Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Super Classics of Funk Carioca: Injeção

"'Ai, ai... When I go to the doctor´s. I´m feeling a little ache. Why don´t you give me an injection? Prick me doctor! Injections hurt when they enter, they rub when they enter. Oh my God, doctor, my butt can´t bear any longer.' - It was listening to this music that I became funkeira... This is the first lesson I learnt with funk carioca: it´s not for dullards or for anyone who takes themselves too seriously."

That was journalist Claudia Assef explaining how a hard-core paulista sees the light of funk carioca, on the sleeve-notes of Mr.Bongo´s Slum Dunk presents Funk Carioca-compilation. Released on 2004, it was one of the first vinyl releases of funk distributed worldwide. The song she is talking about is "Injeção" - "Injection" - by Deize Tigrona, a former housecleaner originally from São Conrado in Rio on her way to funk-superstardom.

It is a prime example of putaria funk - songs devoted to extremely dirty, explicitly sexual lyrics. If a putaria song has any (hardly covered) double-sentiment, like Injection, it´s just for the sake of funny, ironic symbolism: metaphor here is not meant to hide the sexual content, but rather makes the song much more entertaining than a mere explicit description of sexual intercourse would have been. And while often tiresome, the best of putaria songs, like Deize´s tune, manage to be not just naughty, but also funny, clever and even liberating.

Deize Tigrona: Injeção (zShare)

Today, Deize Tigrona, 29, is married - to funk DJ Raphael - and a mother of three children. September´s issue of the Brazilian Rolling Stone ran a small interview of the artist, where she seems to feel slightly restricted by the conventions of putaria funk and explains how working with electro funk and artists like Diplo or Buraka Som System allow her more creative independence. "My daughter is already asking a lot of questions", she comments on dirtier funk lyrics.

In a way Injeção became world-famous when Diplo sampled the song for M.I.A's first hit "Bucky Done Gun". Indeed, Deize Tigrona seems to be one of the most in-demand MCs in the global funk scene. Currently she´s been singing for Buraka Som Sistema, the portuguese kuduru act, and laid down lyrics for a number of releases for Berlin´s Man Recordings, including the 7" single "Bandida" with Diplo. "Now I can make lyrics with more content, more quality", Deize explains to Rolling Stone, clearly tired but happy about the global success that has given her a chance to tour all around the world.

As a bonus and small demonstration of new directions for Deize Tigrona, here's a song by Lisbon-based producer DJ Manaia. See also his blog and the original Discobelle-post for additional Manaia-goodies.

DJ Manaia: Sobrevivente do Rave (feat. Deize Tigrona) (a direct link, via Discobelle)

Note: I don´t feel very happy about posting a song from a compilation that is still available world-wide. Yet - to white-wash my conscience a bit - I feel that it´s such a fine selection of great funk carioca-tunes from a bunch of central artists in the game that if you like the Deize Tigrona-song, you absolutely have to go and buy the whole album. So shoo, go get it now, clickety click.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lens Politica

Third Lens Politica, a festival for political film, is organized November 19th – 23rd in Helsinki. The whole programme (well, almost whole programme) is now available on the festival website.

Festival opens with extremely interesting What would Jesus Buy? (19.11. 18:00 Kiasma-theatre, 21.11. 21:00 Andorra) Without further ado, just take a look at the hilarious trailer and see for yourself. The director of the film Rob VanAlkemade and the main characters Reverend Billy and Savitri D will also visit Helsinki as guests of the festival.

Another key film is Full Battle Rattle (2007) by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss (22.11. 21:30 Andorra). Quoting the website, "the film tells about the training in an American war simulation village, Medina Wasl. The American soldiers practise for the war in Iraq in very surreal surroundings built in the middle of California."

More related to this blog might be the screenings with the themes New Eyes on Cuba and Venezuelan Contemporary Cinema. There will also be a panel discussion on the topic "New film and political landscapes in Latin America" with Venezuelan filmmaker Willmer Perez and Cuban director Manuel Perez Paredes.

The Lens Politica-exhibitions, spreading all over the city, showcase political fine art ranging from videos and photography to sculpture and environmental art. Exhibitions are open 20th to 30th of November. Group exhibition (Galleria FAFA, Lönnrotinkatu 23) features The Divided City, my selection of images from Rio de Janeiro. Other interesting works - just to mention a few - should be Sacha Huber´s Rentyhorn (you might also want to sign the Rentyhorn petition here) and Elena Kovylina's video installation Dying Swans (Kaiku Galleria, Kaikukatu 4).

Lens Politica in Internet
Festival website

Monday, November 3, 2008

Super Classics of Funk Carioca: Rap do Borel

When Carlos Eduardo Cardoso da Silva left the favela of Borel at age of 11 for neighbourhood of Santa Cruz, he was crying. "I swore that I will return to Borel", he told to journalist Silvio Essinger in the book Batidão - Uma Historia do Funk.

No only did he return: he confessed his love for his home in a funk song that put Borel on the map for every kid sweating it out on the floors of Rio´s bailes. Carlos would become known as Duda do Borel, the other half of duo William & Duda, men behind funk hit "Rap do Borel" (aka "Rap da Liberdade").

Carlos moved back to his beloved Borel at age of 19. He wanted to become a football star, but broke his leg in while playing and decided to leave these dreams behind. In Borel, he met an old friend, William Santos de Souza, who convinced him to instead step on the stage and start singing funk.

"Rap do Borel", distributed on casettes around the community, was a hit before the duo even performed it in the local bailes for the first time. Grandmaster Raphael from the legendary sound system Furacão 2000 broke the song for all the Rio through the Furacão's radio show and it was then released on Pipo´s "Volta do Homem Mau"-compilation. Eventually "Rap do Borel" became one of the three classic funk hits of 1995 that propelled the genre into the Brazilian mainstream media. (Other two I have covered in this blog earlier - see articles on "Rap das Armas" and "Rap da Felicidade.")

Fame quickly followed, including performances on TV Globo, "the CNN of Brazil", and even a remix for pop-rock star Lulu Santos. But like so often, success, fame and cash also brought the hardships. First came problems with the manager and personal disputes between William and Duda followed, leading to the breaking up of the duo. "We were like a family, I feel he started to see much money and lost his head", Duda laments in Batidão.

Borel até morrer

Borel até morrer - Borel till you die, rather freely translated. This is what the song is all about, the pride over one´s community. "Rap do Borel" is a celebration of the good will and friendship between the residents of the community: "The most humble hill in big barrio of Tijuca / for my friends, we all are friends / there it´s like a family". (1.)

But the song later takes on a darker tone, lamenting the friends lost to violence. "Lots of friends went to heaven / that´s why William and Duda ask peace for the Hill of Borel / we came to sing, to remember / a little the friends who went, never to return / since our world is blue like sky". (2.) And to conclude, the song also lists other fine favelas to give them a shout-out.

In a way the lyrics are very typical for this genre of funk songs. Very similar song is "Rap da Rocinha", by MC Galo. First, the praise for the home favela, then plea for peace, list of parts of favela and finally some love to a number of other communities. Naive? Perhaps, but I still find these songs very touching in their own way and their simple message is a highly important one: a change for better starts with self-confidence and pride over where you come from and who you are.

A Rolling Stone

When the duo broke, Duda felt crushed. Who convinced him to continue his career was a young up-and-coming MC by the name of Mr.Catra, now a legendary funk MC himself: "Duda was desperate, he was saying that he was not going to sing anymore, that life was at end... So I said: 'Get up!'"

And get up he did. Duda is still working hard, one of the most respected veterans in the funk game of Rio de Janeiro. He has even travelled all the way to Finland to rock the show, thanks to DJ Rideon (read all about Duda´s very succesful Finnish invasion here). His funks are still highly socially concious, as "Rap do Guerreiro" from a few years back demonstrates: "Look at the kid growing / looking for work but not finding / two years later look at the kid / on the hill carrying an AK." (3.)

