.
“I had a group of crazy ladies willing to give it a go,” Mrs Riihiluoma said. “I brought my friends together and Kim brought a few friends.
“I knew it would take off and we did it without advertising. Just one person saying, ‘Can my sister come? Can my friend come?’ We had a core group of 12 who were committed to it and we’ve since grown to probably up to 25 committed, with no real [music] training.”
She learnt of an American woman selling drums and got on a plane to Manhattan.
“I kept coming across stumbling blocks and then, I stumbled on to them. My husband and I brought 16 drums back in the middle of a snowstorm in New York.
The biggest is about 24 inches across. They pack like Russian dolls so we had four bags containing four drums each.”
Ms Deuss was able to provide a few more and then a music teacher offered to help them learn “a few rhythms”.
“We’ve been practising once per week since the beginning of March,” Ms Deuss said.
“That says a lot for a group that had never played, to pick something up and start performing with not even a year’s experience. I think that’s truly incredible.”
They performed their new repertoire at a fundraiser for the Neil Burnie Foundation last month.
“We don’t typically dance, but we do step in time with the music and often there is lots of hand movement so it adds elements of entertainment and adds to the energy.”
Added Mrs Riihiluoma: “What’s important is that we have fun. Nobody’s going to know the difference if we’re not perfect. But we’re having a ball and people enjoy it.”