Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

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

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Sides: A Hot Night in Rocinha

The day began well. I spent the morning and early afternoon at São Conrado beach – on the other side of São Conrado, the neighborhood of condos and the Fashion Mall across the highway from Rocinha – which is always a scene on Sundays. It seems that all of Rocinha is out: surfing & sunbathing, playing futebol & volei (or their dexterous child: futevol). It might as well be the Praia da Rocinha, although I'm sure the residents of SC whose property values depend on that beachfront cachet wouldn't approve of the name change. A few hours in the sun were followed by a rare treat: Sunday feijoada care of my Bahian neighbor, Almir.

That left me wanting only a light dinner, which I followed with a stroll down the Estrada da Gávea, Rocinha's main drag, in hopes of using a pay phone to make some calls back to the States. After striking out with occupied or broken phones, I finally was at the end of the Estrada. Having still less luck (it's complicated, but Brazilian phones don't seem to like the idea of me inputting the 12 digits of an account number and PIN after making a toll free call to my international calling provider), I was about to turn around and head back, when fortuitously my girlfriend called my cell phone. It's exceptionally windy tonight, along with the usual noisy pace of traffic at the bottom of the hill, so I had trouble hearing her. I wandered over toward a cluster of buildings – a grocery store, pharmacy, a few condos – running parallel to the highway but set at ground level, and ducked next to a garage door where there was some cover from the wind.

Not 5 minutes into my call, a police car drove by and stopped. Two policemen came toward me, one hanging back with his assault rifle, the other approaching me directly with a flashlight. He asked me what I was doing and I told him talking on the phone, out of the wind and the noise. This answer was less than satisfactory and he began to search me while asking me where I lived. "Rocinha," I answered. "Estou fazendo um trabalho social (I'm doing volunteer work)." He gave me a full pat down, lifted my shirt, pulled the waistband of my shorts & underwear outward then shined his flashlight down into my crotch, and then proceeded to scan the ground all around, looking for whatever drugs he was convinced I was in possession of.

All I had on me were my keys and my phone, not having expected to go very far. I didn't even bring a wallet, much less ID or a copy of my passport/visa, which I've been in the habit of doing. Finally satisfied, his partner said I could start talking on the phone again while the first cop kept searching the ground with his flashlight.

What set them off, I wondered on my way back up the hill. I had on a Fluminense jersey, athletic shorts, and Havaianas, all standard issue Brazilian clothing. But with my light skin and my wristwatch, maybe that pegged me as a rich kid from a nearby neighborhood who'd come into Rocinha to buy drugs? It's a common enough occurrence – drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine, are cheap & plentiful in the favelas, and while favela residents are customers, they're certainly not the only customers. Common enough, too, for there to be police: they're at the bottom of the morro everyday. There are even police posts set up inside Rocinha along the Estrada da Gávea. Talk about penetrating deep into enemy territory . . . But they're all paid off, I've been told, and don't give Rocinha any trouble. I've seen bandidos with visible guns ride right by a police post on a motorcycle without a second glance.

On the one hand, it confirms all of my suspicions and prior knowledge about Brazilian police, how essentially in a country that's only 20 years out of a military dictatorship, civil liberties are far from guaranteed and the cops are not to be trusted. On the other hand, couldn't an analogous situation be drawn to any major U.S. city? If I were in a lower-income neighborhood near a known location where drugs are sold, and fit a certain police profile (like, say, black), and happened to be standing alone in a secluded corner on a side street at night when cops drove by, wouldn't they stop?

It's ironic coming on the heels of my thoughts on guns in Rocinha, because I did imply a certain lack of anxiety around gun-wielding police officers, who can be seen in the ritziest, most tourist-friendly parts of Rio with heavy-duty arms. While I didn't think at any point I was going to be shot, I entertained the thought of having something planted on me or getting hauled away on some kind of made-up charge, both practices I have heard rumors of. Indeed, the only "incident" of any kind I had last summer was with MC Gringo, when we were exiting the Baile de Cantagalo and heading into Copacabana. Right as we descended the stairs, a police car pulled up and just about gave Gringo and I the same once over that I got tonight. They seemed to be after bigger fish up on the hill and let us go, but afterwards Gringo told me that had we been searched, having something planted on us would not have been unheard of.