Rideon describes Duda´s incredible stage prencence pretty perfectly after witnessing him live in January 2007: "Duda is a huge, playful man, reminded me of Biz Markie because of his size and character. He was really taking his singing to another extent with grouwling, shouting, moaning and barking. He was constantly moving around the stage bouncing and he really got the crowd going. It seemed like everybody knew the lyrics and were singing along." (Rio Baile Funk: I Love Baile Funk at Circo Voador)

William e Duda: Rap do Borel (zShare)

As a bonus (and as a sort of an apology for bad sound quality of the previous file), here´s another classic song by the same duo:

William e Duda: Rap da Morena (zShare)

- - -

1) "O morro mais humilde o bairro Tijucão / porque meus amigos nós somos todos irmãos / lá é como uma família"

2) "Foram muito amigos que foram pra o céu / por isso William e Duda pede a paz pro Morro do Borel / viemos cantar, para poder lembrar / um pouco dos amigos que se foi pra nunca mais voltar / pois o nosso mundo é azul igual o céu"

3) "Olha o moleque crescendo / procurando emprego mas sem encontrar / olha dois anos depois o moleque / no morro portando um AK"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mad Decent meets Cumbia

Diplo´s wonderful record label Mad Decent announced signing Toy Selectah from Monterrey, Mexico, to their roster. As the label describes him, Toy is an icon in Mexican music. He produced one of the first and biggest hip-hop acts in the country with Control Machete back in the '90s, moved on to A&R - direct for the biggest latin acts on Universal - and revived the Mexican cumbia scene with live DJ-sets around the world.

Toy Selectah is putting out his 12" on Mad Decent in January with his crew Sonidero Nacional under the new title Cumbias Machine. While digging into my song archives, I ran into the following Sonidero Nacional remix of Mexican pop princess Julieta Venegas´ song "Eres Para Mi". The remix fuses pop, reggaeton and cumbia into something called... cumbow? (Should such title leave you puzzled, let a professional musicologist shed some light on the issue.)

Julieta Venegas - Eres Para Mi (Sonidero Nacional Cumbow remix feat. Anita Tijoux and Sonidero Nacional) (zShare)

After that Toy Selectah´s official remix of Calle 13´s new single almost feels like a natural move. Calle 13 is one of the most progressive reggaeton acts hailing from Puerto Rico. Group´s previous albums took the Latin America by a storm and the third one is about to drop. Here Calle 13 manage to write a love song that has the group's trademark wit and dryish humour, yet is kinda touching at the same time.

Calle 13 - Nadie Como Tu (Toy Selectah Raverton remix feat. Café Tacuba) (direct link, via Mad Decent)

And finally Toy´s somewhat unique take on Chromeo´s Fancy Footwork.

Chromeo - Fancy Footwork (Toy Selectah Raverton remix) (zShare)

(Read more from Mad Decent´s blog.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yes, we are back.

After months of silence, I am working on taking this blog back on-line. Especially a lot of articles on funk carioca are right on their way. Meanwhile, a few free goodies for anyone interested in how is that experimental cumbia stuff doing. Pretty well, apparently.

The grand ol´ men of experimental cumbia in Buenos Aires, ZZK Records, have put on-line a nice selection of mix-tapes from the biggest names in the city: Villa Diamante, Chancha via Circuito, El Remolon and my favourites, the Mendozan "digital cumbia ragga dancehall" duo Fauna (mixed by Daleduro). Also grab the new Fauna song Los Piratas del Zanjon (Zurita Mix) for free. And congratulations to Zizek for club´s second anniversary - and November 2008 European Tour!

Cabeza! is a net label offering digital cumbia (and anything related, from hip-hop to dancehall), on-line, all for free. In their own words, they want to invite you to have a taste of sounds that are nothing less than "super-original, incredibly tasty and finely selected. Danceable in any moment and any place on planet. Rhythms with seal of quality." So give 'em a try and go get that stuff!

And if that isn´t enough cumbia for you, or you want to get your hands on something more physical, Bay Area´s Bersa Discos are there for you. Their third EP is out, this time featuring Chancha via Circuito and DJ Panik. The EP is again getting a lot of love from Turn Table Lab and is available in other selected on-line stores too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cinemaissí 2008

Cinemaissí 2008, a film festival for Latin American and Caribbean films starts today in Helsinki.

Films featured include Jose Padilla´s Elite Squad (22.10 18:30 Kino, 24.10. 21:25 Kino, 25.10 18:45 Kino and 27.10. 19:00 Bio Rex), or Tropa de Elite, the controversial Berlin Film Festival winner featured in this blog earlier - and a fine pick of other very interesting films.

Just to mention one, I could recommend Argentinian documentary Trelew (26.10 18:45, Dubrovnik). The film is a story about a failed espace attempt from a political prison during the Dirty War, the darkest chapter of the country´s history and one of central themes in Argentinian Cinema.

The rest of autumn will not be bad for film freaks either. Lens Politica, a festival for political films, is arranged in Helsinki again, so keep an eye on this site. Part of the festival will be an exhibition in Gallery FAFA of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, featuring a selection of my photos from Brazil.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Border Crossings: Bogotá

29 stencils and pieces of graffiti from the gritty streets of Bogotá, Colombia, are now available here for your eyes. Read more about the Border Crossings-project in the earlier post.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Cumbia Invaders

The finest of the experimental cumbia scene of Buenos Aires, Zizek, toured the North America and have clearly left their mark. A lots of blogs are writing about cumbia and there's this article on subject in URB and another one in The Fader. And XLR8R put out a mix-tape by Villa Diamante, the master-mind behind a lot of what´s happening in the cumbia movement down in Buenos Aires. Up in north Bersa Discos have released their second vinyl EP of experimental digital cumbia already a while ago - and while at the store, you probably should get this collection from Zizek's ZZK Records too. Equally curious are the rumours of some strange mergings of reggaeton and cumbia going on in between the Americas - read more here.

So cumbia just might be slowly invading the northern hemisphere too. It´s been a long trip from the beaches of the Caribbean Colombia via the suburbs and villa miserias of Buenos Aires, but apparently it´s far from over.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Few Old Mixtapes

To end my vacations for good and to put some action into this blog, a couple of old mixtapes. The first is a mix of tango songs, from old classics to electronic fusion things. It's a very basic introduction, and thus includes loads of basic classics like La Cumparsita. The mix also features number of songs by Astor Piazolla, but none of them played by the maestro himself, just to show the importance of his work.

El Corazón Mixtape vol. 1 (zShare)

Second one was made over a year ago. It was a quick promo-mix for a club called We Try Too Hard, that never became reality, in a bar called Siltanen, that, I guess, never opened it's doors either. It contains hot songs of that time. Some of them are almost nostalgic already, some are just plain over-played. But I post it as the range of the styles on the mix - from baile funk to baltimore and R'n'B, from electro pop and blog house to kuduro - in a way serves to illustrate the focus, or lack of thereof, of this blog.

We Try Too Hard presents: Ruffmixxx 1 (zShare)

And here are covers for the mixes (click on images to enlarge):

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Color Trilogy

The Color Trilogy is a short photo essay on the Bolivarian revolution-movement in Venezuela. It's a small trip into Hugo Chavez´s bizarre mixture of furious nationalism, militant populism, erosion of democracy, dreams of La Gran Colombia, fancy for old-fashioned communism - and perhaps, on the bottom of it, a bit of genuine social progress.

Simon Bolivar was a legendary figure in South America's independence struggle, highly admired in every Spanish-speaking part of the continent and made into something of a figurehead by Chavez for his government. Bolivar can be seen revered in Venezuela along with the characters such as Ernesto Guevara and Fidel Castro. Worth noting is also the resurrection of Bolivar's plans of La Gran Columbia, a union of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Illustrating the shared history of the three countries, the same three colors are shared by the almost identical flags of the three.

View The Color Trilogy as a slideshow.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Can a Playboy do the Funk?

The last saturday, May 24th, Eu Amo Baile Funk - a monthly funk carioca-event in Circo Voador - celebrated it´s second birthday. The bigger stars like Tati Quebra Barraco, Menor do Chapa, Galo and Duda do Borel shared the stage with loads of up-and-coming artists: DJs, MCs, dancers and even VJs. In other words, something for everyone and something happening on the stage all the time.

