Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

Transforming the Taboo into Totem

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Transforming the Taboo into Totem

Queremos a revolução Caraíba. Maior que a revolução Francesa. A unificação de todas as revoltas eficazes na direção do homem. Sem nós a Europa não teria sequer a sua pobre declaração dos direitos do homem. A idade de ouro anunciada pela América. A idade de ouro. E todas as girls. (Oswald de Andrade)

Beyond its relationship with Carnival, another aspect of the specific brand of utopianism evident in funk is the aggressively eclectic spirit of cultural cannibalism that it shares with the legacy of Brazilian modernism. Modernismo was officially launched in São Paulo during the Semana de Arte Moderna in February of 1922 as a rebellion against the staid artistic sensibilities of the time and the sort of traditional embellishments of European high culture. Although the modernistas who participated in the event did not consider themselves to be members of a school, per se, they were united by the desire to break the cultural domination of Brazil by Europe and to create art that was more relevant to the specific personality of the country. The modernistas embraced the use of humor, an emphasis on colloquial language and popular culture, and a combination of primitivism with a passionate acceptance of technology, the rapid pace of life and the fragmentation of the traditional order characteristic of industrialized civilization. 14 Modernismo gave the artist in Brazil the power to transform, mutate and mix foreign cultural trends with elements of national and regional culture in a way that turned the previous circuit of production and consumption on its head. Modernismo did more than reject foreign influences in Brazilian culture; it embraced a spirit of appropriation of international currents into newly Brazilianized hybrid forms. The aggressively eclectic nature of modernismo made it a somewhat post-modern project from its outset, one which shared the post-modern tendencies of musical forms such as funk and hip-hop for which an aesthetics of pastiche and bricolage is so characteristic.

Without a doubt, one of the most striking symbols of the iconoclastic attitudes of Brazilian modernismo was the antropofagia, or cultural cannibalism, heralded by Oswald de Andrade in his “Manifesto Antropófago.” 15 The document presents a series of aphorisms announcing the revolution against a dominant order in Brazil built around the culture of white, rationalist European civilization. In the manifesto, Oswald de Andrade, playfully invoking the culture and the race of the Tupi-Guarani Indians who were living in Brazil when the Portuguese first arrived in 1500, says, “Só me interessa o que não é meu. Lei do Homem. Lei do antropófago,” which could be translated as, “I’m only interested in that which is not mine. Law of man. Law of the cannibal.” (Cândido and Castello, 65) The cannibalism of these tribes was practiced as a means of adding the courage and strength of powerful warriors defeated and captured in combat into the blood of the tribe. By invoking Tupi cannibalism in this way and suggesting it as a model for counter-cultural resistance, Oswald de Andrade attacked the legitimacy of the Western tradition, and the history of violence that has characterized it, and suggested the possibility of a better world built at least in part by non-Western ideas. According to Cândido e J. Castello in their anthology of modernismo:

Oswald propugnava uma atitude brasileira de devoração ritual dos valores europeus, a fim de superar a civilização patriarcal e capitalista, com as suas normas rígidas e os seus recalques impostos, no plano psicológico.(17)

In this way, the modernismo proposed by the “Manifesto Antropófago” was more than another new artistic trend, aesthetics or nationalist post-colonial discourse. Modernismo appeared as a radical artistic praxis problematizing the complicity of Western rationalism and Progress with the history of violence, slavery and genocide.

In the context of the present discussion on funk in Brazil, it is worth noting that modernist poetry, like its symbolist predecessor, was associated with musicality from early on, particularly in Mário de Andrade’s notion of simultaneidade, or simultaneousness, which he also called polifonia, or polyphony. In the preface to his book Paulicea desvairada, of 1922, the “Prefácio interessantíssimo,” Mário de Andrade, who was also a music professor and critic as well as being the author of several books on Brazilian music, points to the relationship between modernist poetry and music, favoring the effect of the musical poetic phrase as a totality of fragmentary images implying an extra-logical and non-linear comoção, or “commotion.” He writes:

