Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When he was a child, Angelo didnâ€™t
like to play football. That made
him different from the other kids
in VigÃ¡rio Geral, but just a little. He did share
with them poverty, broken homes, sporadic
schooling, early jobs, and marginality. VigÃ¡rio
Geral is one of the 500 or 600 favelas in Rio
de Janeiro. Figures vary, but it is generally
thought that one-fourth of the inhabitants
of the Rio de Janeiro urban area - more than
3 million people - live in these slums. The age
and level of development of the favelas in Rio
fluctuates; VigÃ¡rio Geral is over forty years
old. It has sturdy houses, paved roads, and
running water. Angelo didnâ€™t like football, but
he enjoyed playing and fighting in the street
with the other kids. Only he didnâ€™t have much
time for that.
Angelo is the oldest of four children. In
1994, when he was eight, his father left. The
money his mother earned cleaning houses
wasnâ€™t enough to support the family, and
Angelo had to start working.
She didnâ€™t make me, she didnâ€™t say anything. But
I saw our situation. Sometimes we didnâ€™t have
anything to eat and, since I was the oldest, I realised
I had to do something.
Angelo found out where to buy candy and
lollypops, and he started to sell them on buses,
trains, and at traffic lights. He sometimes
wondered why he had to do this when so
many other kids didnâ€™t have to work, but he
couldnâ€™t come up with an answer. Nor did he
understand why there were people so rich, and
why they didnâ€™t do anything to help those who
Now I think they are afraid of us. They believe
black people from the favelas are dangerous, bad
Some days Angelo could go to school, but
not always. But every day, he would say later,
he had the satisfaction of seeing how his hard
work helped his mother and siblings get by.
Sometimes, though, temptation lurked.
In VigÃ¡rio Geral temptation is always present.
Even today, drug dealers go down the street
showing off their expensive clothes, their name
brand sneakers, their big, gleaming weapons,
their pretty girls, and their impunity. When
Angelo was a teenager, many of his friends
wanted to be like them. Sometimes it seemed
like the only way out; all the city offered them
was rejection and marginality. But, like the other
kids in the favela, Angelo had also seen the dark
side of that life: the arrests, the shoot-outs, the
frequent deaths. Thatâ€™s why every time a bandido â€“
a neighbour, a friendâ€“ approached him with an offer, Angelo turned
I knew that at first violence seems easy, a sort of
game, a way of outsmarting the rest. But then you
have to pay. Even if they donâ€™t kill you, you are
never at ease. You always have to be on the lookout;
the threat is always around.
But sometimes, on those afternoons
selling candy beneath the implacable sun, on
those nights when there was little to eat, his
conviction wavered. Until that day when he was
thirteen, and he heard the AfroReggae boys for
the first time.
AfroReggae was born out of chaos...
â€¦says JosÃ© JÃºnior, its founder. In 1993 JosÃ©
JÃºnior was a DJ from a poor background
who had made a name for himself on the
Rio music scene. Around that time, the police
had killed 21 young people in VigÃ¡rio Geral.
Many believed this was retaliation for the
murder of four military police officers killed by local drug dealers.
When one thinks of
urban youth culture, one thinks of music;
cities are the places where young people find
their own forms of expression, which often
involve rhythm. JÃºnior was determined to use
music to draw youth away from crime, drugs,
and violence. First, he created a magazine that
dealt with reggae, rap, hip-hop, and other black
culture issues. The people involved in that
project founded the first NÃºcleo ComunitÃ¡rio
de Cultura -Culture Community Centre- in
VigÃ¡rio Geral. That was where the musicians of
AfroReggae band -the most public side of the
NGO- would be trained.
In the rapidly changing urban environment, young
people learn much about what to
expect and how to behave, from their peers, and increasingly from mass media
Now, the band gathers funding and gains
visibility for its project by means of songs and
shows about life in the favelas, violence, racism,
police brutality â€“and possible alternatives. It has
recorded several albums, toured the world, and
received the support of major artists like Caetano
Veloso and Regina CasÃ©. JosÃ© JÃºnior is proud:
Through our music, VigÃ¡rio Geral went from the
crime section to the culture section in the newspapers.
That evening, June of 1999, when Angelo
heard AfroReggae, he got excited and wanted
to be like them. Like them, he could make
something of his life. When he returned to
his house, he began to bang on an old tin,
and he found that he had rhythm in his body,
â€œin his heart,â€� he would say later. Angelo was
fascinated. He spent all of his free time banging
on tins. When he thought he started to sound
good, he invited three or four friends to play
with him. The group started to take shape,
and one day they decided they should give
themselves a name.
