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Beaches Jazz Festival finds prominent place for Samba Squad’s leader

By Peter Goddard, Special to the Star, Jul 26, 2012

Rick Lazar

Master drummer Rick Lazar and members of Samba Squad in 2009. Keith Beaty/Toronto Star FILE PHOTO

Latin music in Toronto once meant Herb Alpert’s annual visit to town in the ’60s, playing “Lonely Bull” with his Tijuana Brass.

The distance travelled since then can be found in the Latin Boardwalk Stage at the Beaches International Jazz Festival, Thursday to Sunday, with its wide range of salsa, mambo, Cubano jazz, all-round rhythmic madness and butt waggling.

Tapping into the sexy machismo drive of the HeavyMambo band and the sophisticated charts of The Latin Jazz Ensemble, festival artistic director Bill King brings to the 24th edition of the annual festival an attitude of physicality. Jazz is getting back its dance groove. Funk, soul, R&B, reggae and a variety of Afro-beats are to be found throughout the festival stretching some two kilometres along Queen St. E.

Rick Lazar didn’t start this although his band, Samba Squad, occupies a prominent position at the fest, playing nightly at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. at the southeast corner of Woodbine Ave. and Queen St. E. But without the 64-year-old percussionist’s presence in the city over the years, this festival wouldn’t likely have the breadth of resources it draws on to shape its Latin identity.

After studying percussion at the powerhouse Indiana School of Music, Lazar did what any serious, classically trained artist would do: he hooked up with Barry White to tour with the singer’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. Lazar’s arrival back in Toronto in the ’70s coincided with the early blossoming of a local Latin presence with heavily political videos from Central America being shown in art spaces, and art from South America and from Cuban refugees appearing in galleries.

Lazar grew ever closer to the city’s Latin heart while performing with the Toronto jazz-fusion band Manteca in the early ’80s.

“It’s all about the drum,” he said. “I’m a Canadian with a Middle Eastern background. But as a kid I got into James Brown and when you get into that you get into Afro-music, then the Brazilian thing. It is very addictive.”

Following Manteca, Lazar founded Coconut Groove, prominent in the city’s dance scene in the late ’80s. Samba Squad itself appears in more than just one iteration around town. The more percussion-centre version is “the street version of the thing,” says Lazar. “There’s also a club version.”

Purists aren’t happy with the squad’s Brazilian credentials; some places won’t book the band, and Lazar understands. “I don’t sell Samba Squad as a Brazilian thing,” he explains. “My dream was never to copy Brazilian music. . . . But if you want to have a show, if you want to dance and lots of rhythm, we’ll be OK then.”


“The joyful Samba Squad is a fun bunch, 30 and more of them presided over by ace percussionist Rick Lazar and who deliver souped-up rhythms beating on surdos, caixas, malachetas, tambourim, agogo bells, shakers and other stuff. You’ll hear them coming!”
Geoff Chapman, The Toronto Star

“On a wintry Canadian day, Samba Squad might provide just the heat you need.”
The Globe & Mail

“The debut CD is a samba sampler that not only shows off the diversity of the instruments, but also gives voice (literally) to several Squad members, who get to call out their own rhythmic catch phrases… The selection runs a surprising gamut that fuses combinations like samba/reggae, samba/soca and samba/dancehall, with some extras: like a West African agbekor number. A recording that’s lots of fun in itself and also a pleasing harbinger of the increasing activity on the contemporary Afro-Latin scene in Toronto.”
Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada

“Samba Squad is a local Toronto group who I’ve adored at festivals, clubs, and street corners for years and now they’ve come out with a CD!!! The CD totally re-creates that feeling of seeing them live and needing to jump up and start dancing like crazy! The CD includes some terrific sambas (fast and medium speeds) as well as some samba mixed with soca, reggae, rap, and other funkiness! Drums, drums, and more drums!”

“It turns out that they were all wearing T-shirts that said “Samba Squad” on them, and there was quite an assortment of musicians in this group (old, young, male, female, pierced and non-pierced, tattooed and non-tattooed). Upon further research, they are a group that is based in Canada, and they specialize in “Brazilian Drumming and Rhythms”. (If you ever have a chance to see them, GO!) They were breathtaking as they pounded on and shook all types of instruments.”

“Q: Who is that awesome Samba group featured in promos?
A: It’s the Samba Squad that bangs the hot latin beats in the promos you see throughout the day on Citytv. This promo recently won a Gold Promax Award.”

“An abrupt mood change. Samba Squad enters! The entire Lula Lounge becomes a drum. About 13 drummers and percussionists dance and play before us, with Lazar in front, playing his drum with one bare hand and a beater, bleating his whistle, and conducting this orgy of drum sound as it expands the room. The five bass drums are felt in the stomach, the two snare drummers excite us on, the two cowbell players ding-a-ding, and the four tambourim drummers drive us crazy with their high end whipping of the sonic beat. Whew. The entire evening was music for the feet and the mind.”
The Live Music Report