Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fair Trade Funk

Amidst the brouhaha over anonymity, I need to finally announce a project that I've been working on for nearly two years. I've been hush hush here, not sure exactly how it would turn out, but now it has arrived! Pancadão do Morro: O Funk do Flamin Hotz, Já É? (Big Hits From the Hill: Flamin Hotz Funk, You Down?)

It's a compilation CD of 22 tracks that give a cross-section of funk over the last couple years. More importantly, you can stamp it as "fair trade funk." Every artist has a contract in Portuguese, was paid a sum upfront, and will receive royalties. I can vouch for this personally, as I'm the one who has been orchestrating it all for my friends over at Flamin Hotz Records. Moreover, the CD itself is a gorgeous six panel deal, c/o BustBright, with cover art by funk legend Tony Minister, spot gloss lettering, and two booklets -- featuring lyrics in Portuguese and English, artist bios, and photos. There is no anonymity here.

So put some names and beats with faces, add some well-mastered tamborzão to your collection, and support the hardworking MCs and DJs down in Rio: proceeds are going their way. Trust me, I'll be sending the remittances myself.

Buy it here, here, here, here, here, here, or here. Prices, currencies, and locations may vary!

The promo 12", Funkeiros e Progresso EP, is still available at TTL but going fast for the vinyl fiends, I'm sure.

By way of some explanation, I got in touch with Flamin Hotz back in the spring of 2006 after purchasing a copy of the Sou Funk EP and subsequently asking them how such a project came about. The response was stark and simple: the whole thing was a bootleg job. The artists didn't get paid, probably didn't even know the record existed. It had already stirred things up on the Hollerboard by the time I got ahold of Casi, the label head (of a two-man operation) and he was feeling pretty low about it.

He proposed the idea of a new release done properly, which coincided perfectly with my desire to, in some fashion, repay the folks in Rio who had been kind enough to take me around, answer my questions, and introduce me to other people in the movimento funk.

Unfortunately, nothing happens in Rio that doesn't happen face to face, thus two years is really just a few months' effort of when I could actually be there to move it along.

But the EP is out, the CD is out, and hopefully it will be the beginning of much more funk moving its way up north through ethical channels.

As for making amends, I did try to reach the artists from Sou Funk and pay them retroactively on FHZ's behalf. In the case of MCs Júnior and Leonardo, residents of Rocinha whose house abuts the Two Brothers building (in a city of 13 million, in a community of 250,000, what are the odds . . . ?), I pulled it off:

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

MoFo Radio / Invasores do Baixo

Just got back from plying the airwaves over at WZBC, a venerable local college station, for DJ Ghostdad's MoFo Radio. I realize that doesn't do you much good to listen in, since it's now over, but he will be posting the audio in due time.

We talked a lot about funk and of course listened to many tunes from the Volt Mix, tamborzão, and pós-baile funk eras. All of it was promo, to some extent, for a chance to hear the bass heavy beats live!

Bass Invaders is going brasileiro this week. If you'll be in the area, come down to the Milky Way for beats, booze, and bowling (candlepin, of course).

Bass Invaders/Invasores do Baixo
DJs Ghostdad, Nick Yoder, and Gregzinho
Milky Way Lounge & Lanes in Jamaica Plain
Thursday, April 24, 9 pm - 1 am, 21+

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Unlabeled: The Anonymous as Exotic in Presenting Proibidão

[Update: The folks at liked this paper enough to publish it. It's missing the hyperlinks from the blogaversion, but still nice to see it circulated it further afield.]

[The reason I went on down to New Orleans after all was for the BRASA conference, where I appeared on the panel: "Raps do Parapapá: Representations of Violence in Brazilian Funk Carioca," organized by Paul Sneed, of 2Bros fame. Below is the paper I presented, modified for the blogging public with some links &c]

The existence of this CD, Proibidão CV, the subject of my talk, is due in no small part to the efforts of American DJ Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo, who first brought funk to a certain kind of American audience: young, musically au courant, tapped into wider hip-hop and dance music scenes that include music from across the United States, Jamaica, other parts of the Caribbean, the UK, Latin America, and increasingly Africa. Beginning in 2003, he released two funk mixes, “Favela On Blast” and “Favela Strikes Back”, and included several funk tracks on his mixtape “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” which was a promotional tool for the Sri Lankan by way of London artist M.I.A., who in turn borrowed some aspects of funk to make a bricolage of global urban beats that catapulted her to pop stardom.

