As many of you know, DYJA is passionate about providing opportunities for young people to experience music, and this isn't restricted to Doncaster! We are delighted to be supporting Favela Brass - an organisation set up by DYJA Alumnus Tom Ash, to provide at-risk children in Rio de Janeiro with the chance to transform their lives by learning a brass instrument and playing in a band.
While we could explain why this cause is so worth while, we felt Tom would be better placed to explain exactly how this project came about and why it's so important that we support it.
“Bope are on the way”, informed the teenager with a walkie-talkie in one hand and a handgun in another, tasked with guarding the entrance - “better get a move on”. Most of my students lived around the corner from my house, but some lived in a neighbouring favela and since it was late, I had decided to walk them home. The Bope are like a kind of Brazilian SAS, dedicated to waging urban warfare against drugs gangs, and we didn’t need to be told twice: my students scarpered up the hill to their makeshift houses, where they would probably spend the next few hours lying on the floor. I headed back up the road back towards the favela where I lived with a certain spring in my step.
It didn’t take long for the shots to start ringing out behind me - not the pop of pistol fire but the loud crack of the military-grade assault rifles used by government forces and drugs gangs alike. My students and I had had enough time to get to a safe distance, but what about the poor lad with the walkie-talkie? Quite possibly he had become one of the 63 young black males who meet a violent death every day in Brazil. And if even if he had been lucky today, tomorrow he would have been back on the same spot again, pistol in one hand, walkie talkie in the other, waiting.
I think it is safe to say that this is not exactly what I had had in mind when, in 2008, I had finally plucked up courage to leave behind my unsatisfying hand-to-mouth existence as a freelance trumpet player and electronic music producer in London, and move to Rio de Janeiro.
The original idea hadn’t been to go and live in a favela and start a music school. Over the previous few years I had fallen in love with Brazilian music and had transcribed a repertoire of musical arrangements from records such as Elza Soares: A Bossa Negra (1961). My dream was to bring back the glory days by putting together a big band of Brazilian musicians. It was a ridiculous plan, but at least it got me on a plane to Rio de Janeiro.
I arrived with my trumpet, two suitcases and a week-long reservation at a hostel on Rua Barão de Torre in Ipanema and was distinctly on edge as I took my possessions out of the boot of the taxi at 10pm at night on a street which, I later discovered, is about as dangerous as High Street Kensington on a Wednesday afternoon. I went on to take a room in a shared house in the artsy hill-top neighbourhood of Santa Teresa.
Unlike, say Berlin, where you can generally get away with stumbling over a few words of the local language, before residents take pity on you and switch the conversation into English, I quickly realised that to get by in Rio you need the language. I had been learning the basics listening to a Portuguese course in my car before coming out, but still had a very long way to go. I got there eventually, but for the first few months I leaned heavily on my trumpet playing for making friends.
My first impressions of Rio were, as a musician, very positive. Whether they were gathered around a samba band on a street corner singing their hearts out, jumping up and down following a brass band through the streets during Carnival, or sipping a caipirinha at The Maze Jazz Club (at which I would eventually end up playing), when people here went out, there was usually a live band involved.
This was, clearly, good news for me. It also helped that although there were some great professional trumpet players in Rio, they were much thinner on the ground than in London. As the overly ambitious big band project slowly moved to the back burner, I started getting work playing in samba bands and carnival parades, at jazz clubs and private parties, and even recording on the soundtracks of the melodramatic telenovelas of Brazilian TV network Rede Globo. Then in 2012 I was invited to play in a samba band in the Complexo do Alemão.
The sprawling group of favelas known as the Complexo do Alemão had just been in the news. Government forces had recently taken it over as part of the pacification program of that time. The gangs had withdrawn, but not before downing a police helicopter with a rocket launcher. It is generally not a good idea just to go wandering into a favela so I was glad that my musician friends had afforded me this opportunity, and it was there, as a crowd of children formed wanting to have a go on the bright yellow plastic trombone that I had brought with me, that the first seeds of the Favela Brass project were sown.
