Transnational Extensions and Local Tensions in a Global/Underground Music Scene in Brazil
Ivan Paolo de
Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul1
In this presentation I will attempt to show how both working-class Disc
Jockeys (DJs) and their audiences in São Paulo have redefined the borders
of their cultural horizons and urban experience through their musical
practices, thereby showing how this redefinition raises tensions of
diverse natures for questioning established cultural practices for urban,
working-class, young people in this city. To begin with, I would like
to invite you to go right now to an electronic dance music party in
a far away district of the East Zone of São Paulo - a Brazilian metropolis that is home to 19 million people. Mostly characterized for its self-made dwellings,
crowded in areas of poor urban infrastructure, and inhabited by a multi-ethnic
working class, the region contrasts dramatically with the luxurious
buildings of São Paulo’s central, white, elite, and middle-class region,
supposedly the most “cosmopolitan” one.
That’s Saturday night, 10:00 PM, as Garrafa looks at the
clock on the wall. He and two other homies gather on João’s house
in Mauá city, 40 min. away by train from downtown São Paulo. They’re
listening to some drum & bass tunes, rehearsing some dance steps,
and chatting about music and the last parties they’ve attended. Though
I’ve known Garrafa for a short time, he invited me to join him in meeting
Silas reminds us that it is time to make our way to tonight’s party.
They have worked and gone to high school for the whole week, and this
is supposed to be its best moment. It will be, however, a long way:
it will take two hours to get to the venue, but that doesn’t seem to
matter. They all feel excited. Garrafa embarrassedly starts opening
up his wallet, searching for money with little hope, while César does
the same. “I have some extra money," says João, suggesting pooling
everybody’s money, so we all can go party. I donate a few Reais
to help out with the fund, but it turns out that we barely have the
money for transportation; we will have to bargain the ticket price
to get in, but it doesn’t matter... we take the way on.
(11:30PM) After getting off the subway in the last station, we switch
to the shuttle parked at the bus terminal next to the subway exit.
I scan around inside the shuttle and see two other guys who, because of their
colorful clothes, are surely going to the same party. All the other
passengers are either workers or families going back home after spending
a Saturday out of their neighborhoods. The driver waits to fill up
the shuttle until there is absolutely no room left. We’ve got seats, but it is awful; it is full to the point I feel there is no
more air inside it.
On the shuttle’s radio is playing the latest pagode hit, and
Garrafa says “what terrible music is that?!”, while all the other
passengers seem to enjoy it. The shuttle leaves, going through poor
areas of far East Zone. It passes by some bars where people get together,
grilling beef and chicken, drinking beer, and dancing to samba on the
sidewalks. That’s a common scene on the main streets of “periphery”
on the weekends by this time. Some blocks ahead, while the scenery
is the same, the repertoire switches to Brazilian rap.
(12:00AM) We finally get to the address written on the flyer. It’s
almost in a rural area. There are no buildings or even houses around:
mostly bush, abandoned factories and lands all along the road. That’s
considered a dangerous region, but up to this time everything is OK.
The human environ, however, is quite familiar: João and Silas know
some others from previous parties and introduce me to them. We still
walk and talk a quarter mile towards the party’s entrance - where
it is already possible to listen to the sound beats. Some folks start
to dance while still outside the party; the beats are quite
captivating, and all are eager to get in.
- The ethnographical and audiovisual passages above are a sample of
the kind of musical practices the multi-ethnic, working-class DJs and
partygoers, among whom I conducted an eight-month ethnographic fieldwork
in 2005, have fostered every weekend. These musical practices are performed
by DJs, specializing in either techno or drum & bass, through 12-inch
vinyl singles imported mainly from Europe. Although happening in a liminal
moment of the day and the week, they are a means to express non-conformist
perceptions and worldviews silenced during the everyday routine of their
participants; as Victor Turner says, “the deep structure can be revealed
in the surface of the anti-structure” (1974: 34). Held usually on Saturday
nights, the parties where these practices take place attract an average
of 1000 people every edition, a quite impressive amount, considering,
on the one hand, the non-profitable, underground, self-organized, character
of these meetings. On the other hand, these parties are just one among
a wide variety of night-entertainment options for working-class young
people in São Paulo, predominantly fed by a repertoire of Brazilian
national or nationalized genres, like samba, axé,
pagode, forró, sertanejo and Brazilian rap.
