Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

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

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tropa de Cultura

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.

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At 11/28/2008 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kibe Loco rules!

Best south american blog ever!

At 12/01/2008 12:21 PM, Blogger Guillaume / Valeo said...

Great post Greg!


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