The crowd of the event was curiously different from the one dancing to the funk in the community bailes. Girls from better neighbourhoods were drifting around on their high heels, clinging to Luis Vuitton-handbags, and playboys were playing it cool, carrying caipirinhas to their ladies, white Air Force Ones shining in the night. The scene was more reminiscent of the Sao Paulo Fashion Week than a saturday night in Rocinha. This is hardly surprising as the tickets to the event at the gate would set you back 40 reais, over 15 euros, something that a few favelados can afford.

But then again, who am I to complain - which would be completely besides the point of the whole event anyway. Funk for everyone: Forget the class borders and take consolation in the hope that certainly some of those 40 reais (20 for those who have a student card) we paid to get in would trickle down to the actual artists. Everyone did certainly enjoy the show and as the evening wore on, the patricinhas and marcelinhos were shaking their butts on the sweaty dancefloor like any favelado. Happy birthday, Eu Amo Baile Funk. Todo mundo ama baile funk.

Here are a few rather random tunes from the evening's artists. Tati Quebra Barraco, the big bad girl of funk carioca, was already featured in this blog. Menor do Chapa is, ironically enough, a prohibidão-artist singing the praise to the Commando Vermelho. Duda do Borel is the second half of the legendary duo William & Duda from the favela of Borel, more on whom later. Their tune Rap do Morena, below, is a somewhat classic song. Duda is one of the biggest and most charismatic stars on the scene, a proper old schooler, and has performed even in Finland - see for yourself.

Menor do Chapa: Eu tô Boladão (zShare)
Tati Quebra Barraco: Sequência do Entra e Sai (zShare)
William & Duda: Rap do Morena (zShare)

You can read more about Eu Amo Baile Funk from DJ Rideon´s fine report, and Finnish-speakers also enjoy this little clip they made. Or take a look at the event's page in

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Super Classics of Funk Carioca: Rap das Armas

All the guns of favela

Guns I encounter when I walk up the hill, through a maze of buildings hastily constructed of red brick, while dodging the moto-taxis wheeling past: pistols and revolvers are carried on belt even when not on guard duty. Uzis go past every now and then. The definitive weapon of choice is an assault rifle, typically an AK-47. Hand grenades don´t seem to be carried around on a regular basis but are used in combat situations. Sniper rifles are not visible either, they are positioned on the top of the favela, from where they can be used without being seen, in case of a police invasion or an attack by an enemy faction. I carry my groceries past the guns with down turned eyes, without daring to look at the traficantes guarding the close-by boca-de-fumo, leisurely leaning over their huge weapons. I wonder how long it will take to get used to the sight, and if I ever get used to it, is that a good or a bad thing?

Rap das Armas starts with Junior and Leonardo singing "My Brazil is a tropical country / The land of funk, the land of carnaval / My Rio de Janeiro is a postal card / But I´ll be talking about a national problem". In the background we can hear blasts of firearms. Then the duo goes on, "pa ra-pa pa-pa-paa-pa-paa", imitating the sound of a machine gun. The song continues:

"Metralhadora AR-15 e muito oitão / A Entratek com disposição / Vem super 12 de repetição / 45 que ´um pistolão / FMK, m-16 / A pisto UZI eu vou dizer para vocês / Que tem 765, 762 e o fuzil da de 2 em 2 ... vem pistola Glok, a HK / vema intratek Granada pra detonar / vem a caça-andróide e a famosa escopeta / vem a pistola magnum, a Uru e a Bereta / colt 45, um tiro so arrebenta e um fuzil automático com um pente de 90"

Selective misunderstandings

You don´t need to understand Portuguese to realize that it is a list of guns. The song also mentions the Commando Vermelho slogan "paz, justiça e liberdade". Back in the beginning of 90´s, all this made the media do the math: "a glorification of crime", the favourite slogan of all the witch-hunts against the certain genres of popular music in Brazil. "Written by Leonardo and Júnior, well-known brothers from the Valão area of Rocinha, the hit underwent a major process of vilification by the media in the mid-nineties connecting them to the drug underworld. As a result, the Rio police constantly harassed the brothers as they came in and out of the favela, despite the fact that their song was never intended to promote the drug gangs and that their own older brother is a police officer in the Polícia Militar", sums up Paul Sneed the controversy around the song in his often quoted Machine Gun Voices.

This is what the media chose to ignore: the brothers also sing "In this country everyone knows / The favela is dangerous, bad place to live in / and is much criticized for the whole society / But there is violence in every corner of the city / because of the lack of education, the lack of information" and the song ends in the sentence "Say no to violence and let the peace reign."

Ironically enough, the conscious content of the songs was also the duo's weakness, according to Silvio Essinger's book Batidão - Uma Historia do Funk (Record, 2005): "...after four years of struggle, Junior and Leonardo decided it wasn't possible anymore to live of music. Both bought a taxi... funk would stay as sporadic activity, in the circuit of few bailes in the city who were interested in conscious funk, based on lyrics, which, in the end, they knew how to write." And I suppose a little has changed today - still remeber Dança de Creu?

Laws of silence

Residents of favelas are not happy to talk about violence. There is one extreme of presenting violence in media, that of films like City of God. Here the media portrays just the flip-side of the coin, favelas packaged in an exiting, violent form and sold to the western markets. "Most people in the community did not see the film because they can't afford the cinema, and the ones that did see it didn't like the fact that it showed only the negative side of life. It suggested that everyone in the favelas is black, violent and ready to be judged", commented MV Bill on the film to The Guardian in the article already quoted in this blog. "After the film came out, people from City of God would go into town for their jobs as maids and cleaners as usual... Their bosses would sack them when they discovered that they were from somewhere so horrible." Despite City of God being one of the most important films in the history of Brazilian cinema both artistically and financially, MV Bill has a point.

But equally disturbing is the silence of favelas. In book Notícias da Favela (written by Christiane Ramalho, Aeroplano Editora, 2007), the story of Viva Favela-portal, Regina Novaes, the anthropologist behind the Favela Tem Memória, asks how can there be any social memory in a space ruled over by 'the law of silence'. She reminds how, according to the anthropologist Michel Pollack, the society only started constructing the history of nazism when the Jewish themselves were able to discuss their suffering. This is what makes it important that Junior and Leonardo are talking about the national problem.

Viva Favela, by the way, is a very interesting project well worth checking out if you can read Portuguese. Aim is to build an Internet-based media for favelas and so far Viva Favela has been very succesful, every now and then making waves also in the Brazilian mainstream media. While the stories are written under the guidance of professional journalists, all the stories in the portal are by "correspondents" living in favelas.

Pages of a history book

But back to our tune of the day. The extremely famous song was a great hit back in the day and is heard everywhere again after being included on the soundtrack of Tropa de Elite. Despite the controversy, along with the duo´s other hit Endreço de Bailes, Rap de Armas brought them chance to grab a full-lenght record with Sony Music, De Baile em Baile. Together with Cidinho & Doca (of whom we've talked earlier) and William & Duda, they were pioneers building the road of funk into the record industry.

Much has been written on it, but I still decided to post the song, as it is made here in Rocinha, catches a part of reality of favela so well, has a huge historical importance and finally, the guys who made it just happened to live right next to Fundação Dois Irmãos.

Junior e Leonardo: Rap das Armas (zShare)

And as a bonus, a track that is in many ways an opposite of Rap das Armas. The song is a prohibidão funk describing the change of power in Rocinha, when Amigos dos Amigos took over and Commando Vermelho lost the control of the favela. But in addition to being a forbidden gangster song, it is - as a friend who copied me the tune described it - a document of an important page in the history of Rocinha.

Unknown: Track 3 (zShare)

(Unfortunately, I cannot provide any information on the artist and sadly end up doing exactly the same thing as the guys behind the Sublime Frequencies´ much critized prohibidão-collection.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

50 Years of Bossa: Nara

This year Rio de Janeiro is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bossa Nova. I am far from a specialist in the genre, but I do feel obliged to join the party by posting some of my favourite bossas. I already wrote a post on Onde Brilham os Olhos Seus by Fernanda Takai, a recent album of modern versions of the songs that made Nara Leão famous. Now let's take a very brief look on Nara herself - my favourite bossa artist.

