Polyphony in Tumbira, Amazon

This is an audio recording made during a supposed bird-sighting tour along a small igarapé (small, many seasonal, capillary tributary) in the Brazilian Amazon.

Right before the dawn of an early morning of August 2011, my wife and I left the village of Tumbira in a canoe for a tour of sunrise watching and bird-sighting. Tumbira is a small village of twenty one families, less than one kilometer up the Lago Tumbira (literally Lake Tumbira, but more like a bay) from the south bank of Rio Negro (black River, a major tributary of the Amazon River), almost two thousand kilometers from the Atlantic coast up the Amazon River.  After watching the magnificent sunrise on the wide water of Rio Negro, we went back from to Lago Tumbira and entered a small igarapé passing by the village. As we moved up along the igarapé, it became narrower and narrower, and the first sunrays shining increasingly outside were rather dimmed in here by the trees over our heads, as if the sun was hiding back rather than rising up. We had expected to sight some crepuscular animals, especially birds, of the Amazon jungle in this twilight. But we did not, except a couple of birds on treetops and two dolphins when back in the Lago Tumbira.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed this canoe tour a lot. We enjoyed so much just listening to the bird singing—although we could not see them—in the early morning quietness in this remote jungle. I believe even the best theater could not achieve such quietness for its concerts, while this symphony of bird singings was certainly better than any symphony I had ever heard. The only other sound was from the water wound up slowly by the paddle of our canoe and that running smoothly against the bottom of the canoe. It is so not a noise though; it was a rather agreeable reminder of my being in this environment and how blessed I was to be enjoying this serenity. I grew up in southeastern rural China and left my village when I was seventeen. Since then, I have been living in many cities and traveling to more over the world. Everywhere I have been, I hear noises 24 hours—even at midnight there are always traffic running outside my window or a fire truck or ambulance alarming from afar. If I miss the sound of birds singing and water running from the village life of my childhood; I guess I miss even more the undisturbed quietness as away from urban or modern life. I was so deeply enchanted with this igarapé symphony that our canoe turned back only when the igarapé was not navigable anymore.

When we returned to the village of Tumbira, it was about the breakfast time and the whole village was agitated again. As our canoe approached the village, people on the deck of a tourist boat at the village dock greeted us excitedly. I did not hear clearly what they were saying exactly until our canoe docked, because the diesel engine of their boat was quite loud. The boat belongs to a tourist company headquartered in Manaus, the largest city in Northern Brazil and in the whole Amazon region, less than one hundred kilometers down the Rio Negro. It was a quite big and luxurious boat, about 30 meters long with nice guest bedrooms and well-equipped kitchen. The boat engine ran twenty-four hours to generate electricity for the air conditioners and refrigerators on board.

People on the boat had known us because we had our meals together over these days in the same, and only, restaurant in the village. The restaurant is part of the only inn in the village, the Pousada do Tio Zé, named after the owner, a nice old gentleman who was a boat builder renowned in this region. This family inn was started recently and run by his son Roberto, also the president of this village.

My wife and I did not stay in this inn though; we stayed in a spare dormitory room of the middle school in the village. The school was built by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS, Fundação Amazonas Sustentável) in collaboration with the state government. It is part of the FAS compound in the village, which includes also a Health Post (Posto de Saúde) and a field office of FAS. FAS has been conducting projects of environmental conservation and sustainable development in this area delimited as the Rio Negro forest reserve. The facilities in the FAS compound receive students and patients from other villages of the forest reserve as well.

As electricity has become more and more an indispensable part of village life, so are diesel engine generators. The village inn and the FAS compound both have their own diesel engine generators. These two run usually from breakfast time to around ten at night every day. But the generator that made the first enlightening roar is the one provided by the municipal government for the village over ten years ago and shared by the whole community. It runs usually for only two hours in the evening when the most popular soap opera is on TV. These generators are all installed at the village fringe near or already inside the forest to reduce their high volume in the village. So when you are in one’s home or in the school, the generators are not disturbingly noisy, although their roaring is constantly in the background of the sound landscape of the village.

