The Life & Times of An English Provincial Samba Enthusiast, volume one
(2003 - 2007)

 

I am a member of Poco Loco. I have spent the last four or so years traipsing off to board vans full of the random & pleasant characters one can only find together when one gets involved in such hobbyist ventures. I joined the band & committee when I moved to Blackpool. I was drawn into it by my friend, pStan, who is the Musical Director. Not having blitzed the country's garden fetes and charity parades since my early teens, it was an eye-opener to see quite how much of this community-spirited stuff still goes on. At turns marvellous and strange, it certainly gives you a chance to see some bits of the area you wouldn't otherwise see. It also provides a bit of a giggle about the ideas some people come up with in the name of cheering people up & the sheer diversity of bookings taken by a small amateur samba band.

The band itself is a great one. The sound is sometimes dependant on the numbers & abilities of those who happen to be there; however, we generally rise to the big occasions & do everything asked of us in even the most difficult circumstances. Of course, the most offensive aspect of the dates is the periodic requirement to stand in the rain whilst playing, whilst attempting to look happy. Samba playing is better experienced outdoors (due to its almost-inherent loudness), so there aren't many times when rain just means us decamping indoors.

2003

When I joined in early 2003, the weekly band rehearsals were always very busy, but partly due to the number of wee young 'uns finding a convenient excuse to leave the house for the evening. Nevertheless, there was some hot samba action that summer. My first session on the mighty hand percussion (which I still generally play) was at a country home in Burnley. I used to go to a few of these places with my parents & it was great going to a new one. This aspect of the afternoon was in strange contrast to the political rally then taking place in the grounds. The playing itself made me understand quickly how easily one can start to feel at home with this sort of performance, even when you don't feel like a musician. It opened a lot of stuff up to me.

As the season got into its swing, Burnley was soon followed by Blackpool's Puppet Up! parade (which after three years' absence is only now returning to Blackpool again this summer). On a different level entirely, it was the first of another kind of gig: the one that takes place in front of the whole town! People I knew spotted me; I was wearing a big, yellow jumper with the band's name on; it was official: I was in the local samba band. Cue endless questions from children where I work. It was also on this date that we jammed with another local samba band (Baybeat from Morecambe) & I had my first amusing encounter with our favourite local shopkeeper, who likes to come out & wag his finger at us because he hates buskers. The Lancashire Youth Games followed, in Lancaster. I kinda liked those. We did a couple & they involved variable weather but lots of nice people & jams with our musical relatives, Blowjangles (from Blackburn and holders of the world record for most gigs in a day!). The Games gigs also involved some bussing between sites, as we entertained players at an outlying footy pitch too. It would have been a shame if they missed out!

Blackburn Mela was my first really big gig with the band. We do loads of massive parades, but I have only been at a couple of gigs where a large percentage of a really hefty crowd have been focussed on the band for a significant chunk of time. The main attraction. Actually, we weren't really the main attraction. Melas are largely Asian festivals taking place in a number of UK towns with big Asian populations. We were on below the band who had just been at the top of the Pakistani charts for a stupid number of weeks. Hence, I felt kinda nervous taking the stage with my puny tamborim. It worked out well though. The air horns were blowing & people genuinely seemed to like us a lot. A photo ended up on the band's leaflet, I had a very very spicy samosa & it remains in my memory as one of my very most favourite engagements.

The next gig was similar but different. Again booked by a council, it was part of a Blackpool council information day taking up a large swathe of the Winter Gardens. I think this was the first time I was there for assisting in leading a workshop, which often works out quite well. We were back to Corporation Park in Blackburn soon after (Blackburn is our second home, for many good reasons). The council was at that point doing not only a Mela but also a weekend of more traditionally European entertainment (they have recently slimmed down to a larger combined weekend headed by some fairly hefty names). This was my first without our usual Director.  His deputy Ian did a quality job of leading in the circumstances, making for a nice, relaxed feel to the slightly slimmer band. There was also a band on with us called Grim Beavers! The Blackpool Town Criers competition followed. Blackpool gets ‘em all - pigeons, darts, George Formby enthusiasts, town criers. I was quite excited about this and made a point of watching a load of them (what is the collective noun for town criers?). It certainly is a very specialised pastime, full of wacky flourishes and a really Olde English feel. Never our hottest gig (we only really march the criers in for their competition), it still makes for a memorable one.

2007 will be the first year that we have not played at the annual Blackpool Lions carnival. It was always a pleasure to be involved, seeing some of our biggest crowds swarm the prom & competing with all the parade favourites (brass bands, cheerleaders, bucket-wavers, line dancers, smart cars?!). I can't tell one Lions parade from another, but they are all a riot, albeit a very English one. Brierfield was next. Near Nelson, it was a nice, picturesque place to play and the quirky little local event in the street had an intriguing, mixed line-up. That line-up included my first sighting of DHAmak Collective, an Asian group who stretch styles kinda nicely, only teetering slightly along the way. The band website recalls it as not one of our best, but I remember it as an interesting day. Cleveleys followed, a mini-Lions if you will. This may have been the one that ended in the old Jubilee Gardens, with us interspersed between various garden fete-style acts. The most bizarre moment of the afternoon was when the mini-cheerleaders' music box conked out & they had to perform to the sound of their coach clapping time for them. The REAL sound of summer in the UK!

Samba teacher extraordinaire Leon Patel (from Manchester) then popped up to do some new rhythms with us. This was when the band got really interesting to me, with the ability to mix in some new material & keep things moving. We are still working to perfect some of those rhythms, but they are all fantastic. Bolstered by all this, what could have been a lacklustre gig (with us being enlisting in a bizarre product advertisement) turned into a pretty good one. Last of the year was another of my favourite events with the band, an orchestral work in Morecambe. Arranged to commemorate the tenth anniversary of a music organisation there (More Music in Morecambe), the numbers involved were serious & we only played a small part. Nevertheless, the rehearsing was dead interesting, DHAmak were on again & I was very pleased to be able to get a double CD later of the very diverse music on offer that night. The event was exciting & the company good. One of those great things I would never have done if I hadn't been in the band.

2004

2004 was a very productive period for the band, building our versions of the new rhythms and seeing a great, confident line-up hit a real purple period for performances. This began with another fairly large engagement, a significant part of the Thornton Little Theatre's celebration of its rebirth. A dignified arts establishment, the show featured another roster that had to be seen to be believed. It also featured a local pro storyteller of some repute, who got children on stage to do things they looked suitably bemused about. We were bookended by school bands. Old people clapped politely. All was good.

The season started for real, as usual, in May. We began with a small South Shore community event at the hallowed Blackpool FC turf. We would have smashed the place down if there had been a significant enough crowd! Hambleton followed - quite a touching event in a way. Booked to play out in this little village on the ground usually used by regular car boot sales, every oldie in sight was wheeled in (quite literally) to celebrate the D-Day anniversary. I am in awe of my grandfathers & their parts in the war but felt a bit out of place being paid to provide something very definitely not 1940s Britain to these very well turned-out vets. Everyone was polite & attentive though & we got to see the real big draw, an old-style swing band. Lancashire Youth Games then popped up again. This one had a more pronounced sideshow aspect than the previous one, with a little tent where local MCs were yammering into the mic over Bounce tunes & other samba bands faced off with us. DHAmak turned up yet again, before fading sadly into a fond memory.

Fleetwood Carnival parade seemed endless & the entertainment alongside ourselves was the usual brass & pipe bands, with lashings & lashings of proposterously-dressed cheerleaders. We bounced back for Shadworth Community Day, over in Blackburn again. Not the only time we have played there, it is a small estate's own little day out. Whilst you can usually see a few eyebrows being raised, we generally get nice responses from the poor blokes leaning out their windows wondering what it is that is waking them up. I was just in the midst of starting a spell with Blowjangles at the time (before I realised the trips over to Blackburn were just too much). The two bands jammed again at Shadworth. The jams between the two bands are always successful & even a bit emotional at times. The Blackburn combo are a jovial lot & appreciate playing with anyone.

