July 15th, 2009

Folk Carioca

A couple weeks ago, a bunch of Boston’s “baile funk” enthusiasts were assembled by the um-and-only Gregzinho — who, incidentally, is our guest tonight at Beat Research! — to watch a couple DVDs showing different sides of the carioca scene: DJ Cabide’s self-produced “national” and “international” DVDs (which were both great & grainy), and the highly anticipated Favela on Blast (produced by Leandro HBL and, of course, Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo, who — it should be noted — does not appear in the film).

I went into our likkle local screening with much of the excitement, as well as many of the same reservations, I bring to “global ghettotech” more generally. For as we all know, “baile funk” is the old kuduro, or the old neo-cumbia, or whateverrrr. As such — that is, as a “nu-world” genre (and arguably the first) that traveled through the strange filters of the musiconnoisseurosphere to arrive in metropolitan earbuds — the way the genre was framed, often in racy and sensationalist terms, seemed to set a template of sorts for how later forms of international (and usually non-English) dance music would be received and circulated among journalists, bloggers, DJs, and other enthusiasts.

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the sort of thing I’m describing here. They need look no further than Gregzinho’s blog (or senior thesis) for a withering critique of the ways funk carioca — or “baile funk,” a misnomer that registers some of what gets lost in translation — has been represented by some of these cultural agents.

Having seen the film, I’m glad to say that most if not all of my reservations proved unfounded in this case, for the producers of FoB have done an excellent job of presenting the lively scene in all its glory without imposing much of a narrative frame on it at all, never mind one that might be critiqued as sensationalistic. Of course, the director has chosen what to include and what to leave out, what to emphasize, etc., and in that sense, there is undoubtedly a framework that we could discuss (and I need to praise Leandro’s editing as virtuosic and captivating). But I was struck by the lack of a voiceover or an obvious storyline, leaving the performers and dancers and favelistas plenty of room to tell their own stories in their own words. One sees and hears what one might expect: scenes of bailes in action, in particular, and of producers at work, as well as a textured sense of the social and cultural milieu of the favelas and funk’s presence there. Are there guns, drugs, and scantily clad girls in the film? Sure. They’d have to be. But they’re not the focus, or at least they didn’t seem that way to me.

What I found most striking about the film, rather, was its portrayal of funk as folk music. There were several scenes — none of which have (yet) made it to YouTube, I don’t think — in which funkeiros (funk artists, that is) joined people on the street — sometimes kids, most memorably an older man — for some sweet singalongs. In those scenes what was remarkable to me was not that kids or elders had committed funk rhymes to memory (or had invented some of their own), but how powerfully and naturally the beatbox / hand-clap accompaniment stood in for funk’s distinctively electronic rhythms. The performances were arresting; they sounded as full and present as the soundsystems do. Such scenes not only underscored the degree to which US electrofunk (/Miami bass) has been progressively localized, turned into the hand-drum sampling tamborzao and whatever they call the beatbox loop of recent years, they showed how something as electronically mediated as funk carioca exists simultaneously in oral/aural culture, on the street, no electricity necessary.

Now, I’m not trying to resuscitate some romantic notion of the “folk.” I’ve read enough research debunking the term as signifying the preindustrial, the rural, or some other kind of Otherness. That’s not my aim here. Indeed, it is a kind of post-industrial folkness — and importantly, a sort of (global) sameness — that I’m interested in, an approach to recorded media as living, embodied practice that bears witness yet again to how modern commercial music culture is always about far more than passive consumption.

Given this reaction to the film, I was pleased to see the following comment by Beni Borja on Gavin’s now notorious “Reggaeton Crash” post —

Let me try to give a different viewpoint in this very insightful discussion.

I’m musician/producer/songwriter from Rio de Janeiro. I´ve been following what you call “bailefunk” since it’s very beginning I was in “bailes” in the early eighties when all they played was american funk, I was around the studio when Cidinho, Marlboro and Ademir, recorded their first album (Funk Brasil 1) , that was a huge hit and sparked the movement of creating original eletronic music for the bailes ,sung in portuguese.

From this vantage point, I feel that a fundamental piece is missing in this puzzle. What all this genres we´re talking about have in common , more than the fact that they were originated in third-world slums, is the fact that theiy are living breathing forms of folk music.

Folk music is more than a genre , it is a process of music-making, one where originality is not the goal. The objective of folk music is to produce the soundtrack for a certain social scene.

That’s why folk music moves slowly. That´s why also folk genres seldom create big artists.

