Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sounds of two cities, part 1: Meu samba é assim

A rainy saturday night in Rio

Yesterday there was a show of Marcelo D2 at Circo Voador in Lapa. Marcelo is a rare bird: one of the few big rap artists based in Rio de Janeiro - ones that also need to be mentioned include MV Bill and Mr. Catra, who is actually a baile funk star, but has a very wide spectrum of skills and is also highly respected by the hip-hop-scene. But all in all, it could be said that in Brazil, hip-hop is more of a paulista-thing - that is, born and raised in Sao Paulo.

The difference between the cities is also audible in the hip-hop of the local artists. This is a very crude generalization, but carioca hip-hop might be more playful, like the city itself, whereas paulista sound tends to steer towards very minimalistic and dark aesthetics. It's often produced in prisons and the songs are gloomy tales of life in favelas and jails. More on the essential artists like Racionais MCs and 509-E later, for now let's settle for the softer sound of Marcelo.

D2 is a talented artist. His albums are concious of the importance of samba in the Brazilian musical tradition and many songs go to great lengths to integrate samba into hip-hop - and sometimes rather vice-versa. The songs are skillfully composed, with a lush and rich production. D2 is intelligent, his music is intelligent and he draws totally reasonable comparisons between his work and the Brazilian modernist concept of "the cultural antropofagia". And in all honesty, therein lies the dilemma, for me: personally I prefer the grimy old-school sound of the paulista artists and find Marcelo is a bit too smooth for my tastes.

But let's not linger on my personal preference of bleak beats and bleaker tales, when we could rather listen to a few fine tunes from along the D2's career.

A Dead Kennedys T-shirt and a band of 23

Marcelo grew up between the favela and the "asphalt" - wealthier normal districts - and saw most of his childhood friends eventually die in drug-gang violence. Wearing a T-shirt of the legendary American punk-band Dead Kennedys hooked him up with his first group, Planet Hemp, which released a number of succesful albums and toured Europe, Japan and USA. In 1998 Marcelo released his first solo album, Eu Tiro É Onda, and sold over 150,000 copies.

Marcelo D2: Samba de Primeira

When Planet Hemp broke up, Marcelo decided to continue searching his own sound. The result was the album À Procura da Batida Perfeita, released in 2003. The disc collected loads of awards, got Marcelo recognized for his lyrics by the Academia Brasileira de Letras and was released all over the world.

Marcelo D2: Re-Batucada

After the record the artist built up a band of 23 live musicians to "unplug" the hip-hop. This experiment led to the album Acústico MTV, based on the acoustic versions of the songs from the two previous albums. 1967 here is from the first one and A Procura from the second.

Marcelo D2: 1967
Marcelo D2: A Procura da Batida Perfecta

Marcelo's latest album, Meu Samba é Assim - "my samba goes like this", freely translated - was released in 2006. The album featured respected guest performers from both the worlds of samba and hip-hop, and propelled him to tour the mayor arenas all around the world. The hit Gueto is an honest, dance floor-filling banger, whereas Dor de Verdade shows what I ment with D2's work sometimes being more samba than hip-hop.

Marcelo D2: Gueto
Marcelo D2: Dor de Verdade

And as a little bonus to conclude, I cannot resist the urge to post a song by the aforementioned great Mr.Catra. Here's a funny tune that illustrates his versatility, combining baile funkish singing and an amusing hip-hopish beat.

Mr. Catra: Mercenária 2

Saturday, February 23, 2008

3 x Border Crossings

Border Crossings is a hobby project I've been fooling around with for over five years. While travelling, I've collected more than 2000 photos of street art from different cities, from South-America to Asia, from Africa to Europe. Project has been exhibited a few times, most recently as a part of Lens Politica-festival. In the exhibitions the pictures are printed on small stickers. Stickers a popular and tragi-comically controversial form of street art in Helsinki - people have been punished with ridiculously heavy sentences for sticking little pieces of paper on public walls.

At the Border Crossings-exhibition people can pick their favourite pieces of street art, in format of handly little stickers, and do what ever they want with them. Stick them on the fridge door - or spread them out to the local streets and make the project into a sort of international street art exchange. Although I don't really like the term street art and I would like to include more traditional graffiti into to the project, it's hard to do justice to bigger pieces and productions on such a small scale, so the collection consists mostly of stencils and smaller works.

As a little peek into the street art-culture in South America, here are a few pictures I've collected along the way. With an exception of Brazil, the best street artists on the continent are probably found in Valparaiso, Chile. The city has taken admirably open-minded stance to the graffiti and people are painting the streets of the cerros, the residential districts on hills around the port, in broad daylight. This policy reaps beautiful profits - unfortunately my camera got stolen in the very same city and I only have left the smaller stencil-pictures I took with the crappy camera of my cellphone. But they are pretty interesting too and also provide a few insights into the political issues in the country.

