Favela fabulous

The dynamic cultural movement AfroReggae is restoring a sense of pride to communities torn apart by

When Dinho talks about AfroReggae he gets an evangelical gleam in his eye. He says the band, in which he is now a vocalist, "arrived in my life like a light I didn't know I needed". Perhaps that sounds trite, but it is also perfectly true. Aged 17, Dinho was immersed in the gang culture of Vigário Geral, the shanty town, or favela, where he grew up in northern Rio de Janeiro. He and his friends regularly committed armed robberies, using the proceeds to buy guns, trainers and designer clothes. "I didn't think about what was right or wrong," he says. "I wanted money, but more than that, it was about the status."

One evening, by pure chance, some members of AfroReggae persuaded him to join a rehearsal instead of accompanying two friends who were planning to rob a local business. Later that night he found out that both friends had been shot dead during the assault. The experience shocked him into the life-changing decision to leave the gang and dedicate himself to music. "I feel that I was chosen," he says. "Why me? I don't know, but I know I have to give something back."

Ten years later, not only is Dinho performing with one of Brazil's biggest bands - AfroReggae have released two successful albums and supported the Rolling Stones when they played on Copacabana Beach in 2006 - but he is working for the AfroReggae "cultural movement", which aims to create alternatives to the gang lifestyle for a new generation of young people from Vigário Geral and other favelas in Rio. Over time, says Dinho, aspirations in his neighbourhood have changed noticeably. "Five years ago, the children in Vigário used to play at being drug traffickers with guns. Now you see them imitating the musicians from AfroReggae."

Since its foundation in 1993, AfroReggae has become a significant force for social change in some of the most violent communities in the world. The ferocious urban conflict in Rio de Janeiro was dramatised memorably in the Oscar-nominated film City of God, but the statistics still come as a shock: between 2002 and 2006, 729 minors died in the violence between Israel and Palestine; in the same period, 1,857 young people were reported murdered in Rio. Large areas of the city are entirely out of state control and are governed instead by a range of gangs, financed by the drugs trade, which administer justice as they see fit. With regular shoot-outs between the gangs and intermittent incursions by Rio's notoriously corrupt police force, there is little hope for calm in the near future. But, as so often in Latin America, this desperate situation has generated a creative response.

AfroReggae was founded in the aftermath of a police massacre in October 1993 that left 21 unarmed residents of Vigário Geral dead. A cha rismatic local music promoter called José Junior, together with a group of friends from the favela, decided to open a cultural centre offering classes in percussion and Brazilian dance. In 1995, they formed the Banda AfroReggae, which performs a double role as a professional musical outfit and the public face of the organi sation. Over the years, it has expanded to encompass more than 70 projects, including ten bands, two circus groups, documentary film-making, a radio station and a show at São Paulo Fashion Week. International demand has taken the group to India, Canada, Germany and China for performances and workshops. In the UK, the Barbican Centre has established a long-term partnership, some results of which will be showcased at the East festival from 6-11 March. The Banda AfroReggae itself will perform at the Barbican later in the year.

The group's base, however, remains Vigário Geral, where their work is needed as much as ever. As you walk through the favela today the atmosphere is still noticeably tense. The area has long been one of the most violent in the city, and in 2004 it was the site of fierce battles as one drugs faction, Comando Vermelho, which had been in control for many years, was ousted by another, Terceiro Comando. The streets are strangely quiet, and teenagers, large guns slung over their shoulders, lurk unsmilingly on street corners. My guide, AfroReggae's lead singer, Anderson Sá, mutters constantly into his mobile phone, updating a mysterious range of contacts on our exact whereabouts. "Put it this way," another associate tells me later that day - "when they bring you into the favela, everyone knows about it, from the local drug bosses to the chief of Rio State Police."

As we approach AfroReggae's cultural centre, the tension is dispelled by the sound of samba drumming. Inside the graffiti-covered building, teenagers mill around carrying instruments and costumes, chatting and laughing. A small audience of local children and their parents gathers to watch a performance by some of the AfroReggae subgroups. First up is AfroLata, an energetic bunch of teenage boys who play razor-sharp rhythms using oil canisters and tin cans. Next, a theatre company presents a piece on life in the favela, and a dance troupe performs a polished routine drawing on African, traditional Brazilian and contemporary styles.

