Hearing and visually impaired pupils’ samba rhythms to get crowds into the groove at Eel Festival

Hearing and visually impaired pupils’ samba rhythms to get crowds into the groove at Eel Festival

Young people with visual and hearing impairments, as well as dozens of others from local schools, will be bringing the sounds of a Rio Carnival to Ely’s Eel Day celebrations this weekend with a live samba performance.

About 150 young people, some of whom have difficulties hearing or seeing, will be leading the festival-opening Eel Day Parade in front of thousands of spectators on 4 May, while beating out some specially-prepared Brazilian grooves on their samba drums.

It is the climax of a four-month project called ‘Sambafest’, which has involved pupils all over Cambridgeshire. The aim is to use drumming to improve the young participants’ confidence and self-esteem, while also proving that no form of impairment should be a barrier to playing, performing or enjoying music.

The project has been organised by Cambridgeshire Music, the county’s music education provider, and has involved more than 800 young people in total. That includes almost all pupils in the county who are either deaf or have difficulty hearing (a group known as D/deaf), and those who are visually impaired.

These pupils are often excluded from music-making activities, but Sambafest provides them with a chance to get involved. Even if they cannot see or hear, the vibrations created by this Brazilian music’s infectious rhythms mean that they can feel what is going on, and keep in time.

Many other local schools have also been involved in the project. It began with music workshops, in which pupils learned the basics of beating out samba rhythms, before giving a concert in front of parents and fellow-pupils.

With the help of project partners Cambridge United Community Trust (CUCT), around 150 pupils then gave a live performance at half time on a match day at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium last month, in front of thousands of fans. And this weekend, more young performers will be fronting the Eel Day Parade at the start of a festival that brings around 10,000 people to Ely every year.

Liza Field, Music Development Manager at Cambridgeshire Music, said: “Sambafest is an opportunity to make and perform music in a way that goes far beyond anything offered in the school curriculum, culminating in a major live performance. For many of these young people, that is something they would never have believed possible.”

“We want them to come away not just with the knowledge that they have done something special, but with more self-belief and memories of an experience that hopefully they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Samba drumming has, for decades, accompanied football matches in stadia around the world and Sambafest also explores the football connection with CUCT, Cambridge United’s charitable arm. The Trust organises football skills sessions as part of the project, and arranges opportunities for the young performers to meet professional footballers.

This year’s project follows a smaller pilot last year, involving five Cambridge schools, which was a huge success. Only 50% of the pupils had taken part in school music events beforehand. Afterwards, the schools saw an upswing of almost 60% in the numbers applying to get involved in music and sporting activities, and many teachers reported signs of much more self-confidence within the pupils.

This year, the schools taking part are being helped to set up samba bands and get involved with the many other music-making opportunities run by Cambridgeshire Music. The idea of creating a community samba band in Ely is also being discussed.

“This should just be the beginning,” Mrs Field added. “We want Sambafest to be an access point for these young people, so that they feel inspired and able to carry on with music, and go wherever that journey takes them.”

The pupils performing in the Eel Day Parade will be from: Ely St Mary’s, Rackham Primary (Witchford), Ely College, Millfield Primary (Littleport), Cottenham Village College, Mayfield Primary (Cambridge), and the Ely Area Music Centre. The Sambafest project was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

From Tom Kirk

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