Except for the last, the distribution and broadcasting of these genres
is largely controlled by the music industry.
- As I argue, for these DJs, the contrast between electronica (techno
and drum & bass) and other popular genres symbolizes the diverse ways
through which a population living in the same socio-cultural setting has
defined the borders of its cultural horizons and urban experience. Electronica’s
singularity, however, seems to empower them as a language and tool
to redefine the limits of these horizons, both imaginarily and pragmatically,
in the shaping of their social trajectories. There would be, hence,
broader reasons beyond the musical experience itself to explain why
these young people in particular make sense of electronica parties.
- We may ask: How has that redefinition occurred? How can music
be related to it? What are its local and transnational effects for those who foster it, whether imaginary or realistic? How has “periphery” been
globalized? It is noteworthy that “periphery” here is not an empty analytical
category, but the specific socio-urban setting wherein the actors whose
practices are focused on this presentation live--as they define it themselves.2
- To answer these questions, I depart from some basic assumptions, made
possible through the post-colonial rethinking of common-sense theoretical
and methodological concepts in anthropology. These developments have
political implications to interpret this empirical setting. They allow
us to include DJs and their apparently localized practices in larger-scale
processes, and therefore to rethink the “agency” status of these peripheral
social actors, their actions, and the places they live in and act upon,
now in a wider geopolitical framework.
Music, Practice and Globalization
- Anthropological literature on globalization brings a unique perspective
to the topic, as Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (2004: 4) point out. Povinelli
and Chauncey sum up that perspective:
What anthropology offers that is lacking in other disciplines
is a concrete attentiveness to human agency, to the practices of everyday
life, in short, to how subjects mediate the processes of globalization.
(Povinelli and Chauncey, 1999 in Inda and Rosaldo, 2004: 4-5)
- This particular approach can be understood as quite distinct from
the one adopted by a long list of works on globalization in the humanities
and social sciences. These have presented it as a large scale and overwhelming,
universal, historical process, based equally on large-scale observation,
distant from the way real people experience and act on it (e.g. Appadurai
1996; Featherstone 1990). Or even through a critical perspective, whether
globalization is “good” or “bad” in itself to an anonymous variety of
- In this large-scale approach, what is on view are the realms of ideology,
communication, power and economy at the institutional level. It thus
ends up focusing on – and so far legitimating – the globalization promoted
and experienced by intellectual, economic, and religious national elites.
Whereas, by the other side, the working-class and non-privileged end
up rather viewed either as “victims” or as passive actors in this process,
as long as music and expressive culture are largely kept outside this
- If we assume that “peripheral” social actors build their social identities
and act upon the world in distinct ways from the dominant groups, then
the focus on music and expressive culture may be helpful to unveil “unpredictable”
forms of globalization, forms sometimes too “underground” to capture
through microphones pointed toward institutionalized and large-scale
- The critical character of these music-cultural practices seem more
evident when we combine the approach of “underground” forms of globalization
with anthropological tendencies that focus on everyday practices of
ordinary people, or “ordinary musicians."4
Ethnomusicology, through contemporary contributions borrowed from anthropology
of globalization, has certainly made a privileged contribution to that debate.5
However, by approaching “folk understandings of the global and the practices
with which they are intertwined” (Tsing, 2004: 469), I attempt not to
switch the microphone to “elite musicians” or to the country’s musical
elite to listen to what music would show us about globalization, but
to use a camcorder to capture both sound and image-in-motion of what
“ordinary” musicians do, perform, and show us.
- The scenario presented in the beginning of this paper is the unfolding
of a process of transnational cultural mediation initiated by the accomplishments
of specific characters. The transnational extensions generated through
these musical practices can be captured, on the one hand, in the way
the oldest and most successful DJs have actually created global flows
in their professional trajectories, and thus influenced other DJs, and
on the other, in the way beginner DJs and audiences have imagined the
“world” and set up their professional strategies from that image.
