Once upon a time in the ’70s there lived a man called Roque Moreira, a disc jockey known for only playing the “B” sides of records– his way of honouring all of an artist’s work while covertly subverting commercial interests. Moreira was all about connecting real people on their own terms; pre-Facebook, his radio show provided an informal communication network, broadcasting messages listeners left for each other.

Some of the joyful participants in the Fábrica do Roque (Roque’s Factory) program.

His show made a lasting impression on the residents of Piauí, the state in northeastern Brazil where it rocked the airwaves, leaving its most indelible mark on a group of kids from Teresina who were later to form the band Conjunto Roque Moreira (the “Roque Moreira Band”). Naming themselves after Moreira had been pretty much dictated by their fans, who, on hearing Conjunto’s boisterous, danceable, genre-blending tunes, associated them with the famous DJ.

A stew of musical influences

Conjunto Roque Moreira’s music is a delicious mulligan stew of more styles than you can shake a spoon at– baião, xote, samba, reggae, classical Indian, embolada, repente, bossa nova, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, acid rock, British prog rock, and ’60s folk anthems, to name a few. In addition to being zealots of Brazil’s many genres and subgenres they’re also inspired by Rush, Bryan Adams, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Desmond Dekker, James Brown, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.

How do they weave it all together?

“Like people,” says drummer Anderson Almeida, “all rhythms have something in common. There may be several meanings for a word, just as there can be several words for one meaning. Music is characterized by accents, and this is hard to feel or translate, but it’s by experiencing that we reach the right spot. Our role is to expand the variety of music in the world and to make our fans dance, uniting them in a love of life.”

Singing out

The band isn’t so busy letting the good times roll that it doesn’t have time to promote social justice. Their repertoire contains songs like “NoNoNo,” exhorting citizens to scrutinise the actions of politicians before voting.”‘Vendedor de Cajuína” (Cajuína’s Seller) is about the power of working people. “Magia Nordestina” (Northeast Magic) shows the hardships of peoples in Brazil’s arid regions. And “Velho Monge” (Old Monk) talks about the main river in Teresina and its importance to the fishers and other people who depend on it.

Every human is political, but only the crazy ones believe in their dreams.

These musicians have long been in the habit of building many of their own instruments. They’ve taught themselves to make darbukas, djembes, caxixis, berimbaus, cuícas, gopyangs, drumsticks, carinhões, and contrabaldes, all from a mix of organic and recycled materials, sometimes copying existing instruments and sometimes designing their own.

“Some of our instruments are traditional from Brazil,” says Almeida, “and others are from Africa, because of the great influence that Brazilian music has received from African music.”

I have the honour of actually owning one of Conjunto Roque Moreira’s handmade instruments, a beautiful cuica sent as a thank-you gift for helping them get a Canadian house concert tour.

The author trying out the cuica sent her by Conjunto Roque Moreira

In case you don’t know what a cuica sounds like, just listen to a little samba and wait for the squeaky noise (you can hear it here at the start of “Reggae Moreira”). Aptly, the word means “opossum” in Portuguese. My cuica’s head is made from the skin of a goat (hair intact). There’s a wooden rod attached to the head from the inside of a calabash gourd, and it’s all artfully tied together with braided nylon rope. You sound it by wetting a bit of cotton gauze and rubbing it back and forth along the wooden rod like you were polishing a spoon handle.

Roque’s Factory: No ivory towers

Somewhere in the process of perfecting their designs and scouting out the best materials the band got the idea that they might be able to help out the needy neighborhood kids by teaching them how to play these instruments– and also how to make and sell them.

Thus was born Fábrica do Roque (Roque’s Factory), a community-based project empowering the poor for creative expression, positive interdependence, and greater self-sufficiency.

Conjunto guitarist Daniel Hulk leads an impromptu musical parade.

Which cultural conditions are most conducive to this kind of artist activism? In Conjunto Roque Moreira’s case one could argue that since for them music had always been a highly social give-and-take– the very hub of their childhood games, family gatherings, parties, dances, and stints in many bands– it was impossible for them to separate art from social engagement.

I have the honour of actually owning one of Conjunto Roque Moreira’s handmade instruments, a beautiful cuica sent as a thank-you gift for helping them get a Canadian house concert tour.

We won’t find any ivory towers on the Conjunto Roque Moreira planet, nor art for art’s sake, nor regressions into absinthe, isolation, and macabre ideation. Nor will we find a self-righteous and grim resolve to change the world at all costs. Instead the group manifests a robust and generous creativity that blossoms naturally into positive action while managing to remain insanely fun.

The musicians promote the use of organic and recycled materials in order to teach the young the importance of cherishing and preserving nature. They even use the child-crafted instruments in their own performances.

“It’s a wonderful way to publicise the project and valorise the instruments made by children,” says  Almeida, Conjunto’s drummer. “The children are very proud to know how to make the instruments and grateful for the chance to earn extra money by selling them.”

Every human is political, but only the crazy ones believe in their dreams.

Do they consider themselves left, right, or center? “We don’t take sides in politics,” Almeida explains, “especially not when the political parties do no more than seek power. But as the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, ‘Every human being is political.'”

The happiness of the art and activism marriage may also owe a little to the mother of invention:

“Even in difficult times,” says Anderson, “we can get enough inspiration to create, because crazy people believe in their dreams. It’s in the need for innovation that creativity flourishes.”

Piauí children and teenagers play instruments they’ve made themselves, under the instruction of Conjunto Roque Moreira.

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