In the case of bailefunk , that I have followed every step of the way , I see that every couple of years, someone comes up with something new, followed immediately by a avalanche of imitators… “tamborzão “was just the latest fad (one that is already being discarded in most of the bailes down here) , it will surely be followed in a couple of years by another breaktrough, but while this does not happen, what we have is a enormous production of music with very little real originality,,,

I guess reggae is a good example of this as well. When during the seventies it produced a number of real artists like The Wailers, Toots & The Maytals, Jimmy Cliff etc… , it transcended momentarily the folk music approach, but as soon as reggae , was substituted on the jamaican social scene by dancehall , the folk method came back, and originality became far and apart.

It is very hard to keep the public interested in a musical genre that develop so slowly

But don’t take my word for it — or Beni’s even. Go see the film for yourself. It’s currently touring the festival circuit, and hopefully it’ll be coming to a theater or DVD player (or bittorrent?) near you.

However, since it’s become a customary way of evaluating movies, I’ll end this “review” by closing with a thumby gesture. Not quite two thumbs up, let’s call it a Cabide thumb-to-the-side + a Gregzinho thumb-at-an-upward-angle–

ps — props to Pace for hosting! we’ve got a reggae film night planned for the end of the month, before Gregzinho’s departs once again; be in touch if you’d like to attend.

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gregzinho  |  July 20th, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    thumbs may be askance, but those broad smiles speak pretty strongly too! In my all-too-brief spare time I’ve been puzzling how to ‘review’ the film as I eventually intend to do for Spannered. This folk carioca take is a really trenchant one that I will surely reference. It may end up being more of a meta-review, about the film and their future plans . . . Leandro will certainly talk to me. Maybe Senhor Diplo will consent to some interview questions? And I must get in touch with this Beni character.

  • 2. Birdseed  |  July 20th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    It’s a tad ironic that the (trad) world music people started out as folkies, only to impose their own form of neocolonial modernism on the music in endless “fusion” hybrids —

    — and that the explicitly modernist nu-whirlers have in turn become folkies, extremely enamoured of small local, functional, collectivist scenes. I recognise this sentiment in myself and loved the same post reply.

    The question which has been nagging my mind is why we’re so attracted to this end of the spectrum. I used to think “because it is the method that produces the best music”, but after another bout of social contructivist humanities I’m not so sure. Are we talking simplicity in a complex world, privilidge-shame, Bhabha-style colonialist ambivalence, what?

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  July 21st, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Interesting point, Birdseed, though I’m not so sure how much poco matters are in play here, to be honest. And I think we need to be a little more careful with the “world music” narrative. The contrast you draw breaks down a little when we recall that early efforts in so-called “world music” were by ethnomusicologists and quite documentarian in orientation, whereas it’s not until the major record labels get involved in the late 80s that fusions/hybrids become the order of the day. See, e.g., Steven Feld or Tim Taylor or Martin Stokes to flesh this story out.

    I think we also risk confusing our affinity for content vs. approach. A lot of us nu-whirlers, for all our interest in “folk” approaches (which is another way to say, perhaps, “local” ones), are still very much interested in electronic content and global forms (hip-hop, reggae, techno, etc.), so modernism hasn’t quite gone out the window. If anything the main difference between “old worlders” and nu-whirlers is an ideological one: the former seem to want (and now I’m attributing/projecting in an odd way) to uphold notions of cultural purity and discreteness — something that the notion of the “hybrid” actually maintains/imports — while the latter (that’s us!) proceed from the assumption that people are mixing mixtures of mixtures and localizing global forms. I don’t think it’s about simplicity, per se.

  • 4. paul j.  |  July 21st, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Definitely a very interesting issue happening with the funk as folk music. I think that is the right way to contextualize folk music, not as pre-industrial otherness, but rather as a more general set of shared cultural beliefs or attitudes about music as praxis. This of course can be contrasted with the capitalist model of musical production and everything that entails (ownership of intellectual rights, music as property, the cultural exploitation of economically disadvantaged regions, etc.). Folk music has shared origins, it belongs to a community, and it doesn’t disseminate outside of its community quite as easily (though the internet is certainly changing that).

    I would definitely be more interested in hearing other people’s thoughts about how these two attitudes sometimes messily live together.

  • 5. Favela on Blast at Intern&hellip  |  August 3rd, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    [...] much credit for its honest portrayal of musical life in the favelas on Rio.  One admirer, in a thoughtful commentary, points out how the film even casts funk as a kind of folk [...]

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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