an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Hop the 'Hound
After Blogger succumbed to possibly counterfeit takedown notifications (I never did quite get to the bottom, but suffice to say it didn't all add up), I have bussed my blog on down the information superhighway -- hopped the 'Hound, as it were -- to Wordpress, with a proper domain name to boot.
So please redirect your newsfeeds, Google readers, and plain old bookmarks to: The new <<<Beat Diaspora>>>
Holidays afford a routine return to familiar territory that is the perfect opportunity to change perspective. Countless times I have zoomed up I-95 -- the interstate highway, the ultimate American non-place [link via this excellent repository] -- and into Baltimore. I mark my entrance by that smoke stack, this solitary remnant of heavy industry on life support that is as much a cultural symbol of the city, a tourism board's welcome sign, as it the machinery of a factory.
Swooping over the Middle River and either branching off into downtown or continuing under the harbor, this elevated stretch of interchanges and off-ramps dazzles the eye. The water, the shipyard, the Key Bridge, the neighborhoods fanning out from downtown, and the city's modest skyline all compete for attention. It is a microcosm of the northeastern city, serving up a feast for hungry urban eyes.
But with the encroachment of non-places like I-95 that funnel in suburbanites, dumping them at the city's faux-historical economic engine, the Inner Harbor, comes the shadow of the highway trusses looming over forgotten neighborhoods. What haven't I seen in all those years of traveling into Baltimore by car?
I've given up on private car ownership, and when coming from outside the city now feel reluctant to bring a new private automobile into it. Call it moral congestion pricing. So on Friday, I parked at the edge of D.C. and took the Metro, taking advantage of late night weekend service. On Saturday, I took that game plan to Baltimore, hoping to take transit in a state notoriously hostile to it.
My M.O. was the Baltimore light rail, which snakes from BWI Airport and southern inner ring suburbs through downtown, heading north to its terminus at ex-shopping mall/current "town centre" Hunt Valley. I swore allegiance to the MBTA for four years, am doggedly loyal to SEPTA, and even keep subway porn on my coffee table, yet never have I taken Baltimore's tentative steps toward effective public transportation.
As the train crept north, I was particulary interested in seeing the vast hive of concrete and waterways around the Middle River from surface level. The trip did not disappoint, as I discovered two neighborhoods hidden in the shadow of I-95 and I-295. The first, Westport, is in fact cleaved by the latter highway. It is a tiny, down on its heels enclave of rowhouses, now poised for massive redevelopment by the light rail stop. A developer plans a giant high-rise complex with hotel rooms, office space, condos, and retail, which strikes me as a contrast of urban luxury and poverty of Mumbai proportions. While I certainly favor transit-oriented development, as this surely will force heavier usage of the light rail at its doorstep, I'm left with grave concerns about how such a development will interact with the existing neighborhood. Job training? Or the equally likely gated entrances, private security, and surveillance cameras? If there even is a neighborhood left, given the money that starts being put on the table to feed the "insatiable demand for homes on or near the water."
Next stop: Cherry Hill. In another overlooked corner by those of us whose itineraries are circumscribed by highway routes, I found the nation's first planned community for African-Americans, designed to house WWII veterans. Sadly, it experienced rapid post-war disinvestment and decay, with the veterans' homes becoming public housing. But just across the water from Westport, the planners have come back as more waterfront property becomes enticing. An active neighborhood group ("A great neighborhood -- getting even better!) catalogues the ongoing development of the Cherry Hill master plan, which remains contentious in the community.
Later that night, I was listening to the Audio Infusion on WEAA. The DJ announced a caller from Cherry Hill and I smiled in recognition. The next morning, on the road in the I-95 morass, I craned my neck to catch a newly familiar sight, the stately Baltimore Rowing Club on the Middle River, with Cherry Hill fanning out behind it. New routes lead to new discoveries.
I am writing this to join the growing chorus of bloggers using Blogger who have received takedown notifications in recent weeks. Blogger has deleted posts with links that allegedly have content in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In my case, it was a June post, "Rush It Up" (Google cache link) that pointed to an mp3 of Shaggy's theme song for Euro 2008. I was not hosting the file, merely linking to its presence on the Heatwave blog (where you can still find it).