The noise of the generators is not really annoying, but it is not ignorable to me either. For one thing, my visit to this village was part of my ethnographic fieldwork. As a non-native speaker of Portuguese, I was always anxious about any background noise that may baffle my understanding of the conversation or compromise the quality of my interview recording. For another, intended or not, this trip was a personal expeditionary tour as well. I have been always fond of traveling afar since childhood. When the symphony of bird singing and water running was being played in the igarapé, it also raised questions to me. What was I here for? While I appeared to be pursuing my PhD in anthropology by doing research here, I think that I was also solving some childhood obsession with the Amazon jungle on the textbook of my geography class.  What kind of Amazon jungle had I expected? While I came to study FAS’s projects in the village of Tumbira and other forest reserves, I also found out in my heart the impulse of looking for a classical anthropological utopia of savage land untouched by the outside modern world.

The projects carried out in Tumbira by FAS are under a state program of forest conservation and sustainable development. This program is an early experiment with the United Nations mechanism of REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). According to this mechanism, a REDD program pays forest resident not to destroy forests  (for slash and burn farming for example) and sells the carbon credits granted by this conservation effort (considered as “reduced emission of CO2) to the global carbon markets. FAS has been experimenting with this mechanism in Tumbira and other forest reserves, and at the same time advocating for it worldwide. The payment in Tumbira actually includes only a token amount of cash to the village families, but involves large amount of investments in improving local infrastructure, such as school and Health Post, and in technical services to promote local sustainable development, such as sustainable harvest of brazil nuts and ecotourism.

Ecotourism emerged recently as a promising alternative to conventional local economic activities, mainly slash-and-burn farming and fishing, in Tumbira and other villages in this forest reserve. Slash-and-burn farming has been centuries long and largely still is the major economic production in many regions of the Amazon, but now considered as destructive activities to forests and contributor to global carbon emissions in the emerging international discourses of climate change. Commercial fishing used to be lucrative despite its heavy investment in fishing boat and machinery, but recently it has become less and less profitable because of the shrinking fish resource and increasing punishment on illegal fishing in reserved waters. Besides his father’s life long career as manufacturer of all kinds of boats, Roberto’s family used to be involved a lot in commercial fishing. While some of his family members are still struggling with fishing, he made the big move recently to ecotourism. The relative short distance from Tumbira to Manaus is a blessing for both the once prosperous fishery and the now emerging ecotourism. FAS’s projects, especially with its reserve-wide compound installed in Tumbira, has contributed to the inflow of outside visitors during the first two years of Roberto’s family inn, for example, the Google field team’s stay in the village during my visit.

In August 2011, the American IT company Google was carrying out its Google Earth Outreach project in Tumbira and nearby villages. A dozen of Google staff, mostly from Google-Brazil based in São Paulo and two from Google headquarter in California, plus a few domestic and international journalists, were stationed in Tumbira for this project. Roberto’s family inn was not capable to host all of them, thus the tourist boat at the village dock was rented to board a half. Nevertheless, what is more thrilling to people in the village including me was probably not this big troop of Paulistanos (Brazilian word for people from São Paulo) and gringos (Latin American word for foreigners especially for Americans), but their very exotic-looking tricycle-camera. It was a finely crafted tricycle with a Google’s logo and a thematic Google Map of urban streets on both sides of its small carriage (presumably with battery and other electric parts in it). A big 360 panorama camera was mounted on the tricycle to take full-angle “street” views of Tumbira. This tricycle-camera, wrapped as a whole in a huge wooden box, was air delivered from San Francisco directly to Manaus and then shipped on water from Manaus to Tumbira.

Google’s tricycle-camera has been the magic communicator that delivers panoramic street views worldwide to any computer screen connected to Internet. It captures the reality of other corners of the world and allows a new kind of global traveling for those who cannot afford the conventional kind or for those who simply enjoy the new experience. As Karin, the project supervisor from San Francisco, said, the project in Tumbira would take you into the middle of the Amazon and see this intact nature. As a collaborative project with FAS, it was also aimed to deliver the message that the Amazon forests are being kept intact by local people’s conservational efforts and the implied message that such conservational efforts are in need of outsiders’ support in the form of ecotourism or purchase of their carbon credits.

