From many sounds, one beat

Boston Globe, April 11, 2011

NEW YORK – The narrow steps to the basement of a modest brick house in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn lead into a little enclave of Salvador da Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian drum culture.

Instruments of all kinds crowd the studio: timbales, congas, and homemade drums using trash barrel tops and other recycled materials. Recording equipment covers available surfaces. Strong incense wafts through the room.

And a man with dreadlocks and an ultra-wide smile bounds from the clutter to greet a visitor with a warm embrace. “I just finished writing a song!” he says, in a lush Brazilian accent. “I’m very happy. You must have brought good energies!”

Dende Macedo is in a good mood. In fact, Macedo appears fixed in a permanently excellent mood.

It’s a great personality for a drummer-bandleader, a role Macedo has assumed for a few years, most recently with the band Hahahaes – named for a Brazilian indigenous tribe – and with the new band he brings to Johnny D’s on Wednesday.

They play an eclectic sound where reggae, Afrobeat, merengue, and other forms of Afro-Atlantic music find their place. Portuguese lyrics, often recounting Macedo’s childhood memories or describing social problems back home, establish the Bahian base.

The members hail mostly from Brazil, but also from Japan and – in the case of Macedo’s wife, Leslie Malmed Macedo, who shares vocals with him and plays backup percussion – Philadelphia.

A jack-of-all-trades who combines teaching, workshops, and production work with his own music to make a living, Macedo, 33, has a striver’s work ethic but also a keen, almost wondrous sense of the role good fortune has played in his journey.

He grew up the son of a taxi driver and a food-service worker in the Federacao neighborhood – “a very simple ghetto,” he says, “not a favela but a simple community, with nice people” – in a family that practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble.

His first musical memories are from religious ceremonies, where he sang. His family and neighbors, detecting his ability, would wait for him to start the drumming, often with just kitchen pots.

His neighborhood fame grew until one day, at 15, he summoned up the courage to accost the iconic Bahian drummer Carlinhos Brown, who led the massive and influential ensemble Timbalada.

It was in that group, as he progressed from the fifth line to the front with the top players, that Macedo, whose real first name is Jailton, got the nickname Dende. It refers to the pungent reddish-brown palm oil that flavors the stews in Bahia.

“We were recording an album and I made a mistake,” Macedo says. Brown began to scold him – playfully, but Macedo wasn’t sure – and he went red with embarrassment. “And Brown said `Look at your face, it looks like dende!’ “

The nickname was just one of the gifts Macedo kept from his time in Timbalada. At 16, he toured with the band in Europe and Japan, a mind-boggling opportunity for someone of his background.

Later, it was his Timbalada credentials that landed him a gig teaching timbal drum to a Brazilian New Yorker who suggested Macedo try his luck here. The stamps in his passport from the overseas tour helped get him his first US visa.

Most of all, perhaps, Timbalada helped Macedo meet his future wife, about 10 years ago, when she was looking for a percussion teacher to help deepen her interest in Afro-Brazilian culture and saw a flier he had posted in her capoeira studio.

“I was like, yeah, someone from Timbalada, right,” Malmed Macedo says, laughing. “But I went to the class, and got hooked.”

Now Malmed Macedo, executive director of a dance company, shares a production business with Macedo and also sings in his band – in what Dende confirms is flawless Bahian-accented Portuguese.

“I’m such an impostor!” she says. But she’s also learned to let go of her worries, she says, and appreciate it when Brazilians come up to her after a show and engage her in Portuguese, assuming she must be an immigrant’s daughter.

The Macedos travel to Bahia every year, and Dende hopes to perform in Carnaval next year with a band made up of friends he has there. “I have it in my computer, in my mind,” he says. “I always think about these guys. They know everything about my music.”

For now, in Brooklyn, the couple pushes on with the hustle that the independent artist life requires. “Money isn’t everything,” Dende says. “The most important is to develop, to be together, and be positive. Everything that we want is going to happen.”