Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Cantagalo Revisited

[Apologies for disappearing off the face of the earth, but just as I've had more time, I've been stuck wih an new apartment that doesn't have Internet. The view may be great, but it also means keeping this blog updated has become a herculean task. Expect a couple week lag time on events, but I've got them all backlogged in my head and will try and get it current at least by my first week back in the States.]

A week after my first baile at Cantagalo, I returned for a second go around. It's amazing how quickly what at first had me on edge gave way to agreement with MC Gringo's sarcastic comment that Cantagalo is "baile chique." That is, Cantagalo's prime Zona Sul real estate brings a lot more partygoers da asfalta and in turn dulls some of the punch of their baile (still trying to get to one of the more intense proibdão bailes in Zona Norte, but it's not that easy).

In particular, DJ Fernandinho of Big Mix appears to be the resident -- insofar as playing two weeks in a row is any indication. As I've come to realize, though, I don't particularly like the Big Mix style. For those who aren't aware, Big Mix is the radio program hosted by DJ Marlboro on a commercial FM station. I've heard rumors of 500,000 listeners a minute, but that could be hyperbole. Regardless, it's a big deal, both culturally & economically. In addition to the show, Big Mix is an equipe with several DJs that play out during the weekend.

Fernandinho, unfortunately, can't seem to separate the radio style from a baile. As a radio personality myself, I'm not knocking it intrinsically, but it's clearly not that right format for a party. There's very little mixing and lots of pauses between tracks that amount to nothing more than commercial breaks: hyping whatever's coming up on Big Mix radio this week or announcing a Big Mix party the following weekend. In other words, I don't think it's radio per se he's trying to import, but rather the more commercial trappings of Big Mix as a brand. (FYI, having seen other DJs who don't work for commercial radio, I can say that while it's ok to pause every handful of tracks to make an announcement, Fernandinho definitely abuses the privilege).

It's worth noting though, that despite Big Mix's mainstream success, they still play proibidão at the bailes (the illegal style that most certainly isn't acceptable in the public forum). It's not surprising, of course, because the funkeiros eat it up. I was on stage with MC Leka and her husband, Céliu, and when a song came on praising the Comando Vermelho (the drug gang that controls Cantagalo), the entire baile threw their hands up in the CV gang sign: thumb and forefinger on each hand, one making a 'C' and the other a 'V.' Needless to say, I didn't feel comfortable participating, but I think Céliu took this as me not understanding the gesture, and so took it upon himself to teach me how. Awkward, to say the least, but it probably was more suspicious not to be doing it.

It also speaks to how ingrained the gangs have become as an element of popular culture. Céliu lives in the Baixada, the suburbs north of town. While there are favelas up that way, his neighborhood is under police control. He's got no allegiance to the CV, other than working for an equipe who sometimes plays CV bailes. And I'm sure that not all of the people at the baile were CV fans -- judging by the dress, as I said, I'm sure plenty weren't from the favelas and normally wouldn't have very kind words to say about the CV.

But proibidão has definitely woven itself into the fabric of funk. MCs will gain popularity on the probidão circuit and then cut a cleaner version for radio play. I posted Mr Catra's "Mamada Safada" a few weeks ago, having found it for free download on a funk website. Then, while sorting through my haul of CDs from Uruguiana market the other day, I came across an uncredited track -- although the voice is clearly Catra's -- called "Mamada Ingrata" on Porradão das Favelas -- Agosto.

Mr Catra - "Mamada Ingrata"

It's a proibidão comp, probably the freshest that's available on CD right now. A "porrada" is girias (slang) for a fight, then adding -ão to the end is an intensifier. So my rough, slang-equivalent translation would be: "Big Favela Throw-Down -- August."

I'm sure the track they played that got the crowd riled up will never be heard on Big Mix radio, but that doesn't keep it from getting played at bailes. Even the most popular equipe, then, can straddle both sides of the fence. It's at points like these where the border between the favelas and the rest of the city breaks down. Sure, favelados work & play outside of the favela every day, but arguably in a much more subservient relationship than in funk, where caricoas will come up for bailes, where MCs get their start before getting radio hits.