… there is a Brazilian DJ considered the best of the world
for a long time, who is DJ Marky. (DJ Henry Jay)
… Marky is from the East Zone of São Paulo, he’s born and raised in
Penha … I used to see him performing … he’s like: from Penha to the
world, you know, there are many guys like him. (DJ Andrew Santos)
- The above narratives express the prestige DJ Marky gained in the
1990s among local DJs in São Paulo as an artist who had grown up in a poor,
so-called “peripheral” region of the city, and who had transnationalized himself
through international tours and distributing 12-inch single LPs. In doing
so, he fostered the Brazilian way of performing and mixing drum & bass
for an international audience. Nowadays, besides his closer friends,
nobody knows where exactly Marky can be: at the length of a week he
can show up for a performance in São Paulo, some days later in Japan,
or even in his record company’s office in London. Hence, especially
to those grown up in a “periphery” like him, Marky has served as a reference,
thus nurturing dreams and opening up horizons of possibilities to break
the structurally given trajectories for working-class boys. Like their
parents and social peers, working-class boys are expected to get low-skilled
jobs as delivery boys, construction workers, and so on. For them and
hundreds of other local DJs, as the one who broke structural determinations,
transforming himself into a cosmopolitan actor, Marky acts the role
of a contemporary “cultural hero” (Williams 1986).
- DJ Marky’s accomplishments have so far been taken as parameters for
younger DJs to define their plans and situate themselves “in the world”.
Here is an example of this: one evening in June, 2005, I was talking to
Henry Jay, a DJ who specialized in techno, at his one-room apartment in
a slum at Vila Carrão, East Zone of São Paulo. Henry Jay – who, along with
DJ China, organized the party presented above in video – was
explaining to me the differences and similarities between techno and
other electronica subgenres, when he suddenly remarked that his explanations
could be wrong. That surprised me, and I asked why. “The mindset we
have, 'cause sometimes we expend most of our lives at periphery, sometimes
even the way we view things is different, for example…than a guy who
maybe went abroad,” he answered. Although Henry lives in a major metropolis,
he values the condition of being abroad and uses it to explain the limits
of his “peripheral” explanation. Later on, Henry Jay and China told
me that their dream was to perform in a party abroad – as is that of many
other DJs with whom they share the turntables at parties. They want
to be like DJ Marky.
- The professional trajectories of DJs like Marky, however, were part
of the developing of the electronica scene at the East Zone of São Paulo
as a social phenomenon, a process that took at least fifteen years to
take its current shape. As the story circulates among DJs, in the beginning,
there was just chaos. In the early 1990s, there were non-specialized,
massive parties, which used to attract thousands of working-class youths
every weekend. There, DJs used to perform a wide variety of Brazilian
genres, like axé, pagode, samba, Brazilian
rock, pop rock, and so forth, along with international ones, like funk,
soul, rock, pop rock, rap, house, and so forth. During the 1990s, as
both a reaction to the profit-oriented parties-market and as a strategy
of individualization, some DJs who performed in these parties, having
known different, underground, music styles that were emerging in United
States and Europe, began to specialize in them, thus shaping their professional
identities more individually. Small scenes were formed with DJs who
knew each other and an audience that knew them from previous parties.
DJ Marky was one of them. He built his identity as a local artist on
drum & bass music and later was internationally recognized through his
ability to virtuously mix drum & bass with the Brazilian and African-influenced
- Marky, thus, somehow inaugurated the transnational extensions of
that local scene, being a singular agent in Brazil of the process baptized
as ‘schizmogenesis” by Steven Feld (1994): the emergence of ethnic and
syncretic pop music dance hybrids around the world.6
Soon, Marky’s transnational steps were followed by other local DJs. To
map the web of connections that gives this scene its transnational shape,
a promising way would be to follow the connections established individually
by each DJ from the local scene to other DJs abroad, a methodology inspired
by the ethnography of “multi-sited” locations as proposed by George
Marcus (1995). The scene so far takes place within the geographical
limits DJs draw throughout their careers, forming a web of reciprocity
of music and professional exchange. These limits go from local urban
settings, including their neighbors and relatives, to friends in other
districts and cities, to other DJs in other Brazilian states, and so
on transnationally, to DJs and underground labels in England, Japan
- Garrafa’s critical rejection of the pagode hit playing
on the shuttle’s radio, however, is not simply a reaction based on personal
taste. It is symptomatic of conflicting perceptions and worldviews among
São Paulo’s working-class, greatly oriented by the references used to
define the borders of their cultural horizons. To that extent, electronica
seems to be as critical to popular culture in São Paulo’s working-class
neighborhoods as popular culture is for the habitus of an electronica
party. This is particularly evident when characters representing both
worlds happen to meet, as in the shuttle heading to the party. The “strangeness”
that emerges in this kind of meeting is revealing of the cultural tensions
existing within a generation of young people living in very similar
circumstances, sometimes being related to one another.8
It blurs as well the idea of “strangeness”.