It really took some efforts to deliver such loaded messages, because the “streets” in Tumbira are so different from their counterparts in São Paulo or San Francisco that the tricycle had to run either on muddy trails or in the water of igarapés and tributaries. The frequent heavy showers in the Amazon make all the unpaved village roads muddy and full of dents, and then the heating tropical sun dries them into very rugged hard surface right away. No single person could actually ride a tricycle on these trails, so some extra young men were always needed to push the tricycle all day long. To make this tricycle moving, the tricycle “riders” sweat so much under the tropical sun that they had to stop frequently to drink bottles after bottles of iced water which were carried in a big ice box by additional staff. The tricycle “ran” much more smoothly in water, not on its wheels but on the roof of a boat. With nothing offensive or negative, I have to say this unique boat-tricycle-camera was one of the most exotic things that I saw throughout my fieldwork in Brazil. But it worked really well just as many other creative improvisations that Brazilians are often proud of.

The only regret was that it did not deliver the sound, as Karin lamented. I agree. This powerful camera could not record the birds singing in the jungle or the water running in the igarapés and tributaries which would vivify the lush Amazon jungle so much more than just pictures. But I am not sure if the global travelers of Google Earth would as appreciate the sounds of other things in Tumbira: the motor of the boat that carried the tricycle-camera, the generator of the FAS compound that supports FAS’s project operation, and the generators of the tourist boat and the village inn that played out the movement of ecotourism, the expected future of the village.

I sought for a solo of the nature, but I heard polyphony. Everyone—the forest, the villagers, FAS, Google and I—was there to play his/her own music, but all became players in a polyphonic mise-en-scène.

Posted in birdsong, Brazil, meta-mapmaking | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Bicyclists as Musicians, City as Acoustic Shell: Kagel’s “Eine Brise” in Los Angeles

Hi, I’m Adonia. My fieldwork investigates how bicyclists co-create public spaces. I lived in Los Angeles from 2008 to 2011. Just about two years ago, I received an invitation to participate in a concert with my bicycle. The Colburn School, a performing arts academy in downtown Los Angeles, was staging a performance of Mauricio Kagel’s “Eine Brise.” Kagel was a Argentine-German composer who wrote this piece in 1996 for…111 bicyclists, to be performed outside while riding past an audience. According to Jerry Grimshaw on Allmusic, Kagel often experimented with “instrumental theater” by incorporating musicians’ movements into his compositions.

I showed up at the appointed time and place, sometime after dark on Lower Grand in Bunker Hill. An artifact of the total demolition and re-grade of the Bunker Hill neighborhood in the 1960s, Lower Grand runs for a short distance underneath Grand Avenue near the Walt Disney Concert Hall and MOCA. I had biked and walked over Lower Grand many times without realizing it. It looked like a parking garage, and was filled with bicyclists. Each performer was given a number, a score, and a bicycle bell, and we shuffled about till it was time to rehearse. We would be whooshing, whistling, and ringing our bells as we rode past the audience outside the performance hall above us.

Another performer, YouTube user Mueslimorsels, documented our rehearsal. First, we practiced the specified whistle:

Then, we had to choose whether to whoosh or flutter our tongues:

Finally, and most magically of all, we practiced ringing our bells according to the score:

A performer with the YouTube handle Dickensb posted a video of our dress rehearsal on Lower Grand:

Bicycling through a city surrounds you with sound and encourages you to take advantage of acoustic possibilities like tunnels. Just around the corner from this this space is the 2nd Street Tunnel, a favorite route for group rides in LA. Here’s a video of January 2010’s Critical Mass by YouTube user Lakersalex:

Riding through that tunnel is so much fun. Flashing lights become disco hoops on the white-tiled walls, and the most mild-mannered hoot becomes a police siren. I think Kagel’s piece, by synchronizing our exuberance, exaggerates the individual sensuality of bicycling and makes it into a spectacle for onlookers. At the same time, I think that the individual performer experiences less of the high that can come from biking in the city. Some of the other performers I met were there because of their interest in music rather than urban cycling, and had driven to the site with bikes in their cars. Others were bike advocates I knew. I wondered how outlandish our performance would seem to spectators who had never tried bicycling in LA.