Click here to see the photos from Valparaiso (Flickr)

The street art in Brazil comes in numerous original styles. The bigger productions are as colourful as the country itself and are excecuted with a skill and grace of a capoeira-dancer. Pictures from Santa Teresa and Lapa-districts of Rio de Janeiro can only give a pale idea of what the huge pieces really look like.

Click here to see the photos from Rio de Janeiro (Flickr)

Yet there is also another, highly original style of graffiti in Brazil. Pictures from Curitiba, the capital of the wealthy Paraná-state, include some examples of this style. These pieces are extremely crude, brutal and minimalistic tags, painted in huge size and in highly inaccessible and visible places. In Sao Paulo I've witnessed whole highrises painted in this fashion, from rooftop to the street level. I love the unique, rune-like typography and the certain back-to-the-roots-brutality of these works. There's little style, they are all about spreading your name, getting up - often very literally. Primitive, tribalistic painting meets the concrete futurism of Oscar Niemayer.

Click here to see the photos from Curitiba (Flickr)

Download the illustration in wallpaper-size (direct link)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pop Interlude

Apparently I cannot help myself. I've just spent a week in Rio and already a note-worthy pile of new records has grown on my table. It mostly consists of Brazilian hip-hop with a little flavour of baile funk. But before I've had time to properly listen them through and do some background research on the artists, it's time for a tiny pop interlude.

The following songs are from a little jewel of an album, Onde Brilhem os Olhos Seus by Fernanda Takai. The artistic director of the album, Nelson Motta, describes on the linear notes how first seeing Takai perform evoked in him a ghostly impression of the departed legend and renovator of bossa nova and MPB, Nara Leão: "...this girl is Nara Leão of pop rock. The opposite of the exuberance and the vulgarity of pop stars, Fernanda was discreet and original, cool and elegant, had a half oriental look and sung intelligent and ironic songs with sweetness and firmness, a girl as modern, shy and talented as Nara in 1959." Thus, much later, when Motta got to know Takai, he had to suggest her to make an album of songs that defined the career of Leão. Onde Brilhem is the wonderful result of that idea.

The first song is actually a very sad one. If someone is misled to think that Brazilian music is just about partying, let me tell you a little bit about saudade. Especially now, after the carnaval, that strange, sad longing is heavy in the air. It's everywhere, like an obscene scent of some strange flower, bringing back memories of a love that never was there. A lot of the saddest songs in Brazil are about the first day after the carnaval, quarta-feira, the wednesday (the carnaval finishes on tuesday). The dream has ended and the harsh reality takes over. No more are we princes, heroes and harlequins, but beggars, thieves and peasants. I have an impression that the saudade is a lot about longing to a place that in reality does not exist - where as for an example tango is about longing for a happier time or a better place that now is lost and beyond reach. The saudade is the flip-side of the coin, the counter-measure of the carnaval, as creating a temporary realm of fantasy and happiness is the whole essence of this party of parties.

A lot of saddest songs in Brazil sound actually pretty happy. And that makes them all the more tragic. Listen to Odeon (written by Ernesto Nazareth and Hubaldo, with lyrics of Vinicius de Moraes) if you don't believe me.

Fernando Takai: Odeon (zShare)

Well, of course saudade is also about that usual subject of sad songs, love. And of course some of the songs sound properly devastatingly sad. Like the second one, Luz Negra (by Nelson Cavaquinho & Irani Barros) - now even the light in the end of the tunnel is black:

A luz negra de um destino cruel
Illumina um teatro sem cor
Onde estou representando o papel
De palhaço do amor

And forgive me for my crude translation:

The black light of a cruel destiny
Illuminates a theatre without colour
Where I am playing the part
Of the clown of love

Fernando Takai: Luz Negra (zShare)

But clearly we can't end a pop interlude in such a depressing tone. So here's a little more positive tune, by Capinam & Robertinho do Recife.

Fernando Takai: Seja o Meu Céu (zShare)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The hardest beats in Brazil

Every time I am here, back among the lush green peaks and endless, sun-bathing beaches of Rio de Janeiro, I am confident that this is the most beautiful city in the world. All the old clichés about cidade maravilhosa and the encanto do Rio, they are true. Despite the current weather - blazing heat and tropical rain taking turns - the city is as playful, sexy, wonderful, shamelesly sensual, exciting, elegant, outrageously incredible, dangerous, deadly and dirty as ever.

So, let's venture into the Brazilian music for a change and start the adventure with maybe the most succesful Brazilian band ever. Just to take a brief walk down the memory lane, a couple of tunes from, yes, that's it: Sepultura. Refresh your memories with a classic song Territory and a couple of bonus tracks included on some releases of albums Arise and Chaos AD. They actually fit in quite well with the palm trees gently swaying outside my window.

Sepultura: Territory (zShare)
Sepultura: C.I.U. (Criminals In Uniforms) (zShare)
Sepultura: Amen / Inner Self (live) (zShare)

And then to the point: For those following electronic music blogs it's nothing new that Seputura's former drummer Iggor Cavalera now has a very different project going on, called Mixhell. And it's fast becoming a very succesful project.

