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BRAZIL: Spreading the Cultural Tentacles of Inclusion

Clarinha Glock

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, Aug 12 2008 (IPS) - “Negro F” tells how the Manos Grafite (roughly, “Graphite Hands”) group started. In 1996, he and his friend Alex were walking along a street in the outskirts of the capital of the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, when they were struck by the colours and forms painted on the walls.

They looked for the graffiti artists’ group in the slum neighbourhood of Alto Vera Cruz, in Belo Horizonte, and joined in their meetings and community action.

“Negro F” shared his experiences and dreams with MCs for local festivities “Renegado” (Flavio de Abreu Lourenço) and “Dani Crizz” (Danielle Ferreira), and disc jockey “Francis” (Francislei Henrique).

At that time, as is still the case now, many groups were formed and disbanded virtually overnight. They were overflowing with ideas but had little clue as to how to implement them. “We wanted to do more solid work, with greater continuity, persistence, impact and reach,” said 28-year-old “Negro F,” whose real name is Eustaquio Maciel.

As a result, in 1997 the cultural group Negros da Unidade Consciente (NUC, roughly “Blacks in Conscious Unity”) was formed, and became a model of organisation and participation in Belo Horizonte. It mobilised the residents of Alto Vera Cruz and surrounding neighbourhoods to take part in cultural, social, environmental and training activities which are transforming life in the “favelas” (shanty towns).

They had to be very tenacious not to give up in the face of financial difficulties and lack of support from the authorities, and instead carry on with their labour of love, which began with music.

The first record that made NUC popular came out in 1998 and was titled “Funk Minas.” Rap and funk are currently very popular in the outlying areas of large Brazilian cities, so much so that they are heard almost daily on Radio Favela, a famous local community station.

Another album attained national fame in 2000, when the band played at the April Pró Rap Festival in Brasilia. A new recording, with support from the municipality thanks to the Law on Cultural Incentives, incorporated other community initiatives like the women’s group Meninas de Sinhá, which revives traditional folk music, and Capoeirarte Brasil, which performs “capoeira” a blend of martial arts and dance created by black slaves.

NUC opened its doors to other groups, multiplying its contacts and building relationships that went beyond the worlds of art and music.

In 2004, NUC won the opportunity to take part in the Havana Hip Hop Festival. Its members composed songs with the TNT band, from Santiago de Cuba, and established a lasting link between Alto Vera Cruz and Havana. The following year they performed in Caracas, Venezuela.

NUC activities spread out in different ways and gained followers of all ages. Their popularity attracted other local groups, who asked for help in getting themselves organised. So NUC created a Multicultural Community Centre on premises that were small, yet large enough to host talks about cultural incentives, professions and technical vocations.

Two years ago, NUC moved to roomier facilities and expanded their project, creating a dance studio, a multi-purpose hall and a communications design laboratory. This growth brought in still more groups, like AffroReggae, a similar but older and better known project in Rio de Janeiro, that assists in the management of the Belo Horizonte centre.

Finally, NUC was adopted as one of the Culture Points that the government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is promoting all over Brazil through its Culture Ministry. Its audiovisual workshops, promoted in cooperation with the city government, strengthen community networks, and activities are held in schools and on the streets.

The municipal government’s family support programme for poor families includes attendance by young people aged 14 to 26 at NUC projects, including workshops on radio broadcasting and the uses of non-traditional foods.

“We gradually discovered how much art and culture have in common. Organised groups did research on medicinal plants and community vegetable gardens, and from that work radio programmes were created which are broadcast by the community stations,” Negro F told IPS.

In the workshops, the young people were recording a video on the state of the Santa Terezinha stream, which they want to clean up. Stories are told there of the good old days when its waters were used for bathing and for washing clothes, until they became clogged up with rubbish.

The stream crosses Alto Vera Cruz and an adjacent neighbourhood, Taquaril, as well as areas set aside for environmental preservation.

The community received funding from the municipality “to create recreational areas, recycle old houses adjacent to the stream, and install a sanitation system to keep the brook’s water clean, all within the context of a wider plan,” after removal of garbage dumps from the neighbourhood and the implementation of public awareness campaigns to maintain these changes, Negro F said.

“We want this area to be clean,” he said.

In addition to producing and showing videos in the neighbourhoods, the idea is to involve young people in debates with the community about various problems and projects, with the hope of producing a multiplier effect. Alto Vera Cruz alone is home to 40,000 people, and counting the surrounding areas, the potential target population is between 80,000 and 90,000 people.

The NUC founding group are all volunteers; they each make their own living as best they can, running graffiti workshops and putting on shows. One example is CTOR-9 Crew, of which Negro F is a member, that exhibits original, colourful mural art in the city centre.

One of its outstanding exhibits, in honour of Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, is painted on the wall of a corner building in downtown Belo Horizonte.

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