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Friday, December 20, 2002

++ Electronic Music, São Paulo-Style, Part One

São Paulo, Brazil — It's Thursday night, the table in front of us is cluttered with empty beer bottles, and I can barely keep my eyes open. It's hardly any wonder I'm exhausted: I've just arrived in São Paulo about 12 hours earlier, after a day and a half of travel. Having spent a sleepless night folded into economy class seats, I'd been ready for bed as soon as I checked into my hotel, but my host, Marcos Boffa — an event promoter who's invited me here for a weekend of concerts and panels on independent hip-hop — had other plans, and we've been on the go since I touched down. The afternoon has been a blur of cab rides, overcrowded subways, and pedestrian passageways clogged with vendors selling everything from bootlegged Eminem CDs to plastic Christmas trees.

In São Paulo, a city of some 15 million (up to 20 million if you count the urban sprawl around the city limits), chaos — the sickle-cell logic of an ingrown city — is expressed architecturally. Charming two- or three-story buildings from mid-century cower beneath brand-new, 50-story monstrosities. From the roof of my hotel, one of those gleaming beasts lording over humble homes nestled below, there are only buildings, buildings, buildings, as far as the eye can see in every direction. (A cab driver tells me that in the middle of the night, when traffic is at its lightest, it takes three hours to drive across the city, from end to end.)

Façade after façade drips in graffiti — not the elegant, explosive murals of international hip-hop culture (though those can be found here as well), but ugly, angular tags marking gang turf. The local custom favors cuneiform-styled lettering and cramped symbols that only initiates can understand. Everywhere there's a ledge, there's a tag, and sometimes the crude pictographs sprawl across even seemingly inaccessible surfaces. Spray-paint tattoos rise as high as the third story, and faded bruises of text spread out even under the eaves.

According to Boffa, gang members not only mark their turf but photograph their markings, meeting with rivals in neutral territory and comparing portfolios to determine whose tags reach higher. It seems a strangely virtual form of competition, but as I mull over this odd (if apocryphal) custom later that night, lying awake in the darkness, I'm struck by the thought that rap's recorded boasts and putdowns offer the same kind of mediated battle. Perhaps, in the iconography of guerrilla creation, if the marker approximates the mic, then here the Polaroid circulates in the manner of the recorded disc?

++ Any visit to a new city is an exercise in strangeness, but by the wee hours I'm worn out from the slow, relentless defamiliarization. No landmark sticks out in my mind; I have no conceptual map of the city whatsoever. I couldn't tell you where my hotel is if my life depended upon it. The graffiti isn't the only strange language: I can make my way through Portuguese on paper, but the speech around me melds into a blur of diphthongs and mushy consonants.

For our meeting this afternoon with an Argentine producer and his friends, Spanish has been our lingua franca, and even my thoughts trip over tangled cognates. But confronting this challenge is part of the reason for being here: all of us are interested in developing something like a Pan-American consciousness. We are obsessed with righting geo-cultural imbalance and with piercing cultural opacity. We are grassroots globalists.

Boffa, a promoter, has brought down American acts from Fugazi to Cat Power; but none of the Brazilian hip-hop artists he works with have played in the U.S. Sebastián Carreras, from Buenos Aires, plays in the band Entre Rios and throws events in his home city, but none of the Brazilian tours have ever crossed into Argentina, and vice-versa — an illogical-seeming state of affairs that stems from the cultural divide between the two countries. (Another Brazilian, a record producer, argues that the divide is a legacy of Operation Condor, the joint effort of the former military dictatorships of Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, which not only provided the respective governments a means of hunting down dissident citizens who had fled to neighboring countries, but also succeeded in preventing resistance groups from organizing across borders.)

This communications failure is our first target. We troubleshoot international booking; we plot Pan-American techno tours. Electronic music, hip-hop, and, yes, even rock music are our tools, our true lingua franca. Our idealism, for once, feels grounded: just today Lula, Brazil's much-anticipated president-elect ("Agora é Lula!" say the bumper stickers) has announced that he is considering Tropicalia pioneer Gilberto Gil for the cabinet position of Minister of Culture.

++ For all the unfamiliar input, by the time we're inside Club Love, something old and cozy hits home: the sound of drum 'n' bass. The jungle scene is reportedly thriving in Brazil — DJs Marky and Patife, both junglists, are two of the only electronic-music producers to have become internationally known, in fact. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the form has taken root here: drum 'n' bass's rapid-fire cadences make an easy fit for samba's rollicking syncopations. But this DJ is playing smooth, padded drum 'n' bass, the kind of ambient fare typical of labels like Good Looking; his set is full of sweeping chord washes and a tonal palette so uniform it might be one record.

Shortly after midnight, when we arrive, the club — done up in lava lamps in the style of the Summer of Love — is sparsely populated, but by 1 a.m. it's full of dancers. Despite drum 'n' bass's reputation for being "lad music," the crowd is fairly equally divided between men and women. (San Francisco's jungle scene, it should be noted, also draws a large proportion of women.) Everybody dances. No one poses, no one skulks. Women dance in pairs, or with men, or in groups. Everyone, men and women alike, looks good — this is Brazil, after all — but it's a casual crowd. There's nary a hint of glam — nor menace, nor meat-market. It's a middle-class crowd, and while most of the DJs and their crew are black, the crowd is much lighter-skinned. (I note these details as I'm here in part to study São Paolo hip-hop, and one of my questions is how race and the genres of traditionally "black music" intertwine in Brazil, a radically mixed culture.) The attire amongst the men runs to traditional junglist fashion: baggy jeans, trainers, baseball caps clamped down low.

The room is packed with 300 or 400 people by the time the first DJ finishes his two-hour-plus set. Accompanied by the shouts of the crowd, his successor opens with horn blasts that break radically with the first jock's smoothness and tears into a rousing set of jump-up, complete with rewinds and heavy cross-cutting. The crowd goes wild: even though it's hardly "traditional" Brazilian music, this is clearly their sound.

When we leave at 3 a.m. it's still going off, and for the duration of the cab ride home and then lying in bed in my hotel room, suddenly unable to sleep, I puzzle over the question of provenance in a globalized world. Who owns this stuff? How did British dance music get to Brazil in the first place? Is this the music of the Black Atlantic, as Kodwo Eshun would have it, or is global youth culture deracinated in more ways than one — not just rootless, but raceless?

I flip on the TV, despite my burning eyes. A blonde Brazilian VJ is introducing the next video: Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet," a clip I last saw in Vienna, only weeks ago. I hit the remote and the screen goes dark. Along the hills somewhere in the inscrutable distance, pinpricks of light flash along the skyline in a rippling, impossible-to-score syncopation. Diffuse in the humid air, the explosions are like an energy field blanketing the city, and lulled by white noise of traffic and tinnitus, I sleep at last.

To be continued.


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