Though Mixhell, as we will soon find out, might sound very different from Sepultura's grinding death metal, the bottom line remains the same. To quote the Mixhell MySpace: "Hard beat is the main line of Iggor´s work. In his life, the beat has an intensive meaning and appears in everything he does." Which actually sounds pretty much like any Brazilian life.

Mixhell, with headquarters in Sao Paulo, is Iggor's DJing project, spiced up with live production elements like samplers and drummers. And Iggor actually is not alone on this mission: Mixhell is a duo consisting of Iggor and his wife and producer Laima Leyton. They describe their sound as "influenced by underground electronic music... DJ sets travel to many different places blending electro, discopunk and old school hip-hop, with lots of rocks and electronics. With the MPC Sampler they modify and increase elements to the songs so they fit perfectly to the dance floor."

Mixhell has made their own songs, worked with producers like DJ Hell, remixed songs of electro banger acts like Bitchee Bitchee Ya Ya Ya (for Kitsuné Maisón's new 12" release Fuck Friend) and MSTRKRFT - and made a bunch of great mixtapes. A lot of these have been circuiting around the blogs for a long time, but in case you missed them, here's a taste of their numerous parallel lines of work.

From own songs...

Mixhell: Kids are alright (zShare)
Mixhell: Sour Throat Break (zShare)

...and some fine remixes...

MSTRKRFT: Easy Love (Mixhell Favela Blast remix) (zShare)
The Bell: Target Group (Mixhell remix) (zShare) samples of their DJing work. I especially like the funk carioca flavors on the XLR8R podcast. And Iron Maiden-samples.

Mixhell: Electrobangertrashset (zShare)
Mixhell: XLR8R Podcast January 2008 (zShare)

And to put the respect where the respect is due, most of these songs are from a fine Swedish blog called Stockholm Beat Connection. They have been the first to put out the new stuff from Mixhell, so check 'em out, bookmark 'em and keep your eyes on 'em.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kumbia, bloody kumbia

"Te gusta Cumbia?", asks an Argentinian friend, in a slightly surprised tone, while browsing the towers of records that somehow always pile into my bags when travelling. There's also a few cumbia villera-albums.

I'm not quite sure what to answer. "Pués... Mas o menos." I try to explain that I find it interesting, and I like how phenomenons like cumbia villera rise from the poorest and saddest neighbourhoods in the metropolis. I like the idea that these unpriviledged people have taken something from the other side of the continent and turned it into their own thing. And that this thing has actually won popularity among the masses. I kinda like the idea that this has happened in a city often too concerned with maintaining it's reputation as the Paris of South. I already know quite well what my friend is going to say: He tells me he hates cumbia.

4AM the following morning he, and all the other fine young porteños, are dancing in the backyard to cumbia like there would be no tomorrow, while trying to teach us gringos the proper cumbia moves. This pretty much sums up why I want to post a couple more cumbias. All of them are very different, an example of the variety which, by my guess, could be a result of this strange schizophrenic love-hate-relationship. Love them and hate them. Like the argentinos do, too.

First, to illustrate where the cumbia came from and what is sounded like back then, a few gorgeus old Colombian cumbias. Here you have clearly audible the musical roots of the sound: the African drums, the Spanish and Andean influences and a certain Caribbean wibe. The first song was posted by some kind soul ages ago on the Lifesaver-records message board (one of the finest record stores in Finland, by the way - visiting the store at Laivurinkatu 41, Viiskulma is an essential part of any shopping trip to Helsinki) and the other two are from the collection Historia Musical de la Cumbia Colombiana, released by Discos Fuentes.

Gladys Vierra & Orquestra Sonolux: Dice Que Me Quiere (zShare)
La India Meliyara & La Sonora Dinamita: Las Velas Encendidas (zShare)
Benetia & La Orquesta De Ray: Columbia Tierra Querida

Then a couple of tracks from a brand new album Kumbia Nena! by Kumbia Queers, a bunch who call themselves tropical punks, look like a garage rock band and I suppose sound a little bit like one, too. A lot of the songs on the album are covers, for which they are best known for - below an amusing version of a song by The Cure - but I wanted to also post one of their own songs, since I actually like those better.

Kumbia Queers: Kumbia Dark (zShare)
Kumbia Queers: Kumbia Zombie (zShare)

Next, a track from an equally new Imperio Diablo-album. On the album covers the band looks like a mix between trendy fashion design students and a bunch of backpacking hippies straight back from Bolivia. Which, believe it or not, actually looks kinda cool. The songs have quite strong world music-influences and also add a bit of hip-hop into the mix. This song is a version of a Colombian cumbia paying tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Imperio Diablo: Los Cien Años De Macondo (zShare)

And finally, a big smash-up hit by El Remolon, the one he played in the last Zizek I attended. This song drove the people absolutely mad.

