Interview by Allan Sko
“Raio de Sol was born on a balmy spring night in October 2013 with eight drummers at the Downer Community Hall playing on a drum kit repurposed from the tip, two djembes, and a bunch of pots and pans.”
And so goes the humble origin story of Raio de Sol, according to founding director Niraj Lal. As we prepare to bid 2023 a fond farewell, the Canberra-based community samba band is gearing up to celebrate their 10-year milestone. And in fine style. We’ll get onto how in plenty of detail soon enough, but first, Niraj has more to give us on the group’s beginnings.
“The original musos wanted to join together to play samba rhythms and gig and be radically inclusive to anyone who wanted to join,” Niraj explains. “With a handful of rhythms borrowed from Olodum and Arco Iris (a Cambridge-based Community Samba Band in the UK) it was the start of something magical.”
Throughout the ten years, the band has been dedicated to their come one, come all mantra.
“Radical inclusivity has remained a touchstone for the group,” Niraj says. “The band brings together Canberrans from every walk of life, with new members accepted at every rehearsal. One rehearsal qualifies you to play at a gig.”
And they were serious about this noble endeavour, being quick to capitalise on the band’s auspicious start.
From auspicious beginnings big things grew
“In 2014, Raio de Sol incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation, and received seed funding from the National Multicultural Festival to buy some drums. The rhythms haven’t stopped since,” Niraj explains. “The band has grown to play everything from local gigs on the Canberra music scene to TEDx performances to weddings, and is now a regular at the Sydney Mardi Gras parade, the National Multicultural Festival, and the National Folk Festival.”
The list of achievements doesn’t stop there, with last year marking one of the band’s greatest feats. As committee and band member Rafael Florez explains:
“Since 2018 the band started connecting with samba groups from other cities, even representing Canberra at the amazing interstate Samba Encontro events,” he says.
“In 2022 we actually HOSTED the first edition here in Canberra and it was the largest gathering of samba drummers and dancers in Australian history. It was so much work but we played one of our best sets ever and solidified Raio de Sol’s place in the national samba community.
“This was a huge milestone for our not-for-profit, community-driven, humble beginnings band!”
The magic of community
People and community are the lifeblood of Raio de Sol, with many figures working tirelessly to keep this beautiful group from strength to strength. As one of the group’s early adopters, band and committee member James Hetherington, explains:
“This magical venture started for me a bit over nine years ago when I went to watch one of Raio’s performances,” he says. “I was offered a go at drumming while they played at a samba show. I was instantly hooked! I joined soon after and have never looked back.”
James’ enthusiasm positively radiates. It’s a feeling that emboldens any group member you care to converse with. He goes on to explain what summons this ebullient spirit.
“The infectious music, the diverse, amazing people, the challenge and satisfaction of learning an instrument and playing it in harmony with others, the warm and welcoming social scene, the FUN,” James tirelessly lists. “It’s been a wild ride and such a good time.
“The connection to community and culture is what I love the most,” he continues. “When we play, the appreciation and joy we receive is addictive. What we give, we receive back tenfold. Raio has been a welcoming home to so many people over the years. And they each, in turn, have brought something different and wonderful to the band.
“I have learned so much about Brazilian culture and many other cultures, reflecting the incredibly diverse range of people who come to play. It has also provided me with many unique and fun experiences, none the least putting on a float and parading in Mardi Gras for many years now!”
Where samba beats and friendships bloom
Oh, he’s not done yet. I told you the gent was passionate.
“Raio has connected me with a wealth of great friends over the years, many of whom I’m not sure how else I would have met,” he says. “I’m forever grateful to Raio for this. After seven years in a lead role running the band, I’m now supporting a new generation of devotees to take the Raio to new places.”
Regarding the band’s merits, fellow band + committee member Rebekah Day enthusiastically joins in.
“For me, it’s definitely the community,” she chimes. “I got to know band members as a samba dancer, and Raio de Sol members were always so nice and welcoming.
“After joining, I got to see a different side to our band and witness how much work
and dedication went into performances and bringing music to the public.
“Now, as a committee member, I get to continue that legacy of fun performances in a welcoming environment.”
