Portrait of Carlinhos Brown, Embratur/Visit Brasil

Carlinhos Brown, Visit Brasil:
Music for the people


Carlinhos Brown is one of South America’s most innovative and influential musicians, a fact that just recently earned him the appointment as Brasil’s Tourism Ambassador by the country’s tourist board. Born in Salvador, Bahia in 1962, he had an impoverished childhood, especially since he was from a family with nine siblings and as many mouths to feed. Yet, the singer-songwriter rose above his circumstances, initially through ingenuity: as a kid, he sold water bottles on the street to make money, then used the empties he took home at the end of the day as substitute drums. Utterly focused and determined, Carlinhos eventually moved onto the real thing – oodles of natural talent and flair meant he mastered his kit, as well as numerous other percussion instruments. In an exclusive interview with OutThere, the all-rounder talks about all things music, life and his love of Brasil.

An extrovert at heart with a thrillingly eclectic style (a fusion of funk, Latin beats, reggae, R&B, soul, and classic Brazilian percussion), in the 1980s Brown collaborated with various other musicians including Luiz Caldas. Some world tours followed with the likes of João Bosco and Djavan before Carlinhos released his first solo album in 1996, Alfagamabetizado, which saw him singing, composing, and playing several instruments. Two years after this breakthrough came the just as critically acclaimed and commercially successful Omelette Man (1998). Since then, he’s had numerous No. 1 records, won two Latin Grammys, and received an Oscar nomination for his contribution to the soundtrack of the movie Rio (2011). However, despite such remarkable achievements, due to his poor background, this is one maestro who’s always been committed to giving something back – i.e. with his Pracatum School and Timbalada projects. Said wonderful humanitarian endeavours are probably part of the reason the accomplished performer was recently made his country’s Tourism Ambassador. And having heard the news, we knew we had to catch up with him to ask about his upbringing, career and his role within Brasil’s tourist industry.

Can you tell us about your childhood – what was it like growing up in relative poverty in Candeal, Bahia?

During my childhood, Candeal was a somewhat isolated neighbourhood. There were hardly any cars and there were plenty of forests, vegetable gardens, and water sources, and my backyard was full of chickens and pigs. Everyone knew everyone and the kids played freely in the street. It was a childhood full of environmental education. I was a child who also worked to collaborate with my family. My mother was a washerwoman and I would get water to supply the neighbours’ houses. With the buckets, I started making my first drums and making a sound.

Candeal, to date, is the place where I study and where I record my songs. My father, my mother, and everyone I knew then still live in this neighbourhood, so the coexistence is very good. It’s a place that became an educational centre, where I created the Pracatum Educational Association and Candeal Guetho Square, a venue for Timbalada’s presentations and rehearsals. And I’m very happy with that, as my wish was that Candeal’s children wouldn’t have their dreams corrupted, but would live with opportunities, music lessons and sports. It is important to welcome and amplify the voices of those who are interested in learning about culture. And while I’m very pleased with all these achievements and opportunities, it is essential to point out that nothing is a merit and I did nothing alone, so I am always grateful to everyone who collaborated and continues to contribute to the construction and existence of all this.

What inspired you to become a musician and how did you decide to make this career happen for yourself?

Candeal was a great music school. The neighbourhood was surrounded by temples and music in African languages, such as Yoruba and Bantus. Next to this, the priests who were part of the German Franciscan congregation placed a loudspeaker with music by Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world because the sounds mixed and it really impressed me. It has always been a neighbourhood with many percussionists as well, and frequented by people like master Pintado do Bongô, a very important name in my career as a musician. He played outside a little bar called Surubem and I always went there and stood outside watching, enchanted. I had never seen someone so fast and musical in my life. One day, when I ‘ran away’ from home, because my parents didn’t let their children go to the bar on the weekends, I went down and started playing. He saw me and asked where I learned it, and I replied that it was from watching him. He liked it so much that he said that if I learned how to play, he would give me an instrument. And so I started with timbrel, tambourine, and reco-reco and I started learning.

As someone who’s travelled all over the globe performing, in the most general terms, how do you think Brasil is perceived abroad?

Brasil is seen by the world with great curiosity. Because we are continentally distant, people don’t know the country in depth. And those who come to know it are enchanted and start to promote the destination. But what’s cool is that it’s a country that’s over 500 years old and still offers surprises. When you talk to someone, from any part of the world, and you tell them the history of Brasil, they immediately become more than interested, they even feel like Brazilians, because Brasil is a great preserver of the world’s ethnic memory. Here these fusions and mixtures are already condensed. We have a huge responsibility to the world, which is to take these memories and make them public and attend to these ethnicities, making our real legacy one of cohesion, so that the world understands itself based on mixtures of race.