So I climbed back up the hill. It's a hot night in Rio, the first day that the heat has really soaked through day & night since I've been here. I regretted wearing a shirt on the walk back up, passed by crowds glistening with sweat at the door of Clube Emoções, their Sunday night baile funk in full swing. The wind whipping debris around the Curve do S, both an S-curve along the Estrada da Gávea and the área around it (Pipo's Locomotiva threw a massive baile at the bus garage there last night, still raging when I got home at 5 am, making the room vibrate at the right frequencies). Normally I take the becos home – stairs being easier to manage than the 30º incline up the hill into Cachopa, cresting the boca-de-fumo at the quadra de futebol and heading down to Seu Jose's house. But I was determined to walk right past the bandidos just to prove a point: that they wouldn't hassle me while the police would. Other than some bemused questioning when I arrived, loaded with luggage, no one's ever given me a second glance there.

Tonight was no different at the boca-de-fumo, but it was a new scene down on the Estrada da Gávea. Maybe the winds are getting to everyone, Santa Ana style, or there are just rumors about that I don't know of. As I rounded the Curve do S, a man lurked on the sidewalk, a large weapon positioned on his shoulder. I thought RPG at first, but it appeared to be an assault rifle with silencer. He was aiming it at cars coming up the Estrada. I crossed to the other side of the street to avoid walking in front of him. Over there, two of his comrades were also camped out, albeit without aiming. The swirl of humanity kept pace around them, barely noticing on their way up & down. Buses and vans lumbered up the road while motorcycles darted between them. Young girls in teased hair and tight outfits teetered down the steep grade toward Emoções on high heels. A group of hardened men didn't bat an eyelash as they sat at a sidewalk bar drinking cervejas and playing cards.

I walked up into Cachopa shaking my head. A hot night in Rocinha.

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Kids With Guns

Update: I accidentally posted Cidinha e Doca's proibidão version of "Rap das Armas", even though they credit Junior and Leonardo as the authors. Thanks to DJ Zezinho for correcting me.

Before I got an Internet connection installed here in the house, I went up the street to a LAN House, as they're called, to take care of my digital business. I brought my laptop, so all I needed was to hook up a cat-5. Lucky, too, because all of the terminals with a full rig were constantly occupied. I'm not sure I ever saw a free computer in that place.

Most of the customers were kids, under the age of 16, if I had to guess, and they were almost always playing first-person shooters. It's a genre of computer game to which I can profess considerable familiarity, having passed more hours than I'd like to admit blowing my friends to pieces. I was always firmly against the argument that violent games inculcate violence – if you're maladjusted enough to let a game cause violent mood swings, perhaps you've got deeper problems than what you're playing on your PC. And in the case of Grand Theft Auto, everyone's favorite target, I think critics focus on the possibilities permitted by the game mechanics but miss the brilliant social satire, especially evident in the in-game radio. Not that it didn't hit too close to home in some places (note that it was also banned in Brazil, not that it's stopped some of the video game parlors I've seen in Rocinha, who might appreciate the tragicomic aptness of this parody).

On the whole though, such games are simply difficult to take seriously when you have a BFG9000 at your disposal. In the case of my suburban friends and I, such games were the closest we ever came to any weapons, whether they be the absurdity of Doom or the realism of Counter-Strike.

In the case of Rocinha, it's more or less the opposite. The public presence of guns has been a part of every young resident's life since birth, and likely they saw them in person before they ever held one virtually in a game. Certainly, the same goes for those in the asfalto, as the police pack plenty of firepower as well. But the concept of "police" still comes with a kind of separation from the average citizen (on-duty, off-duty). Not that my corner bandidos aren't uniquely different from Seu Jose and his family upstairs – they most certainly are – but it's a kind of 24/7 role. They don't seem to become "civilians" the way a police officer might at the end of the day. Indeed, that's part of how Amigos de Amigos (or ADA, the criminal faction that rules Rocinha) maintains its control, by remaining visible in the community and, as Paul Sneed has explained, firing magazines upon magazines into the air . . . in celebration, in mourning, in reminding you they're still on top.

So it happens, then, that I'm checking my e-mail in the LAN House with young kids on my left and right ripping through virtual decaying urban landscapes, blasting each other with assault rifles, only to have one of the traficantes working the nearby boca-de-fumo ("mouth of smoke", where drugs are sold, and hence the reason I always have bandidos on my block) walk in to watch the Mexico x Argentina match of the Copa América while idly holding an assault rifle. The leap from virtual to real was only a few feet away from every gamer in there.

Are Rocinha kids who play violent video and computer games more likely to join up with the ADA when they grow older? Sounds like a sociological study for another time, another place, another person. But suffice to say: life imitating art imitating life in a very disconcerting way.

Maybe I'm just the still-sensitive gringo who's not used to seeing high-caliber weapons on a daily basis. It's been a fact of life here for decades at least, cf the lyrics of Junior e Leonardo's "Rap das Armas". The closest I could find to the original is the cover by Monobloco, which only changes a few words; and even if you don't know Portuguese, there's some universal shorthand in there, M-16 anyone? Famous in its time, the track that was completely misinterpreted by the media: Junior e Leonardo were tagged as apologists for the criminal factions because they sang the phrase "paz, justiça, e liberdade (peace, justice, and liberty)", the supposed slogan of the Comando Vermelho, when they themselves had no clue that was the case (anecdote recounted in Paul's thesis). It was really just a rap about their quotidian lives . . . which happens to include an extensive catalogue of weaponry.

With an old school Volt Mix beat along with "Planet Rock" and "Push It" samples, it's a veritable classic of funk antigo. The live music video is also extremely dated, but in the best possible way. I've heard they live in Rocinha and someone at I2I knows them, so I may have to pay a visit.

Junior e Leonardo - Rap das Armas

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Freshly Spannered

I've got some Rio reflections of the more journalistic variety up over at Spannered. They've written about and hosted music by such fine folks as Maga Bo, DJ Ripley, and DJ C.

Now check out: Gold-Plated Guns, Silver Linings, and Bronzing in Peace, some on-the-scene reporting that expands on my first impressions stateside of the 2007 Pan-American Games.

I'll admit though, I was excited to see Latin America's finest in the baseball competitions. Unfortunately, tickets were all sold out because the games are held in a small 5,000 seat stadium. I am locked in for the men's football gold medal game at Maracanã, however. If the Copa America was any indiction, Viva o Brasil!

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Piracy Funds . . . Giant Flashing Spaceships

Up in the Amazon, music so hot "Sometimes, by the time it's being sold on the streets, it's already gone out of fashion." (via Masala) There are audio samples on the page, plus Reasoner, lately of Home Taping, claims to have some brega on her 3rd mix from back in the day.

Can't say I've heard much about Amazônia down here. I could be back in the States by the time it would take me to get up there.

I do know something about another Brazilian penchant for free culture, namely Tropicália legend Gilberto Gil, now Minister of Culture.

He played here a little over a week and a half ago as part of the Live Earth spectacle. 70,000 jockeying for a chance to see Lenny Kravitz on Copacabana Beach? No thank you.

I prefer the intimacy of free beer.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Em Casa no Morrão / At Home on the Big Hill

The Beat Diaspora has been in a kind of Babylonian exile, you could say, for quite some time now. But it was just this time last year that it really picked up steam, occasioned of course by the time I spent in the cidade marvilhosa. Shame on me, though, for having left more bailes, graffiti, funk tunes extraordinaire, and carioca style completely unpublished than I'd like to admit.

But, as hinted, I was coming back, and here I am. At home on the big hill, this time living in Rocinha: Rio’s, Brasil’s, South America’s (?) largest favela. I’m here with the help of the Two Brothers Foundation—or, more accurately, their Brazilian counterpart, the Instituto Dois Irmãos—who helped me find a place in Cachopa, an área (not neighborhood, since Rocinha itself is a neighborhood, even if it’s one of 150-300k people) about halfway up from the entrance by the Lagoa-Barra highway.

I took the title of this post from a documentary that 2Bros produced at SDSU this spring. It’s only 25 minutes and worth a look: forget all the escalating hyperbole on favelas, just interviews with three students from the Instituto, regular kids, talking about hobbies and hopes. Big up to Paul Sneed for the old school funk soundtrack.

Rocinha: Em Casa no Morrão
[Portuguese with English subtitles]

I’m living in a house that belongs to the family of Sarah, the 12 year old. They’re evangelists of the Pentecostal Church, which has apparently been sweeping the third world (or at least the poorer areas that still conjure up such terminology; I suspect my condo-dwelling neighbors down in São Conrado would resent the label), stealing away the Catholic faithful. I asked Seu Jose why he converted from Catholicism and his answer was simple: more direct connection with God. So in a sense nothing new, Protestants have been saying that since Luther.

He’d probably be mortified if he knew how much I’m into the baile funk, so I try and keep the jams restricted to my headphones. Not that I need to most of the time—on every street corner, every sidewalk bar, there’s funk blasting from the speakers. It’s almost comical how I spent the first couple weeks here last summer searching for any trace of the music, only to have been cursing the tamborzão my first night in Roça because it was still blaring at 6 am and I wanted to go to sleep. A mere couple days here was more evidence than I needed for a basic, even obvious, premise that I want to develop further: funk is the soundtrack to Rio’s favelas. It’s an equation equally applicable in its own way to Baltimore club, Miami bass, London grime/dubstep, Chicago house, Detroit techno, Berlin techno, maybe even Boston bounce?