However, whether out of a desire to monopolize access to funk or simply out of carelessness or even ignorance, Diplo’s inaugural funk efforts were notoriously devoid of any contextual information. In particular, artist and track names are simply nonexistent. The two exclusively funk mixes do not come with track listings even though some tracks are by extremely well known artists like Bonde do Vinho. The mixtape, meanwhile, is more egregious. It features a mixture of commercial hip-hop, recordings of M.I.A., and funk. The latter, however, is listed only as “Baile Funk 1,” “Baile Funk 2,” “Baile Funk 3.” [I should add that “baile funk” has become the name for funk among non-Brazilians.]

Diplo was criticized somewhat for this disservice, although ultimately let off the hook. Music critic Nick Sylvester, reviewing Favela Strikes Back for Pitchfork Media in June 2005, argues “But 10 wrongs do make five rights, and if Diplo’s shtick is bringing this shanty to the world in a way they might respond to and ultimately might take vested interest in (read: $$$), then let’s drop the charges for now and indulge the music as wide-eyed as he does.” While I don’t share Sylvester’s laissez-faire attitude, I’ll nevertheless point out that Diplo has at least made recent efforts to act less like a “culture vulture,” including plans to open a branch of HeapsDecent, an NGO that offers music production workshops, in the favela of Cantagalo in the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro. He is also working on a movie, Favela On Blast, that purports to put names, faces, and stories to what he had previously presented as anonymous.

Anonymity, however, is the order of the day in this recent release by the label Sublime Frequencies, Proibidão C.V.: Forbidden Gang Funk from Rio de Janeiro. Its liner notes, after providing a brief, simplified, and somewhat inaccurate explanation of proibidão, read: “Recorded and assembled by Carlos Casas. Courtesy of some anonymous MCs and DJs in different bailes along the favelas of Zona Sul, Rio de Janeiro during March-April 2003.” On the opposing page, it prominently states: “All artists are Anonymous. All tracks are Untitled.” It then lists the tracks as “Untitled Proibidao CV” numbers 1-17. [Italics are my own.] For the listener who doesn’t know any Portuguese that, unfortunately, is the end of it. However, a closer listen reveals a more complex CD than the providers are willing to admit, or perhaps are even aware of, in their liner notes.

To begin with, there is little indication that all of the tracks take place in the Zona Sul, as track 3 sings of “tranqulidade na Mangueira,” track 10 speaks of a “Festa da Jacaré” in addition to mentioning Vidigal, both 7 and 11 indicate that they are from “Borel”, and #2 perform the well-known trope of poetically listing a series of favelas from across the city. Conversely, Rocinha, the stated source of the photographs in the CD package, is not mentioned once. Instead, the photos, which do not document any act of criminal behavior to my eye, implicitly link favelas with the drug trade. It’s an unfair generalization — a CD of proibidão, therefore it needs photos of favelas no matter what they show.

The liner notes also mention “the explicit lyrics of apology to drug gangs and the violent content.” I will not dispute that this is present, as tracks 4 & 5 – which appear to be a continuation of the same live recording and not separate tracks – declare, “Hoje vai ter churrasco pra geral / só ninguém vai comer” when speaking of burnt bodies in a prison riot at Bangú 1. On the other hand, there is a more thoughtful view in track #15.

It opens with a protest against stereotypes in a clever call and response: “Dizem que nós somos violentos / Mas desse jeito eu não aguento / Dizem que lá falta educação / Não é desse jeito não / Dizem que não temos competência / Mas isso sim que é violência / Que só sabemos fazer refrão.” (They say we're violent / But this shit I don't buy / They say we lack education / That's not it at all / They say we're not competent / But that right there is violence / That we only know how to cut refrains") Later, the MC sings affirmatively: “Nós temos escola / nós temos respeito” (We have schools / we have respect) and “cidadão brasileiro e tenho meu valor" (Brazilian citizen and I have my value). Such sentiments are hardly the one-dimensional view that the CD Proibidão CV presents. The prominent spelling of “Cidade de Deus” also makes it clear that this is another track not from the Zona Sul.

Likewise, something beyond apology for the drug trade is taking place in track #12. While the reference to the Comando Vermelho motto “Paz, Justiz, e Liberdade” would affirm its status as proibidão, the earlier lines are of considerable interest. “Eu sei que um dia a gente saí daqui / Não sei o dia e nem sei a hora. / Mas sei que um dia a gente vai embora.” There is an escapist, and I believe even utopian, impulse in these lines. Will “a gente” leave by escaping the cycle of violence, by leaving their community, by dying in a blaze of glory in a gun battle? This open-ended vision credits more toward the insightful analysis of Paul Sneed, who I’m sharing this table with, in his dissertation on proibidão: “Machine Gun Voices: Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk.”

Indeed, it is precisely a perspective like Paul’s this is lacking in Sublime Frequencies’ presentation of proibidão. They conclude in the liner notes, “This CD is in no way an apology for these groups, but a document to portray a moment in time in Rio de Janeiro musical and social history.” On their website, meanwhile, they declare the label’s mission: “SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations.”

