Life, Death, and Art

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All photos from Grupo Cultural Afro-Reggae's website:

Beto Pacheco is trying to get the youth of Vigário Geral to pay attention. It's not an easy task to accomplish in a room of 25 energetic 11-year-olds, especially on this sunny Wednesday afternoon. The room is bustling with people; as usual the mothers chat in the back, staff members pass in and out, and siblings linger in the doorway that opens out to the street. But when the music starts up, the room of chatty girls and one boy springs into action.

The kids throw themselves into routine, a high-energy mixture of hip hop, jazz, samba, and African dance steps. Pachecho, for the most part, stays back by the boom box, observing the routine unfold. "I treat my classroom like a kind of laboratory to explore all different kinds of movement," he says. "I bring what I know to them, but each of them has their own way of expressing themselves."

On the surface, it may seem like just another after-school dance class, but the class is happening here in Vigário Geral, infamous throughout Rio de Janeiro and Brazil for being one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. As Pacheco counts off the steps, nearly half the room of on-lookers mouths the words to the music -- the band Afro-Reggae's "Capa de Revista" ("Magazine Cover"). In a burst of conga drums and electric guitars, the song speaks of the neighborhood that the newspapers and magazines call "the terror of Rio," becoming "a new crowd / that no one will hold back," a new "explosion of Rio / that has come to stay." The air vibrates from the chorus of overlapping drumbeats, palpable evidence, it seems, of the force of the Grupo Cultural Afro-Reggae.

Life and Art in the Favelas

gcar photoThis year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Grupo Cultural Afro-Reggae (GCAR), one of the most active and well-regarded non-profits working here in Rio. Its home base and cultural center still in Vigário, the GCAR currently runs over 16 sub-groups in four different favelas, offering free workshops for youth in music, dance, circus arts, video, and radio production. It is home to a health information service, a health-issues theater troupe, four distinct music groups, and, most prominently, the professional hip hop band Afro-Reggae.

GCAR's objective is clear: to use arts and culture to provide youth in the favelas with an alternative to the drug trade. Favelas -- usually translated as "slums" or "shantytowns" -- developed over the past century in Rio de Janeiro as the poor were forced out of the more desirable parts of the city and into the hills. Beginning as illegal settlements, favelas still often lack the most basic kinds of infrastructure such as paved roads, enclosed houses, and reliable electricity.

In Rio de Janeiro, one of the most economically divided cities in one of the most economically divided countries in the world, 25% of the 5.5 million inhabitants live in favelas or favela-like neighborhoods. While Brazil is a far more mestiço ("mixed race") society than, say, the U.S., the racial disparities are marked: the darker your skin, the more likely that you will be poor, living in a favela, and subject to violence.

With many residents lacking basic health care, food, and education in the favelas, social services hardly exist and welfare is unheard of. "Everyone here in Vigário knows about the daily shoot-outs, of the misery, the poverty, and the hunger that exists here," says Carlos Eduardo Vasconcelos, the community coordinator of the GCAR.

gcar photoOne of the most recent and extreme episodes of violence in Vigário occurred this past July 17. 11 people were massacred within 48 hours in or near Vigário, an event that called the attention of the international press. The deaths were the result of the on-going war between the two drug cartels that dominate Vigário and the neighboring Parada de Lucas. After an intense gun battle between the rivaling drug traffickers, seven local residents were sequestered, tortured, and killed. The following day, four traffickers from Vigário were killed by the police during an organized invasion of Parade de Lucas.

The killings happened just weeks before the anniversary of the August 29, 1993 massacre, in which 21 innocent civilians from Vigário were slaughtered by police. The massacre happened the day after four police officers were killed by local drug traffickers. Of 50 officers accused of participating in the massacre, only five were found guilty, and only two are still in jail. The last 10 accused were absolved just days after the victims‚ families and other Vigário residents gathered to commemorate the tragedy.

From these facts alone, it seems that little has changed in the ten years since the first massacre. But while Vigário mourns its losses, both new and old, it also has reason to celebrate the possibility -- and the reality -- of a new future for its youth through the work of GCAR.

The Art of Seduction

gcar photoTo talk about the violence that plagues Rio is, inevitably, to talk about drug trade. The rivalry between the two dominant drug cartels in Rio -- the Comando Vermelho ("Red Command) and the Terceir Comando ("Third Command") -- is so fierce that some prisons have separate wards for the two factions. More often than not, the most serious instances of assault and murder have some kind of connection with the drug trade, as does the corruption that pervades the police, the local government, and many state-sponsored institutions. While the cartels are connected to a global system of drug traffic, it's often the favelas that provide a home base for local traffickers, serving as a place to store arms, conduct business, and recruit new traffickers from neighborhood youth.

Traffickers are often among the most powerful, privileged, and, frequently, respected members of the communities they inhabit. In Vigário, where the Comando Vermelho remains dominant, there are internal sets of rules that the residents know to follow, among them implicit codes of silence and regulated hours of exit and entry into the favela. In turn, there is a certain level of security and protection that the traffickers offer. Everyday muggings and petty crime, for example, tend to occur far more frequently in wealthier neighborhoods like Copacabana than in the favelas.

