When Asian Dub Foundation set out to tour Brazil and link up with local artists they found terrible poverty, shanty towns, drug gangs - and some of the most inspiring music and dance they had ever encountered. Band members Dr Das and Chandrasonickept a diary of their trip
Wednesday June 27, 2001
Asian Dub Foundation
Day 1: Recife
After a press conference in Sao Paulo, the new eight-piece Asian Dub Foundation end up in what our new rappers, Aktarvata and MC Spex, describe as a "hotel in the middle of a Bounty advert" somewhere in Olinda. It's a hypnotically beautiful neighbourhood of Recife, north-east Brazil. The next day we are invited to a community project in one of the poorest districts of Recife. An important part of our British Council-funded tour, which we are doing with ADF Education, is a series of music workshops in each of the four cities we're playing. However, despite the best efforts of the British Council and Universal records, information on the format of these was scant, so we don't know what to expect. What we get in Recife is a performance by the dance/percussion group Ballet Maje Mole in a disused slaughterhouse. The troupe, which consists of three lads on percussion and 15 teenage girl dancers, want the council to convert the building into a community centre. After a brief introduction the beats begin, cyclic, hypnotic, hard as nails. The girls spin, hiss, scream and chant in multilayered harmonies. It is at once mysterious and militant, ancient and modern. Afterwards the girls take us back to their rehearsal centre where they gently cajole us to dance with them. We acquit ourselves pretty well, given the competition.
Later, at the festival in Recife, we see the girls again in full costume dancing with the excellent samba/hip-hop/drum'n'bass crew Nacao Zumbi. Over the next two days we become convinced that Recife and its sister town Olinda are the music, art, dance and vibe capitals of the world.
Day four: Rio de Janeiro
In Brazil, one-fifth of the population live in shanty towns or favelas . For the government, this vast underclass at best does not exist; at worst it is human vermin. The real government here is the drug gangs, the armed traficantes who rule the favelas by the gun but also have a relatively benevolent side, providing housing materials, educational resources, even clinics. It is with the traficantes' approval that we are invited to a favela in northern Rio.
In the back of the van we are told of a massacre in 1992 when police fired indiscriminately on residents, killing 22 people. At present there is a war going on between rival drug gangs; where we are heading is regularly visited by masked men with machine guns. As our press liaison Luciano tells us this and other horror stories, a gulp can be heard from all assembled. But trepidation soon turns to inspiration.
Our first stop is the arts centre. It began to develop after the massacre, supported by the British Council and bands such as the excellent O Rappa, and tolerated by the drug gangs. But most of all it is the determined creativity of the community that has made the centre such a success. First off, the centre is visually stunning - a riot of colour, sculpture and Afro-Brazilian splendour. We are led to where the workshop is due to happen to find the local band, Afro-Reggae, set up and ready to go. We plug in what we have and a refined musical chaos sets in with spontaneous jams starting up. MC Spex and Aktarvata begin to explain how a sampler/ sequencer works to a very enthusiastic 14-year-old. We later find out that he lost both his parents in the massacre.
But then Afro-Reggae begin in earnest and proceed to blow our minds. The band consist of guitar, bass, drums, DJ, and an army of percussionists, singers and dancers. They combine hip-hop, drum'n'bass, samba, ragga, punk, bossa nova, reggae, capoeira and theatre with an ease and passion the like of which we have never seen before. They knock down every musical barrier and create a radically new form. And this is taking place in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Brazil, if not the world.
At one stage the dancers bring in a huge prison gate to illustrate the lyrics of a song. The finale is a re-enactment of the dreadful massacre that spawned the band - they don balaclavas and charge into a jungle-punk assault backed up by helicopter sounds and a whirlpool of feedback. As in Recife, the centre is swarming with journalists, most of whom admit that they wouldn't had gone near the place if ADF hadn't made it newsworthy. We point out that the best band in the world has come out of a slum project in Rio and the media should deal with its prejudices. The hospitality and warmth that we are shown is incredible and we have all made friends for life here.
Later Aktar, Spex and Pandit G mash up a plush nightclub on the affluent beachfront of Rio. The scene couldn't be more different. Rich, mainly white Brazilians mingle with fashionable Europeans (including some obnoxious drunken Brits). The class/racial divide is painfully apparent; but when the Invasian hit the decks we dance our asses off anyway.