Following songs from the debut album Nara take us on an emotional rollercoaster ride. "When launched in March 1964, the fabulous first disc of Nara seemed distant from Bossa Nova. But the time erased this distance", writes Ruy Castro in the linear notes of the album´s remasterized edition. Perhaps it is this originality and unpredictability - the album not sticking to proven formats of bossa, but bravely including songs by sambistas like Zé Kéti and Cartola and back-then up-and-coming composers like Edu Lobo and Baden Powell - that makes Nara so enduring and interesting.

The first song - "March of Ash Wednesday" - is about the Brazilians' favourite subject of mourning: the end of the carnaval. Diz que moves to a more playful mood and finally Maria Moita is a melancholic classic about two generation of repressed females. The first and the last are also notable for the beautiful lyrics of the Bossa Nova's greatest poet Vinicius de Moraes. Moraes is nothing short of a national hero in Rio, right up there in the pantheon with the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto.

Nara Leão: Marcha da quarta-feira de cinzas (zShare)
Nara Leão: Diz que vou por ai (zShare)
Nara Leão: Maria Moita (zShare)

And because right now I am feeling very, very sad, the following song catches the moment perfectly. "Always alone / I live searching for someone / who too suffers like me / but I cannot find no-one / Always alone / and life will go on like this / I have nobody to pity on me / I am arriving to the end" - well, maybe I´m not quite that sad.

Nara Leão: Luz Negra (zShare)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fresh Funk: the Bad, the Good, and the Ugly

Sunday Night Fever

Sunday night´s program at the club Emoções in Rocinha: the sound system Espião Shock de Monstro and the devastatingly popular MC Creu, the man behind the most annoying song in the history of funk carioca.

I arrive early and the club is still pitch black and half empty, but it wont stay long that way. Lighting equipment I didn´t even know existed wakes up one by one to brighten up room. Bondes - trains of dancers, crews who go to bailes together - snake through the audience and stop once in a while to perform a sequence of well-practiced, synchronized dance moves. It is an impressive sight. There is a gangster with a ton of bling-bling weighing down his neck, a young man drinking beer through a straw, girls in smallest mini-skirts that still hide most of their underpants and a kid hardly reaching my waist, all sweating it on the dancefloor. Tamborzão-beat sounds incredible when played through an enormous wall of speakers. It forces you to dance. The sensation is physical; you cannot keep still when the bass waves make your flesh tremble.

But let´s leave Emoções for a moment and enjoy funk on our humble little home sounds. Funk carioca is more available to western audiences than ever: two noteworthy compilations have hit the stores in the world outside Brazil in recent months, both subjects of a lot of talk in the blogosphere. Prohibidão C.V. from Sublime Frequencies and Pancadão do Morro: O Funk do Flamin Hotz, Já É? from Flamin Hotz couldn't differ more from each other.

The Bad

Prohibidão C.V. is a collection of prohibidão-songs, forbidden drug faction-promoting funks, recorded on field and presented without any information on artists. Collection is either a documentation of an important aspect of the funk phenomenon, or, depending on how you look at it, a shameless, misinformed attempt to cash on the appeal of violence and danger in the western market. A lot has been written on the subject, so I wont add anything, but instead I let DJ Rideon lead you forward. Or you can just take a look at Gregzinho's paper on it, clever, insightful and highly critical as always. I woudn't be that hard on the album, but he´s got a point.

The Good

Pancadão do Morro, on the other hand, is a sort of "fair trade funk collection", as aforementioned Greg, the man behind the disk, calls it in his blog. It looks like a perfect package in every way, unless you count the fact that it is only published on CD (though there is a vinyl EP available). The collection boasts great artists, biographies of them all, photos, the lyrics to each song in Portuguese and English and all this is packaged neatly in wonderful cover art. Images are painted by Tony Minister, a funk legend and a cover illustrator since the beginning. I've been in the process of digitalizing some of the fascinating cover art of the old funk LPs I've bought in Rio and Tony is the man behind all the coolest illustrations, so more on this subject once I get the cover art show on-line.

And the Ugly

To get the ugly one too in the mix, here's a little song from Neo funk, a compilation by Porto Alegre´s DJ Chernobyl, released just in Brazil. The disk consentrates on more poppy hipster acts like Bonde do Role and Edu K, features a few rather unbearable songs and lots of guitar samples. This tune has pretty nasty ones, in a positive way.

Miami Bros: Umbanda Larga (zShare)

The ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of beholder. Thus I don´t comment on Creu in this aspect, though personally I would put him in that category out of the three available. So let´s return to the Emoções. The secret of Creu is finally dawning to me: interaction.

Creu has perhaps around three songs, all of them based on him talking sexually-oriented nonsense over a pretty basic tamborzão-beat. The hit Dança do Créu - which consists of repeating the word "créu" at an increasing speed - is streched live into a 15-minute performance: how fast can a well-trained popozuda shake her big, round butt? The next song involves the whole audience taking three steps to right at same time and so forth, "Jack says", we all played this at kindergarden. And then back to the grande finale of booty shaking performance. The answer to the previous question: lightning fast. Looks kinda idiotic on YouTube but is amusing in it's own stupid way when you are actually there.

So the Dança do Créu, if you´ve missed it. You were warned.

MC Creu: Dança do Créu (zShare)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Preacherman

MV Bill - or Alexandre Barreto - is something of a KRS One of the Brazilian hip-hop, a self-made preacherman who started out as an MC and has since widened his scope to span pretty much every possible medium of expression and informing. Despite the consious hip-hop usually being more of a paulista cup of tea, MV Bill hails from the infamous Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro.

The young Alexandre initially got into hip-hop when Miami Bass arrived to Rio, the very same sound that gave the birth to today´s funk carioca. "MV" humbly stands for Mensageiro de Verdade, "Messenger of Truth", a nickname given to the young rapper by his fellow residents of CDD after noticing Bill's penchant for preaching the message of the favelas. In 1998 he released his first album, CDD Mandando Fechado, a collection of true stories from his favela that was later re-released as Traficando Informação. Declaração de Guerra (2002) followed some years later and the most recent album, Falcão - O Bagulho é Doido (2006), is actually a sound track for Bill's documentary film.

Bill has published a pile of books - Cabeça do Porco (with Celso Athayde and the former security secretary Luiz Eduardo Soares), Falcão - Meninos do trafico (with Celso Athayde) and Falcão - Mulheres e o trafico (with Celso Athayde). His documentary film Falcão - Meninos do trafico, based on the book of the same name, made headlines and shocked the Brazil. Bill is also a community activist and one of the founders of Central Uníca das Favelas (CUFA). CUFA has spread all over the country from Rio Grande do Sul to Pernambuco and the community centers of the organization have seen guest lectures by people like Ronaldo and Ceatano Veloso.

The strength of Bill's journalistic work is in his position in favelas. As a highly respected resident he can go to places that are beyond the reach of normal reporters. "When I go to the shantytowns to speak to the kids, I'm one of them, so they are completely honest with me. What struck me most was the hope that they all had. I had barely got back to Rio when I started receiving calls from the mothers of the teenagers to tell me that their children had been killed. My next project was to film all of the funerals. How can I be just another rapper going 'yo yo yo' after that?", he told to The Guardian ( 'Only hip-hop can save us', 13.1.2006). The newspaper was interviewing him about the book Cabeça do Porco that collected the stories of 16 teenagers from favela, all of them already dead.

This friday MV Bill had invited a couple of friends from Sao Paulo - DJ King and MC Mister Bomba of SP Funk - on stage of Circo Voador to celebrate the first 365 days of A Voz das Periferias, his radio show on Roquette Pinto (94,1 FM for those around Rio, also available on-line for streaming). Rainy weather slowed down the party a bit and the paulista guests didn´t quite seem to set the carioca audience on fire. But the time MV Bill got on stage - backed up by a horn section, a few violins, a DJ and two drummers - the party finally got started. Bill gave his best performances when rapping together with the female MC Kmila and the chemistry between the two was a delight to watch.

The video for the song Só Deus pode me julgar (Only God can judge me) from MV Bill's second album is largely shot in the capital city Brasilia, with Niemayer's architecture providing impressive ready-to-film sets, and includes some very slimy scenes of giving a birth.

