PHOTO: Through all the hurdles, Elisete de Jesus Silva, a Brazilian percussionist better known as Elem, remains committed to her music and band members, many of whom are children she took under her wing. An upcoming film, “Maestrina de Favela,” chronicles her journey. / Photo courtesy of Dee Dwyer
While few ever get the chance to visit Brazil, many will soon come to know Elisete de Jesus Silva, one of its rising stars and the subject of an upcoming documentary about her life, music, and community work in one of its roughest neighborhoods.
The film, titled “Maestrina de Favela” (Portuguese for “Master of the Slum”), follows the percussionist better known as Elem in the years after her mother’s death as she navigates life in the Pelourinho, a historic district located in the heart of Salvador de Bahia. Despite her band’s rise in prominence, the young musician struggles to stave off misogynists bent on sabotaging her career and engage youth when a community center shutters. Lack of funds and a recurring brain aneurysm have also stalled her long-term goals.
Through it all, Elem remains committed to her music and band members, many of whom are children she took under her wing, speaking to what Falani Spivey, a close friend and producer of the film, calls the significance of samba reggae in Afro-Brazilian culture.
“Samba reggae is similar to go-go. Heavily driven with rhythms of Africa,” Spivey, a native Washingtonian, told AllEyesOnDC as she drew parallels between art forms created by people of African descent. “It’s music with a message for the person that instills Black pride. It’s a form of resistance that started when Blacks couldn’t be a part of Carnival.”
During a fundraiser in Adams Morgan earlier this month, dozens of people from around the D.C. metropolitan area caught a glimpse of what to expect from “Maestrina de Favela” while walking through a photo exhibit and auction that showcased a vast selection of colorful still shots Spivey’s friend Dee Dwyer took of Brazil’s people, foliage, and architecture. That evening, Spivey spoke at length about her affinity for Afro-Brazilian culture and the friendship that’s strengthened her connection to the country.
In the spring of 2007, Spivey and Elem, then 13, crossed paths shortly before the former wrapped up a semester-long study abroad program in Brazil. For nearly a decade, the two talked on the phone; wrote letters, and chatted on social media. Videos and photos from those correspondences along with footage taken during a trip earlier this year will be in “Maestrina de Favela.” Later this year, Spivey will launch a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign to ensure plans come to fruition.
“We’re about 80 percent done with the film; now I need funding to edit the project. I’ve been collecting footage for nine years,” Spivey said. “The band still exists and it’s a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture. [The music] showed me that we’re one of the same.”
Despite its reputation as a quickly developing tourist attraction, the Pelourinho has become synonymous with extreme poverty, drug abuse, and hunger. Such is the case amid rising unemployment and the makings of what economists have called the worst recession in 25 years.
Nationally, the youngest fare the worst in these dismal conditions. Anywhere between 800,000 and 2 million homeless children live on streets throughout Brazil, the Borgen Project estimates.
Since starting her band Children of the Rocinha in the Pelourinho, at the age of 8, Elem has been able to hold her own in her neighborhood. As her skills on milk cartons-turned-drums improved and her profile rose in the community, she brought along more local children who wanted to perform in well-populated public spaces. Unlike leaders of other bands, Elem adequately paid members and made sure they didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs.
Sometimes, efforts to protect the young ones from the perils of life in the slums fell short, especially after the passing of her mother. Three bandmates died in separate incidences of violence. Increasing responsibilities at an old house she shares with her aunt demanded the young musician’s attention, bringing her life to a standstill.
“This environment is kind of cut throat. Elem’s doing the real work,” Spivey said as she talked about Elem’s dilapidated, mildew-drenched abode that doubles as a rec center and classroom. For years, she maintained contact with Elem, sending money, educational materials, and a refrigerator in the hopes of keeping up her friend’s spirits during those trying times.
“Elem goes above and beyond to make sure the kids don’t drink or do drugs, like a social worker,” Spivey added. “She leads by example, gaining respect as a Maestrina, but she doesn’t exploit them. She pays the kids what they deserve and puts the rest of the money back into the instruments. Personally, she doesn’t ask for much; just drums and materials.”
In February, Spivey, along Dwyer and D.C. filmmaker Briana Monet, visited Elem’s house during a two-week excursion to Brazil. On that trip, Elem, sporting neon pink boots and a smile, parlayed with her Black American friends into the wee hours of the morning during Carnival. The trio’s guided trek around the Pelourinho birthed new footage and the photos of churches, houses, drug addicts, police officers, food, people dancing and other elements of Brazilian life.
Conversations with natives also provided ample opportunity to learn more about the Afro-Brazilian history of resistance and visit an island inhabited by descendants of Africans who escaped slavery. There, natives and their foreign visitors united under the trance of Yoruba-influenced sounds and beats, as to say they realized their common link to the Motherland.
“Everyone was so sure of themselves. They knew their history,” Dwyer, told AllEyesOnDC. For nearly two years, she assisted in the production of “Maestrina de Favela.” Though she heard Spivey’s stories about Elem for years, Dwyer said things came full circle upon meeting the star percussionist in person and capturing her life with her Canon t2i.
“We struggle, but Elem’s struggle is much deeper and harsher,” Dwyer said while reflecting on how culture could help one overcome hurdles. “[But] she’s always in high spirits, even with all that’s going on. Newborn babies had on costumes and had their culture instilled in them. I wish we had more of that African culture built into the Black community in America.”
The mission to build that connection continues on the evening of June 25 during another fundraiser and exhibition at the Brookland Artspace Lofts Apartments in Northeast.
Soon, audiences may be exposed to the Afro-Brazilian sounds through more than one means. In thinking beyond the movie, Spivey expressed plans of eventually flying the members of Children of the Rocinha in the Pelourinho to the District to take part in a samba reggae-go-go mash up. For her, the cultural exchange must continue between children of the Diaspora.
Briana Monet, Spivey’s other partner on the film project, echoed those sentiments, noticing a positive change in her colleague’s disposition as she got more support and resources to take this passion project by the horns.
“You just have to give it to the world. That’s the reward,” Monet told AllEyesOnDC. “Art isn’t always about money or fame. It’s about being free and true. The reward isn’t a pay day. It’s more about honesty, being human and becoming immortal through the eyes of those you helped those along the way. Everything is true and raw. Any human can connect to that, more so than fabricated stories.”
For more information about “Maestrina de Favala” or to contribute, like the Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.