As a samba group start to play, the audience get to their feet for a spontaneous dance session. Amid the euphoria, it is easy to forget that this is an area in which, until a few years ago, as Dinho says, "The only sounds were gunshots, and the only culture was that of violence."

Last to take the stage are Akoni, an all-female percussion group. "When it began, AfroReggae was very machista," their leader, Rosemary Santos, 27, tells me afterwards. "Women were expected just to sing and dance. But we wanted to do things women don't usually do, like play the drums." She committed herself to working at the centre after breaking up with her partner, who was one of the local drug dealers. "AfroReggae has made a huge difference to me, personally and professionally," she says. "I got my life back."

From its beginnings in Vigário Geral, Afro Reggae has slowly branched out into other parts of the city. The first offshoot project was in a neighbouring favela, Parada de Lucas. Here, there is now a newly built cultural centre housing several computer rooms, a hi-tech studio for the internet radio station, a library and classrooms. The atmosphere is quieter and more studious than in Vigário. Until Terceiro Comando's takeover of Vigário these two neighbourhoods were controlled by rival drug factions and were engaged in a bloody war that lasted more than 20 years.

Uniquely, AfroReggae managed to negotiate a relationship with both groups, establishing a neutral presence amid the hostilities. On one occasion this involved Junior and others physically standing in the middle of an armed face-off between the two gangs.

"People always ask how we manage to negotiate with all the different factions," says Anderson Sá as we walk through the pristine streets of Parada de Lucas. "The answer is, 'With great difficulty.'" However, he explains, even the drug dealers rarely want to see their children follow in their footsteps: "Everyone understands this is a good thing for the community."

A more recent side project is based inside the Escola João Luiz Alves, in one of Rio's youth detention centres, where AfroReggae is conducting weekly workshops. In the main hall of the grim, concrete building the centre's 150 inmates, all aged between 12 and 18, troop in to watch a performance by a group of AfroReggae percussionists. Although they are of similar ages and ethnicities (the population of Rio's favelas is overwhelmingly black and mixed-race), it is easy to tell the difference between them - and not only because of the prison uniforms. The AfroReggae boys have open, smiling faces, while those from the prison sit in grim silence.

When the AfroReggae instructor calls for volunteers, however, there is a stampede for the front of the room. He lines up the newcomers with their drums and starts them off on a simple rhythm. Suddenly it becomes clear why the group's technique works so well. Even the most troublesome, most hyperactive boys are completely absorbed by their drums. If they make a mistake, one of their peers will gently, unpatronisingly correct them. Within 20 minutes the whole group is playing together and moving to the music. "In the favela where I live we didn't have opportunities like this," one 15-year-old tells me afterwards. "It's good. It makes me think that things could be different when I get out."

A few days later, I meet José Junior at his apartment in a middle-class district of Rio. He is a thickset man with an intense stare and the slightly messianic manner that is a common trait of the AfroReggae leadership. His ambitions for the project are limitless. "For 15 years we have been aiming at people who have no hope," he says. "For the past four, we have expanded our remit. Now we work with the Brazilian elite, too - and also with the police. The work is very diverse: one week I'll be organising a fashion show in São Paulo, and the next negotiating a war in the favela." This shift of focus, he says, aims to challenge negative perceptions of favela culture among the higher social classes. "If you want to change things in the world, you need to have the world on your side."

Junior is an unusual combination of social activist and hard-nosed businessman. A large poster of Che Guevara adorns his office wall, yet he unashamedly takes every opportunity to praise AfroReggae's sponsors, which include such un-PC names as the state oil company Petrobras ("the biggest promoter of social and environmental projects in the country"), Banco Real ("they invest in sustainability in Brazil") and the mining company Vale do Rio Doce. His is a very 21st-century brand of idealism.

"We are living in a capitalist world, where socialism doesn't exist," says Junior. "We have to adapt to this reality without prostituting our ideology." The association with AfroReggae is, he argues, highly desirable for Brazilian business. "They don't choose us, we choose them." Nowadays, favela isn't such a dirty word.

Groups from the AfroReggae UK Partnership perform in the East festival at the Barbican, London EC2, on 9 March ( AfroReggae play at the Barbican in September

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis