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COCA Spotlight: Dr. Michael Bakan “Through music, FSU professor escapes to Brazil”

By: Amanda Sieradzki, COCA | July 31, 2017

Music sits somewhere within the realms of escape and transcendence for Dr. Michael Bakan, a professor of ethnomusicology at Florida State University. When he sits to play, he feels himself go into a heightened state where the groove of the music moves his head in circles, lurching his body along with its rhythms, eyes closed, face turned upwards.

“Sometimes I get teased about how funny I look, and I agree when I see it on video,” laughed Bakan, who’s become particularly transported by Brazilian music and artists. “It has this incredibly deep, rich rhythm and these lush harmonies that go on and on. Where western music revolves around three or four chords, Brazilian composers are able to make harmonic progressions that are ridiculously complex, but are put together in a way that touches you in a basic, emotional place.”

Every Tuesday evening at The Blue Tavern, Bakan comes together with a cohort of musicians in the hopes of giving Tallahassee a similarly full experience via their weekly performance: Roda Vibe! Roda, pronounced ‘hoda’ as per its Portuguese origins, translates to circle in the phrase “roda de choro.”

Choro is the genre of Brazilian music, often heard in the bars, clubs, or late night venues in Rio de Janiero.

As a drummer, Bakan plays a specific role, keeping the beat while letting the music unfold and the other musicians improvise around him.

“You’ve heard it if you listened to old American cartoons like Bugs Bunny or Road Runner because they would hire these musicians,” elaborates Bakan.

“It combines elements of Brazilian samba with western classical music and jazz. Some of the songs are much more sentimental and dark sounding, but overall it’s an uplifting music, enjoyable to listen to, and accessible.”

As head of the World Music Ensembles Program at FSU, and director of the Sekaa Gong Hanuman Agung Balinese Gamelan and Omnimusica Intercultural ensembles, Bakan’s knowledge and appetite for world music is vast. Recently forming the Bakan-Margut-Hall World Trio, he has also published the textbook “World Music: Traditions and Transformations” that is taught in universities worldwide, and crafted his own definition of the field that focuses on how “people make and experience music, and why it matters to them that they do.”

“Culture has become so complex and hard to pin down that it makes a lot more sense to locate the investigation on individual people and how they make and experience music,” says Bakan. “I think we always want the primary voice to be the voice of the person who the study is about.”

His earliest musical awakening occurred at age three while listening to The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” as the song’s crescendo sent shivers up his spine. A year later his parent’s found a disassembled drum in a local thrift shop. They brought it home and a neighborhood friend helped put it back together.

From that point on, Bakan could always be found in his family’s basement, festooned in his Sergeant Pepper’s suit playing on his first drum kit to whatever Beatles record happened to be on the turntable. A short stint in his brother’s rock band solidified his connection with the instrument, and by age eleven Bakan was taking drum lessons from a former mathematics professor, Micky Earnshaw who introduced him to a radical method of playing music.

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