Considering the sub-standard living conditions within most favelas, the status, money, and privilege that the drug trade seems to offer are undeniably tempting to Rio de Janeiro's youth. "So," says Johayne Hidelfonso, an Afro-Reggae theater instructor, "you have to find other ways to seduce them."

Breast. Breast. Breast.

gcar photoIt's Saturday, August 23, and a pair of gigantic cloth breasts, one white and one brown, appear center stage. The music starts up and the flashlight-nipples are turned on, eliciting giggles from the mothers, siblings, and friends in the audience. The cast fans out across the stage, decked out in high heels, ties, and feather boas. One by one, each actor looks straight out to the audience and says, with deadly force: "Breast. Breast. Breast. Cancer of the breast." Clearly, this is not your typical public service announcement.

Since its formation in 1997, the Trupe da Saúde, GCAR's health-issues theater troupe, has given over 300 presentations in favelas, public schools, bus terminals, hospitals, and public plazas to raise awareness about health issues. Hidelfonso was invited to direct the group four years ago to give the troupe a more "professional look." Incorporating hip hop dance, samba music, stilt-walking, and diva-style power ballads, the troupe brings humor, energy, and theatrical flair to its presentations.

Halfway into the breast cancer piece, Raphael Rodrigues, a 17-year-old Vigário resident bursts across the stage in full drag, donning a long platinum-blond wig and an absurdly large pair of breasts. As usual, a crowd has gathered to watch, sitting on the rickety chairs in the back, hovering in the doorway open to the street. The room erupts in laughter as Rodrigues spins, high-steps, and lip-synchs to the music. Even though it's just a rehearsal, it's always a show.

"Before I joined the group four years ago, I had never danced before in my life," says Rodrigues. "Three days later, I had my first performance, in the street, with clothes, make-up, and everything." Rodrigues is now an assistant dance instructor for Afro-Reggae and commutes between Copacabana and Vigário during the week to attend jazz classes.

"We are the Proof"

gcar photoWhile young performers like Rodrigues quickly find a home in the Afro-Reggae community, reaching out to Vigário youth is hardly an easy task. While the group's reputation within Vigário has grown considerably, the temptations of trafficking are strong, and Afro-Reggae's rules are strict: none of the participants are allowed to drink, smoke, or use any kind of drugs, either during or outside of classes and rehearsals. "Most of Afro-Reggae's leaders are young, like me, and it's easier to convince kids to join up that way," says Anderson Elias dos Santos, one of the band Afro-Reggae's percussionists and a Vigário resident.

At 20 years old, Dos Santos has already spent two years playing with the band Afro-Reggae, which has toured extensively through Europe and put out a CD in 2001 by Universal; they have plans to record a new CD this winter and have a gig at Carnegie Hall this spring. In 2000, Dos Santos left the country for the first time when the Banda Afro-Reggae attended a music festival in Holland. More recently, he spent three months on "No Limit," a Brazilian reality TV show. "My life changed after I started playing music," says Dos Santos. "I began to take responsibility for something -- for my instrument, for myself."

In fact, looking at the staff itself reveals just how Afro-Reggae has affected the lives of Vigário youth -- many of them are young Vigário residents who began working with the group when they were in their early teens and, after a number of years, became teachers and coordinators in their own right. "We are the real proof," says Vasconcelos, who had dropped out of school and was on his way to becoming a trafficker before joining the group. To say that Afro-Reggae has changed people's lives is not "just a clichéd discourse that we go around saying -- it's a common feeling," the 22-year-old coordinator continues.

Whether or not they become professional artists or social workers, the change is readily apparent, says Vasconcelos. "You look at some guy who was walking around barefoot, hanging around the street, cursing everyone, not respecting anybody. And now look -- this guy is educated, well-dressed, speaks well, plays percussion, goes around the world, is on the radio and television. People see this transformation -- there's no better proof."

An Everyday War

gcar photoOver the past ten years, the GCAR has worked hard to become respected by the members of the community -- by the families of the participants, by the other residents, by the police, and by the drug traffickers themselves. However, while the GCAR has become a veritable force in Vigário, the struggle against violence and poverty continues to be a mammoth undertaking.

"It's not just a little misery -- it's a lot of misery," says a resident whose father was killed in the 1993 massacre. "We're just little fish here -- we need help from higher up, from the city, from the state. But what does the government do? They send the police here to beat, jail, and kill innocent people."

While the city is lending support to initiatives such as Favela-Bairro to improve the conditions of the favela life, there is a general feeling of resentment and discontentment with the lack of government involvement. In the face of such neglect, at times the traffickers themselves have done far more to fund clinics, cultural activities, and samba schools in the favelas. The state hasn't implemented one lasting project in the favelas," says Vasconcelos. "They come to give us a bit of food, and then leave."

This year, Amnesty International issued a report denouncing Brazilian and Rio de Janeiro authorities for failing to protect its residents and prevent tragedies such as the 1993 Vigário and Candelário massacres. Tim Cahill, the author of the report, cites that not one family was compensated for the loss of life, and that the investigations that followed were constantly blocked and fraught by intimidation of the witnesses. In the first six months of this year alone, 621 people were killed by police officers, acknowledging the "violent, repressive, and frequently corrupt" nature of the officers that enter poorer communities.