I hung around Cantagalo nonetheless, especially since Leka got the chance to sing again. Turns out I was wrong about the previous week: another MC sang proibidão. Leka has a more playful style, singing about being a female funkeira, having a husband who works for an equipe.

The capricious nature of bailes still perplexes me: rarely is a gig settled upon, and so you wait & wait & hope for the best. Gringo called it a night and got unlucky; Leka stayed out and something came of it. They were ecstatic, too -- she was paid R$ 50, which she told me was more than Céliu makes in a week of working for the equipe. Funk pays the bills, what can I say.

Finally, my first hand at recording. Gringo and Leka traded some rhymes in his apartment before we went up to Cantagalo. I haven't had the time to master Audacity yet, so I'm afraid this is an unedited cut. In other words, Leka's son, Dudu, makes an unintended guest appearance in the background toward the beginning. I'll clean it up and perhaps repost it when I get the chance.

MC Leka & Mc Gringo Impromptu (8/8/06)

When they finished, a few kids from the apartment building across the street had heard our little jam session and were leaning out the window trying to bust a move. I'm afraid I didn't get a picture, but here's a quick teaser from the next post, a baile where I took more audio, video, and pictures than I probably have bandwidth for.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ele gosta de baile funk

It happened. My first baile, Friday night at Cantagalo, without incident. And yet, it left me with vertigo, staring down the equation of 2000 kids x 60 feet of speakers x 500 bailes a night x 30 years of history = me standing in a corner scribbling things in a notepad trying (vainly vainly) to make some sense of it (to me at least, it made perfect sense to everyone on the dancefloor) and trying (with much more success) not to offend any of the (likely) heavily-armed traficantes running the show.

And while my experience at Cantagalo very well may not have been typical -- wedged between posh Ipanema and Copcabana, it attracted plenty of partygoers who weren't favelados, and I've been told up in the Zona Norte, away from postcard Rio, things get rougher -- there's still plenty to say about it, and plenty more to wonder about. If anything, the concept of a baile at all was entirely overdetermined (in the Nietzschean sense of überladen, overwrought with influences, too much expectation to know what to expect at all). Was it really going to be 12 year olds snorting massive lines of coke (read that in a Diplo interview, can't find it on Google though) and waving guns in the air? More importantly, was I going to be disappointed if it wasn't?

I showed up early (11:30ish), interested in seeing the process from beginning
to end. It was held inside the quadra, a gym-like space where the local escola de samba practices. Following the wandering curves up the hill, not necessarily knowing where I was going, having been told so many times that favelas are dangerous (esp. alone, esp. at night), it was pleasantly disarming to find nothing more than . . . a street festival, more or less. Residents had set up stalls and booths to sell food and drinks, everyone was out socializing, kids kicking around soccer balls. What the baile appeared to offer was a social outlet for the community, the quadra as a focal point (one of the few open spaces amidst the twists & turns of the becos). Following Bo's advice, even though this was obviously the spot (as if the speakers didn't give it away), I asked some kids, the "eyes & ears" of the favela, "onde fica o baile?" "aí­, na quadra!" And so they knew: the gringo wasn't there to buy drugs or cause trouble, just came for the party. Sure enough, an hour later when the music came on, the same kid found me in the crowd and told me it was starting.

I met up with MC Gringo (who you can hear on the fourth Maddecent podcast), who's turning into my personal tour guide of the movimento do funk (funk scene). He seemed to know all the major players there and hyped his new single -- or hit, as he preferred to call it -- to the DJs, "Mulher para um real" ("Woman for one real" -- same kind of playful/ironic sexism that's constant in American hip-hop. whether it should be condoned is another question, but I don't think it's hateful misogyny by any stretch. I'll get an mp3 when I can; he gave all his CD-Rs to the DJs, who are obviously more important than me).

There was plenty of milling about and networking before the party got going -- like any hard-working MC, Gringo wanted to secure a gig that night, although it ultimately didn't come through. Finally, by about 2 am, it took off, as a steady stream of people climbed the hill, taxis struggling to make it up the incline. There were two DJs representing two equipes (literally "teams," but soundsystems as we'd understand them), each packing their own massive bank of speakers (see pic at top). When Bo wrote, "bring earplugs if you care at all about your hearing. it is loud as fuck", he wasn't kidding. Standing in the space between the two soundsystems facing one another takes "feelingful" to a whole new level. This is bass that makes your chest thump with every beat (not to mention your ass -- as the grinding crowd evidenced, funk does go straight to the booty).

