Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

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

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brasil: Um País de Todos?

This clever multiculturalist logo sneaks into the corner of just about every sign announcing federal support for a project. That the federal government would even need to make a public declaration of Brazil as a country for all is an indication of doubts that such a claim is really true. The longstanding belief that Brazil is a racial democracy has come under fire in recent years, as in the stratification of wealth that curiously corresponds to racial lines.

Still, I dropped by a few museums in São Paulo that, to their credit, were much more hospitable to the idea of a harmoniously multicultural Brazil.

First was the Museu da Lingua Portuguesa, a fairly new museum situated in the rafters of the belle époque Estação de Luz train station. Very high-tech and interactive, it purported to trace the history of the (Brazilian) Portuguese language while illustrating its various influences over the centuries. The time line history was particularly interesting, addressing developments in African language–especially Bantu–and American indigenous culture/language parallel with the development of Portuguese from Latin.

Thus, for example, such interesting cross-currents as Arabic affecting both Portuguese and African languages at the same time:

Or other tidbits, like cachaça, the national liquor, having Bantu origins:

Then, at 1500, they all converge:

The Portuguese meet the Tupi (Brazil's largest indigenous tribe and the one that left the largest mark on Brazilian cultural), African slaves are brought over, and the feijoada of languages stews for the next 500 years.

Unfortunately, little to no mention of what kind of linguistic repression occurred, what kind of penalty might be meted out for speaking your native language as a slave. There is a flash forward to a historically corrective present, though.

"In 1988, the Brazilian Constitution guaranteed to the Indians and the rural communities descended from slaves (remnants of quilombos [maroon communities of runaway slaves]) the right to the lands they have been occupying. It guaranteed as well legal protection to indigenous beliefs, languages, and

The estimates of the time cited the existence of 220 indigenous tribes and around a thousand communities that were remnants of quilombos. The prolonged isolation of the majority of these peoples permitted the survival of more than 180 different indigenous languages and, in the black communities, the permanency of a Portuguese full of archaisms, in addition to African inheritances from the times of the senzalas [slave quarters on a plantaiton] and quilombos."

Language of African descent, or at least one word in particular, also caught the ear of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, whose lyrics for tropicália classic "Batmacumba" (macumba = candomblé ritual offering) are designed as a recitation in poema concreta style:

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso - Batmacumba

Further on the east side of town, I also stopped by the Hospedaria de Imigrantes, or Immigrants' Hostel, which has been beautifully restored and turned into a museum & archive (for those looking for info about their family). It was more or less the Ellis Island of São Paulo. It's where hundreds of thousands of immigrants spent there first few weeks in Sampa before being assigned work on a coffee plantation somewhere in the interior.

Studying this period of Brazil's history was what first gave me the notion that Brazil and the U.S. have much more in common that either might originally think. Similar size, remarkable geographical diversity, history of plantation slavery. And neither is afraid of making really cheap ethnic stereotypes in a seemingly innocuous exhibit. I'm sure most Japanese women wore ceremonial kimono on their trip over to Brazil . . .

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Planet Sampa

This is what 11 million people looks like.

19 million if you count metro area.

But it could just as easily be 30, 40 million. The whole planet Earth. From up here, you doubt São Paulo ever ends.

Manhattan high-rises sprawling like Los Angeles County. NY vertical x LA horizontal. It's a terrifying equation.

I caught a winter cold in Buenos Aires last weekend, but haven't been able to shake it despite the balmy weather (I'm in the sub-sub-sub-tropics: the Tropic of Capricorn passes somewhere through the north side of the city, maybe 5-10 miles from where I am now). Could be that thick haze hanging above everything. 2:1 car to resident ratio.

A lazy stream of white pollution curling past the reflection of the midday sun on the River Tietê. It stank like some of the filthier parts of Rio I've had the misfortune of ending up in. They also happen to be the banks of the Universidade de São Paulo, considered to be possibly the best university in Latin America.

But that's Sampa for you. Flowers in the midst of the ruins.

The Municipal Theatre, headquarters of the Semana de Arte Moderna '22, a week-long spectacle that announced to Brazilian culture: modernism is here, it's here to stay, and its home is São Paulo. Cariocas will still say that if it doesn't happen in Rio, it doesn't happen (cf the names of their daily newspapers, O Globo and O Jornal do Brasil). But the truth of the matter is that SP is the country's cultural engine (&economic, &industrial, &demographic, &well the list goes on). It's now home to São Paulo Fashion Week and the São Paulo Art Biennial is the second longest-running in the world next to Venice. Rio's enduring tourist mythology may make it the prime candidate for hosting sports events, but the truth of the matter, as much of a Rio partisan as I am, São Paulo breathes Brazilian modernity and visions of the future. This is a city where buildings that date from the 1950s are considered old. Where there are still cranes wedging more construction into already dense areas.