Mas se em vez de usar só palavras soltas, uso frases soltas: mesma sensação de superimposição, não já de palavras (notas) mas de frases (melodias). Portanto: polifonia, poética. (23)

This polyphony is closely tied to the notion of everyday experience in modern existence in the hectic and fragmentary world of the industrialized city:

si você já teve por acaso na vida um acontecimento forte, imprevisto (já teve, naturalmente) recorde-se do tumulto desordenado, das muitas idéias que nesse momento lhe tumultuaram no cérebro. Essas idéias, reduzidas ao mínimo telegráfico da palavra, não se continuavam, porque não faziam parte de frase alguma, não tinham resposta, solução, continuidade. Vibravam, ressoavam, amontoavam-se, sobrepunham-se. Sem ligação, sem concordância aparente- embora nascidas do mesmo acontecimento- formavam, pela sucessão rapidíssima, verdadeira simultaneidade, verdadeiras harmonias acompanhando a melodia enérgica e larga do acontecimento. (25)

Mario de Andrade’s poetics widened the scope of art to include the sounds, colors and feelings associated with experience in the modernized world of the places like the big city, images previously considered unworthy of poetic expression before the modernist revolution. Furthermore, bringing the poetic into such close proximity with music, Mario de Andrade de-emphasizes the rationality of the text and supremacy of representational signs. Instead he opens the way for an utopian praxis capable of transmitting, through an emphasis on non-linear signs and emotion, things such as the feeling of what it would be like to live in a better world.

The early modernistas tended to symbolically appropriate images from Amerindian culture as the principal vehicles of their artistic revolution, from Oswald’s Tupi to the mythology of Mário de Andrade’s modernist rhapsody Macunaíma: o herói sem nenhum caráter, in an attempt to construct a mythical Brazilian identity with cultural roots going back before the arrival of the Portuguese. Despite the indigenous emphasis of modernismo, over the course of the 20th century a ‘post-modern’ Brazilian modernism awakened that moved beyond the construction of a new national hegemony and began to further the emancipation of the myriad of subaltern subjects within the national territory. As a part of this process, a certain re-Africanization has taken place that has cannibalized the cannibals, merging the hybridization of Brazilian modernism with more specifically diaspora cultural tendencies into a very powerful non-essentialist Afro-Brazilian cultural movement. As Brazilian modernismo continued to thrive and evolve, the Afro-Brazilian roots and nature of the country came to occupy an increasingly important place in artistic production. In the regionalist fiction of the 1930s, considered to be the second wave of modernismo, writers like Jorge de Lima, José Lins do Rego and Jorge Amado began to explore the Afro-Brazilian soul of the country. Indeed, Gilberto Freyre and his notion of racial democracy, a concept that would impact the national ideology so profoundly, was a pivotal actor in regionalismo.

Despite the fact that modernismo has continued to evolve since the early 1920s, its legacy of cultural cannibalism and a utopian poetic praxis has remained relevant in the panorama of Brazilian artistic production to this day. The tropicália movement of the sixties, in which artists such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes undertook a daring eclecticism that aggressively mixed elements of a globalized world musical scene with Brazilian culture, is widely considered the musical successor of Brazilian modernism.(Perrone, 1996) In the nineties, the brilliant and highly innovative movement known as mangue bit, from Recife, took up similar themes. Mangue even had a manifesto, like the manifestos of the modernist groups like Pau-Brasil and Anta. According to this manifesto, the “symbolic image” for the project of the movimento mangue was “uma antena parabólica enfiada na lama,” or “a satellite dish stuck in the mud” of the fertile coastal swamps of the city of Recife, picking up world currents of alternative and revolutionary culture. 16 Groups like Chico Science e Nação Zumbi, Mundo Livre, S.A. and Mestre Ambrósio sought to mix traditional musical styles from the Northeast, such as maracatu, embalada and forró, with styles like rock and reggae. 17 Thematically, they took the Brazilian modernist project, one which had always possessed a rich and complex construction of a subaltern subject at its core, to the next logical step; like the second wave of modernism, the regionalismo of the thirties, mangue de-emphasizes the nationalist dimension and explores a Brazil that is a highly fragmented amalgamation of class, race and regional identities. While the question of the Afro-Brazilian essence of Brazilian culture was central in mangue, it also highlighted other issues of social justice, such as crime and the exclusion of the poor.

