A Life with Drums: Harlem Samba


A Life with Drums is a nonprofit music education organization dedicated to promoting inclusive educational programs, where participatory music plays a central role in a variety of educational settings. With a strong emphasis on samba percussion, a highly participatory musical form, the group prioritizes characteristics that maximize student engagement and decentralized learning to foster an inclusive and collaborative learning environment. Originating as the Harlem Samba program at the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City, A Life with Drums has expanded its reach to other schools and school districts, providing teacher professional development, supporting community bands, and fostering non-traditional arts education through collaborative partnerships.

A Life with Drums envisions a landscape where participatory music serves as the foundation for music instruction in diverse educational contexts, both within schools and community settings. We believe that samba, with its participatory structure, is a powerful musical form that works well with people of all ages and experience levels. The instructional approach prioritizes learning rhythm and music concepts through active engagement, emphasizing rote learning over the reading of musical notation. By incorporating these time-tested techniques used in various cultures and musical traditions, a deep understanding and genuine appreciation of music among students is cultivated.

Participatory music embodies the following characteristics, which shape our approach:

  1. Maximum Participation: Participatory music prioritizes the goal of fostering active engagement and involvement of all participants.
  2. Embedded Participatory Characteristics: The very structure of participatory music integrates elements that encourage active participation and collaboration.
  3. Breaking Barriers: Performances transcend the artist-audience distinction, creating an inclusive environment that encourages everyone to contribute.
  4. Group Memory: Musical information is shared and stored collectively within the group, fostering a sense of communal knowledge.
  5. Decentralized Learning: Music learning is distributed among participants, empowering individuals to become active agents in their musical development. Students learn from each other as much as they learn from the teacher.
  6. Event-Centered Participation: Music participation revolves around meaningful events that bring people together in shared musical experiences.
  7. Simultaneous Performance and Learning: Performances and learning situations often coexist, providing continuous opportunities for growth and development.
  8. Emphasis on Process: Participatory music values the process of creating and engaging with music, prioritizing the experiential journey over the final outcome.

By nurturing participatory music practices, we aim to cultivate vibrant and inclusive music communities that recognize the important and meaningful contributions of all individuals. We hope to make active music making a central part of people’s lives, promoting connection, creativity, and embracing the joy of shared musical experiences.

In 2006, the Harlem Samba program was established at the Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA) as a response to the unique challenges faced by many instrumental music programs in urban schools, such as overcrowded classrooms, a transient student population, and a wide range of prior musical experiences. After witnessing a samba rehearsal in Brazil, the program’s director, Dana Monteiro, recognized the potential of samba to engage students, leading to the introduction of samba at FDA.

Originally established as an after-school club with twelve Brazilian and non-Brazilian drums, the samba ensemble quickly garnered significant attention from students, teachers, and administrators. In 2008, the school received support from the Contemporânea Instrument Company in São Paulo, which allowed the program to acquire a collection of authentic Brazilian instruments, including the tamborim, surdo, caixa, repique, and chocalho. With these additions, the total count of samba instruments reached 50, perfectly matching the average class size. As a result, the program was able to replace the traditional lecture-style music survey course, found in many New York City high schools with large class sizes, with sequenced courses centered around active music-making in samba.

The participatory nature of samba proved ideal for the school environment at FDA, enabling the seamless integration of students with varying skill levels and affording every student the opportunity to have an active class experience learning to play an instrument. Within just three years, the program experienced exponential growth, with 350 students per week learning samba percussion.

Samba quickly emerged as the centerpiece of FDA’s music program. The group’s dedication to authentic representation of Brazilian music has earned them invitations to perform at many of New York City’s most famous venues. Their performances have been featured in documentaries and television programs, showcasing the richness of Brazilian music and culture. The program’s commitment to promoting cultural exchange has led to extensive domestic and international travel, providing opportunities for performers and valuable cross-cultural interactions.

