The Brazilian Swing Feel Broken Down

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“How do I play with the Brazilian swing feel”?  I get that question ALL THE TIME!  And my answer is always the same; LISTEN and SING then LISTEN some more.  Many wise teachers always told me, “if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it”.  Amen!  You won’t learn it through osmosis or even coming to class once per week.  You have to put in some time, every day, focusing on your swing feel.  It’s not like learning a new language, it’s like learning how to speak the language you already know with a specific accent.  You already do it.  How many times have you imitated an Italian Mob Boss from Brooklyn with your fake mobster accent (Hey, you tawkin to me?), or sang a Bob Marley song with your fake Jamaican accent?   Now you have to learn how to speak music with a new accent or what we call swing feel.


If you grew up in North America or listening to N. American music such as the blues, jazz, rock n roll, soul, funk, hip-hop (should I continue?) then you have a natural tendency to play off the triplet feel.  Most of our music is based on the triplet, therefore playing a shuffle comes naturally or at least it should.  But many of us didn’t grow up listening to and playing Brazilian music. (I’m assuming my audience is not Brazilian here)  That doesn’t mean that we can’t play with the Brazilian swing feel accurately, it just means we need to absorb it.  And that presents the first assignment; LISTEN.  Listen to as much Brazilian music that you can get your hands on.  Samba, choro, MPB, bossa nova, maracatu, coco and forro. (there’s plenty more).  You need to absorb the swing feel.  Imagine yourself spending 2 years living in the UK.  Most likely you’ll come back being able to speak with a pretty good accent.   Do the same with the Brazilian swing feel.  Expect it to take 2 years at least just to get a basic understanding.


The next step is to sing the rhythm.  When I was living in Brazil I had an amazing teacher named Levy Miranda at a school in São Paulo called Groove.   He taught me some syllables to learn the swing feel that forever changed my understanding of it.  Here’s how it goes;


Ta-Ka-Da-Ta-Ta-Ka-Da-Ta-Ta-Ka-Da-Ta-Ta-Ka-Da-Ta………and it keeps going and going.


I bolded the Ta’s because those are syllables you should sing with an accent (louder).  This will help shape your swing feel and is a very accurate way for feeling rhythms such as maracatu and samba.   Put on a metronome at 60bpm and sing this pattern over and over.  Do this for about 2-3mins.  Now put on a Brazilian song that heavily leans on this feel and sing along trying to match what you’re hearing on the recording.  If you do this every day for 6months-1 year, you’ll start to develop a deeper understanding of the Brazilian swing feel.  Some people might take less or more time.  It’s not about how much time it takes you, it’s about the journey and the discovery.


There’s a lot of theories and methods to help you understand this swing feel as well.  My good friend Michael Spiro has a method that he calls “Fix-Time” in his book The Conga Drummers Guidebook.  He describes the swing feel as not being in Four/4 time or Six/8 time but rather something that’s in between a combination of these two feels called FIX time.


Another good friend of mine, Stanton Moore showed me a method that he uses to help demonstrate this swing feel.  He plays 3 against 2 in both hands.  After that, take out the flam so that you’re basically playing hand to hand (R-L-R-L).  You’re still is a 3 against 2 feel.  Now accent the first and 4th notes (R-L-R-L).  The next step is to slightly straighten this 6 feel…SLIGHTLY!  If you do it right…bam…you got it!   Here’s a video I did a while ago for Vic Firth where I discuss the swing feel and demonstrate Stanton’s method (at 4:20)


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