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Reggae Rhythm Gets ‘em to Lay Down the Guns

AfroReggae As a former drug dealer, Anderson Sá knows how to get kids hooked. But the product he pushes now is music, and in one of the most desperately poor of Rio de Janeiro’s many slums, he’s helping to save lives.

“We use the same methodology as the drug trade,” says Sá of his band and cultural group, AfroReggae, “but at a certain point, we go in different directions.” Over the phone from New York City, where he and 13 fellow musicians have just headlined the Summer Stage at Central Park for 80,000 people, the singer and songwriter explains how he has been able to redirect the knowledge he gained from a profession he has since repudiated.

Sá grew up in the violent favela of Vigario Geral, where he shared the ambition of many a young man — to be a drug lord, enjoying all the attendant power, money, and status. In 1993, when 21 innocent favela residents where massacred as a result of police vengeance, he had an epiphany, realizing that violence itself will never end violence.

Sá turned to the Grupo Cultural Afro Reggae, a community group led by Júnior Oliveira, who had begun to promote reggae concerts in Vigario Geral after funk parties were banned because of pervasive violence.

“Reggae talks about peace and love,” says Sá, “and the rhythm doesn’t incite you to fight — it incites you to dance.” Although not a reggae fan when he joined the group, he found that his love of samba and funk could find an outlet in the band AfroReggae, which he helped to found in 1995. Sá and his cohorts started out humbly, by learning to play borrowed percussion instruments at workshops. Gradually they grew to incorporate guitar, bass, turntables, horns, and MCs, drawing on a hip-hop influence. AfroReggae’s political lyrics made them a voice in the community, and their image enabled them to recruit young people to their non-violent cause.

“It’s all to do with the clothes that you wear, the way that you talk, and how you can bring the young person’s self-esteem up,” says Sá. “The drug-dealers do basically the same stuff — young people want to be part of a structured group. There’s a hierarchy and discipline. They don’t have their fathers; their mothers work all day, so they lack a father-figure, if you like, and that’s what we provide.”

AfroReggae are constantly trying to combat the violence and lack of respect for human life that are pervasive in the favela. In 1997, a young man whom they had recruited died while playing Russian roulette with friends who were still in the drug trade. A few years ago, as detailed in the 2005 documentary Favela Rising (filmed in Vigario Geral by a young American crew when the Brazilian media refused to enter the favela), Sá was very nearly lynched by a mob from a rival favela who believed erroneously that he was fueling a war.

Nonetheless, with the help of seed money from various national and international organizations, AfroReggae has become a success story, even earning the respect of drug lords by offering a better life to some of their relatives. Now it has thirteen satellite groups around Brazil, including ten bands, two circus troupes and one theatre company. In 2001, the flagship band signed a record deal with Universal and released their first album, Nova Caro, with help from Caetano Veloso, a prominent figure from the tropicalia movement of avant-garde rock and poetry in the late ‘60s.

“We have the same fighting spirit as the cultural groups that were founded in Brazil during tropicalia,” says Sá. “Just like they influenced us, we influence other groups. It goes from generation to generation.”

Sá has mixed feelings about baile funk, the new DIY hip-hop being made by a new generation from the favelas, which has garnered much press lately.

“I think it’s very cool,” he admits, “a young person from the favela being a protagonist, making his own music, earning his own money, but I am worried about making sure that [the music] gives a positive image. You have the kind of funk that is very negative and disgusting in its lyrics — just like you have gangsta hip-hop that speaks badly about women and talks about violence, drugs, and status — and you also have the kind of funk that’s all about having fun.”

Sá writes relentlessly positive lyrics, although the music itself, as displayed on the group’s latest international release, Favela Uprising, incorporates some aggressive rhythms which are far removed from the laid-back reggae which Oliveira first promoted.

According to Sá, this is the sound of “AfroReggae fighting for our message to be heard — fighting for peace. We want to show people in our country, but also in India, in Colombia, in Romania, in Iraq, that people need to wake up and see what’s happening around them. We have been really worried about making sure people are working together and having dialogue to resolve their differences. It doesn’t matter what religion they are or what race or what class — they can imagine this will be a chain reaction that will make the world better.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Aug. 10, 2007


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