The bill for the night included Adriana's friend DJ Sany of the Pitbull Crew (pictured below), DJ Fernandinho of Big Mix Radio (DJ Marlboro's outfit), MC Leca (from Zona Norte, sang proibidão), and MC Daisy (went on early, don't know much about her).

Mostly Sany and Fernandinho traded takes at the decks all night. Sany was on CD-Js and Fernandinho played some pretty battered and bruised looking mini disks (with Portuguese on the disks so faded I couldn't even begin to read any track names). Definitely an all-digital scene; nary a piece of vinyl to be found. As for song selection, it was clear that Sany played the more obscure, rawer tracks while Fernandinho, as a representative of Big Mix, played more radio-friendly ones. It was easy enough to discern sonically (Sany's tracks had less samples, more vocals, relied more on the minimal beat structure underneath it all), but also reflected my obvious lack of knowledge. I got really excited when I recognized any song, given my limited exposure to funk in the grand scheme of things. But of course, anything I recognized was anything that was popular enough to creep north of the equator. The likes of, for example, the song on Dr. Auratheft's mix that samples the Flamengo anthem. Given that Flamengo won the Copa do Brasil last week, it was an obvious crowdpleaser, but as Gringo made clear, to any real funkeiro, it was a totally overplayed track.

When the two female MCs took the stage, meanwhile, they just rapped over whatever beats the DJ was playing at the time -- no chance of the DJ queuing up your hit single to wow the crowd with. The ephemerality of freestyling, music that can be consumed only by those present, the fluid music of making-do. Also the consistency of funk's tempo, the expectation that an MC knows all the tracks that might be played anyway, can readily adapt.

There was a little more stability, however, to a choreograph dance sequence that took over at one point. I'll be honest in that it reminded me of something along the lines of the Backstreet Boys (five guys performing synchronized dance moves in a very music video-esque style), but it seemed to get the crowd excited.

Lastly, it's worth mentioning an odd interlude that took place about halfway through the baile. The house lights were thrown on and a young boy (8, 9 years old?) sang a gospel song, followed by a quick bit of proselytizing from an evangelical preacher. Obviously the traficantes had to approve this, and I wonder about their motivation. Some conscious or subconscious penance for their own actions? Attempt to put a positive spin on the baile for the members of the community who find it distasteful? Whatever the rationale, it cleared the room quickly. Religion and raunch, I'm afraid, don't mix. But it did accentuate the role of the baile as a community event, willing to incorporate messages that seem to contradict its primary discursive purpose: glorify the favela as it relates to the drug trade.

By about 5 or 6 am, the sun just peeking over the Atlantic, the crowd thinned and the music eventually came to a halt. I hung around and chatted with Céliu (MC Leca's husband) and Faviano, who had the thankless task of dismantling their equipe's soundsystem in the wee hours of the morning.

They were going to let me accompany them to their favela in Zona Norte while they set up for Saturday night's baile, but the impending rain ended up canceling the party. I hung around nonetheless for the chance to take pictures, which I wasn't allowed to do during the party proper. If I understood correctly, I believe I have permission to record some audio and video this coming Friday. It'll be delicate anyway I slice it, and probably involve clearing things with the dono do morro ("don of the hill," the CV's [Comando Vermelho, the drug gang that runs Cantagalo] local chief). A little baile bootlegging would be a real treasure, however, so I'm going to do my best to make it happen.