Do you think music has the ability or potential to change society positively? If so, to what extent has this idea influenced your career?

I consider the idea that music has the capacity to change society to be mistaken. Only humans have this ability. Music is an authentic and spiritual companion, which has not betrayed its partner, which has not betrayed its country, which has not betrayed anyone. It is simply a communication with the divine and certainly a way for the superior divinity to express itself to us. What music brings to understanding is calm, and from that, the structure people seek to improve their earthly actions. Music is the biggest reminder of free will. Man is the one who must change the world, but of course, music will always be a tool and a condition to place in the unitary space. That’s why when we sing, the energy is more positive, the pain disappears within a collective.

When you were first offered the position of Ambassador for Brazilian Afrotourism, did you accept it immediately or did you need time to think about it? And now that you’re in the role, how proud are you of it?

When I was first offered the position of Ambassador for Brazilian Afrotourism, of course, I thought about it, but at the same time, I placed myself within a responsibility that I had already taken on and exercised since I was a teenager. It was the idea of remembering African customs and bringing them together as a congregator of other cultures. This was a positive point, as it is in my educational desire. And this is a special portal for us to dialogue with Afro-Asian, Afro-Oriental, Afro-Saxon, and Afro-European communities. Because this Afro means that they are influenced by Africa and other ethnicities. And Africa and Afro people throughout the common world seek reparation from the entire world, but they do not seek separatism, and this is important for the world to know. We are organizing ourselves because we are quite culturally exploited, in terms of work, and today we want to seek a full stop. End racial prejudices among all ethnicities, and go against racism, xenophobia and anything that intrudes on coexistence in the world.

Tell us about your role as Tourism Ambassador. What are some of your duties and goals?

My role as Tourism Ambassador is about reflecting as much as possible the good fortunes of my country. This is a country with gigantic environmental quality that people need to know about. We are looking for better days for equality and inclusion and I believe that diversity here already plays a very advanced role in the world. And what we call sustainability has to do with this movement that I am the author of, not only with my compositions but with my rhythmic authorship as well, a movement that drives new ideas. I want to say that being involved in something that also involves a collective has a lot to do with the acronym ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) and I want to spread this so that people come to know each other in Brasil.

There are many Anglo-Saxons who don’t know about the aesthetic influence they have here and don’t know how it has changed and how it influences the world and themselves today. For example, North America is no longer aware of how much it is influenced by Afro-Brazilian culture. When I see Beyoncé’s latest albums, I see how positively contaminated she is. And because this also happened with force through a rhythmic cultural exodus that happened to us in the creation of Kuduro in Angola or the creation of Reggaeton throughout Latin America. These positive profusions are happening with the language of rhythm. This has no borders; it is a language that is contagious and infiltrates itself. And that’s what the world expects from us, a new cadence, a new touch, a new look. We are ready not only to disseminate but also to seek corrections in developed countries and to bring news, too, so that these approaches continue making us a positive point in the world that will converge in education and peace.

With regard to your role, how vital do you consider diversity, equality and inclusion, and environmental sustainability to be? Are there any projects you might be involved in that you could tell us about?

Carlinhos Brown, Brazilian Afrotourism Ambassador, poses for a picture
Carlinhos Brown of Embratur/Visit Brasil

Yes, I do more than projects, I do actions. These actions have explicit results and sufficient support to say that yes, culture is a powerful development machine and a powerful tool for education. Regarding the environment, I created the first environmental education book, which is Paxuá e Paramim, for children aged 4 to 8. I also carry out important work in the area of literacy, where we have already distributed more than 200,000 tablets so that children have an important encounter with new languages, especially digital ones, and that they provide content for improvement to overcome possible digital illiteracy that can happen in peripheral countries.

Regarding environmental sustainability, both environmental belonging and children’s books, which educate children to live with the environment, have been part of my dream since childhood. Because I was born in a neighbourhood that was purely forest and I saw the area grow suddenly. Real estate speculation didn’t see it like we saw it. It was a forest, it was close to the sea, and suddenly many buildings appeared around it. I learned a lot from that. People can’t avoid progress, but if done right, progress can come with less deforestation and respect for environmental laws. This brings an important look at new ways of generating energy, that can translate to us a commitment that we are not only extractivists from nature, and that we need to live off nature while also giving back.