El Remolon: Music (Andres Lanredo vs. Madonna) (zShare)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The endless afternoons of Paraguay

I haven't left the bus station at Retiro when I am already flashing the cash to get all my luggage on the bus to Asunción. I am relieved, though. I've gotten a gargantuan additional bag on the board for 2,5 euros - not much per extra kilo. And I suppose the bus assistant was happy too: he gained ten times the tip he usually would recieve per bag, even though this one took two men to lift.

At the border in Puerto Falcon the corruption reveals an uglier face. A Paraguayan family is forced to pay 350 pesos - around 80 euros, a huge sum for poor people - for a minor mistake in the paper work. In Paraguay, South America's most corrupted country, bribery is the way of life. The forgotten country is the third poorest in the continent, a surrealistically sleepy, isolated backwater. Yet there are shiny, brand new Mercedez-Benzes rolling around the capital.

The fields of war

History of the country - sad and tragic, like most histories are here in south - is stained with the usual bloody dictatorships and two of the most bizarre wars fought on the continent.

In 1865 megalomanic and obviously mad dictator Francisco Solano López declared a simultaneous war on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Allied forces outnumbered the Paraguayan ten to one. For five years the insane war dragged on. Half of the population of the country was annihilated. In the end of the war, 12 year old boys were dying at the front lines.

Equally pointless Chaco War of 1932-1935 against Bolivia was especially tragic for the involvement of the greedy foreign businesses in starting the whole conflict. Unclear border of Chaco region had been raising tensions between the two countries for years, and Bolivia - left land-locked in the War of Pacific against Chile (on which the Bolivians bear grudge to this day) - was hoping to get at least an equivalent of a sea-shore port by forcing it's way to Río Paraguay. Yet what in the end sparked the full scale war in 1932 was the handiwork of the usual suspects, the international oil companies. These started to speculate on petrol resources in the region and used the local armies to settle their competition, Shell backing up Paraguay and Standard Oil co-operating with Bolivia. Guerilla tactics and fighting conditions favoured the eventually triumphant Paraguayan forces against the much stronger Bolivian army. War left 80,000 dead. Oil was never found.

...and a Paraguayan hammock

This is the backdrop of the Hamaca paraguaya, the first feature length film by the Paraguayan director Paz Encina (b.1971), from year 2006. Hamaca has been gathering awards and praise in the festival circuit around the world, including a FIPRECHI-award at Festival de Cannes. A minimalistic film, melancholic, lyrical and beautiful. Suggestive, surprising, extremely original. Opens your heart and lingers in your soul. In the words of the critics.

Paraguay, 1935. An aging farmer couple, Cándida and Ramón, are waiting for their son to return from the war. And waiting for the rain and wind to take away the heat. Like Beckett's sad clowns waiting for Godot, their waiting seems hopeless from the beginning. Thunder is rumbling in the heavy, grey sky, amid barking of their son's dog and omnipresent noise of locusts. But the rain drops never fall. Days are spent sitting in a hammock, going through petty arguments and fighting through the daily routines. Cándida is tired of waiting and tries to convince Ramón that their son is dead. Ramón decides to firmly believe in their son's return. Until both hear news that their son is almost certainly dead and the tables turn. Both decide to keep the news to themselves and Cándida starts to firmly deny the death of her son. It's better to keep on waiting. Someone must keep on hoping or the world will end.

Film moves on in a hypnotic, dreamy pace. At the same pace as the life in this country. There is something ageless about the film, as there is something ageless about Paraguay. In the film the past and the present melt together under the blazing heat of Paraguayan autumn. Dialogue moves separate from the static, long shots that rarely dare to move close to the characters. Sometimes we hear conversations from the past, their son leaving to war, sometimes we hear arguments of the moment, in sync with images. And in a similar fashion, on the streets of Asunción you can simultaneously exist in a time and place that has remained unchanged for centuries and shop in desolated malls for the latest eletronic gadgets, from iPod Touches to fanciest Nokias.

Finally, in the end, when the couple decides to keep on waiting, it becomes apparent that the future will be the same as the present, like the present is the same as the past. Cándida and Ramón are still sitting somewhere in the end of the world, in the netherworld of the Paraguayan country-side, waiting.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Bajofondismo

Bajofondo is a little bit complex thing to explain. It started as a collective experimenting with electronic tango fusion. Over the time it has developed into a band and acted as an umbrella for a number solo projects by the members of the collective. And add to the mix tons of collaborators, remixers and featured vocalists on all the albums.

After Gotan Project the electronic tango has exploded into something of a trend in Argentina. The tango electrónico outfits range from excellent to downright awful, but Bajofondo Tango Club is easily one of the best and most devoted groups around. Their take on electronic tango is faster and more dance-oriented than the dubby sound of Gotan Project. The group hates to be labeled as tango electronica, though, as their music is a much more complex mix of different styles and influences. "We are not tango composers, we don't make tango. It would be very pretentious to say that we are making the new tango. That would have to come from a musician who has devoted his life to tango, and that's not my case", points out Luciano Supervielle from the collective in an interview by Hernán Siseles.