- When DJs talk about music, it is not as an isolated, formal, sound
entity. Music, for them, is made to dance to, as much as it expresses
a wider cultural background formed by a particular language, ways of
interaction, dressing codes, and concepts defining the scene’s borders
as group identity: “music as culture”, in a broader sense, as Alan Merrian
(1964) advocated. Henry Jay relates the auditory aesthetic of electronica
to its “selective” appeal, a metaphor for its critical character for
the larger audience.
... electronic music is underground, 'cause it’s unknown
by media, and if you gonna play it in a profit-oriented club people
will run away, cause it’s too aggressive, it has no vocals, there
ain’t no ‘nanana, nanana’ that pleases everybody; so electronic music
is for those who really like it, if one doesn’t he’ll find it’s just
noise, he won’t understand it, 'cause electronic music, willy-nilly,
is too much information, the one who listens to it got to have a sensitive
ear to understand it.
- Henry Jay sets up criteria to define audience appreciation for electronica,
because for him, this is not a music genre for the masses; it does not
fit in the music industry standard. A micro-event that I once witnessed
in the field symbolizes how the habitus shared by the audience
in these parties challenges common expectations for working-class youths
concerning parties in general. These expectations, I argue, are somehow
cultivated and metaphorized by the profit-oriented music repertoire.
In a party run by the project Tendence, I ran into Garrafa,
who I had already known for a while. He had brought in his cousin for
the first time to an electronica party. I soon noticed how diacritically
he was dressed for the occasion. The first contacts outsiders have with
these parties seem appropriate for expressing how exotic they can look
to each other. He was wearing shoes, formal shirt and trousers, and
had set his hair with gel, whereas all the others were dressed very
casually, with tennis shoes, colorful shorts and t-shirts, caps, and
so on, many exhibiting bodies full of tattoos and piercings, yet nobody
seemed to worry about him.
- I asked him if he was enjoying the party, and he answered me, saying:
“the problem is that there are too many men in here,” which called my
attention again. Up to that time, the party-goers’ main, publicly expressed
preoccupation was about the quality of the party in terms of location,
DJ line-up, quality of the sound system, and so on, all aspects centered
on music and musical experience. Garrafa’s cousin, however, was expressing
an expectation that was more suitable for parties centered on socialization
and flirtation, the profit-oriented kind of party Henry Jay referred
to above, though people flirt and socialize in these parties as well.
- Later on, while Garrafa was dancing, I saw his cousin alone, looking
bored, in a corner of the ballroom. The willingness to dance in any
party is maybe the best evidence for the embodiment or just the acceptance
of the party’s dominant ethos. Garrafa’s cousin was clearly refusing
it, consciously or unconsciously. This revealed to me that the local
appropriation of this musical language in this particular setting generates
a critical environment no longer accessible for its members through
the regular cultural codes and expectations they deploy to manage their
interactions in already-known cultural worlds. It makes local people
feel displaced in their own places by the diffusion of previously unpredictable
kinds of interaction.
