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COLUMN ONE

In Rio, Funk Is a Way of Life

The Brazilian music craze captures the contradictions of a city that seems both blessed and cursed. Giant dance parties are tied to crime by some, to social integration by others.

May 06, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dances are a volatile cocktail: the rival neighborhood groups, the pounding music, the cocaine and marijuana that some kids use to get cranked up for the night. It can get, to say the least, rowdy.

"Kids have died," says Rafael Carlantonio, 15. "I myself become violent sometimes. I can't explain it. Not only guys, the girls fight too."

The media and the police associate funk with the raging street crime that makes Rio one of the most violent cities in South America. There have been rumbles in which busloads of party-goers exchanged gunfire. In the toughest slums, it is no surprise that the drug lords control funk concerts as well as just about everything else.

But the promoters fight the stigma. Funk has unjustly become a code word for the poor, black and violent, DJ Marlboro says:

"They talk as if everything bad that happens is because of funk. The public perception has connected funk to drug trafficking and violence. There are 500 dances every weekend. Maybe 10 of them have problems. But those dances get all the attention, instead of the other 490."

Despite the events' size and the potential for disaster, the problems generally do not get worse than fistfights. Funk has bred a controlled and ritualized form of combat. At "corridor dances," galeras square off across a neutral zone patrolled by security guards, trading insults and punches.

Corridor dances have faded, outlawed by many promoters. Still, the idea of channeled combat survives. It evokes the Brazilian tradition of capoeira, a blend of dance and martial arts invented in the days of slavery.

"A rich kid can go to an academy and learn karate to channel his aggressions," says Jose Carles of Furacao 2000, a promotion company that produces a top-rated, "Soul Train"-type show for television. "A poor kid can't afford a gym. The dances are a place where they can blow off steam."

Funk culture has foreign and Brazilian roots. In the 1970s and 1980s, African American singers such as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone were popular among Brazilians of African and mixed-race heritage, who account for more than half the population.

But the rise of rap and hip-hop took its own path in Brazil. Instead of the big-name rappers from New York and the West Coast who dominate the airwaves in the United States, Brazilians were drawn to the more tropical, festive sound of artists based in Miami. The idols of Brazilian artists are relatively obscure singers from Miami such as Stevie B.

"The Miami sound is more melodic, more Latin," says DJ Marlboro. "Miami and Rio are culturally very similar."

Performers in the humble districts of Rio created a musical stew mixing U.S. bass and synthesizer sounds with fragments of samba and other Brazilian genres. At first they sang in English, mispronouncing with cheerful gusto. Refrains such as "Whoops! There it is!" became parodic nonsense verses in Portuguese.

The breakthrough came in the early 1990s: DJ Marlboro, whose real name is Fernando Luis Mattos da Matta, realized that listeners wanted lyrics in Portuguese.

The result was a modern-day example of antropofagia, a Brazilian cultural movement of the 1920s that espoused the melding of foreign and national art forms, according to Ribeiro, the architect. "Marlboro perceived the advantage, the opportunity to sing in Portuguese," he says. "Funk became something that everyone was singing."

The words and attitude were quintessentially Rio. Despite the desperate conditions in which millions of its inhabitants live, the city's festive, sensual spirit shapes its music. Funk artists sing about their neighborhoods, parties, romance.

Even songs about police brutality or poverty, Ribeiro says, "lack the aggressiveness that characterizes the rappers in Los Angeles or Sao Paulo," Brazil's biggest city and industrial capital, where a fledgling school of performers imitates hard-core U.S. rappers.

Because funk has a huge market and is cheap and easy to perform, it has caused a street-level entrepreneurial revolution. Everybody wants to be a disc jockey.

In the favela of Vigario Geral, a teenager named Andrea brightens when asked about funk. He pulls a cassette from his pocket. It contains a primitive tune produced by his cousin, an aspiring artist who raps about a police raid in the neighborhood. Other deejays compose songs glorifying drug lords, hoping the flattery will get them spots in concerts financed by gangsters.

The dreams are inspired by the home-grown origin stories of songs such as "I Am Crazy." It started when a shoe salesman leaped onstage during a wild moment at a dance and bellowed into the microphone "I am crazy." His voice had a hoarse power that caught the ear of the disc jockey, who mixed the words over a beat. A hit was born.

The title has worked its way into everyday speech in Rio; the song plays at soccer games to pump up the fans. The shoe salesman hired a couple of flashy backup dancers and went into show business.

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