And this can start in cities, with the respect that we need to have today. Everyone steps on the ground today, but you don’t notice that underneath the floor there is plumbing, and there are paths to drain the sanitation. Today we have a rate of 49 million people without basic sanitation. We have another very serious problem: we have 9 million people, aged approximately 16 to 24, who have not completed their education. So all these challenges are part of the challenge that tourism carries out today as an exchange of knowledge. But may this exchange also bring us new experiences so that we can overcome these challenges. We need to know that our country is beautiful and that it needs to be taken care of by us and those who come to visit us. The perspective of tourism, although Brasil is quite prepared, is one of caution. This is a country that prepares to receive and welcomes people very well.

Do you think discrimination and social inequality are still big problems for black and indigenous people in Brasil?

The spread of social inequality is still a big problem for black people in the world as a whole, not just in Brasil. But Brasil has made important advances because we are mixed race. We have found views that go a long way along this path, of socializing more, understanding each other’s problems better and getting to know each other. There has never been so much talk about ancestry, and there has never been so much talk about overcoming racism, and I say again, Brasil is overcoming racism, but it is far from separating itself. What is new for the world is our miscegenation, the mixing of peoples. Although black people are here in a ‘mistaken way’ because we have reached an unthinkable moment of slavery, African dynasties and sovereignties continue to exist; they appear in samba schools, in the beats of Timbalada, in the beats of Olodum, or Ilê Aiyê. Miscegenation does not repair the disaster that happened to black culture, but we also accept ourselves as an important role in this mixture. After all, love doesn’t choose colour. It just exists.

Brasil has the largest black population outside of Africa, so how important do you consider the fact that your country has launched the first national plan to promote Afrotourism? In summary, what are your main goals and objectives?

My main goals are in social rapprochement. We need to use tourist desire and curiosity to rekindle in us that we are part of one world, and that there is much to discover or correct. Do you know that missing spice, that missing melody? We will look for a way for this to happen accurately, but at the same time, it is important to make it clear to the world that Brasil is a great house in the world and that being Brazilian is not just about being born in the country. Being Brazilian is a state of mind… A state of mind of someone who deeply believes in the human race and the joy of coexistence and knows how to celebrate like no one else.

You have always strived to give back to the community. What led you to do this and can you tell us a little about your involvement in the Pracatum and Timbalada projects?

Yes, I continue to strive to give back to the community. What led me to do this is just an ethical and tribal education that is found here. I am responsible for my story. I was led to do what I do and I learned very early because I was born in the Candeal neighbourhood, which is the first place Lebara settled in Latin America. And it is a place where the city’s cultural paths were discussed, as Caribé and people with a strong cultural background who came from other parts of the world lived nearby. All this world culture was always in my neighborhood, and it prepared me. And these answers were necessary. So my surroundings educated me, it was where I learned to do social actions. Because I learned that doing that was good. Actions that involved sanitation, education, and housing, and that’s why I did it on a tripod: a music school, a concert space for these boys; there I created Timbalada, Vai Quem Vem, and we created the first female percussion band, which is the Bolacha Maria, and this was influential for many. And then Timbaladies, which follows this function, and Timbalada, which resulted from that, and which today is the rhythm that is the most visited and consumed by Pop music in Brasil.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As an Afrotourism Ambassador, I also become a returns courier. I have a huge effort that already cuts across 30 years of Carnivalization in Europe and the world as a whole. And I have many successes, like in Spain, where we reached 6 million people in four presentations. Or, what I’ve been doing in London, now in Manchester and at the Caribbean Carnival. We are very open to the world reviewing its carnivals, and its relationship with the street. The street is the largest living room on the planet. We sleep in our houses, but our living room is on the street. And the streets need to talk. It’s where brands talk, citizens talk, it’s where we taste the same flavours, and equality is very strong to the sound of good music and good musicians from different corners of the world. These artists manage, through their voices and their lyrics, to bring unity, contentment and positive thinking so that we can live our lives and spend the best time possible in this unique place that is Planet Earth.


Photography by Leo Aversa and courtesy of Visit Brasil

Bloom opt-in slide-in homepage

Join us on an adventure

Subscribe to our newsletter to enjoy early access to the latest news, luxury hotel reviews and inspiring travel tales, delivered straight to your inbox.

A confirmation email has been sent to your inbox. Welcome to the club!