- Besides being formed by itinerant parties held in the East Zone São
Paulo, this music scene offers a place for sociability independent of
the strict bounds of neighborhood and community. It represents a critical
place for the conventional use of the urban space. Moreover, attracting
young people from a variety of peripheral regions of São Paulo, the
parties that form this scene are usually difficult to get to, considering
the need for public transportation, its high cost for working-class
girls and boys, and the long distances they need to cover. It seems,
however, a difficulty worth overcoming, and it does not matter
how far or how long it may take to get there. The distance to get to
the party thus symbolizes the breaking of traditional standards of sociability
for the population living in “periphery”, standards based on the belonging
to a locally rooted web of interactions (family, neighbors, neighbor-friends),
meanwhile, the breaking of the imaginary rooted in the culture practiced
within these webs. Garrafa and his friends from Mauá city spend more
than an hour to get to the party every weekend, as well as their scarce
resources, when they could be attending other kinds of parties within
their own neighborhood. These, however, do not seem as appealing to
- In this presentation, through ethnographical description and audiovisual
recording, I have attempted to show how both working-class DJs and their
audiences in São Paulo have redefined the borders of their cultural
horizons and urban experience. Their musical practices are thereby the
language and tools to foster such redefinition, which becomes evident
when we look for the tensions they raise. This argument is supported
by theoretical and methodological assumptions emergening along contemporary
critical perspectives in anthropology, to which I attempt to attach
the importance of music in contemporary social life. I believe this
perspective is missed when relegated to the interests of particular
disciplines, especially if approached apart from people’s everyday life
and power relations.
- I argue that the way in which this music scene is fostered allows
the action of subordinate musicians/social actors in historically unprecedented
ways for the Brazilian music scenario, as well as what is allowed by
the current cultural and geopolitical conjuncture. The “strangeness”
of musical practices as source for tensions has empowered working-class
youths imaginarily and hence pragmatically, making their practices attractive
to their social peers, it seems, for its irreplaceable appeal in the face
of a variety of other genres and scenes.
The research and
writing of this paper were made possible through the sponsorship of CNPq
(National Council for the Technological and Scientific Development ) Brazil.
Instead of attributing an a priori meaning to “periphery,” as do widely known references in social sciences and humanistic literature (e.g. Wallerstein 2004; Burke 1998), dealing with “periphery” as an analytical category, I take “periphery” as a native category revealed by the protagonists of that research believing in potential new meanings that can emerge from the adoption of that perspective. They have used it so far to classify themselves as subjects and the world wherein they live through a multi-referential framework, from their local to a larger geopolitical setting. In the local scale, for example, “periphery” is currently used – by the way, in a quite essentialized way – to refer to all underdeveloped regions around the central ones, including as well São Paulo’s conurbations. It is a category to classify and interpret their urban environment, so much as to build their identity as “people who live in periphery.”
The debate on the global implications of music industry is usually left to the fields of Musicology and Ethnomusicology.
The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) by Michel De Certeau is maybe the best reference for this approach.
An ethnomusicological review of the topic should start with the contributions of Erlmann (1996), Feld (1994), Monson (1999), Slobin (1992) and Stokes (2004).
A more systematic approach to the concept of “scene” is given in Music Scenes: Local, Translocal and Virtual, edited by Bennett & Peterson (2004). The editors advocate, through diverse local examples, the “scene approach” for the study of popular music, as a common denominator to “[…] the contexts in which clusters of producers, musicians and fans collectively share their musical tastes and collectively distinguish themselves from others.” (2004: 1). As Bennett & Peterson point out, being the concept of “music scenes” primarily used by journalists and in everyday contexts, it has also “[…] functioned as a cultural resource for fans of particular music genres, enabling them to forge collective expressions of ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ identity to identify their cultural distinctiveness from the ‘mainstream’.” (2004: 2). Furthermore, the scene approach “[…] focuses on situations where performer, support facilities, and fans come together to collectively create music for their own enjoyment. In many ways the organization of music scenes contrasts sharply with that of multinational music industry, in which a relatively few people create music for mass markets. The scenes and industrial ways of making music of course depend on one another.” (2004: 3).
Both “local” and “translocal” types of scene recognized by Bennet & Peterson (2004) can be used to define this local scene. In their words, “[…] local scene, corresponds most closely with the original notion of a scene as clustered around a specific geographic focus. […] translocal scene, refers to widely scattered local scenes drawn into regular communication around a distinctive form of music and lifestyle.” (2004: 6 – my emphasis).
In a comparative, transcultural approach, the meaning of electronic dance music in this local scene could be closely related to the imagery of electronic music evoked in the 50s and 60s, as analyzed by Timothy Taylor in his book Strange Sounds (2001). The “strangeness” of this electronic dance music scene is, however, related to its paradoxical role in this socio-cultural setting as youth identity building.
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