Over the course of several years performing around Rio in various ensembles and teaching private lessons to adults, Tom became aware of a serious problem: children from poorer families, especially those living in Rio’s favelas (informal settlements controlled by the drugs gangs), did not have the opportunity to learn woodwind and brass instruments. The main reasons for this were that:
Instrumental music lessons weren’t available in most public schools.
Credible long-term non-governmental music education projects in poorer areas were extremely thin on the ground.
Brass instruments are approximately two-to-three times more expensive in Brazil than in the UK or US.
Due to these factors, brass playing in one of the most important cities in the world for live music had become, largely, a preserve of the middle and upper class.
In an attempt to change this dynamic, Tom moved to the Pereira da Silva favela in Santa Teresa in 2014 and started giving lessons to the local children three times a week at his house, using instruments donated by friends in the UK. Tom was soon joined by master percussionist Mangueirinha São Vicente of the Vila Isabel samba school, American trumpet player Joe Epstein, and many other Brazilian and international volunteer teachers. Favela Brass started with a group of just four children, but word quickly spread within the community and, by 2016, our 30-student band had been featured in BBC News coverage of the Rio Olympics.
In addition to learning traditional Brazilian music, children at Favela Brass are regularly exposed to jazz and improvisational music, primarily the second line style played by brass bands in New Orleans.
Though our students had never heard second line when Tom first introduced this style of music in 2015, they immediately embraced it and have put their own stamp on it. Favela Brass’ repertoire now represents a mix of Brazilian popular music, international music, and New Orleans street music.
In 2018, Favela Brass’ work was recognized by the United Nations in Brazil. Our school has also been featured extensively in international mainstream media, including The Guardian, AJ+, O Globo, The Rio Times, and more. A big factor in Favela Brass’ recent success has been our administrative coordinator Carola Bitencourt and a dedicated team of volunteer staff, who have greatly increased the efficiency and professionalism of our operations.
Last year, Favela Brass started offering after-school lessons in four local state schools, taking on another 60 regular students. We are set to further expand in 2020 and have been collaborating with other youth music projects to set up exchange programs for our children within Brazil and beyond. Watch this space!