Soldado do Morro (Soldier of the hill) features an impressive arsenal of weapons in the hands of young men hardly on their twenties. Unfortunately, these are not gangster fantasies of main-stream rap. Instead, Soldado do Morro is actually a controversial documentary clip about kids working for drug-dealers. Clip was accused of being "a glorification of crime", despite it rather just depicts the sad reality. Trafficantes toting huge assault rifles are an everyday sight in many favelas: I walk past a number of them each time I go down the hill to the grocery store.

And to conclude, here´s a selection of tracks from the most recent album:

MV Bill: Falcão (zShare)
MV Bill: Nao Acredito (zShare)
MV Bill: Aqui Tem Voz (zShare)

MV Bill in Internet
Home page (in Portuguese and English)
MySpace (in Portuguese and English)
blog (in Portuguese)

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Street Corner in South

There is a very special place for street corners in the collective heart of Buenos Aires. They are the mythical scenery of tango songs, places for lovers to meet and depart, places for enemies to engage with knifes and places for heroes to bleed to death.

There is a street corner in Boedo district of the city, the most famours street corner of them all. The intersection of streets San Juan and Boedo. The location of the legendary Bar Sur. Immortalized in countless legends and the famous tango Sur - "South". South refers here to the working class neighbourhoods of the southern Buenos Aires, where tango originally was born and where most of it's lyrical dramas are acted out.

The famous tango was composed by the legendary bandoneonist Aníbal Troilo, also known as El Gordo ("The Fatso"). The lyrics are penned by the equally legendary poet Homero Manci. It's a nostalgic, desparate lament of lost love and downfall of the beloved barrio:

paredón y después...
una luz de almacén...
Ya nunca me verás como me vieras,
recostado en la vidriera
y esperándote.
Ya nunca me alumbraré con las estrellas
nuestra marcha sin querellas
por las noches de Pompeya...
Las calles y las lunas suburbanas,
y mi amor y tu ventana
todo ha muerto, ya lo sé.

San Juan y Boedo antiguo, cielo perdido,
Pompeya y al llegar al terraplén,
tus veinte años temblando de cariño
bajo el beso que entonces te robé.
Nostalgias de las cosas que han pasado,
arena que la vida se llevó
pesadumbre de barrios que han cambiado
y amargura del sueño que murió.

A rather crude translation would be something like this:

The South,
a wall and after...
The South,
a light of corner-store...
Never will you look at me like you looked then
leaning in the window
and waiting.
Never will I light with the stars
our march without disputes
for the nights of Pompeya...
The streets and the suburban moons,
and my love and your window
everything dead, I know.

San Juan and ancient Boedo, lost sky,
Pompeya and arriving to the embankment,
your twenty years trembling with tenderness
under the kiss that I stole.
Nostalgies of the things that have passed,
sand the life swept away
sadness of the barrios that have changed
and bitterness of the dream that died.

It's probably my famourite tango song, one that still send cold waves running down my spine. Here's three versions for your enjoyment. A fatal, bone-chilling, merciless version performed by the great contemporary tango-diva Adriana Varela - think of Diamanda Galas singing tangos. One by the famous Argentinian rock artist Andrés Calamaro. And a classic version with the composer Aníbal Troillo on bandoneon and, speaking of legends, sung by the mighty Roberto Goyeneche.

Adriana Varela: Sur (zShare)
Andrés Calamaro: Sur (zShare)
Aníbal Troilo, Roberto Goyeneche y Su Orquesta Tipica: Sur (zShare)

The myth of South was also traced in the movie El Sur, from 1983, directed and written by Fernando E. Solanas. Here´s a clip from the beginning of the film, with Goyeneche performing the song.

All that remains now in the famous corner are a few rather cheesy tango joints, and a rumour has it that barrio might indeed be on a verge of a change: Some people think that it will become the next Palermo Soho, a trendy barrio of bars, clubs and fashion boutiques. Boedo definitely has it's own rundown charm, and at least it's still cheap enough for artists and such to live in. Whether the change would be for good or bad is a matter of opinion.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Sky Above Bogotá

The Sky Above Bogotá is a photo essay about Bogotá. It's a story about wind-beaten walls, asphalt shining in the rain and a grey sky. It´s a story about soldiers and old men, metal-fans and teenage-girls, criples and homeless people and many, many others. It's a story about pigeons, books and angels.

View The Sky Above Bogotá as a slideshow.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Some Mellow Sounds of Salsa

A long, long time ago I posted the song Llora, Llora by Tego Calderon. It features Venezuelan salsa-legend Oscar D'Leon - also known as El Leon de la Salsa, that is nothing less than The Lion of Salsa - singing parts from the classic salsa song Lloralás.

Here´s a live version of Lloralás, just to celebrate the fact that I am back in Rio, almost settled in my new little home in Rocinha and almost ready to start my work at Instituto Dois Irmãos - and I am finally able to go through all the photos and music and notes collected along the way through Amazon, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. This song came on the huge pile of records that - I yesterday found out to my shock and amazement - had in some mysterious manner made their way into my backpack.

Oscar D'Leon: Lloralás (zShare)

And as a bonus track, almost fresh out of studio, a mellow salsa tune Te Lo Voy a Devolver from La-33, coming from Calle 33, Bogotá, Colombia. Originally envisioned by two brothers in 2001, La-33 quickly grew into a collective than a mere group - with members ranging from musicians to graphic designers - and released it's second album Gózalo in 2007.

La-33: Te Lo Voy a Devolver (zShare)

Friday, May 2, 2008

El Cielo Sobre Bogotá

The sky above Bogotá is lead-grey and alive in a furious tempest. Heavy clouds race across the sky and cloak the surrounding mountains in soft darkness. Vast highways cut the city into pieces and skyscrapers of blackened concrete loom, merciless, above. Huge, grim graffiti decorate the dirty walls. It´s raining, like it´s raining everyday. The businessmen walk over you, in their black trenchcoats, and the beggars limp after you up and down the mountain slopes, begging for una moneda.

Indeed, Bogotá is a hell - in the books of Mario Mendoza, that is. Mendoza is one of the most prominent young Latin American writers. Born in Bogotá in 1968, he studied literature, worked in Spain and Israel and published his first novel, La Ciudad de los Umbrellas, in 1992. Following novels, Scorpio City (1998) and Relato de un asesino (2001) kept buiding Mendoza´s fame and in 2002 the book Satanás brought him the Premio Biblioteca Breve de Seix Barral-award. Mendoza writes gloomy tales of survival in a hostile environment that is the capital of Colombia; violent tales of murderers, robbers, whores, police officers - and often, artists - all those walking on the shadier streets of life. In Mendoza´s Bogotá, the sky is always gray and rain is always falling.

Forgive me for for rushing into this somewhat exaggerated statement: what a huge positive impact García Márquez made in this country! Colombia seems to be full of exiting authors, both struggling to get out of the huge shadow of the nobelist and at the same time embracing his ideas. The young generation has developed an own voice, a dark realism that still carries a spark of something magical.

A collection of short stories Una Escalera al Cielo (Stairway to Heaven), published in 2004, is one of the Mendoza´s more recent works. It starts with a tale of a desperate young man committing his first robbery and failing miserably, a gloomy story with a mood of escalating terror that ends like a splash of sulphuric acid over the reader´s face. After the shocking start, the reader will learn about a coma-patient finding love (in a fashion disturbingly similar to Pedro Almodovar´s Hable Con Ella), a secret that destroys the possessor´s soul, a young man overcoming a lost love through facing the death and an old guerilla bombman´s long wait together with a man who believes in a revolution of mind - among others. The collection ends like it started, with a tale of robbery. But this time, rather than the end, the robbery is a start of a new life: a depressed dancer, after being dumped by a taxist in a deadly sidestreet, gets mugged, nearly killed, and suddendly learns the value of life.

Below is an extremely short story by Mendoza. I chose it obviously because it is only one page in length, but also because it sums up in a few paragraphs a number of Mendoza´s main themes and one of the most surprising aspects of his writing: The strange, bittersweetly optimistic undercurrent of Mendoza´s stories. Saying that as long as there is life there is hope might be exaggeration, but still, every day lived is better than nothing. And this in itself, to me, is an boldly optimistic claim. Despite the hellish environment of Mendoza´s tales, they are often also accounts of human warmth and empathy. Characters of the stories find tender caring exactly where there should be none, from murderers, prostitutes and drug addicts.