Other bloggers have received notifications -- or even had posts deleted without receiving notifications -- for tracks that they received from record labels specifically so they could promote it via their blogs! It's a shotgun approach that has Blogger (and its overlord, Google) covering their asses while infringing on the ability of bloggers to publish original content (it's not just an offending link that is removed, but the entire text of the post that went with it).
In the mean time, a friend did some digging on the individual who filed the claim, a one Eric Green. Apparently his main employ is to get illegally shared porn removed from hosting sites. Most of his work is for the adult online industry . . . and yet somehow a handful of music bloggers have fallen into his net. We're like dolphins in the tuna catch here.
If you are so inclined as to ask Mr. Green why my post, or any of the others that Blogger has removed in the last several weeks, here is his contact information:
I will be sending him several e-mails and letters, as well as dropping him a line. And looking for a new place to run my blog. This site's days as a forum for free expression are clearly numbered; expect bloggers to run from Blogger in droves.
Even if it's old news in Brazil, I'm due to provide a refresher on Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad in English). It was directed by José Padilha as the second film in a trio that began with Bus 174, the documentary of a hostage taking on a Rio bus that was captured by national TV to disastrous results. His cinematic vision is to tackle the city's central pressing issues -- violent crime, the drug trade, police corruption and brutality. In Tropa de Elite, he focuses on the BOPE, Rio's equivalent of a SWAT team, that conducts intense operations in favelas -- usually with callous disregard for human life. Shoot first, ask questions later, as it were. Their ostentatiously violent symbol makes that abundantly clear ("It looks like a biker gang in the third reich.")
I first watched it in Rocinha with some 2Bros folks, where the scene portraying BOPE invasions of the favela were eerily similar to real life. We had a pirated copy that had leaked in August 2007, just a week or two before my departure. It had already spread like wildfire, and by the time of its official release in October, it was seen by a reported 11.5 million Brazilians. Not much the copyright police can do about that.
Most interestingly, it was equally popular among all strata of society, but for opposite reasons. Favelados were on the side of the victimized favelados as well as cavalier gangsters, and a friend of a friend was proud to have been an extra as a bandido. The middle and upper classes were taken by protagonist Capitão Nascimento, whose strongarm, torture tactics elicited applause in movie houses.
In a country whose moneyed interests frequently feel that the drug trade can only be reined in by extra-legal measures, Nascimento's take no prisoners attitude made him, as this magazine cover argues, a new national hero.
Padilha cannily rejects any claims that his film endorses either side of the debate. I saw him speak at the Harvard Film Archive last spring, where he maintained the position that the film was a portrayal designed to spark dialogue, not a polemic. In short, he's let the film be a mirror on its viewers' own prejudices and opinions about the power relations in Rio.
I don't think a strong-willed director tackling such challenging subjects should get off so easily. Surely there was some authorial intent. For one, the group that comes off the most negatively in the film are the wealthy college students who patronize the drug trade -- they provide the funds that keep the whole operation going, much to the detriment of folks who live just a few miles away up in the hills (on a longer scale, Colombia is taking the anti-cocaine message to middle-class Europeans).
Those folks, meanwhile, get their fair due of fun for a brief moment at the beginning of the film, with a stellar baile funk scene that tragically ends in a police-gang shootout. It's chopped up by the opening credits, as you can see in this trailer, but the shots come the closest I've seen on screen to a baile funk, or at least one c. 1997.
I say 1997 because that's the setting of the film, not too long after Rocinha brothers Júnior and Leonardo popularized one of the classics of funk carioca, "Rap das Armas," which they sing live in this opening scene. I documented a recent acapella usage and linktubed to a Yo! MTV Raps-esque version during my Rocinha sojourn. The popularity of "Rap das Armas" as the theme song to the film was a real turn of fortunes for Júnior and Leonardo, who I met around the same time in August 2007 just as they were preparing to tour Europe in advance of the film's release there. After skyrocketing to fame in the early '90s, they became increasingly impoverished until they were reduced to driving a taxi cab on 12-hour shifts each, so the car was constantly in rotation. Now they're back in the driver's seat, so to speak, as funk MCs.
