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.