(Please note that I am far from a professional translator and neither Spanish nor English is my native language. Thus, this is a quick and somewhat free translation. Forgive me and go get the original.)

- - -

Mario Mendoza:
Christmas Tale
from Una Escalera al Cielo (2004)

It is a few minutes before the midnight. The place could be an abandoned warehouse, a few shops out of service or an antique railway station, since from afar one can hear the characteristic noise of a cargo train. A man is tied to a chair. His face is broken in panic: his skin is yellow, eyes injected with blood, a days old beard covers his cheeks, dark rings under his eyes give him a bad look, a corner of his lips trembles nervously. To his side, a young man in loose pants and a wool cap has the role of a guardian, with a revolver in hand.

The door opens in the back and another young male enters. He says quickly, rushing the words:

- Ready, we gotta do it.

- They gave the order? - asks the first one.

- Yes, let´s get this over quickly.

The prisoner pleas, cries, begs, offers money to his murderers. The men throw a coin to choose the executioner, heads or tails. The guardian loses, he checks the bullets in the barrel of his revolver and brings the gun to the temple of the prisoner. When he is about to push the trigger they hear artificial blasts and the place is quickly illuminated with multicolored, phantasmagoric lights. The hitman turns to look and his eyes are lost afar, beyond the window. He lets the gun go down and says:

- We´ll do it tomorrow. Today is the chrismas.

- - -

The sky above Bogotá is light grey with a slightest promise, but the sun is too weak to struggle through the clouds and rain drizzles down on the streets. Bogotá might not seem like a welcoming place, but give it a chance and it soon reveals itself as one of the more exciting cities in the South America. It is a highly cultural city, a thriving center of modern art with innumerable galleries and top-quality museums, and possibly the most well-read and book-loving place on the continent north of Buenos Aires (of course, there is no beating Bs.As. in this respect, with all the hundreds of labyrinthine bookstores lining the Corrientes). It is not as dangerous as you might think, as areas where a foreigner walks are heavily guarded by the police. And in the end, beneath their dark coats, people are hospitable and friendly - like in the stories of Mendoza.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

It´s Ugly and Doesn´t Like the Cursor

The museum hub consisting of Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, Donación Botero and temporary location of Museo del Oro in Bogotá is one of the finest art museum complexes in the South America. Museo del Oro exhibits a shining collection of pre-Colombian art, Donación Botero includes works from all the central modern artists from Monet to Picasso - in addition to a huge collection of Fernando Botero´s work, for those interested - and finally El Banco´s museum features quality exhibitions of international contemporary art and permanent collections of Colombian art.

One of the El Banco´s recent innovations is the exhibition Net Art Colombia: Es Feo y No Gusta el Cursor, exhibited on an internet site opened in september 2007. It´s a selection of 25 Colombian artists whose projects use Internet as their primary medium.

The name of the exhibition - "It´s ugly and doesn´t like the cursor" - comes from El Neme: es feo y no gusta el cursor, one of the first works of a Bogotá-based mathematician and artist Santiago Ortiz, from year 2000. El Neme is a very simple digital mascot, an animated bird that is both curious about the cursor moving on the screen and afraid of it. It´s a rather simple piece of software, but according to the curator Juan Devis, this paradox of curiosity and scepticism is very typical to the practise and consumption of net art in Colombia.

Without commenting further on the individual works, the show in itself is an important and brave venture. The website proves that the artists in South America are at least equally able to absorb new technology as their northern counterparts. Despite the Finnish being highly technologically-oriented people and Helsinki supporting a strong media art scene (including a number of schools, organizations and festivals - for an example - time for a word from our sponsors - see Media Lab of University of Art and Design Helsinki, now sadly dormant and the yearly festivals Avanto and PixelACHE), I cannot recall similar net art-exhibition with a such a powerful institutional backing happening in Finland.

The website is arranged in well-chosen thematical categories, ranging from the open source to the play. Categories manage to keep a local focus, for an example upload death concentrates on works addressing the ever-present theme of violence in Colombia. The site offers a wealth of information on the works, curator´s comments plus biographies and interviews of each of the artists. Unfortunately - and rather strangely, considering the inherently global nature of the Internet-based art - the website is only available in Spanish.

But without further blabbing from my part, see it - and interact with it - for yourself.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The City of Heroes


On the bus to Cartagena I am still the only gringo in the whole world and I get attention accordingly. The army officer, smiling and joking with everyone, finds my Finnish passport hilarious. "Él es gringo", shouts someone as an explanation, when the officer wakes me up and, disoriented, I mumble back a greeting in a mix of portuguese and spanish. Apparently it is these tiny details that make the gringo so funny. But the high-spirited officer seems to make the whole situation of the Colombian armed conflict and the constant risk of bus robberies somehow less threatening, and right now we are all very grateful for him being there, political issues aside.

At the border, the walls of the immigration office were filled with posters promising rewards for tips leading to capture of FARC-terrorists. The more important man, the fatter the reward and the bigger the mugshot. A somewhat unclear photo of recently killed FARC-leader Raul Reyes and a few of the smaller crooks had a red X drawn over them. Meanwhile in Caracas, the walls were announcing their love to Reyes: memorial slogans thrown on every surface, a stencil of his face on a Coca-Cola-truck, along with a message, short and clear: "Mata Columbianos!" (But no matter the political stances, this continent won´t give up on Coca-Cola. Even the socialist revolution is fuelled with Coke. "Argentina produces the best meat in the world and some of the best wines in the world, but the Argentinians, they eat the meat with the Coke and mix the wines with the Coke", a friend in Buenos Aires sighed one evening a hundred years ago, when we were gathered for a dinner in his strangly sad but homely apartment on Corrientes, high above the rooftops of the city, and a tropical thunderstorm was raging all around us.)

Other sights along the way: A lay preacher, furious, is screaming the Word at a busstop, veins throbbing in his arms that are desperately gripping a Bible against his chest like a drowning man might be hanging to a shard of driftwood, while I am trying to explain the Finnish weather and seasons to another highly interested and amazed local. How is it possible to sleep if the sun doesn´t set in the summer? (It all started, as usual, with following sentence: "¿Finlandia? ¿Es muy frio, no?") The roadside is a somewhat African sight, littered with a colorful mosaic of thrash. Motorbikes loaded with exotic, unknown fruits. Boys riding skeletal mules.


And then Cartagena de Indias, Ciudad Heroica. Basic facts from a travel guide: founded in 1533, Cartagena quickly flourished into the main Spanish outpost in South America, a port for African slaves and gold looted from the continent, and a hub between Europe, Caribbean and South-America. Riches piled into the city, waiting for shipping to Spain, which attracted a number of fierce pirate attacks. After the most famous one, launched by the legendary English corsair Sir Francis Drake, the city underwent heavy fortification and during two centuries, a thick walls were built to protect it. Today, the old city is still incredibly well-preserved and Cartagena has become a trendy tourist resort, main Colombian port and a city of nearly one million inhabitants. Despite it's somewhat touristy atmosphere, it is a beautiful city with a rich mix of the black, spanish and indigenous cultures.

It's already night when I get into the town. The surreal atmosphere of all the Latin American clichés coming to life: There are busses, with blinking discolights both on the inside and the outside, pumping vallenato at ear-blasting volume, painted in wildest colours and patterns. The busses are stuck in a hopeless mess of a traffic jam, together with ancient, imported American cars ready to fall apart any moment and tiny rikshas: a honking, beeping, banging and singing Gordion's knot tied of neon lights and rusting metal painted in tropical colors.