I have written "Winter Gardens" next. I can only think that this must have been my next favourite with the band. On the Empress Ballroom stage, we rocked thousands of Methodist yout'. I'm hoping you are starting to get an idea of how random the gigs are. A weekend-long Methodist youth organisation had us booked for a workshop (which went well) & an evening gig. We only fluffed once, & covered it up well. They were even doing conga lines at one point (interspersed with doing very innocent Methodist courting in the corners). I'm not a huge fan of Christianity, but I was christened & know plenty of nice Christians, so it was all 'gravy' to me, as the less bald amongst us would have it. After this really exciting success, it was off to Blackburn yet again, where the first of their summer shebangs put us on close in the schedule to the wonderfully named "Blackburn with Darwen Music Service Advanced Wind & Brass Band". Rock on! Following this, we had another nibble at the town criers . . . in which escapade, we jammed with a bagpiper . . . nice. Back in Blackburn yet once more, we felt somehow less loved at 2004's Mela, in our capacity of roaming around looking for people to listen to us. However, we saw some great Asian music, including the blissful Mohammed Itishan. The Lions was as pleasant as ever. We next played another parade (Burnley) & an uplifting gig at the garden party of a local respite unit, before a band member's wedding & lots of yummy wedding food.

Just having moved into my new flat, I was looking for items for my wall & what could be better than a postcard of a tram from the Blackpool Transport depot open day, at which Poco Loco performed? Bring it on. I am running out of ways to describe what a quality diary of dates we pride ourselves on. A wondrous cross-section of 'quirky event' mainstays were on hand. Fried food, children's stuff, bus rally DVDs, a replica of Blackpool Promenade with working toy trams. We were just the final stitch in a rich tapestry. I got my postcard.

2005

The band then started a slightly rougher patch. With a few main bods having disappeared off to do one thing or another, the newbies were racing to catch up in time for gigs, which were sparse due to some sorta freak (& short) booking collapse. Not everyone stayed the course. Towards the end of the season, we had started to lose a bit of the wind in our sails. The seeds of the revival were sown already though, with vital new members getting their start & some more decent gigs. A few performances missed the mark though.

Despite all this, the start of the year was business as usual. Ever the odd one out, we were employed to be loud in a library, helping to open the new Palatine Library in Blackpool. Easy enough. Pass the cocktail sausages. It was also around then, I think, that I missed what would doubtless have been one of my favourites, a huge Latin American event at the Winter gardens, where the band got the reception they always wanted from the most appropriate of crowds. The band also got its very own gig (not as such something that happens very often). It was at a nice restaurant in St Annes, alongside the promoter, Blackpool's premiere Latin enthusiast. The first time my girlfriend had seen us, we were outrageously loud inside, but seemed to go down well in front of an interesting audience, who also did some lithe dancing to the salsa instruction. Plateloads of pizza slices were consumed en masse.

In 2005, we hit Lytham Club day for my first time. The Club days are a slight variation on the village fete or town gala, mainly seeming to involve lots of burly men having license to drink in the street from early in the morning. This takes place alongside a colourful array of temperance-insistent breakaway-church flag-bearers; the ubiquitous brass & silver bands; the omnipresent cheerleaders & street upon street of very old people. Not at our best that season, as I said, we maybe didn't get the most out of it, but were good enough to get to go back the next year. An excellent, packed event. The nadir that year was an event on Blackpool estate Mereside. Loved & commented on for weeks afterwards by appreciative listeners, it was nevertheless, to the trained ear, a thin & bumpy sound (caused by an incredibly low turnout of band members). We weathered the storm though. Amongst better dates, for me, was the Preesall & Knott End Gala. It was a parade around the two villages, which are very near Blackpool as the crow flies but separated from it by way of a bloomin' lengthy diversion over the river. Long & taking place in the beating sun, through parts of the countryside that were sometimes occupied only by cows, it still made for an interesting walk. The crowds were even appreciative, when we weren't murdering our own material. Special mention goes to the ace steel band. Sometimes its a shame we tend to leave long before the day is through. We were less unhappy about leaving the sports hall where we were fed & watered after the parade though. It smelt of jockstraps!

