SALVADOR, Brazil — From a veranda at Candyall Ghetto Square, a recording studio and rehearsal space for his percussion band Timbalada, the musician Carlinhos Brown appraised the contrasting worlds that define the neighborhood where he grew up.
An unfinished brick house stood to his left, all that its owner could afford to build. Behind him were the modest stucco homes that line a slope rechristened Bob Marley Street. By the soccer field down below was a row of shacks made of discarded wood. At the top of the hills that surround the area, the elegant high-rises that house the upper class in this city, the third-largest in Brazil, with about 3 million people.
“Poverty is not an excuse for anything,” Brown, 46, said on a recent gray afternoon here, his eyes shielded by a pair of oversize sunglasses. “Poverty is an opportunity.”
Brown — a singer, songwriter and percussionist who is one of Brazil’s best-known artists — once made music banging on the water barrels that he used to carry home to his mother, who earned a living washing clothes. Back then, his neighborhood, Candeal Pequeno, or Little Candeal, had so many fruit trees that a child would go hungry only if he could not climb.
But as Salvador grew, Candeal, developed on what used to be a belt of tropical forest in the middle of the city, became so big so fast that it could no longer sustain itself. Sewage flowed openly on the streets where children played. Unpaved roads flooded when it rained, dumping mud, garbage and disease into homes. Illegal connections to the electric grid abounded, yet many of the houses went dark at night.
With money and prestige, Brown said, came the realization that to help his neighborhood, he would have to do more than write lyrics portraying its plight.
Fifteen years ago, he took a first step, founding a music school for children who were once like him: poor and short on hope, but full of dreams. He named it Pracatum, after the sound made by the hand drums used in percussion bands, instruments like the timbau and tan-tan.
So began Candeal’s profound transformation, made all the more remarkable because it was fostered by a black man in an overwhelmingly black city where blacks are rarely agents of change.
Brown coaxed local residents to join a civic association he had founded and went on to press whomever he would come across: politicians, philanthropists and dignitaries like King Juan Carlos of Spain, who visited Candeal in 2005, and the United States ambassador to Brazil, Clifford M. Sobel, who went there in February. “The day my street was paved, I realized that we could accomplish anything,” said Maria Jose Menezes dos Santos, 68, an active member of the association who has lived in the neighborhood for 38 years and raised 11 children there.
Candeal has a privileged location, close to the beach and halfway between Salvador’s old downtown and its new financial center. It is not a shantytown or an “invasao,” or invasion — communities illegally built on vacant land. But it does have elements of both. The only comprehensive neighborhood survey to date, done in 1997, concluded that nearly one-fifth of its 5,500 residents were unemployed and that four out of five earned $80 a month or less. In addition, the survey showed, 25 percent of the homes were at risk of collapse.
While Pracatum School churned out a cast of talented musicians — people like Leo Bit Bit, who plays with the band Scorpions; the twins Du and Jo, who play with Caetano Veloso; and Marivaldo dos Santos, who plays in “Stomp” — the association went to work fixing up Candeal. It persuaded the city’s health department to open a clinic there, the neighborhood’s first. It raised money to build and renovate more than 200 homes and plaster and paint 60 others. It got the mayor’s office to install sewer lines and refurbish a public water fountain that many families use to this day to wash their clothes.
This year, residents got together to patch up the battered soccer field, the sole source of recreation for many of the local children.
“People used to look for ways to move out of here because of what this place was like,” said Mario Sena, 27, a Candeal resident who was one of the first to enroll at Pracatum in 1994 and is now in charge of the school’s music studio. “Now, nobody wants to leave. Candeal is poor, but it has dignity.”
Pride in where they came from is what Brown said he had sought to instill in Candeal’s people, through his music and his social work, and by many measures he has been successful. At a fashion workshop Pracatum School started three months ago, for example, 20 women who had never before picked up a needle chose to use their neighborhood and neighbors as inspiration for a line of jewelry and key chains.
One student embroidered on a patch, “Da-se escova,” or hair blow-dried here, mimicking a sign that hangs from a local hair salon. Another, Elaine Gualberto, 21, was stitching on a piece of fabric her own version of the neighborhood’s patron saint, St. Anthony: a black man with a friar’s robe and an Afro.
“It’s cool to live in Candeal,” said Gualberto, who was born and brought up there. “Everybody knows it. Carlinhos Brown put it on the map.”
Brown, who wore his long dreadlocks tucked inside a fluffy cap, a style copied by a group of young men gathered outside Pracatum the other day, credited collective efforts of the community with the changes. “All I’ve done is use my name to get people to listen,” he said.
“I’m not better or smarter than anyone,” he said. “But whenever I find a door closed, I kick the door open.”