Where the trains still run: the rail infrastructure in Brazil collapsed under the dictatorship, but the Estado de São Paulo still holds theirs together (any & all public transportation always in desperate need here).

Legendary traffic. Once a week, depending on your license plate, you're prohibited from driving. City choked (poisoned? depends who you ask) with cars & people. No wonder the highest per capita helicopter fleet in the world. Skimming the treetops of fear. City of Brazilian zeitgeist: modernism--futurism--hedonism? But always driven by fear. The Brazilian future of the world.

Voices bubbling up from the outskirts. The dreaded "periferia." Racionais MCs -- to speak out is to serve as the voice of reason. Give the helicopter&gates crowd something else to fear.

Racionais MCs - Pânico na Zona Sul

Sparse production, just a running funky bass line. "Justiceiros são chamados por eles mesmos / Matam humilham e dão tiros a esmo / E a polícia não demonstra sequer vontade (Hired killers as they call themselves / Kill, humiliate, and shoot at random / And the police doesn't show any will to stop them)." Guess who opened for Public Enemy when they came to São Paulo?

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No Beats, Just Roar

Upon seeing the Iguaçu Falls, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed, "Poor Niagra!"

The Beat Diaspora will continue its regularly scheduled urban tour soon in São Paulo.

Cumbia Is Not a Crime

"Vos tiene de reggaeton?"
"No, disculpa, y na verdad, no hablo español."

An inauspicious start. You mean they want reggaeton here? Oh, right, I'm in that other part of Latin America, the one that speaks Spanish. I've been living off the fat of the DRCLAS, even hoping to append a certificate that I know a thing or two about Latin America to my diploma, but damn if I don't know any español. It's been a quirky point of pride not to speak it, a very Brazilian attitude, really, that one can be immersed in Latin America and have nothing to do with what the rest of the world considers its lingua franca (the number of times I've been asked how my Spanish is when I tell people I'm going to Brazil . . .). Goes right up there with the plucky Brazilian claim that indigenous peoples are not "pre-Columbian civilizations" but "pré-Cabralino", which is in the same vein as theories that the Portuguese discovered the New World.

But I'm not about to arbitrate partisan claims about what's really Latin America, so it was with simple linguistic confusion that I portunhol-ed my way through Buenos Aires. After observing some castellano, at least the Argentine variety, it just took a little foresight to switch my eu for yo, my é for es, my um for uno, and anything ending in -ção for -ión. Which worked surprisingly well when it came to ordering food, asking for directions, and taking cabs. But it meant there wasn't a lick of reggaeton in the digital crates, because what good is it if you don't speak the lingo, gringo (via /rupture). A bit of concern, then, on last Wednesday night, showtime at Zizek, supposedly the hottest party –– at least the hottest billing itself as an "urban beats club" –– in la ciudad federal.

Fortunately, Villa Diamante had my back on that front. And the all-Portuguese funk set went over surprisingly well. I'm glad, however, that Refusenik, a recent Boston-Buenos Aires transplant who set me up with the gig, gave me a heads up on the porteño style. Namely, they'll start swingin' hips as soon as they arrive to just about anything (even experimental breakcore, he claims), but they nurse a couple cervezas all night long and rarely go wild. So it wasn't my fault if rowdy Baltimore club and tamborzão didn't have popuzadas dropping to the floor. They all liked it enough, I was told afterwards, and over the night I got many inquisitive/incredulous questions about the Rocinha t-shirt. Gotta rep the hood, knamean? Generally, the party held true to Refusenik's description as a "clubbier Beat Research." NIM opened with a lot of dubstep, grime, and his latest fave, instrumental grime. In turn, I was followed up by a couple hours of jungle and d'n'b c/o Loder, supposedly the city's hottest junglist. Then Villa D closed it down en español.

The real attraction of the night for me after I stepped out of the DJ role and retreated into the audience, was ¡cumbia! Once the telltale shaker began that ch-ch-ch-ch rattle, I know the DJ had slipped some of Buenos Aires' trademark onto the decks. Of course, I'm out of my league on permutations of pan-Latino music, but I'll hone it down: Zizek is into cumbia villeira, or cumbia coming from Argentina's rough equivalent of favelas, the villas miserias. They mix acoustic (flute & shaker on blast) and electronic production, drop rhymes about typical gangster business, are generally the bane of the middle- and upper-classes.

