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In Rio, Funk Is a Way of Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

DJ Marlboro hurtles into the Friday night dance circuit, talking fast and driving faster. His green Chevrolet Blazer--plastered with decals of his production company, Big Mix--shudders and swerves along a dark curving road on the frontier between working-class asphalt and dirt-street slums.

DJ Marlboro looks casual in maroon sweatpants and a white jersey; he has nothing to prove. At 34, this smooth, boyish producer is the prince of funk, a pioneering impresario of the wildly popular Brazilian version of the musical genres known in the United States as rap and hip-hop.

DJ Marlboro’s hands flutter off the wheel, conducting and arranging melodies, dialing his cellular phone, reaching into the glove compartment for a second phone. He hums, he nods to the rhythms in his head. He expounds: The world identifies Rio de Janeiro with samba music, but that is ancient history.

“Samba moves this city for a few days during Carnaval,” DJ Marlboro says. “Funk moves this city all year round.”

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Brazilian funk is a cultural craze, a way of dressing and talking, living and dying. The sound thunders through Rio every weekend as an estimated 1 million young people make an epic pilgrimage to hundreds of dances. The phenomenon has attracted the interest of multinational recording companies and sociologists in recent years. Police chiefs try to ban funk dances; political candidates use them as campaign stops.

Funk has clearly been influenced by the music of U.S. inner cities, and the sound and gritty origins are comparable.

But Brazilian funk is ultimately a product of this startlingly beautiful city of bays, beaches and lush green mountains, where the lights of the favelas--the slums--sparkle like diamonds on the hilltops and the gunfire echoes day and night.

Funk captures the contradictions of a city that seems simultaneously blessed and cursed. And a night with DJ Marlboro on the dance circuit reveals Rio’s charm, violence, creativity, injustice and racial harmony.

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“They say this is cultural colonialism, American music,” says Manoel Ribeiro, an architect and intellectual who is an authority on funk. “No. It is an expression of the international black diaspora in the era of globalization. The artists . . . produced something that is authentically Carioca [from Rio]. And as the middle-class kids go up into the hills to the dances, today funk is an instrument of social integration.”

As DJ Marlboro arrives at a dance at a soccer stadium in the Pena district, fans and groupies buzzing around him, the surrounding favelas are disgorging crowds of youths.

The neighborhood platoons are known as galeras, which translates roughly as “crews” or “posses.” They trek on foot or in buses rented by promoters to dances in nightclubs, plazas, abandoned factories. They fork over $3 to $8 apiece for admission; women often get in free.

“We go all weekend,” Leandro Dias, 17, a funkeiro from the favela of Juramento, says with a toothy grin. “I have been going to the dances since I was 11.”

A hundred strong, the homeboys from Juramento pour into the cement-walled soccer stadium whose exterior resembles a gloomy jail or a battle-scarred fort. Inside, the whole world is swaying. The sea of dancers shimmers with the many colors and ethnicities of Brazil, waves of humanity rocked by the tectonic thump of howitzer-strength amplifiers.

The galera from Juramento enters chanting its melodic war cry: “The blood of love flows in my veins / From Mutua to Koreia to Pombal: Juramento!”

The chant is a defiant pledge of allegiance to the neighborhood, explains Dias, an aspiring singer.

By day, he goes to high school and works repairing industrial ovens. By night, he hits the party scene decked out to catch the eye of the ladies with funkeiro finery: Basketball shoes, low-slung jeans with embroidered fringe, a loose button-down shirt, an earring, a baseball cap decorated with emblems of Tweety Bird and the Orlando Magic.

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“Bermuda shorts are real popular too,” Dias explains. “They have to be big and baggy. And Nikes and Reeboks. American basketball stuff, American football stuff. At funk dances, everybody gets together, middle class, upper class. It’s a fever. And it keeps growing.”

On stage, the group Movimento Funky Club churns out tunes that intersperse Portuguese with English phrases such as “party people in the house.” The rotund lead singer wears dark glasses; he resembles a number of portly U.S. rappers. Three striking female dancers writhe in shorts and halter tops to Rio’s reigning hit: Eu Sou Maluco! (I Am Crazy!)

The galeras do their thing in the dirt field below: They jump up and down in unison, they snake through the crowd single file in lines known as “little trains.” And the rival groups continually face off and stare each other down. They stake out turf in a tribal ritual of solidarity and confrontation, while hulking security guards line the middle of the dance floor, forming walls of muscle between prospective combatants.

The dances are a volatile cocktail: the rival neighborhood groups, the pounding music, the cocaine and marijuana that some kids use to get cranked up for the night. It can get, to say the least, rowdy.

“Kids have died,” says Rafael Carlantonio, 15. “I myself become violent sometimes. I can’t explain it. Not only guys, the girls fight too.”

The media and the police associate funk with the raging street crime that makes Rio one of the most violent cities in South America. There have been rumbles in which busloads of party-goers exchanged gunfire. In the toughest slums, it is no surprise that the drug lords control funk concerts as well as just about everything else.

