The Fancy Favela Story

The groove capital of Brazil has a whole new vibe—thanks to pop sensation Carlinhos Brown. Bob Morris takes a tour with Bahia’s man of the hour

His braids fly up as he pounds his drums. A brass section blasts, guitar players riff, and two women sing and shimmy. It’s a hot November night in Brazil, and native son Carlinhos Brown is rehearsing for an upcoming concert in São Paulo to promote Brazilian literature. “I want to tell you wonderful things,” Brown howls. “I want to tell you interesting things.” His mix of Afro-Brazilian percussive beats, reggae, and rock shakes the studio in a city that is perhaps the largest center of African culture in the Americas: Salvador de Bahia.

One sweltering night, Brown takes me on a tour of the neighborhood. We drive past the plaza of a cheerful-looking housing complex he developed, and an empty lot where he plans to build a clinic and day-care center. On a side street, a group of teenagers practices Capoeira, a martial art form based on African dance. “Not so long ago,” says Brown, “the only outsiders who came to Candeal were filmmakers who wanted to show the misery of a Brazilian slum. No more.” He waves as he drives his SUV along a recently paved narrow street. Young women smile. Men call out to him. In front of his brightly painted Ghetto Square concert hall, a man approaches to ask when a class in technical management at Brown’s music school will begin. Soon, Brown tells him, and pats his back.

A few years before Brown’s Candeal ghetto became a tourist attraction, music hub, and decent place to live, Brown campaigned to save the polluted mineral spring beneath its streets. The song he wrote about it was both a warning and a rallying cry. Now the spring is clean. “I live in this society, so I try to find ways to have a positive effect on it,” he says. “But a place can change only if people want it to.” It’s late, and Brown is still showing me around with the gleeful pride of a child who has built a great castle in the sand. Under a full moon and above the outdoor stage of Ghetto Square, big drums are hanging from tree branches like giant flowers. “They’re a reminder,” he says, “that with music everything can blossom.”

If any city is a laboratory for social transformation propelled by the entertainment industry, it’s Salvador. The onetime capital of Brazil, it was a center of the slave trade (slavery was not outlawed in Brazil until 1888). This equatorial city is still 80 percent African. On street corners, Baianas in flowing white dresses sell foods used in candomblé rituals. Capoeira is popular. Local music dominates the airwaves, and tourists stream in to look and listen. But as in any Brazilian city, there is a good deal of poverty. Local musicians have addressed it by establishing community programs for their followers through various blocos afros, or performing groups, that harness the energy of Carnival year-round. Through his Bloco Ilê Aiyê, musician Antônio Carlos dos Santos, a.k.a. “Vovô,” has created an arts-oriented trade school for teenagers, and is working with the Brazilian government on an Afro-Brazilian curriculum. Bloco Afro Olodum (which has recorded its samba-reggae-style music with Paul Simon and Michael Jackson) sponsors workshops and seminars for adults, runs a school for underprivileged children, and employs locals in its own drum factory. These musicians and others are changing the face of Salvador and turning Pelourinho, its once dangerous historic center, into a safe—but still authentic—place. On any night, music is everywhere.

The 39-year-old Brown is one of the biggest pop stars to emerge from Salvador, which has one of Brazil’s most vibrant music scenes. In a single year, 30 of his songs topped his country’s charts. He has played with such stars as Marisa Monte, Gilberto Gil, and Sergio Mendes, and has appeared in a slew of ads, from Honda to H. Stern jewelry. He’s certainly no hunger artist. Yet he takes his responsibility as a role model very seriously. His lyrics are about everything from ending racism to practicing safe sex. But his concern for the poor of Salvador goes far beyond educating them in songs or speaking up for their welfare. He has actually revitalized one of their communities.

Brown (who renamed himself after Black Panther H. Rap Brown)was born in Candeal, a hillside community near the center of this city of 2 million inhabitants. Up until 10 years ago, it had open sewers and a rising crime rate. In 1996 Brown built an outdoor concert hall there and named it Ghetto Square. Tens of thousands began flocking to the Sunday-evening concerts he performed with his band, Timbalada. In 1999 he founded a music school called Pracatum, which will eventually train road managers and techies in addition to musicians. His state-of-the-art recording studio was completed not long after. In only six years, he has changed the face of Candeal.