There is a clear pattern here: people are drawn in by the fun, music, and camaraderie on display; they join and get swept up in it for years, find something deeper, and join the committee to help grow the group further. Community, and the friendships formed therein, resonate strongly with each member.
“This band has so much heart, and over the years, a huge number of members have found lasting friendships,” enthuses band member Nicola Wardrop. “I learnt to play an instrument from scratch and found joy in the culture behind the music.
“The chaos and absurd fun of a ragtag community outfit making its way in the Canberra scene is a total hoot, too.
“It can be shambolic. But when we nail a new rhythm together? It feels so good.”
Into the future with a FREE STREET PARTY!
And so, we have the past and the present of Raio de Sol. What of the future, and marking this remarkable 10 years of existence? This, my friends, is where you join in the fun.
“We plan on taking what we do and love best and showcase it to our Canberra community!” Rafael enthuses. “We’re hosting a free street party focusing on Urban Latin, and Roots music and culture – with all local bands including a performance by us in the middle.
“We also have a free public workshop and jam for new and old members. All happening smack bang in the middle of Kambri @ ANU. You’ll also be able to see a photo exhibit showcasing the band and it’s history at Badger & Co (the ANU bar).
“There will be high-energy drumming with friends old and new, bringing the people of Canberra along for the ride with our best gig ever,” Nicola joins in.
“They’ll be plenty of laughter about some of our more memorable gigs over a few beers, and feeling proud of our 10-year stats: over 150 gigs, over 200 members, growing our instruments from those pots and pans to more than 40 drums, agogos, tamborims, shakers, many of which have been imported from Brazil.”
For some, such as Rebekah Day, the day will be about the quiet, personal moments as much as the grand scale party.
“I’ll be spending the day catching up with old and current members, along with beloved friends and family of the band,” she says. “It’s going to be such a big day of partying.”
As well as celebrating 10 years, the Saturday, 18 November party also serves as a statement of intent for the following decade and beyond.
“We’ll keep doing what we do best,” says James. “Entertaining Canberra and beyond with fun Latin tunes, making new friends, teaching all those who want to learn how to play and providing connection to a wonderful social scene.”
“While band members come and go,” Rafael adds, “you’ll continue to see Raio de Sol’s presence at local events like the Multicultural Festival, National Folk Festival, Mardi Gras, Floriade and other Samba Encontro events around the country!”
“Raio rolls with the mores of its members at any one time and embodies their passion and energy, concludes Nicola “This band will always be doing new things and continuing with beloved gig and community commitments around the ACT and NSW.”
10 happy years with many more to come.
And there you go. Raio de Sol; the Canberra community group with ten happy years to their name with, you feel, the best yet to come. It’s the very definition of A Good News Story, and it’s a narrative that you can very much be part of, whether as a party-goer or player.
“We welcome anyone!” Rebekah enthuses. “We’re a community band that is open to people who are beginners all the way to professional musicians. We have members who come from all walks of life that come for the excitement of foreign instruments and sounds but stay for the socialising and community.”
“Mark down our anniversary event on the 18 November in your calendar now!” James implores. “We want you to come and party with us. And if you have ever thought about learning to play an instrument and you love Samba, there’s no better time to join us than right now!”
“Come for the afternoon workshop!” Nicola implores. “You’ll be playing a rhythm by the end of the session, and won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face.
It is in closing that Nicola offers one of the strongest arguments for joining in.
“People always say that it looks fun when we’re on stage. And you know what? It is even more fun than it looks,” Nicola says. “The thrill of playing live with up to 30 people on stage? With a leader bringing the rhythms to life differently every time, keeping you on your toes, building the energy on stage and in the room with every break…?
“It’s like nothing else.”
PACHANGA!—Raio de Sol’s 10 Year Fiesta—is a free event at Kambri @ ANU on Saturday, 18 November. The day includes the delights of Los Chavos, This Way Orkestra, Chicharrita Club, Hit-N-Miss, Baila Chile + Momposina, DJ Dede Da Cruz plus a free public workshop + jam. Registration is essential via Humantix!