Since Rio de Janeiro didn’t at that time have any decent Indian restaurants I decided to learn to cook Indian food myself from Youtube and ended up running a curry club every Monday night at my house, which usually attracted around 25 people. As I related my experiences at the Complexo do Alemão and explained my desire to start teaching young people in the favela to play brass instruments, one of the guests, a French friend called Axel, explained that he had recently bought a house in a nearby favela and had a room to rent, and I moved there in 2013.
Axel’s house was in a favela called Pereirão, which had had an extremely violent period in the late 1990s under an independent drugs boss (whose name is still spoken quietly two decades after his death) but was calmer now, due to its proximity to the headquarters of the aforementioned Bope. I started by giving music lessons at a social project in a local convent, and when in 2014 the opportunity arrived to rent a larger space in the favela and do the lessons in my own house I jumped at it.
I met with community leaders, put up posters on lamp posts and even knocked on doors, trying to drum up my first group of students. It took time but before long we had a group of 8 children between the ages of 7 and 12. Since they hadn’t seen much in the way of brass playing before, and brass instruments take some time to get good on, my idea was to start them off on percussion instruments, then slowly introduce the brass. The money from the curry club was used to pay for lessons with a master percussionist called Mangueirinha from the Vila Isabel samba school, and Favela Brass was now officially up and running, with lessons 3 times a week.
As my appeals for instruments back in the UK started to bear fruit, and with the arrival of international volunteer teachers, such as American trumpet player Joe Epstein and Icelandic trombone player Sigrúm Jonsdötter (fresh from a world tour with Björk), we were ready to start children off on the brass instruments. Our initial group of 8 grew and grew so that when the Rio Olympics came around in 2016 we had a larger band of around 30 youngsters with an average age of about 10.
Our dream was to play in the opening ceremony, but my efforts to make the necessary contacts in the run up to the games had drawn a blank. Then there was a phone call from BBC producer, who had seen a video our children playing on the instagram feed of a journalist friend. “Are you a samba school?”, he asked. “Yes we are.” I replied. That wasn’t strictly true, but I wasn’t worrying about that too much when a couple of days later we were recording our samba version of “Chariots of Fire” with a full BBC film crew.
Towards the end of the day’s filming, which had taken us to various locations in the city, I plucked up courage to ask the producer the question: “so… what’s this going to be used for?”. “Well, because of the time difference, the opening ceremony will start at midnight UK time so nobody will be watching it.”, he said. “The main BBC1 program with Claire Balding is going to be on earlier in the evening at prime time. This will go into the closing credits.” We had done it, and when we went on to be featured again on BBC News, it was the cherry on our Olympic cake.
After the success of the Olympics our students continued to develop musically, and it was at this point that we tried introducing them to New Orleans Jazz and Second Line music. They had never heard this music before, but they instantly understood and embraced it, and it soon became difficult to persuade them to play anything else. Favela Brass was now a music project founded by a guy from South Yorkshire teaching New Orleans jazz to Brazilians youths.
As our most advanced brass group started to surpass the level of many of the adult bands in the city, we faced the issue of expansion. We had leveled out at around 30 students in the favela, but we still had more instruments coming in, and we knew that our older students wouldn’t be with us forever. We needed to broaden our base, and in 2019 we set up after-school melodica and percussion classes at 4 local state schools. These classes now feed into our lessons in the favela and our Saturday morning music centre at one of the schools, and we now have more than 100 committed students.
Favela Brass now faces a two-fold challenge. Based on our current retention rates, in order to reach our long-term future objective of roughly one, 8-student, brass band graduating at professional level each year, we need to attract 48 new brass students annually from now on, and provide them with instruments. On the other hand, we need to maintain our existing students’ enthusiasm and engagement by setting up exchanges with other music schools within Brazil and further afield.
We only have one student who has reached 18 years of age. Andre was one of the children from the neighbouring favela who had to run to his house to avoid the shootout. He now plays tenor saxophone, keyboard and drums and has decided he wants to study music at Rio’s Federal University and become a professional saxophonist after completing his national service as a military musician. He will also represent our students as a member of Favela Brass’s first board of trustees. No pistols, no walkie talkies, amen to that.
For more information about favela brass visit Favela Brass