We werenâ€™t sure. We thought of several possible
names and finally we came up with AfroLata. Afro
because we are afro, thatâ€™s where we come from, we
have it in our blood. And Lata (tin) because thatâ€™s
what we played. I mean, we did the same thing as
AfroReggae, but since we didnâ€™t have money to buy
real instruments, we made do with old tins.
Angelo and his friends had turned trash into
musical instruments and precariousness into
art. AfroLata became a part of the AfroReggae
project. In addition to the main band, the
NGO has a dozen groups of young people
who are involved in music, dance, capoeira,
theatre, and circus. Angelo and his mates
began to play in different places, first around
the city, then around Brazil. They were even
invited to a festival in the Netherlands. Angelo
stopped selling candy on the street; AfroReggae
had gotten him a grant that allowed him to
concentrate on rehearsing and playing with
AfroLata and another young band, Makala, and
on teaching percussion.
Itâ€™s good to teach music and dance to the kids from
the neighbourhood. We give them something to be
interested in, and they spend less time on the street.
They are less vulnerable to the temptation of drugs
and crime, and they study. You should see them.
When they come to us, the kids change; they are
transformed. And it makes us proud to think that
these kids are not going to be hoods, that they are
going to make something of their lives.
AfroReggae has opened Culture Community
Centres in four other favelas in Rio. So far, they
have carried out sixty projects involving 2,000
young people and, between employees and
grantees, they employ 175 people. But their
main centre is still in VigÃ¡rio Geral, where
they are building a million-dollar, three-storey
building -the biggest one in the neighbourhood with
the support of several sponsors. They
hope to open it in January 2008, when the
spaces for rehearsals, recording, computers,
meetings, and administration are finished, along
with the auditorium on the deck. Currently,
in the building that has been loaned to them,
some 400 young people participate in their
activities. In an 8,000-person community, that
is a significant number. Vitor, who is in charge
of the VigÃ¡rio Geral Centre, knows that given
the magnitude of the problem, itâ€™s still very little
â€“ but that doing nothing would be worse:
Some say that it is a drop of water in the ocean,
that for every kid we offer an alternative to crime there are
ten more who still want to go down the wrong path.
Sometimes that seems true, but for us itâ€™s important to
try, to help even just one kid, and to make our problem
visible in places where it was once ignored.
Angelo thinks that it is almost a matter of
The world is very unfair, and they want to push us
aside as if we didnâ€™t exist. They only remember us
when there is crime, violence. What we do shows white
people, rich people that black people who live in the
favelas are not all outcasts, criminals, that we can also
do good things, create, bring peace wherever we go. If
people realise this, they might start to treat us differently.
Whenever he can, Angelo goes to school
at night. He is about to finish grade school;
AfroReggae insists that its members keep
studying. Now, Angelo earns US$150 per
month â€“ plus a small bonus for each time he
performs. It isnâ€™t always enough to support
his family. Angelo is a picture of stability.
At the age of 20 or 22 , several of his band
mates already have two or three children by
different women. Angelo started dating a girl
seven years ago; he moved in with her three
years ago; and they had their first child one
I am very careful. I use rubbers. I care. When we
finally had a child, it was because we wanted to.
Do young people today have fewer kids than
No, just the opposite. This place is full of babies.
Before, women didnâ€™t have children so young, but
now, with so much alcohol and drugs and allâ€¦
Angeloâ€™s hands are full of calluses from so
much banging on drums and tins, and he is
quick with a smile. Angelo has always lived in
VigÃ¡rio. He loves his community and works
for it, but he says that he would like to leave,
to take his family away, that he would not stop
working with AfroReggae and the kids, but he
would rather live elsewhere:
Here there is a lot of danger: shoot-outs, fights
between hoods. It is a hard place to live. I hope we
can leave and have a better life.
What would a better life be like?
I hope my son doesnâ€™t have to go out to work, that
he can have the things I wanted but couldnâ€™t have.
I donâ€™t knowâ€¦ a car. I always wanted to have a
car and a computer. But my greatest dream is for my
whole family to be all right, to be together. I imagine
us in a nice house, eating next to a pool. Now that
would be a good lifeâ€¦
â€¦says Angelo, his eyes sparkling.
And do you think that music will
Sure, I hope so. Thatâ€™s what I am working for. But
even if I donâ€™t make it, I feel good. When I am up
there playing, I feel so good. I feel a carnival inside,
a whole world. I remember all the people I love, my
friends, my family, living and dead, everyone. When
I am up there banging on the drum, I feel like a