Day five: Rio de Janeiro
Tonight we play a show with the Rio rock/rap band O Rappa, who have also supported much of the activity in the favelas . The show is advertised on huge billboards all over Rio and is sold out. We start the set with a track written for Brazil called 19 Rebellions, which features samples from people involved in the coordinated uprisings that took place in 19 Brazilian prisons earlier this year. We had been wondering what kind of response this would create; in fact the audience is astonished that we are concerned at all with what's happening in Brazil, and the track goes down a storm. Before we finish we invite a local activist to talk about the situation in the favelas and then indulge in some symbolic gun-breaking in front of 3,000 people.
Day seven: Sao Paulo
Within 45 minutes of reaching Sao Paulo, having left Rio very early in the morning, we are off again to do another workshop - though now we use the word "jamshop" after our experience with Afro-Reggae in Rio. The venue this time is a massive former factory called the SESC Belenzinho. The SESCs are community arts venues in Brazil supported by businesses.
The first space we see is where are to play the following evening - a room big enough to accommodate 2,000 people. Hundreds of CDs are suspended from the ceiling over the dance floor. The wooden stage looks fragile but it feels solid enough, though it will probably be a bit of a bass trap.
Wandering through the place, we find a skateboard park, a sculpture studio where giant wicker animals are being made, a spacious and airy reading area and cafes with bizarre statues of people reading or drinking. We take the obligatory photographs of us in conversation with these characters.
We are led into a theatre space where the Meninos do Morumbi samba group have been preparing a presentation for us. At first things are rather formal. There are people from the British Council, as well as journalists and a film crew, and we feel a bit like dignitaries. On the stage are two rows of young women, and behind them about 20 percussionists of both sexes.
The women dance and sing; the moves and the music seem to be informed by funk rhythms as well as more traditional ones and become increasingly intense. We are once again, as in Recife, led into a trance-like appreciation. The most memorable part is when the leader has the music fade to silence while the dancers continue their highly rhythmic rotational moves as if it is still there. It's like watching dance on TV with the volume turned right down. Then the drums fade back up again, perfectly in time - breathtaking.
Flavio, the group leader, now has 1,000 students. He had seen boys in the favela near his block of flats banging on tin cans in the alleyways, and asked if they were interested in learning samba. The students are also encouraged to engage in conventional study. The troupe usually numbers 300 or so for the carnivals.
We have just heard some awesome rhythms and sounds; now we are expected to play ourselves. How do you follow that? We get our amps and drumkit quite close together and wonder what to do about not having a hi-hat. Then we think, "What the heck," and launch into Naxalite. Pritpal the dhol (Punjabi drum) player doesn't normally play on this track but he does his trademark jungle style and it makes up for the lack of a hi-hat. After that, 10 or so of the dancers join us on stage and we kick into Buzzin. Within a few bars the dancers are copying each other's moves and developing a uniform movement, as if the whole thing had been choreographed. It was as if ADF had joined forces with S Club 7, only a lot funkier. The dancers' final move is to encircle the band several times. The whole thing is caught on camera and shown on TV the following night, perhaps bemusing a few ADF fans.
Day eight: Sao Paulo
We start the evening's gig with 19 Rebellions. The Sao Paulo audience reacts incredibly strongly to this track, especially when it hears the sampled berimbau (the one stringed instrument used in capoeira).
Barriers have been deemed unnecessary, but by the second tune, Charge, people are on stage, someone even grabbing the mike and diving back into the crowd. We worry about people at the front getting hurt, but disaster is somehow avoided. With security and crew trying to get punters off stage, it's like a cross between Gladiators and It's a Knockout We try to calm things down by not moving or pogoing but it is hard to stay rooted to the spot. And anyway, rappers Aktarvata and Spex are constantly whipping up the audience like it's a 1995 jungle rave.
The great thing about Brazil is that so many people there understand the life-changing potential of music, and art in general. The cynicism in Britain, the idea that music will never change anything, is based on a very narrow view of what constitutes change. The Brazilian trip reaffirms our reasons for getting involved with music in the first place. It is the ultimate form of communication.