Bajofondo is now building up fame outside the Argentina - they have toured both Europe and North America - but here in Buenos Aires they are huge. This was evident at their gigs in Teatro Gran Rex, on December 14th and 15th, that celebrated the publication of Bajofondo's second album, Mar Dulce. Bajofondo gave a huge show, clearly loved by the audience and clearly having great time on the stage. The audience, dancing on the balconies of the theatre, just didn't let them go, but applauded them to do an encore time after time.

Bajofondo's self-titled debut album Bajofondo Tango Club won tons of awards, including a Latin Grammy, and sold triple platinum. Album, as all of the Bajofondo-records, was produced by Gustavo Santaolalla, and his top-notch production has become something of a trademark for the group. Santaolalla has also made a career producing film soundtracks, his filmography including flicks like Brokeback Mountain.

Bajofondo Tango Club: Montserrat (zShare)

After Tango Club, Luciano Supervielle - a french-born pioneer of hip-hop in Uruguay hailing from Montevideo - released his solo album Supervielle and the group also put out Bajofondo Remixed, a collection of remixes from Tango Club and Supervielle-albums. These records picked prestigious Premio Gardel-awards as the best electronic album and the best instrumental pop album. And as an example of the usual variety of guest stars, Perfume is sung by gorgeous Adriana Varela and Miles de Pasajeros features Daniel Melingo with the Uruguayan rap-duo Contra Las Cuerdas.

Supervielle: Perfume (feat. Adriana Varela) (zShare)

Supervielle: Miles de Pasajeros (Omar remix feat. Daniel Melingo & Contra Las Cuerdas) (zShare)

For their second album, released the last fall, Bajofondo dropped the Tango Club from their name, to emphasize that their music had become something more varied than the name Tango Club would imply. Speaking of names, mar dulce means sweet sea. It refers to the fact that Rio de la Plata, the sea between Montevideo and Buenos Aires, is not actually a sea but a river delta, thus sometimes sweet, sometimes salty.

Perhaps a proof of the group winning the respect it earns are the guest performers on the album. While I prefer their Argentinian collegues, it tells something that album features songs with Nelly Furtado and Elvis Costello. The record also boasts the last performance of now sadly departed "Black Pearl of Tango", Uruguayan legend Lágrima Ríos. The single Pa'Bailar is a wonderful, silly piece of absolutely shameless tango-pop and El Andén features Spanish female rapper Mala Rodríguez, more of whom later.

Bajofondo: Pa'Bailar (zShare)

Bajofondo: El Andén (feat. Mala Rodríguez) (zShare)

The show at Gran Rex started with Javier Casalla performing a song from his solo album, standing on the stairs of the darkened theatre, alone in a dramatic spotlight, with his Stroh violin. It is a rare instrument with a unique sound that uses a metal horn - like one on a gramophone - to amplify the sound, instead of the wooden box of a traditional violin. Casalla's excellent solo album actually ventures into direction of experimental classical music and was released in Europe by Deutche Grammophon. Following song CABJ has Daniel Melingo, the Tom Waits of the contemporary tango, on vocals.

Song also has a very amusing subject: CABJ stands for Club Atlético Boca Juniors. It's the legendary football team of Diego Maradona and a passion for millions of South Americans, especially those of working class background. It's also a huge lifestyle business - CABJ must be one of the greatest brands created in South America. The club's colors of the Swedish flag evoke unquestioning loyalty: the old cliché goes that Boca Juniors is not just a football club to support, it's a way of life. And CABJ has definitely taken an advantage of this, extending the brand into everything, from pizzaboxes (you can construct your own Bombonera-stadium from two boxes) to rather bizarre dimensions - the latest Boca-branded innovation is a a graveyard where fans can get buried next to their heroes.

That said, of course I'm a Boca-fan. And by the way, according to a legend, they actually are the colors of the Swedish flag: when pondering on colors for their new football club, the frustrated founding fathers eventually decided to pick the colors of the first ship to drift to the port at La Boca, a working-class port barrio, and of course the ship had to be Swedish.

Javier Casalla: CABJ (feat. Daniel Melingo) (zShare)

And to conclude, an example of Bajofondo's musical variety is following song by the award-winning Puerto Rican hip-hop and reggaeton group Calle 13, produced by Bajofondo, with a sublime tango touch to it. It's a song that the whole South America has been bumping loud and on repeat. So, when after a few familiar beats Calle 13 marched on the stage at Gran Rex, it was one of those wonderful "pleasant surprise-moments" of a superb gig.

Calle 13: Tango del Pecado (feat. Bajofondo Tango Club & Panasuyo) (zShare)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Paper planes in cumbia style

Paper planes by M.I.A. probably was one of the greatest songs last year and the whole album Kala ranks pretty high on my top ten of 2007. Paper planes is finally about to be released on a single with loads of remixes from names like DFA, Afrikan Boy & Blaqstar, Adrock, Diplo and Scottie B. Sounds good? Well, here's the catch: we still get to wait for it until the beginning of March.

