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Culture is our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro

Patrick Neate and Damian Platt

(Penguin; US: Feb 2010)

Mention Rio de Janeiro to most people and they will imagine a city of contrasts. On one hand, beautiful people, glorious beaches and vibrant culture; on the other, a seedy underbelly of drugs and guns. It’s true that all of these elements can be found there – as in any big metropolis – but the difference in Rio is that the two sides are like different worlds in one city.


This book is set in the favelas, the maze-like neighbourhoods that are home to at least 20 percent of the city’s population. This is very much the social underbelly, where poverty, unemployment and drug addiction are rife, but the favelas are not typical shanty towns Although they are technically illegal settlements constructed by their inhabitants, and generally have unsurfaced roads, the buildings are solidly built from proper materials and most have amenities, like electricity.


Unfortunately, their system of local government is less stable than their houses. The favelas are run by traficantes – drug dealers, who control the trade in cocaine and marijuana, and thus control most of the local economy. While most favela residents are not directly involved in the drug trade, it’s certainly the most lucrative form of employment available in these communities, and is consequently an attractive career choice for many young people.


Outside of the more formally controlled neighbourhoods – known as the asfalto because of their surfaced roads – the favelas are lawless places. Sometimes there are police raids, but many of Rio’s poorly paid police officers are out to profit from the favelas through bribes and protection. If the traficantes are not fighting the law, then they are at war with rival gangs, desperately trying to maintain control of their turf.


Life in the favelas may be harsh, but there is hope on hand in the form of AfroReggae, the organisation that Patrick Neate and Damian Platt examine in Culture is our Weapon. It was conceived in the favela of Vigário Geral in 1993, following an incident in which police invaded the favela and shot dead 21 innocent people. The idea was to provide an alternative to the drug trade, and this alternative was education, culture and music.


AfroReggae therefore occupies the unusual position of being both an NGO and a successful band that has toured internationally. The band known as AfroReggae is part of the wide organisation, and there are various subgroups in which young people from the favelas are taught percussion, dance and circus skills, amongst other things. The most significant thing about AfroReggae is its success at maintaining neutrality in the drug war. It offers a way out of the drug trade for those who would otherwise be unable to escape: many who try to leave are killed for their disloyalty but AfroReggae is a safe alternative.


While the positive force of the movement in these communities is rightly lauded in Culture is our Weapon, it’s a shame that Neate and Platt don’t make more of the music. The musical background out of which the band emerged, the popular Brazilian form of funk is considered in some detail, but the sounds of AfroReggae is never really conveyed. Funk is just one influence – not James Brown or Rick James, but a form of hip-hop born in Brazil. It’s the dominant music in the favelas, and has spawned the subgenre of funk probidão, a darker equivalent of gangster rap, which the various gangs of traficantes use to drum up support. As its name implies, funk probidão is illegal.


AfroReggae is also informed by reggae, soul and rap. In addition, there is a strongly percussive element to their performances, which also include dance and capoeira. This makes for a uniquely vibrant sound, and the wide popularity of the AfroReggae band will be understandable to anyone who has listened to their music. Culture is our Weapon was written in 2006, a year before AfroReggae’s album, Favela UpRising, was released. Perhaps this explains why their music features less in this book than its more recent success might suggest it ought to.


Even so, Neate and Platt succumb to the tendency to focus on the negative that they describe in their conclusion as being typical of visitors to the favelas. Obviously, the sound of gunfire and sight of children carrying automatic weapons will shock visiting writers to the extent that they will feel compelled to feature them in their work, and these things certainly deserve to be documented.  However, though there is still much work for them to do, an organisation like AfroReggae really ought to dominate the pages of a book like this, rather than being presented as an antidote that has yet to take full effect.

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Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.


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