The achievements of the program and its director, Dana Monteiro, have been recognized through numerous awards for their commitment to educational excellence. Notably, they were honored with the prestigious Brazilian International Press Award for their outstanding contributions to the promotion of Brazilian culture in the United States. This achievement becomes even more remarkable when considering that none of the program’s participants, including its director, are of Brazilian descent. These accolades serve as a testament to the program’s impact and its invaluable role in fostering cultural appreciation and understanding through music education.

In 2017, A Life with Drums, a nonprofit organization, was established to expand the successful samba-based music instruction model from Harlem Samba to other schools and communities. The organization supports music programs in public and private schools in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. The company also provides workshops and training sessions to college students, community groups, and educators across the United States and internationally, aiming to enhance non-traditional music education and increase access to the lifelong benefits of music participation

Harlem Samba at the Frederick Douglass Academy
Harlem Samba serves as the vibrant heart of the music program at the Frederick Douglass Academy, offering a transformative musical experience for students. With five large beginning classes and an advanced ensemble of approximately 30 members, every student at the academy has the opportunity to learn to play an instrument, creating an inclusive and active music-making environment.

A Life with Drums further enriches this program by providing valuable support in various ways:

  1. Financial Support: The organization allocates funds to acquire new instruments and repair existing equipment, ensuring that students have access to high-quality and authentic musical instruments for their learning and performances.
  2. Workshops with Visiting Percussionists: A Life with Drums sponsors workshops with accomplished percussionists from around the world, exposing students to diverse forms of world percussion beyond samba. These workshops broaden students’ musical horizons and provide them with valuable insights and experiences in different musical traditions.
  3. Recording Studio Support: A Life with Drums contributes to the establishment of a recording studio, which enables the production of high-quality audio and video recordings. This resource facilitates the creation of educational materials and allows for the development of internet-based lessons, broadening the reach of music education beyond the confines of physical classrooms.

Harlem Samba maintains a longstanding relationship with the esteemed leaders of Acadêmicos do Salgueiro, one of Rio de Janeiro’s renowned samba schools. This partnership brings authentic presentations of Brazilian music, connects with Rio de Janeiro samba musicians, and imports a rich rhythmic repertoire to Harlem Samba. These experiences enrich the students’ understanding of Brazilian music and foster connections with other samba communities worldwide.

Harlem Samba has become a highly skilled ensemble, sought after in the New York City area and beyond for professional-level performances. The group has travelled extensively, performing and interacting with other samba groups in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and throughout the United States. These experiences contribute to their growth as artists and ambassadors of cultural exchange through music. Our vision is to continue cultivating Harlem Samba as a beacon of musical excellence and cultural connection.

Harlem Samba School Performance

Links to Performances:
Promo Video   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDUJd06XWn8&t=1s
Video performance for the 2021 Virtual Carnival of Edinburgh Scotland

Video of Student Created Arrangement:

Example of Online Lessons
Surdo Lesson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZv7TUIytQo

Caixa Lesson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5JAKe_Lxrk

Full Arrangement Training Videos


Teacher Professional Development
A Life with Drums is committed to empowering educators through professional development opportunities that expand their skills and knowledge in samba percussion. Our program offers teachers the chance to immerse themselves in samba music for a semester, fostering their growth as music educators. Through this training, teachers form small ensembles and receive complete sets of samba instruments for their students, providing a platform for hands-on learning and active music making.

We believe in the power of teachers as catalysts for lifelong music learning and participation. Our professional development series equips educators with the tools and resources to create engaging and inclusive music experiences in their classrooms. By fostering a love and understanding of samba percussion, we aim to inspire both teachers and students on a journey ofmusical exploration and personal growth.

Furthermore, our commitment to lifelong learning extends beyond the professional development series. Many teachers who have participated in our program continue their musical journeys by joining the community ensemble. This ongoing engagement allows them to further enhance their skills, collaborate with fellow educators, and contribute to the vibrant music community we strive to build.