With hits like this, it doesn't take long before a someone in the BA's electronic music scene - so fond of mashing up everything into a cumbia beat - comes up with a cumbia remix. So while waiting for the official versions, here is Sonido Martines' take on the song. Considering that M.I.A. hasn't been shy about putting influences and beats from every corner of the world into her music, I suppose this is quite fitting mash-up.

M.I.A - Paper Planes (Sonido Martines Guacharaca remix)
(Direct link)

Sonido Martines is an Argentinean DJ whose sets combine global urban music with a spectrum of traditional Latin American sounds. In his words, "Colombian cumbia meet vallenato and chicha, dub hits upon electronic music, and hip-hop gets married to Latin American street rhythms." He's also been organizing Festicumex-events - the name stands for Festival of Experimental Cumbias - together with the festival founder Dick el Demasiado. History of Festicumex is pretty amusing and you can read it from the Dick el Demasiado-interview already posted.

Out of the white box and into the streets

They come out at night, each evening travelling all the long miles from the suburbs. After the sunset they start their work, in the shadows of the proud new highrise projects that stand against the night sky. The cartoneros. They go through the trash - your trash - piled on the street in big, black plastic bags. Looking for something worth selling. Cardboard, mostly. Sometimes you still see them in the light of the morning, pushing their huge carts full of cardboard. What they do to this trash, you don't really even think about.

And after a while you pay less attention to them than you would pay to rats. Rats - or cockroaches - at least give you that disgusted shiver every time. These people, dressed in grey rags, seem to melt into concrete walls behind them, like chameleons. And stepping over the homeless people sleeping on the streets becomes your second nature. As disgusting as it sounds, it's what this divided metropolis does to you. There's one Buenos Aires that is booming, and then there is one living in the shadow of it. One you would like to forget about, as you go on enjoying your lavish lifestyle.

This is what the economic crash of 2001 did to Buenos Aires, the city once proud of it's big middle class and relative economic equality. A new city was born around it. A shadow city, that still is there, despite the middle class slowly recovering from the crash. It's right there, out on the streets below - and also inside the grandiose apartments in glassy skyscrapers, it's there, in the cramped rooms of the maids most of the middle class families employ. You just need to start seeing it again. Or it will never go away.

The unconfortable process of opening your eyes

"You see plans for apartments of 300 square meters and the dependencia (maid's room) is two-by-two. Son of a bitch. With 300 square meters, don’t you think you could offer something a little better?" That was the photographer Sebastián Friedman (b. 1973, Argentina), commenting on his project Domésticas in an interview by Wicked BA (available on-line on pages of Whats Up Buenos Aires). Friedman has taken as his job to point out the existence of this conciously forgotten city, and judging from the waves he's been making, he's doing a pretty good job.

In Domésticas Friedman exhibited portraits of families together with their maid - creating a strangly uncomfortable images - in Biblioteca Nacional, and even built a fully furnished maid's room on location to illustrate cramped conditions the domestic servants live in.

And in second exhibition, Friedman took the photographs of the carteros out of gallery and exhibited them in their natural environment. Show was held in a partly ruined factory in rundown suburb of Lanús. This was the place the cartoneros actually used to sell their nightly lootings. Friedman wanted to show this space and the actual reality to the people willing to see the exhibition. They had to step out of the safety of a gallery, to a place full of trash, where the cartoneros would be working while spectators were looking at the photos. "To smell the odors that there were in the space, see the cartoneros, it creates a space that’s not so secure", explained the photographer his ideas.

Give it back to the people you took it from

Currently there is another, a bit less grim exhibition hitting the streets of Buenos Aires. Award-winning Project YECA, by photographer Luis Abadi (b.1975, Argentina), is exhibited outside Edificio de la Administración de Parques Nacionales (Av. Santa Fe 690, Retiro), open for all and free of charge.

On the project website, Abadi explains how he went out to streets to take pictures of people he came across and started feeling that he has to give them something back. "They lend me themselves for the picture without asking anything back. It's not fair, there has to be an exchange, I have to show them the photos." Abadi also wanted to make a comment on commercial billboards that are omnipresent in Buenos Aires by putting art into their place - art that is usually hidden from the every man in the galleries, far from the general public.

You can browse the pictures from Proyecto Yeca on the website. Some of them are quite hilarious and create a group portrait of the melting pot of people called Buenos Aires. The good, the bad and the ugly, the bold and the beautiful, the rich and the poor and everyone between. Work men, old ladies in matching furs, nuns and businessmen, protesters and police officers, transvestites and whores, they're all there. And of course the dogs. You must not forget the dogs in Buenos Aires.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

From Bay to BA

Oro11, featured briefly earlier in this blog, is launching his own record label Bersa Discos together with another immigrant DJ Disco Shawn. Label is aiming to come out with with their first EP of experimental cumbia later this month.