While funk is not self-consciously a modernist movement and has issued no ‘manifestos’, in practice it has developed into something very closely related to the anti-rationalist and utopian disposition of the cultural cannibalism of Brazilian modernismo. This modernist character of funk is evident both at the formal level of the funk music as a text, and a cultural artifact, and in its less representational signs, such as the dance moves, gestures and clothing that are a part of the experience of the baile funk. Funk was born out of the movement of Black soul music in Rio throughout the seventies and eighties, and as time passed more and more international and local influences were mixed into it in a process that led funk away from racial, or even musical, essentialism. (Herschmann, 2000) Urban dance cultures such as hip-hop and techno were of particular importance in the development of funk, and the beats of early hip-hop DJs like Afrika Bambaata can still be heard practically unaltered in funk music to this day. As songs and mixes emerged with lyrics in Portuguese during the early nineties, more and more elements of national culture became a part of the funk sound. Samba and Brazilian pop melodies were used in funk together with those of international hits, and Portuguese language samples were superimposed into the highly fragmentary musical montages of funk along with digitalized rhythms of the berimbau, one of the principal instruments of the Afro-Brazilian martial art/dance capoeira. As is generally the case with the musical cultures of the African Diaspora, and indeed Brazilian pop music, originality is less important than the meanings and feeling new versions of pre-existing songs can be given. At the same time, by aggressively embracing so many pre-existing currents of local and international musical culture, funk emerged as a very distinct and very Brazilian hybrid which was not only original but also very relevant to the specific conditions of the lives of the poor people in Rio de Janeiro who cultivated it.

In order to explore similarities of funk culture with modernist tendencies, I will discuss it in terms of some of the fundamental characteristics of modernismo. Firstly, funk is colloquial both in terms of the words that appear in its songs and the beats and samples that make up the music. Certainly the type of speech employed in funk is one that is prevalent in favelas and other low-income areas and its use implies a certain class association. By actively embracing the use of slang and grammatically incorrect Portuguese, funk makes a primitivist affirmation of the more intense humanity of the low-income population and rejects the superiority of middle-class sensibilities. Beyond the lyrics, the stolen melodies, beats and samples of funk are also colloquial in the sense that they come from samba, forró, and songs made popular by radio and TV soap operas and are part of the terrain of popular culture of which funk is a part. The act of transforming foreign elements into a part of the local colloquial dialect, and using them alongside local syntactical elements, is a form of the cultural cannibalism that is close indeed to the spirit of modernism.

Hannah Arendt, in her well-known study on violence, makes the claim that humor is the most effective way to subvert authority. Humor and irony, additional elements typical of Brazilian modernismo, are pervasive throughout all types of funk music. This is true when an MC sings like a gorilla to imitate the sounds made by the girl next door crying, or when Serginho’s sings about a little horse galloping or the boogeyman coming to get you, or the inclusion of absurd effects and samples in songs, like cows mooing, cowboys yelling or digitally altered voices. The first funk song in Portuguese, “Melô da Mulher Feia” released in 1989, was intended to be funny. “Feira de Acari”, recorded by MC Batata in 1990, is a humorous song about the enormous clandestine marketplace off the Avenida Brasil where stolen goods are sold. According to the song, there is a shack in the market where if you buy the batteries, they throw in the radio for free. Even in proibidão, it is common for the MC to make fun of two-bit criminals of low character or other trouble-makers who are only concerned with their own tough guy images and have no moral righteousness. Of course, the playful sexuality of limerick-type rhymes, plays on words and double-entendres of many funk lyrics also opens space for humor.