It's like funk's long-lost cousin from the other side of the Rio de la Plata, if you wanna set-up sketchy analogies like samba:tango::funk:cumbia. But there you have it, another major Latin American city that plays up its image on the back of one music (I swear you can't go two blocks without seeing a tango souvenir), while down on the streets they're swaying to a different beat (of course this isn't a perfect comparison, since samba is just as much favela music as funk is, even if they don't have funk MCs performing for tourists on the train up Corcovado to see Cristo Redentor).

Granted, Zizek was in chic-ish Palermo, a far cry from the villas. And no, I didn't make it to any villas, other than peering out from the overpass onto a cluster of shacks as I headed to the airport, the scene unfortunately reminiscent of passing by the Complexo da Maré on the way in/out of Galeão in Rio. That's the rub on vacation vs. vocation, passing through vs. putting down a few roots. But Zizek isn't just using a cumbia bandwagon to success; rather, it seems to be a nexus of DJs and producers who wanna slice it into the global mess of dubs and steps and dancehalls and grime. I already mentioned Villa D (whose latest album is available for free download off that site), but don't sleep on Oro11 and El Remolón too.

For more información en inglês: Mad Decent is on to something (or at least the comments are) and Ruptureradio had a recent showcase. There's also a little cumbia on the español summer soundtrack of '07: La Ola de Calor, by the incomparable (& original) big bad jugglin' machine. And focusing on the Colombian roots, this comp looks pretty good.

I was also able to stock up on some music despite the short stay in BsAs. Zizek has it all laid out: dude selling CDs in the back, replete with charming touches like track lists skipping some numbers and the actual having way more songs than it claims. It's got that pirate feel, but the mp3 quality is thankfully much better.

So in honor of my inability to habla español, here's a little morsel whose title is self-evident enough and goes well with what I had for breakfast.

Sidestepper - Mas Papaya
(from Bosquiman vs. Vampiros -- "Dinamita batatera")

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Having ducked out of Rocinha under cover of bullets (ok, a gross exaggeration, but last Thursday was fucked up regardless), I've taken a temporary reprieve from Rio, trying to do some of the travel I never made it around to last summer. This week finds me in Buenos Aires, where I'll be dropping some beats at the behest of everyone's favorite Slovenian philosopher, which is also an NY Times-approved rager.

Niceto Club
Niceto Vega 5510, Palermo
24 hs.
Entrada: $10 de 00 a 02hs, después $15

El 8 de Agosto
DJs Residentes: Villa Diamante -- NIM -- G-Love
VJ Residente: Lucas DM
DJs Convidados: Scruggs aka Gregzinho -- Loder

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Economics Lesson

The other day I paid a quick visit to VivaCred, a non-profit bank founded about 10 years ago under the auspices of VivaRio, perhaps the city's biggest and best-known agent for social change, to investigate ideas for a financial literacy class at the Instituto Dois Irmãos. I was first of all struck at how clean, orderly, and simply impressive of a space it was, the kind of quality in the building itself typically reserved for the few chain banks and pharmacies that have Rocinha branches.

But then again, VivaCred in Rocinha is its headquarters, where for almost ten years it has been lending small loans to businesses both formal and informal, à la the Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus. The staff member I spoke to very proudly told me that they do not survive off donations, but rather have been able to maintain their facility and staff while still offering new loans all with the interest revenue from successful old loans. The micro-credit/micro-finance concept is an intriguing, and in many ways logical one that ably breaks down a lot of stigmas and stereotypes about poor communities and their residents. I'm not surprised to find such an operation in Rocinha, indeed a little excited that they chose to headquarter it there, even after having branched out all over Rio (admittedly, with some support from the city government).

Rio, and Rocinha, being places of great contrast, I mused nonetheless on the competition between VivaCred and the boca-de-fumo in Valão that I passed on the way there & back from the Instituto. While I doubt the ADA specifically sees the revenue generated by new businesses in Rocinha as any kind of threat, in the grander scheme, what's bringing more money into Rocinha, what's the economic engine: drugs or businesses (both formal and informal)? I'm not sure there's a fair way to make the comparison, as the drugs of course supplement a display of power and the authority of a certain civil order that a league of merchants likely couldn't.

Patrick, a kid I met in Rocinha early in my stay, was able to rattle off a figure of how many reais per week pass through Rocinha in trafficking. Where he got the statistic and whether it had any validity was left unsaid. He claimed it was the most in Rio, another point of pride.

The future of Rocinha, and certainly many other favelas in Rio, likely runs in tandem between the communities' ability to create, grow, and maintain businesses and the factions' ability to do the same. But could more support for investment initiatives like VivaCred eventually undercut the factions' power if the community didn't feel like it was relying on them for a certain kind of economic stimulation in the neighborhood? I don't know if anyone's untangled the paths of where the money goes to or comes from, but it's certain the two are intertwined.