In their own words, "Bersa is the brainchild of Oro11 and Disco Shawn, two Bay Area DJs who moved to Buenos Aires (separately) and found themselves swimming in a sea of experimental cumbia mayhem. After hooking up in the Buenos Aires DJ circuit, the boys quickly realized that many of the local cumbia sounds were never being given a proper release. Bersa Discos was launched to change all that."

You can read more from Discobelle (one of my favourite blogs) and also grab songs by Daleduro and El Hijo del Cumbia, both artists often seen on the stage at Zizek. El Hijo del Cumbia takes pride in a sound that while modern and sample-based, has more in common with vintage cumbia from Colombia and Mexico than local villera. Daleduro on the other hand is known in Buenos Aires especially for his work of promoting genres like dubstep and grime. I've had the pleasure to witness his dubstep-sets a few times.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The darker side of Argentinian fashion

Buenos Aires is in love with style and fashion. From the glamorous dress code of tango dancers to the hip styles of youngsters on the street, this is one of the most stylish and fashion-obsessed cities in the Southern hemisphere.

Buenos Aires is also in love with it's fashion scene - there are number of gorgeous, glossy fashion books and magazines like Menta or Quiero published, solely devoted to Argentinian fashion. Stars of this scene are, naturally, the big name designers of the capital. Fashion mags rarely forget to mention that Pablo Ramírez was included in Phaidon's fashion tome Samples as one of the most influential designers in the international scene. Or that Jessica Trosman shared the pages of Taschen's Fashion Now with a number of the brightest rising stars in the world.

Fashion, like people, in Buenos Aires comes with two sides: one dark, dramatic and brooding; another romantic, sensual and colourful. More on the brighter side later, let us focus now on two designers from the darker side of the Argentinian fashion.

Pablo Ramírez is the master of the gothic in local fashion and possibly the most respected fashion designer in the country, a title well earned. Born 1971, he studied fashion design at University of Buenos Aires. Winning several prestigious awards early in his career opened him a possibility to set up his own brand, sold at his boutique in San Telmo (Peru 586, San Telmo).

Ramírez has created a consistent style that is clearly his own, yet he still manages to keep constantly developing, transforming and moving forward. His clothes tend to come exclusively in black and while palette - in his own words, this gives spaces for his main interest: the silhouette. This is the focus of Ramírez's work, a silhouette that is changing shape each autumn and spring, seeking out new forms, always with incredible mastery and elegance - just take a look at the pictures above, from No name, no title, collection for autumn/winter 2006.

Ramírez has called his style retroish, but this should not be mistaken for mere grave robbery of earlier styles. Like a proper porteño, Ramírez constantly reminds how important influence Buenos Aires and the city's architechture is to him. Maybe this is why his collections like Tango (A/W 2001, above) seem to engange in such a natural dialogue between the romantic past glory of the city and the most recent trends in the international fashion.

Mariano Toledo has a more colorful surface in his collections (sold at his boutique, Tienda House Tornado, in Armenia 1450, Palermo Soho and in Madrid, Spain), yet there is something darker always lurking right beneath the surface. An architect turned into a fashion desiner, Toledo escapes easy definitions: he tends to get nicknamed énfant terrible of Argentinian fashion, experimentation being his second nature.

Toledo uses a lot of leather, giving his collections sexy, fetishistic look, and models have often marched on the runway in sado-masochistic masks. This spring's selection, full of colourful, caleidoscopic patterns, was juxtaposed with silvery neck-corsets on models. Previous autumn/winter collection, called The Goat, symbolizing nothing less than battle between good and evil, was full of references to tarot and witchcraft, wrapped in shiny black leather. "Tarot cards tell us about a hidden and unknown world where we are protagonists; the destiny lives in them", explained Toledo philosophy behind the collection in Quiero.

Menta recently published an interview with Toledo, under appropriate headline Terrible and refined, where Toledo summed up his complex aesthetics: "...there's a little side of me that plays with the sinister and the unknown, that thing that on one side is beautiful and on the other side immensely ugly."

Friday, February 1, 2008

Cumbia, all over the continent

Buenos Aires by Night

When the song ends there is a deaf silence. Like in that scene in a war movie, where a bomb explodes next to the hero, and for a moment all he hears is an echoing silence. Then, in a blast, the sounds of the surrounding world return: the amazing, murderous noise that is Buenos Aires.

A late night hot dog joint, late at night. Built under a railway bridge in a shabbier part of the city. One litre bottles of cheap beer circulate around the tables. Out of three fan-light-combos hanging from an exposed tile ceiling two fans and one light are working.

A kid from a table in the darkest corner walks to the huge ancient jukebox. Instructions are shouted after him. Jukebox makes clicking and cracking noises for a while and then the beat rolls in waves over the dim room. The cumbia beat. This is cumbia villera, the sound of the villa miserias - shantytowns - of Buenos Aires, the sound that has taken over the whole city. Kid, dressed like a proper cumbiero, hair dyed blond, sporting a cap dangerously clinging to the back of his scalp, dances back to the table.