Well, duh. But I’d like to take this idea of a “soundtrack” a little further. What about funk makes it uniquely carioca, uniquely favelado? In terms of lyrics, musical structure, production, consumption, all of that. How does funk articulate favela and how does favela articulate funk? I think they reinforce each other—the rapid exchange of beats and samples in funk like the riotous growth of favelas, the precarious architecture of the morro like the rough, raw production of your favorite pancadão (big hit). If I’m starting to sound academish, it’s because I’m here at the behest of the H-Bomb, doing research so I can write another 100 some pages on this stuff and walk across a stage next June.

To that extent, I’ll be writing more with the idea of virtual research notepad in mind, as LuisInParis&Chicago did with considerable dedication. Since the exact focus is TBD, I’m trying to absorb as much as I can about life up on the hills.

Less than two weeks in and I’m already backlogged on entries, but I’m optimistic: the casa da Cachopa is hooked up with Internet, something I managed to pull off about 4x quicker here than I could in Paris. Rocinha Ad Hoc Utilities 1, FranceTelecom 0.

That gray one streaking in from the upper-left corner, then hanging loose in the middle, before rejoining the tangled mass at the end of the alley? My lifeline to the world.

The picture was also the occasion to meet the neighbors. Amlir, who lives across the beco, was standing in the doorway as I took the shots. I remembered Seu Jose saying that a former guest in my room had taken shots in the alleyway and it had angered the neighbor, who thought they were of his house (Robert Neuwirth told me of a similar anecdote, when a guest from an NGO snapped some photos of sewage infrastructure and they were accosted later by an angry resident asking why they were taking pictures of his house). Well, Amlir didn't mind at all once we started talking, and even had me over for a shrimp cake he just made. He turns out to be from Bahia and a practitioner of candomblé with a fair share of paraphernalia on his walls.

Amlir dressed as a pai-de-santo, leader of the rituals.

Certificate from the Sociedade Cultural Afro-Brasileira.

Candomblé has been a minor abiding interest since reading Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé by J. Lorand Matory. But I've got a pai-de-santo next door, so I suppose I won't have to look too hard to find it. That's Rocinha life for you, camaraderie of the beco, because we're too close not to be in this together. He hosts parties fairly frequently and told me I'm welcome whenever (I already crashed one on Tuesday because I knew I wasn't going to sleep until it was over).

Time to hit the sack -- early rising to visit Vigário Geral, a favela in the Zona Norte that became infamous in 1993 when 21 innocent residents were shot by police in retaliation for a bribe scheme that didn't pan out. It became symbolic, along with the massacre of street children in front of Candelaria church downtown, of an era marked by violence excessive even for Rio. When favela youth stormed the famous beaches of the Zona Sul (Ipanema, Copacaban) to fight one another and rob tourists, well, that was the last straw. They say funk propelled the invasion, but that's another story for another day.

I'll be making the cross-town trek at the invitation of Jean-Philippe and Jasmine, who have been recording on location for Montreal-based Masala (which comes replete with blog, podcast, and radio), who I met my first Friday at the infamous Baile de Cantagalo, where DJ Sany Pitbull is still holding it down with consummate style. I'm going to check out Grupo Cultural AfroReggae (of Favela Rising fame), which has been doing its part to mend a few of the city's many many rifts. Adrianna, proprietress of Carioca Funk Clube, also had some Norwegian (? or some kind of Scandinavian) radio journalists in tow at Cantagalo. And Leonardo HBL was on hand filming for Diplo's Favela on Blast, which I still don't know much about. (Although HeapsDecent sounds, well, heaps decent, and I’m considering pitching 2Bros as an avenue for doing something similar in Rio. “Smash a Macaco” anyone?) Cantagalo’s turning into a regular foreigner hotspot, something of a Castelo das Pedras lite, you know, where they take the tourists. Hard to slight it though: with Sany cranking out the best MPC mixes in the city and the CV willing to pay for massive equipes de som ready to burst the bass through your torso, they’ll keep on coming up the stone steps from Copacabana (there are over 100; I counted this time).

And what kind of reinauguration would this be without some beats. In honor of the bandidos that hang out at the end of my block:

Amigos Guerreiros a Rocinha

No morro da Rocinha é o maior lazer
A onde é o quem sube não quer mais descer . . .
Up on the hill of Rocinha it's the most relaxed
Where whoever climbs up never wants to come down again . . .

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