The violence perpetrated by the police and state-run institutions has an intimate connection with the drug trade itself. While the drug cartels may offer certain protections within the favelas, their role in perpetrating the cycle of violence is undeniable. It's generally acknowledged that police officers often sell their weapons to drug traffickers and that traffickers pay police to stay out of their business. When these kinds of dealings goes awry -- as they tend to do -- it's frequently local residents who are caught in the middle.

gcar photoWhile few people would deny the reality of Rio's endemic violence, the general public's understanding of favela life often remains limited. "Lots of people living outside [of the favelas] are afraid," says Vasconcelos. "A lot of them think that we're just miserable criminals. If some of them do come in, they'll just give a class and then leave."

The media often isn't much help. Shortly after the July 17 massacre, the Jornal do Brasil published an article entitled, "Fear Returns to Vigário Geral," reporting that the local residents had become concerned about the "new" threat of violence. "The media tries to sensationalize everything," responds Dos Santos. "This fear has existed for more than 30 years. Coming back from school, there'll be a shoot-out going on near your house. It's the rhythm of an everyday war."

For Vigário, the routine of daily life has remained much the same -- from 10 p.m. until dawn, the streets will be almost empty. "My friends and I go to sleep early," says Gutierre Gino, age 13, whose neighbor was recently killed in his own home. "We all hear the gunshots at night."

In a recent interview with Viva Favela, Jose Junior, the executive director of the GCAR, recounts the story of Anderson Alves, better known as Bigu. Seduced by Afro-Reggae's capoeira classes, Bigu had secured his first job as an office boy when he was suddenly killed in a shoot-out between traffickers in April 1997.

Vasconcelos describes the feelings of "anguish and impotence" that such deaths have brought to Afro-Reggae; Junior describes the aftermath of Bigu's death in particular as one of the few times in which he thought about "giving up everything." But, as author Cristiane Ramalho wrote in Viva Favela, rather than letting such grief arrest their work, Afro-Reggae brought percussionists and capoeiristas to Bigu's wake, offering up a ceremony of life and hope in the face of misfortune.

Protest and Affirmation

gcar photoWithout a doubt, GCAR wants to provide a way out for favela youth, to show "that the world isn't limited to Vigário Geral, that there is a much bigger, richer world outside of here," as Vascomcelos articulates. "Each young person has the ability to grow and leave this community." But providing a way out of the favelas doesn't necessarily mean leaving these communities behind.

While acknowledging the limitations and inadequate conditions of favela life, the GCAR also seeks to affirm the power and richness of these communities themselves. Favelas have served -- and continue to serve -- as bastions of culture, the place where many Afro-Brazilian art forms originated and are still home to the famous samba schools that perform during Rio's Carnaval.

But in places like Vigário, the traditions passed on have, more often than not, been those of continuing poverty, violence, and drug-traffic. "Before Afro-Reggae came in, Vigário had no local culture, no way of passing on its history," says Vascomcelos. Through the work of the GCAR, Vigário is creating its own culture, one distinct to the favela's history and the community itself.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this creative process lies in the band Afro-Reggae itself. Frequently fast-paced and always high-voltage, the band draws from music across Brazil -- rap from São Paulo, samba-reggae from Bahía, funk from Rio de Janeiro -- combining these traditions with rock, techno and punk. While incorporating musical traditions from the whole world over, Afro-Reggae always keeps itself close to home.

Interspersed with sounds from everyday favela life, their songs speak directly about Vigário's struggles. The band's first CD, "Nova Cara," expresses outrage about the 1993 massacre in Vigário and the perpetration of favela violence while proclaiming revolutionary change for its future. "Afro-Reggae came into Vigário at a time when the whole community was splintered," says Dos Santos. "And since then we've helped to increase the community's pride in itself."

And certainly the Vigário community has turned out in full force at Ballroom this early September evening. It's the first of a series of concerts at the band Afro-Reggae is giving this month at the popular club and music venue in Rio. The room is full of GCAR staff, friends, and family from Vigário, but middle-aged couples, ardent teenage fans, European tourists, and an entire pack of American sorority girls round out the crowd. The diverse crowd seems particularly fitting tonight: the next morning, the GCAR's executive director is releasing his first book, an account of the 10-year history of Afro-Reggae called Da Favela Ao Mundo -- "From the Favela to the World."

The shouts and screams start up from the moment that the band starts up. But halfway through the first set, the energy in the room suddenly swells, the crowd bunching closer to the stage. It is, in fact, "Capa de Revista," and half the room stops dancing and starts jumping up and down. Nearly everyone joins in on the concluding lines of the chorus, "We are Afro-Reggae / From Vigário Geral," the folks from Vigário shouting just a bit louder than the rest of the crowd.

For more information about Grupo Cultural Afro-Reggae, go to (in Portuguese). For recent articles on Brazilian politics and culture, go to

Suzy Khimm, 22, is a writer, theatre artist, and former WireTap intern. She can be reached at

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