“We are all great percussionists because of our mothers,” says Carlinhos Brown, a Grammy Award-winning drummer, to a group of young boys he’s mentoring, explaining that their mother’s heartbeat is the first rhythm we here. This idea of musical roots is central to Fernando Trueba‘s film El Milagro de Candeal (The Miracle of Candeal), which follows the famous Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdez on a journey to trace his African heritage in the favela (slum) of Candeal in Brazil. It is here that Valdez encounters Brown and finds the spiritual and musical connection to Africa he had longed for ever since he left Cuba for Sweden 40 years ago.
Up until the late ’90s, Candeal had been a notoriously poor and dangerous neighborhood of Salvador de Bah-a. As the film shows, Brown changed all that through the establishment of a music school for the neighborhood’s youth. Pouring his own time, talent, and money into the project, Brown remained faithful to his belief that music is an instrument of social change. Since the opening of the school, Brown’s movement has expanded to sponsor dozens of different musical groups and various other projects to rejuvenate and transform an ailing community. One of Brown and his organization’s greatest achievements is the planning, construction, and dedication of a large community square featuring an amphitheater for open-air concerts.
The film serves as a portrait of the people who live in Candeal. Inhabitants of all ages and backgrounds share their perspectives on the miracle of their community, from elderly musicians and mystics relating their cultural heritage to children playing in the streets to the young adults who are trying to break the cycles of crime, violence, and drug abuse in their generation.
Throughout the uplifting images of reconstruction and stories of fellowship, there is a constant rhythm supplied by the various styles of music showcased in the film, including costumed Carnaval drum groups and a string of appearances by Brazilian musicians such as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Marisa Monte. The interaction between Bebo Valdez’s Latin Jazz styles and the Afro-Brazilian music he discovers in Candeal provides a perfect metaphor for the cultural similarities of his native Cuba. Whether in Havana or Bah-a, the music serves as a bridge back to African heritage that is strengthened by the traditions carried on in the Americas and throughout the rest of the world. The Miracle of Candeal is about the rhythm of the human community spirit and the power of that spirit to make a difference in the world.