Through teacher professional development, we aim to empower educators to create transformative music experiences for their students. By nurturing their passion for samba percussion and providing ongoing support, we believe in the potential of teachers to ignite a lifelong love for music in their students and foster a vibrant and inclusive music culture within their schools and communities.

Samba in Schools Program
A Life with Drums is dedicated to fostering arts education in schools across the New York City metropolitan area through collaborative partnerships with schools and arts organizations. We engage a team of skilled teaching artists, including former members of Harlem Samba and talented Brazilian musicians based in NYC, to deliver a range of impactful arts programs.

Our programs include short-term in-school workshops, year-long after-school programs, and performance assembly programs designed for elementary, middle, and high schools. We aim to create immersive experiences that connect music lessons with social studies and Latin Studies curricula. By intertwining music with other disciplines, we hope to broaden perspectives and promote cross-cultural understanding inspiring the next generation of artists and cultural ambassadors.

Community Ensemble
A Life with Drums sponsors a nighttime community ensemble for adults, which consists of   former members of the Harlem Samba ensemble from the Frederick Douglass Academy and members of the local community. The ensemble provides an opportunity for continued participation in samba drumming after graduation. Members are invited to perform with the school-based version of Harlem Samba at local performances, fostering a sense of connection and collaboration between current students and graduates.

The community ensemble promotes lifelong participation in music making and serves as a platform for individuals, including former student participants, to continue their musical pursuits beyond their time in high school. By providing a space for ongoing musical engagement and collaboration, the community ensemble fosters a sense of continuity, connection, and personal growth in the realm of music and an improved quality of life. Through their performances, interactions, and shared experiences, the ensemble members inspire and encourage a lifelong love and commitment to music, ensuring that music remains an integral part of their lives.

                                                                      Harlem School of the Arts Performance   

                          Performance on the  High Line in New York City

Audience Served
A Life with Drums has worked with thousands of students at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem. It has also established smaller programs in 11 different elementary, middle, and high schools in New York City, as well as schools in Los Angeles and Washington.

In addition to school programs, A Life with Drums has conducted assemblies and short-term workshops in various locations, including New York City, Westchester County, and Connecticut. It has also supported community samba ensembles, predominantly comprising adults, in other cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Salvador, Mexico City, Mérida, and Lagos, Nigeria. University programs across the United States have also benefitted from their involvement in college samba ensembles.                                       

NYC Japan Day Parade
To further expand their reach, the organization has provided online materials, including recorded videos and Zoom lessons, to groups beyond the New York area. This allows them to connect with and support individuals and communities who may not have direct access to their in-person programs.                                                                          Japan Day Parade

 Recommendations for replication and/or adaptation
A Life with Drums is committed to creating and sustaining samba programs in collaboration with community groups, schools, and universities, both within and outside the United States. We  provide essential support to ensure the success of these programs, offering assistance in obtaining authentic samba instruments from Brazil, which are relatively inexpensive and can be shared among multiple students, making music more accessible.

In recognition of the increasing importance of remote learning, we also provide a range of digital resources. These include video and audio materials, online lessons, repertoire guidance, and exercise materials, catering to both teachers and students studying remotely. Additionally, teachers in our partner programs receive a copy of a method book written by the founder of our organization, offering valuable guidance and support.

It is worth noting that Director Dana Monteiro, initially learned samba percussion while teaching his students at the Frederick Douglass Academy, without prior expertise as a percussionist. This highlights our belief that anyone can learn and start a samba program with the proper support. Samba ensembles can be found in cities worldwide due to their participatory nature, accessibility, and room for growth. The crucial step is to begin, and A Life with Drums is available to serve as the first resource, offering assistance and guidance in the creation of new programs in any location.

Our vision is to empower individuals and communities to embrace the joy and richness of samba music. By providing comprehensive support, including instruments, digital resources, and expert guidance, we aim to break down barriers and ensure that anyone, regardless of their background or experience, can embark on a musical journey with samba. Together, we can cultivate thriving samba communities worldwide and celebrate the transformative power of music in connecting and uplifting individuals and communities.

(646) 509-4280