I am the co-founder and Director of Rhythm of Hope, working in the Afro Brazilian cultural epicenter of Salvador, Bahia. Through Danielle Giron Valim there I met Antonio Luiz Alves de Souza, a remarkably creative and compassionate man who became and remained a personal friend of many years.
On October the world lost this very special and, in some ways, genuinely important individual. He was relatively young still, perhaps a decade younger than me, he had selflessly touched many lives and had a great, if largely unrecognized outside of Bahia, influence on the trajectory of Afro-Brazilian music.
Known affectionately, and pretty much exclusively, as “Neguinho do Samba” (the little Negro of samba), he was the co-founder of the world renowned Olodum Bloco Afro, and children’s drum corps which, under his direction backed up such big name music artists as Michael Jackson, David Byrne and Paul Simon.
Brazilian Blocos Afros are community organizations which represent the personality, and address the needs of the residents who live there. The blocos are a socio-evolutionary product of black desire to protest oppression during the worst years of military dictatorship in the 1960’s and 1970s.
The emphasis of Olodum and Didá, which Neguinho later founded, is on inculcating dignity and self-esteem, encouraging self help and fostering self reliance”. The approach has been remarkably successful in many ways and worthy of any genuine offer of assistance which does not expect something in return.
As Afro-Brazilians later became increasingly frustrated by the failure of government to effectively address social problems Blocos Afros morphed into innovative, meaningful social change agents in their own districts. But at their core they remain associated with their music, and often with their founders.
The colors of the costumes and instruments, the type of instruments, the rhythms of their music, and their performance style are often specific to a given bloco. The rhythms of Neguinho do Samba whose sudden and unexpected passing leaves an irreparable void, became synonymous with both Olodum and Didá.
Neguinho created Brazilian samba-reggae, a forerunner to the axé music genre. And by creating or helping create the base rhythms of other blocos he contributed something to just about every Afro Bloco that ever existed in Salvador. Carlinhos Brown, the founder of Timbalada, once called Neguinho “the god of percussion in Brazil.”
Percussion was literally in Neguinho’s blood, his father played bongo drums. Neguinho’s mother was a laundry woman who carried a metal wash basin from one house to another as a “mobile domestic,” and Neguinho learned to tap out rhythms on her wash bowl.
As a young adult Neguinho variously found work as an electrician, iron worker and street peddler, all the while tapping rhythms. Drumming is as customary in Bahia as playing basketball is in Indiana in the United States. But real drums are not affordable to residents in Brazilian favelas (slums).
It was Neguinho who realized that drums could be fashioned for favela children from scrap metal. Iron construction rods could be formed into exoskeleton drum struts. Other pieces of scrap metal could be used to form 13 inch rings to secure the struts at the top and bottom of each drum.
Neguinho found that a drum with five struts was good for samba but one with eight was best for the timbau, a drum which came to be associated with Timbalada. Neguinho organized a group that developed a process for building drums in his father’s workshop.
Neguinho secured some help from iron workers and convinced scrap metal dealers to cut and solder their donations into the 13 inch rings, complete with nuts through which the rods could be secured. The availability of affordable drums contributed to the revival of Salvador’s most historic district, Pelourinho, where the Portuguese had auctioned slaves.
Twenty years ago Pelourinho was a decaying, violent slum terrorized by drug dealers and petty criminals, and known for prostitution. Pelourinho today is a thriving tourist Mecca and United Nations World Heritage site. Olodum, co-founded by Neguinho do Samba , was a catalyst that sparked that transformation.
In the 1970s Neguinho was the drum master of Ilê Aiyê, which is now one of the most beloved blocos-Afros in all Brazil. At that time he concluded that each bloco should have a distinctive rhythm, and he devised the first rhythm uniquely identified with Ilê.
The rhythm of Ilê came to him as he thought about the residents of Curuzu, where Ilê was formed and which it represented, and the “mother” of Ilê, the mother of the bloco’s founder who was and still is a leader of a famous Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé ‘terreiro’ there.
The Ilê rhythm reminded him of the time of slavery and the backbreaking labor of slaves to create “sisal” fibers. It also reminded him of Candomblé, which emerged from behind the façade of Catholicism and is not-infrequently co-opted by white Catholics who identify with the characteristics of a particular orixá (or saint).
Neguinho saw from the dance movements of the members of the Ilê bloco that they “fit” with the rhythm he had created for them, so that they could “find” their own identities, recover something of their African heritage, in it. He later helped to form the children’s version of Olodum and an all children’s bloco called Mirim.
There were only 20 days before Carnaval when Mirim was formed and Neguinho’s appeals to other organizations for help were largely met with demands rather than with offers of assistance. He informed the children they could not participate without the participation of their parents, and it was they who stepped forward to help.
Each parent received a T-shirt with the name of the bloco on it and participated in the Carnaval by helping hold a rope around the group children to protect them from the crowds. This had a dual function: it provided a physical barrier to protect the children and it signified that parents are responsible for protecting their children.
Neguinho created “Samba Reggae” to honor the Afro peoples of Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff came to Bahia to perform with Neguinho and Cliff later created a sound to honor the people of Bahia. Neguinho at that point did gain some international recognition, he was greeted in Japan by large crowds with great banners.
In 1994 Neguinho created Didá, a dance and percussion school for women and girls from the slums of Salvador because these are particular targets of Euro sex-tourism. By elevating the dignity and self-esteem of these women and girls Didá leaves them less vulnerable. Paul Simon purchased for Neguinho a building in Pelourinho for Didá.
The Didá “Banda Feminina” is very popular with tourists, but few of the tourists have any clue as to the important work behind the band, the work that rescues the lives of women and girls who might otherwise fall prey to the worst possibilities among the few they are afforded.
It was partly in recognition of the important work Neguinho was doing that I became involved and began to develop a specific methodology, Constructive Social Facilitation, to channel assistance to meritorious grassroots social programs like Didá in Bahia. Didá was the first beneficiary.
Volunteers from more than 40 countries have worked at and donated to Didá through the Constructive Social Facilitation of my work, which, also inspired by what Neguinho was doing, eventually took form as Rhythm of Hope, a US registered international nonprofit.
The loss of a friend like Neguinho is for me a loss without measure; there is a great hole in my heart. The loss to the world, however, is far greater. Here is a man whose entire adult life contributed to the betterment of others, and whose impact on Brazilian music was monumental. And yet he remained an obscure figure.
Related: Read the author’s 1999 article, Success to Frustration – Didá Girl’s Band near the bottom of the left frame at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm.
The author is a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine and the co-founder and director of Rhythm of Hope (see http://www.rhythmofhope.org) which works in Brazil. See his recent online posting about the loss of Neguinho and the important work of Escola Didá, which Neguinho founded, in The Chronicles of Felipe do Brazil at http://rhythmofhope.spaces.live.com/. You are encouraged to write the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.