Outside the taxi I am immediately assaulted by the street vendors. Everything is on sale. Cuban cigars. Jewelry made of coral. Drawings of historic streets, this is the Plaza Bolivar and the Palace of the Inquisition behind it, but don't be scared, all the five witches found in Cartagena were burned centuries ago. Pictures of saints, collections of reggaeton, pirated, naturally. Fruits, fruits, fruits I´ve never imagined even existed. "Llamadas, llamadas!" A girl sits in a street corner, she is a call-center, offering calls on her mobile phone, about 0.1 euros for phoning home. A street kid is selling an emerald for a dollar. Columbian pesos are exhanged at an incredibly bad rate. "No, gracias", I tell the huge black vendor, but he is not satisfied. "No, gracias, de verdad, no necesito." Perhaps it is something in my tone, perhaps something about my face, but the vendor gets really mad. "Fuck you! Fuck you!" he screams, the only sentence he knows in English. For the rest of the evening, while wandering around the less well-kept streets of crumbling colonial Getsemaní I seem to bump into this same man and then the dirty walls decorated with puke and spit echo with that same scream. "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU, GRINGO!"

The sunrise brings with it the atmosphere of all things Caribbean. Rhum and pineapple juice. Straw hats, white cotton. Colorful umbrellas in pastel colors. The heat and the cool breeze from the sea. Colonial houses in Technicolour and overhanging balconies full of flowers in a seemingly endless bloom, palm trees, banana trees, all kinds of nameless trees shading the plazas that carry the names of generals and war heroes from the past. Like a set for a pirate film, everything is ready to transport you centuries back in time, old black ladies in colorful dresses, bowls of fruits meticulously balanced on their heads, bananas, pineapples, watermelons, all carefully selected by their color, then cut open and maybe sprinkled with water, and nothing too exotic, but safe, familiar fruits, and you cannot help asking yourself, is this all just for the tourists?


The invasion of barbarians. All kinds of tourists fit in, but the lines are clearly drawn. Getsemaní, dodgy and in a state of sad disrepair and decay, is packed full with backpackers in the search of the cheapest prices and perhaps some of that so-called authentic atmosphere this market segment so highly appreciates.

The rest of the historical center is in an almost too perfect condition. This is where the wealthier tourists flock, mainly loud, middle-aged Americans. They live in the modern highrises of the southern barrios like Bocagrande, in blindingly white towers designed to resemble decks of a ship; the architects dreamed of luxurious ocean cruisers and sleek sails ready for a race around the world and hidden in the wall I count seven air conditioners per an apartment, even the balconies have a ceiling fan. These people came here on a daily direct Avianca-flight from Miami, professional pensioners, grey-haired men and blonded-haired women, they know all about lounging in the shade holding a sweet coctail. At a coffee shop, wealthy locals sip on excellent Colombian expresso and two middle-aged males, armed for the tourist picture-race with professional-quality cameras, are shamelessly taking advantage of their nationality and their wealth, hitting on two beautiful Colombian girls half their age. Men only speak English, in fat, southern accents, describing their home state Florida, and the girls sit quiet, wide-eyed, either bewildered by the glamorous (though wrinkled and slightly over-weight) aliens or wonders hidden in the few English words they grasp. Nothing, if even all the cannons of Drake failed, can destroy the charm of the colonial Cartagena, but at the same time, there is something highly themeparkish to it.

But what right do I have to deny the locals the chance to take an advantage of the flood of the tourists, being one myself? In my search for authenticity, that mythic off-the-beaten-track experience, desperately preached on the pages of Lonely Planet's South America on Shoestring-guide that is found in every dusty old backpack on this continent, mine included, would I rather see the city in ruins? Is the authenticity then found in the homeless lying in the filthy shadows of the meaner streets of Getsemaní? Or perhaps the dirt-crusted street kid begging for a dollar, a whore hissing after you, "shh, senhor, mira aqui", or maybe the pusherman, "senhor, tengo porro, tengo cocaina" - is that the taste of sweet, fabulous authenticity?


Meet William: The honest con-man, the benevolent trickster, the saint of bullshit. William's big trick is that he believes in his own lies. He greets you when you haul your backpack around the Getsemaní and he honestly wants to help you. A thin, jet-black man on his fifties, dressed in humble and cheap but always smart and clean clothes. Bad teeth, big, mostly white smile and shining eyes. He owns the whole barrio, he tells you, and all the people on the street can confirm this, sure William, what ever. He knew another Finnish guy, a very nice person but drank three beers every morning, every morning under William's window this guy was shouting: "Oi, William, wake up, let's go for a beer!" William won't leave you before you've found a place to stay and he only charges one beer, or the price of four, for his services.

Next morning he is there again, waiting for you at the hotel door, he's playing with the row of pens and small tools decorating his shirt pocket. There is a girl looking for you, he announces proudly, but you don't know any girls in the town, you just got here. Are you sure? William is alarmed, he draws his hand from the shirt pocket, holding, disappointedly, a tiny screw-driver. You don't want to let William down: Well, perhaps this German girl you met along the way here, but there's really no way she'd be looking for you, that was weeks ago. William's eyes light up, yes, she probably was German, now could you spare a little money for the Saint William, because he has this sweet lady he needs to meet, he will certainly pay back tomorrow.

No, haven't got any. That is a white lie. You just think that certainly you have already given William enough. But today William still really believes that he will return the money tomorrow - so did the tables just turn, did you then become the liar in here? Okay, everything is cool, how about a tour to Playa Blanca, William knows a good one, and did you already check out La Habana? Perhaps tomorrow. Okay, tomorrow then, but could you at least spare a coke? No, sorry, totally broke. Honest. William smiles sadly, waves a goodbye and you feel like one dishonest piece of shit while you turn and climb the stairs to your room.

If both of you believe in the William's words then perhaps they really become true in a strange way? There is a band playing every evening at the close-by salsa bar La Habana, an enormous hall decorated from the floor to the ceiling with Cuba-memorabilia and spider-webs and black and white photos of musicians and dusty maps of Havana and of course the christmas lights and flags of Cuba in all sizes. Maybe some foreign friend had a peso to spare and William is dancing with the young Colombian girls, whirling around an amazing girl in a thight, short dress of yellow flower-prints. William has nothing nasty in mind, he dances with both ugly and beautiful girls, both fat and thin, he just enjoys dancing, flashing that mostly white smile, a screw-driver still in the front pocket of his old but clean almost white shirt.


Posters of Orient Express, Constantinople and French absinth. In each street corner, a fabric sack, full of coconut shells hacked to pieces, leftovers of the steaming day. Antique stores selling ship-parts and books ready to fall apart. Scenes from some romantic dream. At the intersection where the main streets connect lights and diamonds sparkle, lights on the opposite shore, lights of the roaring cars, diamonds in the deep velvet sky, diamonds on the string tops and the deep velvet eyes of mulata-girls. On the peaceful, residential sidestreets of barrio San Diego, glimpse the life of the regular families as they open their windows for a taste of cool evening air: grandmothers forgotten in rocking chairs, kids clinging to the iron bars of the windows like little monkeys, a young mother lazily browsing YouTube below the anguished eyes of a huge, grim painting of the Jesus bleeding on the cross. And as the streets bathe in the soft light of the full moon, it becomes obvious that they are haunted. There are the ghosts of the generations of generals, slaves, bankers and maids, whores, mariners, pirates, indians; inquisitors and preachermen, witches and beggars and fishermen, singers and drummers and violinists, thieves, murderers and murdered, accountants, lawyers, doctors and merchants and cooks, woodsmiths and caretakers, and there are a thousand other ghosts of those who are only remembered on the dusty pages in the archives, and finally there are a ten thousand fading ghosts more, hardly more than shadows, of those not remembered at all, their sad moaning lost in the wind from the sea.

According to Jorge García Usta´s book García Márquez en Cartagena - Sus Inicios Literarios (2007, Seix Barral) it was here that the great Colombian Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez found his literary roots. Márquez lived in Cartagena during the years 1948-1949, working in the liberal newspaper El Universal. Here, the young novelist-to-become started developing his style in an intensive exchange between a group of friends. And even though the main point of Usta´s argument is the nourishing effect of the close circle of kindred spirits, it is tempting to think that something of Cartagena´s rich mix of cultures and mythic history remains visible in the rich, lush, magical style of Márquez.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Few Notes on Venezuela

Welcome to Caracas. First day in the capital of Venezuela, seven o'clock in the evening, right next to a big, policia militar-guarded avenue, I am mugged. I lose my passport and my quick just-passing-thru becomes a tedious wait of two weeks.