Mueslimorsels’ video shows the performers’ perspective:

And here is the spectacle as witnessed from the sidewalk, posted by Daneerod1:

I loved participating in “Eine Brise.” I do think, though, that the private thrill of biking under Bunker Hill wins out over the mannered performance of urban cycling for an audience up above.

Posted in Cities, Los Angeles, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Sacred Bells and Sparklers, San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel’s Bells

We had kept as good of a handle on time as we could as while sipping mescal negro. “Qual es lo más ahumado?” my sister had asked the bartender. “What’s the smokiest?” It bit like grappa. Sucking orange slices helped.

During dinner the ringing of church bells every half hour and the cracks and booms of fireworks had cemented our determination to find a Missa de Gallo (Literally, “Rooster Mass,” i.e. “Midnight Mass”).

In the plaza in front of San Miguel de Allende’s largest church, the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, children twirled long sparklers available for the rhyming price of “trés por diez.”  In the Jardin, at center of the plaza, a donkey and several sheep, lambs, and goats nuzzled and chewed on hay in front of the electrified nativity scene.

At 11:30 p.m. my sister and I returned to the the Parroquia. Nuns and families were streaming out of the church. We walked the opposite direction into the church. Incense and quietness. A dozen others prayed or snapped photos with cellphones. A few children received gift bags. The lights began to switch off in the church. We proceeded out through the side door, having missed the midnight mass that ended before midnight.

We bought sparklers from old, indigenous woman at the steps of the cathedral and “jousted” with each other, our swords spitting fire.

Posted in Mexico, sacred sounds | Leave a comment

Performing Plants

Guest contribution from garden designer and writer Honey Sharp:

When I first wandered into the The Conservatory of Mexican Plants at El Charco del Ingenio, an impressive botanical garden in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I was met not only by a vast panoply of cacti and other succulents native to the Sierra Madre, but by music as well. The soft, melodic, haunting sounds appeared to be emanating from a sitar.

Drawn towards the source of the sound, I discovered a sensuous wooden, handcrafted lute. But no one was playing.  Plants were. To be more specific, a small cacti within a 20 inch terracotta pot. To be even more specific, these were cucumber-sized Echinocereus pentalophus forming a circle around a spiky barrel shaped Echinocactus platyacanthus. Looking back towards the lute and perplexed by the lack of any visible movement on the strings, my eye was led to three yellow, blue and green wires buried into the gray rocky soil and also connected to the lute reclining on a stand covered with a small striped, peach-colored cotton fabric. An electric wire was connected to a small solar powered panel outdoors.

“Music for Plants” by Ariel Guzik, a Mexican artist and inventor, is a one-piece installation recently on view at El Charco del Ingenio, an extensive botanical garden in the Sierra Madre. It is known for its impressive collection of native plants, some previously rescued from the wild and on the endangered species list. Side by side with the current exhibition, “Land Art”, it offers an exciting, new take on environmental art à la Andy Goldsworthy. In this case, the work is “auditory sculpture.”

In his piece, Ariel Guzik, the founder of the Laboratory for Research in Resonance and Expression of Nature, features the central “performer” plant connected through a network of roots to electrodes inserted like acupuncture needles. The smaller surrounding cacti play a role as emitters to the lute. What I couldn’t see was the amplifier under the fabric.

Guzik’s mission is to create “an empathetic language, universal and direct, between human beings and their environment …to wake up in the collective consciousness a profound emotional understanding of nature.” The effect of the subtle sounds conveyed was certainly haunting.

In his title, “Music for Plants” one might notice the term  “for” and not “from” plants. Intrigued, I suddenly recalled my first experience upon hearing dolphins and whales communicating in recordings by Paul Winter back in the 1970’s. Here, in the Conservatory, we are also being asked to consider that plants might communicate through sound. Guzik calls the surrounding ones in the Conservatory “ambassadors.” Hmm… where do I fit in? I pondered.

Asking the opinion of a few others mammals such as an Englishman that had strolled in, he responded: “you have to see it to believe it.” And hear it. A friend used the word, “other worldly.” Others, such as two neurobiologists approached this phenomenon from a somewhat more skeptical angle.