This version is from the official Tropa de Elite soundtrack, which amazingly is on sale stateside, as is the DVD. It cycled around some film festivals in the U.S. this year, but I never saw it make much of a splash in wide release. I was convinced it would become the next City of God, a lush but violent film about Rio, set to further fix foreigners' minds that the city is a violent nightmare. I guess I was wrong. But if you don't want to shell out for the official copy, you can see it for yourself with English subtitles.
With such broad appeal, meanwhile, it was only a matter of time before edits/dubs/remixes trickled out of the Brazilian webosphere. In fact, to permit a cross-linguistic pun -- Tropa became a trope, its catch phrases and music trotted out in all manner of remix culture fashion. Below is a sampling of the samples --
Capitão Nascimento viciously berates his wife as his battles in the field increasingly rattle him. He created a new slang term, "Quem manda nessa porra sou eu" (I'm the one who controls this shit), that caught on rapidly, enough to become remixed as a funk track.
Brazilian humor site Kibe Loco has some video remixes cobbling together scenes from the film with tamborzão, crunchy guitar (and in the first, the riff from "Seven Nation Army"), and popular lines from the movie. The stutter-start chopped scenes actually recreate the funk vocal sampling technique with some accuracy.
Every time I leave from Rio, the gate next to mine is always the nightly Rio to Luanda flight on TAAG, the Angolan national airline. The idea of these two cities linked by a direct flight across the southern Atlantic when the airline industry is so dominated by hubs running through major financial or political capitals, especially in the Global North, is extremely alluring. A flight to the U.S. at one gate and Africa next to it also neatly sums up the split influences in Brazil, and especially Brazilian music like funk.
Brasil still on my mind -- stripped down & sped up.
First, there was some percussive ferocity lingering in my inbox, c/o Daniel D'Errico. He plays in Boston's BatukAxé, a drum group led by Bahian Marcus Santos. Up above, they're playing at the "Welcoming New Bostonians" event, holding it down for the constant stream of Brazucas coming to the Bean. (Daniel is the odd one out in the yellow shirt.)
Then wayne&wax tipped me off to Discobelle's most recent Mixin' It Up by DJ Downtown of Helsinki (what is it with the Finns?! tropical living vicariously through funk carioca?) The opening track is a stripped down version of "Rap das Armas", the ever controversial and ever misinterpreted telling-it-like-it-is funk track. This version sounds like the one re-recorded for Tropa de Elite, which I shamefully never blogged about, although you can read up on all the fuss from last year over at the now defunct BOPE Blog.
If it's not one of us, it's another. Following in the fine Finnish tradition of his countryman DJ Rideon, there's another funk carioca blogger (and 2Bros volunteer!) on the loose in Teemuk of Otra Luna, which focuses on "art, design, music and culture from the southern side of the world." His "super classics of funk carioca" series has dug deep this month, with big features on William e Duda and Deize Tigrona.
The latter has apparently gone mundial, collaborating with Lisbon's DJ Manaia for some cross-lusophone batidas.
"Eu sou sobrevivente de uma rave." (I'm the survivor of a rave.)
A tried-n-true funk MC singing over the raviest of rave synths can only make me laugh as I recall Sany DJ's complaint that his pós-baile funk is derided as "rave" at bailes funk.
What I don't understand about this track is why the vocals are so poorly recorded. They sound worse, in fact, than her smash hit "Injeção" (with a dance routine no less -- happy, Lone Wolf?) The raw sound of funk is constantly praised as one of its most endearing features, although that's really a canard w/r/t funk of the last decade or so, with the big commercial sound systems using top notch recording studios. Did DJ Manaia intentionally rough up the vocal mix to make it sound grittier, more like funk to his Portuguese or wider Euro audience? Either way, it just plain sounds bad against those hyper-polished synths. Maybe Deize is simply hoping her vocals survive this rave.