As dawn turned into daylight, I made my way down the hill bewildered, trying to piece together what I had just witnessed and my relationship to it. First, the most obvious question: What the hell am I doing here? It's all well & good in the abstract, but showing up to "study" somebody else's party music, to go to their party and see them not as subjects but as a bunch of people just having a good time on a Friday night . . . it seems more than a bit patronizing (esp. given the obvious inequities of class and the history of American-Latin relations). Gringo, without fingering me directly, dismissed those who try to intellectualize funk. "It's just primitive music," he insists. But lying in bed reading Paul Sneed's thesis (which I have permission to post! expect a later entry with much commentary; it's a masterwork) because the adrenaline of an all-nighter had not yet subsided, I began to appreciate the crux of his success: He was not an outsider looking in, but rather did his best, without reaching the point of parody, to become a funkeiro. He lived in Rocinha, he went to bailes, he danced, and he waited until the next day before jotting down observations. I'm afraid that my current situation -- time's wingèd chariot at my back, et al. -- won't permit me the same immersion, but it's encouraging to read his insights knowing he obtained them as subjectively as possible. Knowing that his belief in funk's socio-cultural role did not come from holding up a microscope to it.

Then, recapping the night, question number two: Coke. Guns. Booty. Beats. (to link for the second time this post.) Is it really "the most exciting—and dangerous—underground club scene in the world"? Or, as I suspect the article really means, the most exciting because it's the most dangerous. While the musical novelty of "punk rock + new wave samples + little kids screaming + miami bass" was enough to lure plenty, those who read more about the scene were invariably hooked by the lurid tales of favela life. The predominate attention bailes got up until the music itself became popular was over easily sensationalized phenomena like Corridors of Death and the death of Tim Lopes (of course I'm not saying these never happened, nor am I trying to brush off the awful severity of them, but certainly these events receive far more press than Friday night's baile at Cantagalo, where lo and behold, no one was killed and everyone seemed to just have a good time). But music fans have flipped the reception of those events around, so that such attributes have exoticized bailes funk. And when safely consumed up North, it quickly falls into the comfortable status of radical chic (or Favela Chic, for that matter).

I freely admit falling into the same trap. I'm not going to hide my roots: the world of the favela is about as far away from a planned community in suburban Maryland as you can probably get, and as such I find it a lot more interesting of a place than where I grew up. However, I think it's important to appreciate the favela not just as some exotic hotspot (the Blender article actually tries to call the reality worse than City of God, which to me seems like a totally baseless claim), but also as a community. And so I tried to focus on the social role the baile plays, as far as I could see it, before turning to pistols & pot. So what did I see?
  • Guns: Before, the police drove through the center of the pre-party crowd, a machine gun pointed out the window. During, I saw a pistol tucked into the waistband of a traficante after he took his shirt off (no indication he did so to show off the pistol, it was just hot inside). As the crowd headed home, one man had his assault rifle casually pointed in the air. After, the police made another patrol on foot, pistols unholstered. Always displays of power, the police and the drug gangs in a constant battle over authority, yet the police making a more visible display of it, fingers on the trigger, a click away from death. More guns in the hands of the police, though, and still more on a daily basis walking around the city (the cops at Maracanã stadium during a soccer game last weekend had far more firepower than I spotted in Cantagalo).
  • Drugs: There was a boca-de-fumo (alley where drugs are sold) across the way from the quadra. Plenty of people were smoking joints outside. Nothing harder that I could see, and certainly no one excessively young using it. In this regard, probably tamer than some nightclubs around town, or places I've been in the States/Europe.
  • Booty: Hiphuggers or a short denim skirt, a halter top, and washboard abs made for standard female attire. The dancing was suggestive, full of close contact. But this is a city where the world's biggest Carnival celebration includes topless women in thongs parading in front of millions of people. Puritan bluster can get over itself, this was nothing out of the ordinary, even if the girls may seem younger by our standards (we also live longer; the night got sobering when Gringo casually mentioned that a 30-year-old MC is considered old & has probably outlived most of his contemporaries).

August is here, I've been here longer than I have left, and my Portuguese class will be over tomorrow. First baile under my belt, and many more to go. Plus rado stations (Rocinha didn't pan out last week, some other time though), studios, recording spaces, interviews with MCs and DJs, commentary/analysis, more beats (going to the Uruguaiana market to buy some proibidão on Saturday). It's hot & polyglot (/rupture's phrase, not mine, although they're turning into my watchwords), and I aim to keep it that way until winter turns back to summer at the end of the month.

MC Gringo - "Gringaiada Demorou"

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