One late excitement in 2005 was our first get-together with the children of Chernobyl, who come to Blackpool once a year to extend their lifespan with a bit of clean air. Lovely children, clearly enthused about the experience & a pleasure to play for and with. A few of the regular home gigs then got wheeled out, before we packed away & started to think about how to get 2006 going in a better direction.

2006

It all sorted itself out. Still pretty damn thin on the ground some of the time in 2006, we were nonetheless a more cohesive unit than the year before. We took pride in how few drummers we could get away with in order to come up with an impressive sound. We also got more gigs than ever before, due to both a return to normal in the local councils’ arts scene & the good work of Mandy, our new band gig-booker. This included a larger than ever list of workshops at schools, colleges etc, which I won't go into but which all seemed to bring interest & fun as well as much-needed money. It was also around then that we did a few of our occasional Blackpool busks. We don't like to do too many, as we are trying to get paying gigs. They usually go much the same. A swirling crowd lingers to hear a number & then drifts off again to leave the captive souls at the bus (or tram) stop to revel in the samba delights. They are worth doing though, throwing up some magic musical moments & also giving us a chance to advertise for new members. Another early date for the year was our most bizarre ever. With Blackburn Council back with money to spend, it was over to another obscure housing estate to literally drum up support for an early-morning community event, clearing a grotty field (with swings) of the effects of fly-tipping. The reactions of the once-sleeping residents are unrecorded. The pinnacle of this quality event was being asked to all get into the skip so that we could be photographed for the local paper. Our audience? Slim, but as polite as ever.

Kicking off in earnest for the summer, we sacked off the first of two days in Blackpool’s showy new South Shore Gateway park due to a harsh amount of rain. We returned the day after to entertain ourselves & some little children, & to draw frankly foul-mouthed heckling from others. Human statues stood still around us as Chinese dancers wigged out to emotive songs on their boombox. Tis the way for well-meaning community bands! A lengthy weekend was finished off by a whole day in Garstang, performing for a children's festival. The weather teetered about a bit, but reports about it were good. I only made the morning, before collapsing exhausted after the bike ride home. I missed a very brief gig at Arnold School & hopped back onboard for the Claremont area parade, which I had somehow missed up til then. We are based in the area, so it constitutes something of a homecoming, if a low-key one. Lytham Club day was more spectacular, with all the promise of the year before being followed up by a whizzer of a parade. We were surrounded on all sides by Christian pop musicians & nursery children waving from floats. We rocked. We were back at Shadsworth soon after, just missing the rain & having a play with the circus skills equipment. I sadly missed an opportunity to do my first St Annes Club Day & return to the Lancs. Youth Games but leapt back in to do the big Blackburn bash. Roaming minstrels again, we came on fire when joined by the curious Krepe Twinz (not at all crep) & the now very large Blowjangles. We also got to see the usual random selection of pop acts, including forgotten minor chart botherers of years past & present. Some very out-of-place grime rappers kinda worked for me & the surprise of the day was the genuinely uplifting Dario G set - I was amazed how much semi-decent stuff he had actually made over the years.

We had another gig just about all to ourselves last summer, this time as part of the slightly enlarged Stanley Park bandstand line-up. Happily, a good crowd gathered both for us & the martial arts amateurs who were also giving a display. The council event vibe was comforting in its good-natured restating of all that constitutes the safer side of English life. Since then, the samba life has continued much as before. Gigs rained off & reconvened for the hardy few; workshops inducting new fans, some of whom come play with us for a bit; new regulars joining & revitalising the sound. I've stepped back a bit to concentrate on life with my girlfriend, but I was still there this very day as we broke yet more new territory, playing to a medium-sized & enthusiastic crowd of dog-lovers out at a dog show & a walk in Stannah's eco-park. At times draining in its veritable grind of summer dates, the band has still given me some very memorable days out, the majority of which I would not have made if I hadn't been playing. As a nice thing to do for yourself, that other people often appreciate as well, it rates well. Go join YOUR local samba band . . !

Phil Smith, 7th May, 2007

 

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