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Fairly full days running around Rio have somehow let updates fall by the wayside, but today was too much to pass up: What had been feared since before the Pan-American Games finally occurred. Today, the police invaded Rocinha.

I awoke to the sound of firecrackers and helicopters. The former are a typical warning signal–the police are coming–while the whirlybird overhead left no doubt that the police had their eye on Cachopa. I exited the door of my apartment to head upstairs and inquire with my host family about the situation. As I climbed the stairs, I looked out onto the Rua da Raia, where a squad of 6 or 8 polícia militar (not what we think of as "military police" that guard military bases, but rather police with military training) was conducting house-to-house searches. They made it to our place, demanded that we open the front door, and proceeded to search upstairs, but did not come into the apartment I share with the other Two Brothers volunteers.

Later, still hoping to leave Rocinha for the day, I stepped out again. One of the police, who must've heard about me from upstairs, asked about my roommate and me. When I told him the roommate is from San Francisco, he lit up. "Ahh, já conheço São Francisco três vezes. A Califórnia é muito bonita." So, I can go? "Sim, sim, tudo tranquilo aqui."

Down on the Estrada da Gávea, business seemed to look roughly as usual. As I neared the bottom, I saw another squad of police with binoculars and sniper rifles, peering up into the Vila Verde area, trying to get a bead who knows what or whom.

Simply put, these were military tactics. The notion that Rio is a city at war, while easy to discuss in the abstract or via the media, has never been clearer.

Of course, my first-hand experience of the event pales in comparison to its media coverage. Down in Leblon not too long after, I mentioned to somebody that I had just come from Rocinha, where it was "muito quente," and I wasn't talking about the weather. The person already knew, having seen live TV reports. It was on the nightly news, the mental confusion of seeing streets I know, streets I had just walked, that 12 hours before were under police lock down. They were back under ADA authority, bocas-de-fumo in full swing, by nightfall.

I was going to wait until the papers came out tomorrow, but curiosity killed the blogger, and so the Globo article linked to above probably gives the standard account. I say standard rather than accurate, because reporters generally follow the police line. They aren't trusted by the favelas, especially after 2002's Tim Lopes disaster, and now seem to prefer a variation on the embedded reporter routine.

The 6-hour "mega-operation", according to the article, consisted of entering Rocinha from all its principle access points simultaneously and generally rounding up suspected traffickers, seizing arms & drugs, and going after one particular location of guns & munitions, which turned out to be empty. A few individuals were arrested, including a certain "Betinho da Cachopa," who I don't know, but who I suspect may have been busted by my San Francisco-loving uninvited house guest.

Of particular interest is the high-tech aspect: logistical support via a laptop with satellite imagery, abetted by the helicopter's bird's eye view. The police, in so many ways, were attempting to penetrate Rocinha, to control it in 3-D space, on the ground and from the air. But I suspect that satellites and helicopters aside, the dense layer of becos still proves to be a strong defense, many having run for the alleys as soon as the firecrackers started up. The Estrada da Gávea is easy to control–it itself is a kind of asfalto space, running city bus lines like any normal street–but the deeper into the becos, the deeper into the favela architecture, the harder their tactical manoeuvres become. The structure itself is a kind of self-defense, as I've maintained for some time.

The same concern has also made it to the U.S. military, where the urban slum/shantytown is seen as the key battleground of the 21st century. A choice quote: "'Rapid urbanization in developing countries,' writes Captain Troy Thomas in the spring 2002 issue [of Aerospace Power Journal], "results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned.'" From Captain Thomas's perspective, this represents a threat. From my perspective, this represents Rocinha's most fascinating innovation. An unknowable space, it still remains closed to me in many ways.

I give the Globo article credit for at least paying lip service to the effect of the operation on Rocinha, mentioning the numerous schools closed and commercial strips shuttered. Two Brothers canceled classes tonight, even though firecrackers hadn't gone off since almost noon.

But as Rocinha settled down, I began to wonder, what does such an operation accomplish? Sure, they seized a small quantity of drugs and guns, but there are plenty more when those came from. A temporary incursion, temporary establishment of official authority over the illegal space. A continuation of promises from pre-Pan to take back the favelas. There nonetheless seems to be a Sisyphean aspect to it all, rolling an armored car up a hill, only to see it tumble back down a few hours later. While I was seized by a mild terror, especially when the police came for my house (suddenly I'm the enemy), it seemed to be greeted with a kind of wearied resignation elsewhere. The cycle continues, ad nauseum. Dona Josirene showed me bullet holes in the wall at the end of our alley on my way out after the coast was clear.

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