Today´s El Universal tells that during the last friday, between 8:00 in the morning and 8:00 in the next morning, 51 people were killed violently in Caracas. Compared to this, Rio de Janeiro is a peaceful trip to a beautiful place in the country - Rio´s average daily body count hovers around 17. One victim that made headlines was a 19-year old male, shot to death in his own home, by a thief who was robbing the clothes hung to dry in a window.

Welcome to The Bolivarian Revolution. After ten years of Hugo Chavéz, for better or for worse, Venezuela is one of the least democratic countries on the continent. Chavéz is everywhere, supported by a huge propaganda engine building a cult around the leader´s charismatic personality. The graffiti on the streets screams Sí, Chavéz! Open the television, any time during the day, and after a little surfing you´ll find a channel running a speech by Chavéz. "With Chavéz, people are the government", goes the official slogan of the nation, and the face of the president seems to mark every official or unofficial surface.

Chavéz might be on the side of the poor people against the evil forces of the international capitalism, but he is also a fanatic, a militant and a populist. And very much like George Bush he loathes so much, Chavéz just can´t keep his fingers of the affairs of the other nations, spending the country´s oil riches on political adventures abroad. Crisis of March 2008, following Colombia´s strike against FARC on the Equador´s territory, was seen by many - and not completely without a reason - as a shameless attempt by Chavéz to spark a war on the continent.

Welcome back to the Spanish-speaking part of the continent. The duo Wisin & Yandel are ruling the reaggaton right now. And thus, they are pretty much ruling the airwaves everywhere. There are two songs that you will hear every single day, many times, unless you stay in your hotel room and keep the windows shut tight. And don´t turn on the television.

First, on Donde Está El Amor, featuring Franco de Vita, they are lamenting over the bad things happening around the world.

And Sexy Movimiento should be pretty self-explanatory.

I don't really like either of these songs. I don't actually care that much about the whole Los Extraterrestres-album of Wisin & Yandel, but my taste doesn´t matter here. This is what the Latin America is playing.

And finally, welcome to Venezuela. Despite all the violence, difficulties and challenges, Venezuela is a beautiful country, full of incredible natural wonders and riches.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Favela Snapshots 2: The Tale of Two Hills

After O Cativeiro, it is a pleasure to write about Patrícia Melo's Inferno, published in 2000, a book that could be crudely described as the film The Godfather II set in favela. Inferno succeeds in almost everyway: it is an exciting, touching, sharp and insightful description of a young man's odysseia through the criminal life. And at the same time an image of a whole society captured in an impossible situation.

The author Patrícia Melo is a novelist, dramaturgist and scriptwriter. Her other works include Acqua toffana (1994), O matador (1995), Elogio da mentira (1998) and Valsa Negra (2003). She's won a number of awards, including Prêmio Jabuti for Inferno in 2003. Fine Brazilian film O Homem do Ano, directed by José Henrique Fonseca, is based on the book O Matador. In 1999, Time Magazine included Melo on the list of 50 "Latin-American Leaders for the New Millenium."

King of the Hill

Inferno is a story of a young boy called Reizinho. Reizinho dreams about becoming a king. He grows without a father in the favela called Berimbau. He becomes addicted to drugs at the age of 11, drinks, sniffs glue and runs away from home. He promises to his mother to stop doing drugs if he gets to work for the local drug gang. Her mother has no other options. Eventually Reizinho becomes the leader of not just Berimbau but also the neighbouring hill and one of the most powerful drug trafficers in Rio. And then it all comes down, as it always does.

Inferno is a story the family. Reizinho's father has abandoned his family, fallen into alcoholism and left his wife Alzira to take care of both Reizinho and Reizinho's sister Carolina. Alzira is under constant strain. She is working as a house maid for a middle-class lady called Juliana, and at home, both Reizinha and Caroline give her more than enough trouble: Reizinho with his career choice in drugs and Caroline by getting constantly pregnant with all the wrong men. Reizinho's desperate search for his father is what largely drives the drama for the first part of the story. Often, the only support for Reizinho is Suzana, an older girl who is something of a foster mother to Reizinho when his real mother fails to understand the boy. Family is where the story starts and family is what finally breaks everything apart.

Inferno is a story about every one in the favela. There are drug-dealers, the ones who drive the drama forward. Reizinho's tutor Miltaõ, who slowly descends into madness. Fake, Reizinho's best friend, aspiring rap artist who in the end is pretty much what his name implies. Leitor, "reader", Reizinho's right hand, who claims to read at least 200 pages every day and is a treasure house of colourful theories.¹ Zezinho, powerful ruler of the neighbouring favela, Reizinho's mentor, husband of Suzana, father of Reizinho's great love Marta - and eventually Reizinho's deadliest enemy. And then there are the normal people, a mixed bunch who might not so much push the story forward but provide it with an infinite depth and humanity.

And Inferno is a story about violence. Violence that is a river.

The stream starts with Dona Juliana, abusing Alzira. Juliana is a useless middle-class housewife, spending her time with forbidden romances, losing weight and amusing her friends by telling everyone how stupid Alzira is. The stream flows downwards: Alzira returns home and beats Reizinho up when the boy constantly fails her tight expectations. The stream becomes a river: Reizinho joins drug gangs and makes his way upwards in the hierarchy through violence. His first kill is something of an initiation rite. His most painful kills are few of his closest friends.

Hectic, sharp and humane

Inferno is written in a fluid, hectic, economical style. Story moves fast, sometimes even two fast: despite spanning nearly 400 pages, some strings are left untied. For an example the father, in the beginning so important, disappears into the background when Reizinho thinks he has been saved. Melo writes highly rhythmic language: onomatopoetic words, sounds, names, lists and swearwords structure the beat of the paragraphs.

Melo is always sharp and amusing. Inferno is full of clever viewpoints and opinions but these are never pushed on the reader. Instead, Melo let's the characters of the story speak out their mind. Churchmen, drug dealers, housewives, sport teachers, hookers and barkeepers, all get their turn to speak. There's even an American film director, "specialized in exotic locations", who comes to favela to film a commercial, since it's such a visually fascinating place (and there's some really good, pure white coca available). As I said, Melo is always funny and critical. And actually, something like that has happened, except it was a music video for Michael Jackson

But Melo is also able to build deep, touching characters. Even the less important ones are complex, credible and fully drawn. Despite their shortcomings and blood-stained hands, all the characters are humane and evoke empathy in the reader. There are many genuinely moving moments in the book: the few happy days of love between Marta and Reizinho, when they even go to the toilet together. Reizinho taking care of Leitor, after Leitor is bound to wheelchair and unable to move or speak, Reizinho lovingly calling him the most clever vegetable in Rio. Zezinho's limiteless love for his family, even though he is one of the most ruthless drug trafficers of the story.

And that bittersweet encounter between the father and the son somewhere in the first half of the book: The father is a drunkard, a piece of human garbage thrown somewhere in the Praça Argentina, without a clue about Reizinho. Reizinho has ran away from home, is hopelessly addicted to crack and glue, he's even sold, for a tiny amount of crack, her grandmother's precious trophy from the time she crafted fantasias for the legendary samba school Mangueira. Reizinho sits, tired, hopeless, lost, next to his father. He doesn't say a word, he won't reveal his identity until much later, but somehow the two sad failures feel connected, taking comfort in each other.

Finally, Inferno is a book about the life in a state called cabeça de porco, "head of a pig", a situation without an escape. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather II, Reizinho seems to destroy everything he seeks to protect. Towards the end of the story Reizinho is given two options: Kill Zezinho, the beloved father of his girlfriend Marta and the husband of his foster mother Suzana, neither of whom will ever forgive him. Or get killed by Zezinho. Two impossible options. No way out of the situation. That is the tragedy, the inferno, of the favela.

- - -

1) Leitor brings to mind William da Silva Lima, O Professor, "The Teacher", one of the founders of Commando Vermelho. Highly intelligent and idealistic, Silva Lima perceived CV as a tool for Leftist Revolution and considered his role to be something of a Brazilian Robin Hood.

2) In february 1996, Commando Vermelho-leader Márcio dos Santos Nepomuceno, or Marcinho VP, made a deal with the producer of a music video for Michael Jackson's song "They don't care about us" to use the Morro Dona Marta in Botafogo as a set for the video.