Cumbia villera is the dirty Argentinian bastard son of the Colombian cumbia. The sound is cheap, home-made, a ghetto sound. Lyrics bear more resemblance to gangsta rap or proibidão funks of Rio's favelas than to romantic laments of original Colombian cumbia. And of course it has roused a proper controversy in the city, and eventually ended up being hugely popular.

Here are a couple of older tunes from Pibes Chorros, Yerba Brava and Damas Gratis, the old school of the villera sound. Pablo Lescano of Damas Gratis is often recognized as the inventor of cumbia villera, deed that has made him into a something of a working class hero (though he says that it was the record label who tought of the term and insists on calling his music just cumbia).

Pibes Chorros - Las Pibas Quieren Sexo (zShare)
Pibes Chorros - Con Una Nueve (zShare)
Yerba Brava - Los Borrachos (zShare)
Yerba Brava - La Cumbia De Lost Trapos (zShare)
Damas Gratis - Quiero Vitamina (zShare)
Damas Gratis - Se Te Ve La Tanga (Version remix) (zShare)

Websites like Paraeltablon offer news about artists (for an example, yesterday's headlines told about members of certain group getting accused for sexual abuse, "con penetración", of a 17 year girl, and a theft of a cellular phone - not that the band looks much over 17 years either), downloads of cumbia villera-music - and amateur soft porn.

Indeed, there is a dark undercurrent in villeras singing merrily about boozing and smoking marihuana. For an example, one of the Pibes Chorros songs above is about robbing supermarkets. In one interview, Pablo Lescano, now in rehabilitation, describes his serious addiction to drugs. As the case in villas often is, the drugs were of the cheapest and the most dangerous kind: "Paco, crack... Everything. Everything." His home barrio he describes as a disastre - "They'll kill you just to rob your cell phone."

Picture (c) Zizek Urban Beats Club

Niceto-club, Buenos Aires

A club called Zizek at a restaurant called Niceto (Niceto Vega 5510, Palermo Hollywood), in trendy Palermo-district. A DJ called Villa Diamante behind the decks. A man often hailed as the undisputed mash-up king of the city.

Fashionable, artsy crowd is dancing wildly. To that same cumbia beat. But very different sounds. Here we are on the experimental edge of the cumbia sound. Here it merges with - and smashes into - international genres like hip-hop, r'n'b and baltimore. Dubstep or electro-pop. What ever suits you, sir, this is the testbed for weirdest samples and bold ventures into strange new directions. And pretty much one hell of a party, too.

Villa Diamante offers most of his music for free, available for download on his site. For starters, Bailando se entiende la gente contains a whole album of Diamante's bastard pop, giving a good idea about this man's work, tastes and skills.

Villa Diamante: Bailando se entiende la gente (direct link)

Other interesting artists include Oro11 - here remixing Pibes Chorros-song - and Cancha Via Circuito, mashing porteño rap-queen Princesa into cumbia beat. Just to name a few. And we must not forget Dick el Demasiado ("Dick the Too Much"), the grand-father of the experimental scene, probably smiling somewhere in the background while admiring all the strange growth his work has sparked in here. He's a man with incredibly complex background, a fact audible in the wild influences of his cumbias experimentales.

Oro11 - Pibes Chorros vs. DJ Unh: Que Calor (direct link, via Muy Bastard)
Princesa - Con la Misma Moneda (Cancha Via Circuito remix)
(direct link, via What's Up Buenos Aires)
Dick el Demasiado - Rueda de las Unas (zShare)

Also international super-stars like Diplo have performed here at Zizek. Diplo hypes cumbia-sound in Mad Decent-blog and provides us with his own little cumbia-mix.

Got interested? Good resources to find out more include What's Up Buenos Aires and Muy Bastard-blog.

Potosí, Bolivia

A shack selling pirated records by the bus station. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the South America. There are hardly stores selling original records here. Stacks of collections of Argentinian cumbia villera: Villeras Argentinos, Villeras 2007, Exitos Villera 2008. Three albums for price of one. Just the greatest hits.

Here too that cumbia beat, everywhere, taking turns with occasional reggaeton songs. Where as in Argentina cumbia was always a musical style associated with lower classes, something to be frowned upon, in Bolivia - and of course in Colombia - cumbia seems to be in the blood of the whole nation. Immigrants from these countries once brought the cumbia to Argentina. So maybe this is just the bastard son returning home.

Artists popular on the countless villera-collections here offer a different sound, though. Softer, more romantic, usually to the point of a heavy sugar-overdose. One of the biggest stars is El Polaco. Despite his tough guy-appearances with tattoos and all, his songs mostly deal with various bumps on the road of love, and consequently he is very popular among teenage-girls both here and in Argentina. Here's few of his least annoying songs, just to give an example. Another one is about getting drunk because of heart-aches.

El Polaco - Amanecio (zShare)
El Polaco - Tomaré Para Olvidar (zShare)

Valparaiso, Chile

A street in port of Valparaiso. A quick piece of graffiti thrown on a rusting, weather-beaten metal wall.


Everybody loves cumbia.