Such rhetoric is a dodge. If indeed they are “explorers” on the “urban frontier” of Rio de Janeiro seeking to “portray” a particular “moment,” then they are uninformed explorers who make no effort to explain the parameters of that moment – where, when, why. Instead, they let the listener concoct his or her own vision of Rio’s favelas based on abrasive beats, gruff voices, and the sampled sound of gunshots.

Such a proposition – suggesting the violence of Rio’s favelas without fleshing that concept in with details – is reminiscent of the attitude that Alex Bellos takes in an article on proibidão for online music publication Blender. He opens the article, “Coke. Guns. Booty. Beats.” with the declaration that funk is “the most dangerous – and most exciting – underground club scene in the world.” The implicit link, however, is that it is the most exciting because it is the most dangerous. The same principle is at work in Proibidão C.V. – one doesn’t need to actually know what the songs are saying; rather, the music should be exciting simply because of its violent, dangerous context. In both cases, exciting is also a substitute for exotic, for the exotic is exciting as well because it intimates danger. I should add that Sublime Frequencies traffics principally in “exotic” locales like “Java, Bali, Sumatra, Burma, Morocco, Thailand, India, Mali, Syria, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal.”

Anonymity, then, is indeed the rub. I am certain that a lack of knowledge of Portuguese, both among foreigners like Diplo and among their audience, plays a role. However, I think there is a more sinister impulse at work as well. For anonymity ultimately implies unknowability. Radical urbanist Mike Davis provides a chilling account of the consequences of unknowability in Planet of Slums. He concludes the book by arguing that the Pentagon is the only global institution to take seriously the implications of rapid slum growth in large urban areas. He cites U.S. military tactics, which “assert that the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the Third World – especially their slum outskirts – will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century” and continues by quoting an Air Force theorist writing in the Aerospace Power Journal: “Rapid urbanization in developing countries results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned.” But the attitude that slums are going to be the next global battleground, perhaps because of their unknowability, is not limited to the U.S. military. One only need look as far as a recent edition of O Globo to find the polícia civil or, in more extreme cases, the BOPE in blockbuster hit Tropa de elite, engaging in such tactics, trying to bring Rio’s favelas back under the city’s control. Unplanned favelas are unknowable spaces to the uninitiated. They are, moreover, soundtracked by proibidão. But when proibidão is presented as anonymous and unknowable, as in the case here, then it does nothing to increase knowledge – and knowability – about both the music and its environment. Instead, it only encourages the exoticization of both, a process whose consequences may be extremely dire.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Devastation Tourism

Much ink has been spelled about the unevenness of recovery in New Orleans from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Just yesterday, Bush wrapped up a NAFTA summit in the Crescent City, where the Central Business District (CBD) is intact and a few miles away there is still wreckage everywhere. Despite the platitudes he might have offered, I don't suspect he made a trip this time to New Orleans' other half. It's not far, difficult, or dangerous, and many people I encountered expressed how vital it is for any visitor not to see the city with rose-colored glasses.

I did my best last month to take in something besides the usual tourist axis of the CBD/French Quarter/Garden District, all of which have their charms, granted. But there is an aching, suffering city where the notion of recovery seems intractable. For one, I spied a sprawling shantytown under an I-10 overpass near Tulane Medical School downtown (didn't have the heart to photograph it myself). American favela?

Like the impulse to favela tourism, visiting New Orleans is an increasingly awkward experience. No one with a conscience really wants to indulge in the Big Easy and engage in willful self-deception about the reality outside the tourist pleasure sites. There's a Hurricane Katrina Tour, a suspicious enough commodification of the disaster. But going out on one's own and gawking at the I-10 shantytown, or driving through the 9th Ward, the locus of devastation, what does that do? In Rio, I had research and volunteer work that brought me into favelas to stay and hopefully better the community. Am I no better in NOLA than the favela tourists I scoffed at? It's surely easier to volunteer in New Orleans than to get down to Rio to do the same if you live in the U.S., and that strikes me as the best answer. But, I'm afraid, circumstances didn't allow that for me.

The 9th Ward, the worst hit, then. By my rough estimate, I would guess less than half of the homes there appear reoccupied, debris covers countless lots, and the stigma of FEMA spray paint scars nearly every one. Date the house was checked, number of dead bodies, number of dead animals, and condemnation codes.

This house, while chained and boarded up in front, looks reasonably intact and freshly painted, but the morbid tag persists. I saw folks on their front porches, rocking back and forth with the ugly numeration behind them on the wall. Do they leave it up as a reminder? Warning? Public display of wounds? It seems too indelicate to ask anyone about.

