"I've always loved the music and sounds of South America, Latin America, and, of course, Spain," says Charleston-bred vocalist and musician Leah Suarez, co-leader of musical ensemble Toca Toca. "Our group is mixing many cultures and backgrounds, and we're also composing and bringing our own ideas in as well, so it's pretty exciting."
Suarez, 24, is of Mexican-American descent. She grew up on Sullivan's Island and in Mt. Pleasant playing piano and singing with school ensembles in middle and high school. After attending George Mason University for a few years, she returned to town to attend the College of Charleston and study jazz voice and piano.
The singer recently earned her degree in jazz studies and began working as a vocalist and musician in the local jazz circuit, from the Charleston Grill and High Cotton to other jazz-friendly downtown venues.
With a revolving cast of local players, Toca Toca established itself as a seriously respectful, rhythmically complex troupe. The current version, playing Piccolo's Jazz series, features Suarez on lead vocals, backed by guitarist Dave Linaburg, pianist Gerald Gregory, horn player Cameron Harder, bassist Todd Urban, and percussionists Emmanuel Abdul-Rahim, Nick Jenkins, Michael Hanf, and Stuart White.
"I met [local drummer] Dr. Emmanuel Abdul-Rahim at Quentin Baxter's birthday party last year," says Suarez. "He and I and started working on ideas for a group. He's pretty amazing. I started taking rhythm lessons from him. Last winter, my Portuguese teacher asked me to put an all-Brazilian music program together, so I collaborated with Dr. Abdul-Rahim. That's when we brought the Toca Toca band together. The core band is still intact."
Classmates from school joined Abdul-Rahim and Suarez for the Toca Toca project's premiere performance in February at the Simons Center for the Arts on the CofC campus as they presented a program titled "Viva Brazil." Their set was a bit more delicate than some of the overtly dynamic, percussion-heavy contemporary Latin jazz groups popular today. It was a bit more authentic and earthy than "The Girl From Ipanema" stuff of saxophonist Stan Getz's heyday, too.
Charleston-based bassist and pianist Todd Urban, a 27-year-old New Jersey native with a ton of experience playing Brazilian and Cuban music, recently relocated to town to play professionally. He first saw the Toca Toca project at the "Viva Brazil" gig and will sit in on bass for the Piccolo show.
"She's trying to take mostly Brazilian music and bits of other South American and Cuban music and do something with it while keeping it authentic to the traditions, as opposed to doing something new or modern with it," he says. "This is indigenous folk music to Brazil. It wasn't coined 'bossa nova' until [guitarist] Antonio Carlos Jobim did that in the early '50s. Prior to that, they were using the exact same rhythms, so this is technically their folk music with a very specific character to it."
Master percussionist Abdul-Rahim, a native of Charleston, stands as the secret weapon in the group. A highly-decorated veteran of the jazz and percussion worlds, he spent time with a wide variety of musical acts, including saxophonist King Curtis, Afro-modern dance company director Katherine Dunham, Duke Ellington, saxophonist John Coltrane, and many players in the Afro-Latin jazz world. He worked as a music instructor at Lund University in Sweden in recent years before returning to Charleston. He's also the author of a three-volume music book collection titled Claves, Scales in Rhythms (the term "clave" is in reference to both the "key of rhythm" and the hand percussion instrument).
"We base everything on the two correct claves — the 'yambú' and the 'aruba,'" says Suarez. "That's what Emmanuel is teaching us, whether we're playing a bolero or an authentic samba, or whether we're really playing a bossa nova."
LEAH SUAREZ & TOCA TOCA • Piccolo Spoleto Jazz Series • $10 • June 2 at 8 p.m. • Tonik Club, 479 King St. • 554-6060