But the promoters fight the stigma. Funk has unjustly become a code word for the poor, black and violent, DJ Marlboro says:

“They talk as if everything bad that happens is because of funk. The public perception has connected funk to drug trafficking and violence. There are 500 dances every weekend. Maybe 10 of them have problems. But those dances get all the attention, instead of the other 490.”

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Despite the events’ size and the potential for disaster, the problems generally do not get worse than fistfights. Funk has bred a controlled and ritualized form of combat. At “corridor dances,” galeras square off across a neutral zone patrolled by security guards, trading insults and punches.

Corridor dances have faded, outlawed by many promoters. Still, the idea of channeled combat survives. It evokes the Brazilian tradition of capoeira, a blend of dance and martial arts invented in the days of slavery.

“A rich kid can go to an academy and learn karate to channel his aggressions,” says Jose Carles of Furacao 2000, a promotion company that produces a top-rated, “Soul Train"-type show for television. “A poor kid can’t afford a gym. The dances are a place where they can blow off steam.”

Funk culture has foreign and Brazilian roots. In the 1970s and 1980s, African American singers such as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone were popular among Brazilians of African and mixed-race heritage, who account for more than half the population.

But the rise of rap and hip-hop took its own path in Brazil. Instead of the big-name rappers from New York and the West Coast who dominate the airwaves in the United States, Brazilians were drawn to the more tropical, festive sound of artists based in Miami. The idols of Brazilian artists are relatively obscure singers from Miami such as Stevie B.

“The Miami sound is more melodic, more Latin,” says DJ Marlboro. “Miami and Rio are culturally very similar.”

Performers in the humble districts of Rio created a musical stew mixing U.S. bass and synthesizer sounds with fragments of samba and other Brazilian genres. At first they sang in English, mispronouncing with cheerful gusto. Refrains such as “Whoops! There it is!” became parodic nonsense verses in Portuguese.

The breakthrough came in the early 1990s: DJ Marlboro, whose real name is Fernando Luis Mattos da Matta, realized that listeners wanted lyrics in Portuguese.

The result was a modern-day example of antropofagia, a Brazilian cultural movement of the 1920s that espoused the melding of foreign and national art forms, according to Ribeiro, the architect. “Marlboro perceived the advantage, the opportunity to sing in Portuguese,” he says. “Funk became something that everyone was singing.”

The words and attitude were quintessentially Rio. Despite the desperate conditions in which millions of its inhabitants live, the city’s festive, sensual spirit shapes its music. Funk artists sing about their neighborhoods, parties, romance.

Even songs about police brutality or poverty, Ribeiro says, “lack the aggressiveness that characterizes the rappers in Los Angeles or Sao Paulo,” Brazil’s biggest city and industrial capital, where a fledgling school of performers imitates hard-core U.S. rappers.

Because funk has a huge market and is cheap and easy to perform, it has caused a street-level entrepreneurial revolution. Everybody wants to be a disc jockey.

In the favela of Vigario Geral, a teenager named Andrea brightens when asked about funk. He pulls a cassette from his pocket. It contains a primitive tune produced by his cousin, an aspiring artist who raps about a police raid in the neighborhood. Other deejays compose songs glorifying drug lords, hoping the flattery will get them spots in concerts financed by gangsters.

The dreams are inspired by the home-grown origin stories of songs such as “I Am Crazy.” It started when a shoe salesman leaped onstage during a wild moment at a dance and bellowed into the microphone “I am crazy.” His voice had a hoarse power that caught the ear of the disc jockey, who mixed the words over a beat. A hit was born.

The title has worked its way into everyday speech in Rio; the song plays at soccer games to pump up the fans. The shoe salesman hired a couple of flashy backup dancers and went into show business.

“Funk has opened new doors for kids in favelas,” Ribeiro says. “These are kids who don’t have formal education; otherwise, they would be in the street selling melons. You have hundreds of musicians now who live off this, making records, playing at dances. This is a new dimension that is more than musical.”

At the top of the cottage industry are promoters like DJ Marlboro. He makes records in a house-studio where rooms are piled with crates of CDs and T-shirts. He sells as many as 50,000 copies and discovers stars who go on to sign with international labels.

His hottest discoveries include Claudinho and Buchecha. DJ Marlboro pays the duo a Friday night call as they sit in a big van outside a nightclub, waiting to go onstage. Both are in their 20s, clean-cut kids disarmingly unfazed by fame.

They grew up in the outlying Salguero neighborhood. Claudinho worked as a street vendor and Buchecha as an office boy while they performed at singing contests among galeras. After they won at a festival in 1993, their style--they croon a cappella openings to songs--started to catch on.

“We liked all kinds of music: American music, hip-hop, Brazilian,” says Claudinho. “Since we were kids, we liked to sing.”

A few years later, they were given their first gold album by Xuxa, the blond TV personality who epitomizes mainstream success in Brazil. Now the duo hit the weekend dance circuit, earning $500 apiece per performance.

“We have big responsibilities we didn’t have before,” says Claudinho. “Over time we have had to become adults. There’s a lot of funk singers, a lot of competition.”

Sitting in the back of the van, Claudinho thumbs through a Portuguese-English dictionary. He and Buchecha still live in the neighborhood where they grew up, but they dream about visiting a musical mecca one day: Los Angeles.


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