One of the bright spots in the Upper 9th, however, is the Habitat for Humanity Musicians' Village. Among the countless great works Habitat is doing, this one is turning 8 acres into 72 single-family houses to provide a home to musicians who fled the city.

It's an endlessly admirable (and beautiful) housing project, hopefully a model as the city struggles over plans to raze older public housing. The subject of housing in New Orleans also calls to mind a provocative perspective raised by New Urbanist Andreas Duany that is worth quoting at length:

The lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure.

There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.

This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated...the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Without this there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn’t mean just owing money—it is the elimination of the culture that arises from leisure.

The link to the full article is dead, but more excerpts (including Duany's proposed solution) here. In Metropolis Magazine, he paraphrased himself by urging us not to think of New Orleans as the worst-managed, poorest American city, but as the best-managed, wealthiest Caribbean city. While Miami usually gets the nod as the American metropolis most tapped into the Caribbean network, one cannot ignore New Orleans' vital historical role, from the slave trade to fleeing French planters from Saint-Domingue (Haiti). It's a vital part of the world that made New Orleans, a scholarly approach I'm hoping to dig into soon (thanks w&w for the suggestion).

Fortunately, these Musicians' Village homes are a start at providing the necessary leisure time to NOLA's lifeblood. Like this rough-and-tumble old bluesman, Little Freddie King, who I chatted up as he enjoyed a fine spring day on his porch. He was kind enough to show me inside, which had the fine smell of a brand new house. He couldn't be happier.

That Saturday night on Frenchman Street, I saw a sign advertising Little Freddie King in one of the countless divey jazz clubs. I hopped in and caught a luscious set of funky blues that set the dance floor ablaze. He was glad I dropped by.

Too rich in music to cover much at all here, but I hope New Orleans' Caribbean leisure time will return enough to allow some more of these sounds to percolate:

Second Line brass bands (parallel to minor samba schools, perhaps?) -- i.e. Free Agents - We Made It Through That Water

Nawlins bounce (heavy club choons post-Saints games) -- i.e. DJ Black'n'Mild - Beyonce / Work It Out (rmx)

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bayou Country

"The Acadians are perhaps America's most enigmatic people, equally misunderstood by outsiders and members of the group itself. The shroud of misunderstanding is the legacy of the group's unique North American experience, the co-optation of its leadership element by the regional socioeconomic elites, and the creatin and persistence of conflicting (uncomplimentary and complimentary) stereotypes by generations of popular American writers, journalists, and filmmakers. These arbiters of America's popular perceptions have generally visited the bayou country too briefly to acquire accurate impressions of the area and its inhabitants, and their depictions of Cajuns constantly reinforce the existing popular misconceptions about Acadiana."

--Carl A. Brrasseaux, French, Cajun, Creole, Houma: A Primer on Francophone Louisiana

With only a night and a day spent in bayou country, I can point the same finger squarely at myself. I'll resist too many interpretive moves, then, to simply express my amazement at discovering firsthand an oft-forgotten (and -neglected) corner of francophone America: There are 250,000 French speakers still inhabitating Louisana, especially in the southeastern and southwestern parishes.

The vast majority, of course, are Acadians / Cajuns, who ended up in Louisiana centuries ago after getting expelled from Nova Scotia. The first group of Europeans to establish a North American identity, they fiercely resisted assimilation up until the 20th century -- French was banned in Louisiana schools and the invasion of English TV really led to a decline in French proficiency. Cajuns were maligned as rednecks and the backwater of Louisiana.

I stayed in a B&B run by a couple who were the first in each of their families to speak English. We chatted in French over pain perdu in the morning, and surprisingly I found the accent easier to understand than Québécois French. The new generation of Cajuns is speaking a whole mix of accents thanks to CODOFIL, which promotes the French language in all its forms (even Creole!) in the state, and has brought in French teachers from Quebec, France, the Caribbean, and French Africa. Bilingualism can work in the Union, it seems, as long as it's not Spanish.

But the Cajun French persists. A Catholic priest compiled a dictionary of the predominately oral language in the '80s and there is a burgeoning Cajun literary scene. At a bookstore specializing in Louisiana French literature I picked up an autobiography by Jeanne Castille, a militant supporter of French in the mid-20th century, and an anthology of new Cajun fiction.

While I had to indulge my literary side, the oral tradition means music is never far behind. The Jean Lafitte Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center had an extremely well-articulated & well-curated section on music, arguing for cross-pollination between Cajuns and the various Africans and Europeans they came into contact with -- ultimately producing Cajun music on the one hand, and Zydeco on the other.

Get your accordion fix and take a listen for yourself --

Jambalaya - Bon Whisky
(from Cajun Saturday Night!)

Zydeco All-Stars - Hot Steppin' Zydeco
(from Ultimate Zydeco)

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