As one of them, Alison Fleming, Ph.D. and Professor of Psychology and Research Chair in Neurobiology at the University of Toronto suggested: “It is not clear that the vibrations, clearly produced by electrochemical changes in the root systems, could generate enough energy to move the strings of the lute. It would be in any case impressive if the lute were indeed being used as a ‘speaker.’ It is all very mysterious and maybe it doesn’t have to be. I would much prefer knowing what is actually going on than thinking it magic,” she said with her sparkling, inquisitive eyes. As a professor who shares with her students how science reveals nature’s marvels, she felt learning more how the string vibrations create the music would add not detract but would add to our experience.

And so, where is the line between art and science? Does it matter?

It did to me. To learn more, I returned to interview Martita Garcia, the Curator of Mexican Succulent Plants at El Charco  (“small pool” in Spanish).  Shedding a ray of light on the subject, she explained that indeed an amplifier rests below the lute thereby enabling vibrations within the instrument.

What kind of symphony might occur if a larger group, say a chorus of plants, were all plugged in? On a smaller scale, she confirmed that different plants emit different patterns. Times of day matter too. If I understood correctly in my somewhat limited Spanish — not to mention scientific knowledge — louder and higher pitched sounds occur at night due to photosynthesis. Having absorbed and accumulated energy during the day, the plants convey more electromagnetic energy at night. Who would have thought? And where is the role of circadian rhythms?

Re-blooming Cacti

The biggest eye-opener however, occurred when Martha Garcia pointed out a few independent plants in the “audience.” Over the course of several weeks she had observed that a couple of these succulents were displaying visible physical changes. For example, one cactus had begun producing small pink flowers. Nothing strange here. It’s just that they had blossomed in the summer and were now re-blossoming, an unusual phenomenon at this time of year.

From here, I began to dig a little deeper. I discovered ongoing research on “plant perception” and “bio-communication.” For over a century, scientists and laypeople have been making experiments on how plants, on some level, may be sentient creatures despite their lack of a nervous system and a brain.

In the early part of the 20th century, a Bengali polymath, Chandra Bose, pioneered the study of remote wireless signaling. Also fascinated by plant physiology, he invented a “crescograph” (later perfected at Stanford University), that could show how various stimuli produce responses in plants — at times even expressed in visible physical changes.

Recently, I came across, “Do Plants Have Minds?” on NPR where Alva Noë, a philosopher at CUNY wrote: “There is, in fact, a substantial and developed scientific literature … on plant behavior and intelligence, a literature that sometimes goes under the heading ‘plant neurobiology.’”

Of course, a number of writers, artists and filmmakers have also been captivated by the mysteries of nature and “self-expression.” For example, Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Sound Machine,” deals with a scientist who develops a machine enabling one to hear the auditory expression of plants. Focusing on how plants “experience” pain, the device relayed the scream of roses being cut or the heart-breaking moan of a tree being felled.

Finally, I was reminded of The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. In addition, a documentary came out by the same name with the soundtrack, Journey through the Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder. With time-lapse photography we could see flowers opening, mushrooms expanding and vines twining.

Today, we have Ariel Guzik further inviting us into this vast world that explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual relations between plants and other plants, and, by extension, plants and animals such as humans.

laúd plasmaht Ariel Guzik from Ariel Guzik on Vimeo.

Posted in artscience, Mexico, natureculture | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A Sonic History at Rio Parada Funk

re-write/evolution of a post on Pirate Anthropologies.


Field Recording Rio Parada Funk (recorded on ZOOM H4n)

After the post-work beers Friday evenings, the Centro of Rio de Janeiro empties out. The most bustling district of streets packed with suits and secretaries, janitors and politicians, street vendors and tourists transforms into a temporarily abandoned zone. A handful of people sleep on large pieces of cardboard on the black and white cobblestone sidewalk in front of Brazil’s most monumental historic buildings. Years ago changing opinions about urban desirability, which vilified the center as dangerous and unclean, led to many moving to new, high security, gated condominiums in quasi-suburban neighborhoods like Barra and Recreio far from the center of the city. Guidebooks warn travelers to avoid the Centro during the weekend. The only time I felt fear in Rio–also about the only time I felt alone there–was walking the wide boulevards in Centro on a Sunday. One can hear pigeons cooing and the occasional car with tinted windows driving by. And, that’s about it.

