AfroReggae is a phenomenon. Less a band, more of an artistic collective, it uses the music of Brazil as a tool to support young people from deprived backgrounds, to bring art and dignity into people’s lives.
AfroReggae began small, in the favelas of Brazil. A cultural centre was opened in Vigaria General, offering courses in dance, music and sport, providing an alternative outlet for the energies of young people growing up poor in the favelas. Over the years, the organisation has grown and spread and has since spawned numerous community projects as well as music and theatre groups in a number of countries across the world, including the UK.
But at the heart of it all, integral to all the good work, is the music itself, the pounding, infectious drum-led African-Brazilian music. If the music weren’t so embracive and uplifting, the project would have stumbled at the starting blocks.
Fortunately there is something about the beats and energy, that can’t fail to pick you up. The stage is a sea of people: DJs, vocalists, guitarists and a trio of energetic drummers, their drums belted to their waists. These drummers, when they let fly, they’re quite something to behold. They have half the Barbican audience on their feet and dancing along.
The music is, in the main, a blend of reggae with hip-hop and soul. In between the Brazilian material there is even room for some Marvin Gaye and a dash of Bob Marley; they’re not the most innovative of covers, but they work in context.
The performers play against a backdrop of digital projections, an ever-changing collage of words and images. We see graphics of tenements taking over the planet and imagery celebrating Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other freedom fighters. One of the songs plays out against a backdrop of dangling laundry and the back wall frequently plays host to a stream of words preaching harmony and peace, warning against violence and weapons.
This can feel a bit sledge-hammer heavy at times (not to mention distracting), but again, it fits with the feel of the performance. There’s a drive towards social change, yes, but it’s tied up with pleasure and celebration.
To illustrate the success of the AfroReggae projects in England, there are two special performances. At the start of the show a group of school children perform a well-timed energetic drum piece and there is a further contribution at the end from a group called BiggaBlocko, who blend Samba drumming with rap.
Both these groups give impressive performances and having these kids and their friends in the audience adds to the atmosphere, people show no hesitation at all in clapping along, cheering and dancing. Blend all these elements together and you have the recipe for an energetic and uplifting night out.