The primitivism of funk is also striking, but instead of embracing the Tupi Indian, the primitivism in funk consists in the construction of a favela identity, one based at least in part upon something of a mixed-race connotation, a sort of urban “tribal” society that is sexualized, violent and emotionally unrestrained. I have placed the word tribal in quotes in the last sentence to denote something of the intricacies of the primitivist construction and the problems with my use of the term, particularly the set of stereotypes it evokes which have become fundamental to Western notions of the “other” and have been elaborated by Edward Said in his understanding of “orientalism.” Indeed, the primitivist tendencies of funk may be an example of a subordinate people appropriating an idea used by the dominant order to justify its power over them and playfully transforming it for themselves as a means of affirming the differences and worth of their own identity. In any event, the colloquial use of language in funk may be understood as part of this primitivism, as can the use of direct, raw and unsophisticated humor in funk. Even the construction of the legitimacy of the drug traffickers in proibidão may be understood as being related to the primitivist impulse of funk. In tribal orders, it is blood relations that make up the majority of the social bounds, as opposed to the more abstract theoretical considerations of Western political philosophy. The traffickers are the warriors of the tribal world of funk in which the authority of the dominant order is rejected and democracy and modernity themselves are questioned. Furthermore, the rough, throaty vocal delivery that has come to dominate the funk aesthetic is another example of the tendency toward primitivism in funk, as is the yelling and persistent call and response organization of songs. The percussive nature of the music, with its booming base and pounding drum beats is another element of funk’s primitivism, as is the frequent use of samples of the berimbau in funk, a sound which very directly harkens a this mythical Africanized tribal culture.

At the same time that funk operates within an anti-rationalist primitivism, it also embraces an urban aesthetic of life in an industrial civilization. According to Piers Armstrong, a cultural critic who has worked extensively with popular culture and music in Brazil, “Abrupt juxtapositions of the archaic and the modern are characteristic of many Third World societies, which undergo industrialization at a speed and rhythm more rapid than in the organic development of capitalist society in Western Europe and the US.” (171) Such appears to be the case regarding funk for despite the primitivist dimension of its aesthetics, funk music also flaunts its adoration of electricity and the quite recent technology of mixing boards, samplers and computers. The power of the enormous stacks of speakers is fundamental to funk, and at its heart is an infatuation with digital sounds, flashing lights, smoke machines and pyrotechnics. Globalization itself, one of the most obvious signs of the life in an industrialized, modern society, is embraced in funk. As mentioned above, funk self-consciously identifies itself with other big city musical styles, in particular American hip-hop and techno. That singers are often called “MCs” and songs referred to as “raps” is further evidence of the ties between funk and hip-hop. While the DJ of funk does not improvise to the degree of the hip-hop DJ, by spinning records, scratching, beat juggling or the like, he does create sample electronic beats and other sounds in the studio or on a computer to create the musical backdrop of funk. The funk DJ’s most creative act is perhaps the recording of the montagem, a montage of beats, samples and musical snippings that is quintessentially polyphonic in the way described by Mário de Andrade.18 Indeed, funk is a sort of musical Macunaíma in which the folk roots of the diverse mixture of everyday people in Brazil shift and change their character as they interact with the global influences of modernity, resulting in a personality that has “no character” even as its character is precisely the ability to create a hybrid culture for itself on the frontiers between Western rationalism and local primitivism. 19

To conclude this section, although there are suggestive similarities between the aesthetics of funk and the tendencies modernismo in Brazil, it is impossible to say to what degree the former can be considered as a part of the legacy of the latter. Perhaps the two cultural movements have arisen as the part of some deeper cultural trait of the Brazilian personality and society. Maybe the similarities between the spirit of modernismo and funk are the result of Brazil’s nature as something of a black Atlantic society, in this sense of Paul Gilroy’s ideas. On the other hand, perhaps their similarities can be better understood as examples of the tactics of resistance of subaltern populations facing situations of struggle against their domination by groups from without and the tendencies of the sorts of “cultures of making do” described by John Fiske in his theories of popular culture. Whatever the case may be, the two movements certainly entail suggestive implications as counter-cultural utopian practices and share a spirit of playful rebelliousness that make their similarities worth considering.

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