This Sunday, however, muffled but loud bass reverberated from blocks away. I arrived at the first ever Rio Parada Funk a little past midday. There were 50 DJs, 40 MCs, ten equipes de som (sound teams, aka sound systems) and various dancers to perform between noon and 8pm. Workshops and lectures had run from 10 am to noon. An MC, who I knew, arrived with his wife by motorcycle the same time as I did. We all kissed dois beijinhos (two little kisses) on both cheeks.  “The entrance is this way,” he told me, so I  followed to the “insiders” entrance in the back and got a white “producer” wrist band. When I arrived a little after 12pm, speakers were still being stacked by young men who I was told hadn’t slept since assembling and disassembling the sound systems for Saturday night’s parties.

Ten sound systems with walls of between forty and one hundred stacked speakers–and one made of car sound systems– rumbled through funk’s history for over eight hours. The afternoon started with freestyle, electro, and Miami Bass, gradually moved to montages (montagens) mixing funk’s North American roots with Brazilian rapping, Candomblé drum rhythms, and sampled phrases from “Bang Bang” (Brazilian Westerns) movies, and ended with stripped down, beatboxed funk of contemporary “PC generation” of DJs, who create songs with “pirated” FL Studio, Sound Forge and Acid from loops exchanged over MSN. Perhaps because time tends not to flow linearly, the “epochs” of funk also circled back on themselves depending on the who was playing, how the crowd was reacting, and the particular equipe de som (literally sound team, aka sound system).

Around 2pm I excused myself from my friends to walk and record the Parada. I began at the oldest equipe, Soul Grand Prixe, at the corner of Rua Carioca and Avenida República de Paraguai and walked east towards the corner of Avenida Rio Branco. I walked through the dancing crowd past eight of the ten equipes which  lined the street, their little stages between their two big walls of sound. Big Mix and Furacão 2000, who dominate the Rio funk scene and economy, were set off from the other equipes. Their larger stages were on the plaza itself, closer to the main stage where the “headlining” acts performed from 6 to 8pm. At Cash Box and Big Mix–with each about 100 speakers–I could not stand near my friends DJ’ing. I am used to the bass which vibrates through my skin, chest, ribs. But the good quality of their speakers seemed to bring out a fuller range. The highs made my ears feel like they might bleed.

Yet, a week before Rio Parada Funk, the largest baile funk ever, Brazil’s Institute for Historical Patrimony and National Art (IPHAN) informed the press that they were going to veto its location in the historical epicenter of Rio de Janeiro. They claimed they were worried about the effects of the bass on the windows of century old buildings like the Municipal Theatre and the National Library. A few days earlier the event’s organizers had agreed to IPHAN’s volume limits. But this agreement didn’t satisfy IPHAN. And they required the Parada to move to a different, less elegant, more blue collar street also in Centro.

Yet the most popular street Carnival bloco, Cordão da Bola Preta, which last year had about 2 million participants, has marched without sound limitation for years along the same route.

By transforming the prestigious center of Rio into a ten sound system deep celebration, organizers of the Parada Funk would make a claim of the centrality of funk carioca and assert their rights to the city. In recent years violent police take-overs (called “pacification”) of favelas have resulted in the shutting down of many community bailes. The Parada’s taking over Rio Branco Avenue, the former route of the Carnival samba school parade, would have enacted and symbolically placed funk in the same trajectory as samba, from criminalized, poor Afro-Brazilian music to national rhythm.

A few days before the event, the location was moved once again–this time by the city–to a huge plaza closer to Rio Branco.

At pre-Parada meetings, organizers like Mateus, who produces the party Eu Amo Baile Funk, urged MCs and DJs not to talk to the press about prejudice against funk but to emphasize it as a celebration. An MC responded, “Funk is equal to samba. We’re here to show that funk is culture.” The Parada, which is the first major funk event to receive funding from the state–the Secretary of Culture–would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

The Parada marked the end of my dissertation fieldwork. It also brought together many of the friends, MCs, DJs, and sound system owners I had met through my research. Over that year, many had invited to their studios, homes and shows, had let me interview or tag along with them, had shared dinners and beers (at times laced with Red Bull). The Parada brought many of them to the same place at the same time.

During the day of the Parada, the crowd began to swell–different newspapers reported between 14,000 to 100,000–filling the plaza and nearby street. The mass of funkeiros dancing, listening, remembering and reenacting their sonic history affirmed the power of this changing rhythm and asserted its legitimacy within the city.

Posted in Brazil | 1 Comment

Mangueira, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Mangueira January 14, 2011 — Best listened to loud.

A few weeks ago, I heard that the police had invaded Mangueira early Saturday morning. My first thought was: the time when the weekly baile funk street party. One friend told me that people had known beforehand so the baile wasn’t happening. Another DJ, however, told me she had heard that the police had shot up some of the street sound systems.

Mangueira is more famous for being Rio de Janeiro’s most traditional samba schools—the only one to have three, yes, three saints. One block from the samba school, a narrow street became an open air baile funk every friday. “Funk Carioca” is Rio’s local electronic dance music. Although its roots are in Miami Bass and freestyle, funk now sounds more like Candomblé drum(machine) rhythms, machine-gun beatboxing, and stutter-rap in Portuguese. Mangueira’s baile was famous throughout Rio for its being four soundsystem deep. And deep bass and the freshest songs drew youth from all over. Teens from other favelas and blue-collar Zona Norte neighborhoods arrived crammed in vans. Taxis deposited upperclass “playboys” from the postcard-esque beach neighborhoods of Zona Sul.

All these bodies converged into one street lined with bars and stands selling beer, Red Bull, and fruity cocktails made with vodka or cachaça. After passing a few young men selling cheap joints and “lança de perfume,” which is supposed to create temporary auditory hallucinations, I entered the real crush of the party.

To move through the multitudes, everyone formed trains with their friends, grasping shoulders or waists and snaking through gaps between bodies, trying not to get separated. Whenever I was the last in the train, I usually felt a hand grab my waist or shoulder, to link our train’s lead. Progress was slow, dancing in place made the crush against others skin feel better.

Four soundsystems lined the street. As we inched up hill, the sound from the next sound system would grow, blending with the last. Dozens of speaker boxes created a wall on one side of the street, the DJ “booth,” a table with CDJs and a laptop faced the speakers on the other side of the street. A rumor had it that DJ’s here accepted tips, such as new DJ gear to debut new songs. Another rumor was that they wouldn’t play music associated with other soundsystems. When I interviewed a DJ from a soundsystem there, he denied the second rumor, “You can hear it. Everyone plays the same shit.” About the first rumor, he said, he didn’t know what other DJ’s did.

Alex MPC, a three year resident, at Mangueira‘s baile (start video at 1:03)

Putaria, songs about (heterosexual) hooking up, dominates funk. More often than lifting their hands into Cs and Vs for the criminal faction, Comando Vermelho, young men and women threw their hands up like a triangle whenever a song like Valesca Popozuda’s “My pussy é o poder” came on. But I hardly saw any kissing. And gender divided most of the crowd. Boys danced with boys, girls with girls.  Gay and trans-funkeiros seemed to enjoy more flexibility.

Shortly after the police invasion, newspapers announced that Manguiera would be the next favela to be “pacified.” That is, to be taken over and occupied by police with the idea of ending armed drug trafficking, in preparation for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. Newspapers and television reports repeated that with Mangueira pacified, the ring of pacified favelas surrounding Maracana soccer stadium would be complete.

In most of communities, pacification has meant the end of bailes funk. Head policeman now in command of communities have prevented or banned bailes. The association for Professionals and Friends of Funk, APAFunk, is fighting a political and legal battle for baile funk to return to pacified communities.

This sonic cartography of Mangueira no longer exists. Sounds always exist in passing, existing in and creating time. existing in and creating space. In this cradle of samba, a narrow street climbed uphill, curving slightly, several thousand sweaty bodies dancing or patrolling the street, absorbed and vibrated to the frequencies of four coexisting walls of music.

For Mangueira’s baile, in memoriam.

Posted in Brazil | 3 Comments