I’m Ugly But Trendy (Sou feia mas tô na moda), directed by Denise Garcia review by Carlos Palombini

{1} The music we now know as funk carioca (Rio de Janeiro funk) derives not from funk but from Miami bass, a variety of hip-hop. The name funk has probably stuck to the music because of its roots in the bailes funk (funk dances) of the eighties,1 which in turn derive from the Black Rio (written “Black Rio” in Portuguese) dances of the seventies.2 The Black Rio scene used to gather thousands of mostly black and poor youths of the Rio de Janeiro periphery to dance to the sounds of James Brown and other soul acts in big bailes promoted by equipes de som (sound teams) that were the local equivalent of the Jamaican sound systems of the sixties and DJ Kool Herc’s Bronx block parties in the seventies. According to Hermano Vianna, in the second half of the eighties, seven hundred bailes funk were taking place every weekend in the greater Rio area, attracting from five hundred (a failure) to one thousand (the average), two thousand, or even ten thousand funksters, adding up to at least one million young people every Saturday and Sunday.3

Bailes black revelers

Black Rio revellers photographed by Almir Veiga for Lena Frias’s 1976
Jornal do Brasil feature

{2} Not unlike Northern Soul, a British scene that gravitated toward the spinning of obscure up-tempo Motown-like US-made records from 1963 to 1975 in such unfashionable English towns as Wolverhampton, Tunstall, Wigan, Blackpool and Cleethorpes,4 the 1970 to 1989 Funk Carioca scene relied on US-produced black musics spun in such unfashionable Rio de Janeiro outskirts as Catumbi, Andaraí, Grajaú, Jacarepaguá, Leopoldina, Irajá, Rocha Miranda, Madureira, Coleginho, Major Hermes, Pavuna, Ramos, São Gonçalo, Penha, Méier, Bangu and Pendotiba. However, while the Northern Soul scene lost momentum when in the early seventies US black music production moved towards Philly soul and funk, thus causing a lack of the right kind of obscure records, the Brazilian bailes showed a willingness to assimilate a variety of black musics and thus fed on US imports for two decades before generating its own music.

Bailes funk revelers

Baile funk revellers photographed by Guilherme Bastos for Hermano Vianna’s 1988 book

{3} Execrated and extolled by the media, for whom the slum dweller is either a bandit or a very creative person (as Ivana Bentes stated in a recent interview) and figuring side by side with sertanejo (Brazilian country music), pagode romântico (90s romantic pop samba) and axé (up-tempo Afro-pop from Bahia) among the most cited genres in lists of musical abominations, funk carioca, in which the slum dweller can be at the same time violent and creative, constitutes the first Brazilian genre of electronic dance music. Like Chicago house, funk carioca results from the appropriation of cheap technology by people with no formal musical training to produce music for segregated segments of the population, such as young black gays of Chicago, or in the case of funk carioca, young inhabitants of economically deprived urban areas of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities.

Baile Funk as filmed by Denise Garcia in 2005

{4} To avoid the staging of British acid-house-fueled free parties and raves, in 1994 the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland gave the police “powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave” where music “wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was played.5 A constant item on the agenda of the Legislative Assembly of the Rio de Janeiro State, which — with precarious syntax and concord — declares “forbidden the execution of pieces of music and procedures of crime apology in places where social or sportive events of any nature take place,”6 the funk dances share with UK raves the privilege of being fed by a specifically legislated music. Bailes funk must be understood in the context of not only the appropriation of black US musics by marginalized sectors of the Brazilian urban population but also of the acts of physical and symbolic violence perpetrated against these populations by the media, individuals, civil society and the state. Funk carioca brutally disrupts the myth of joyful interaction between masters and slaves, beachfront and slum. The nationhood funk carioca portrays is irretrievably partitioned.

{5} Denise Garcia’s initial motivation behind Sou feia mas tô na moda (hereafter I’m Ugly But Trendy) was music. Back in Porto Alegre, the southern capital where she lived till 2000, Ms. Garcia had experienced music as bringing together people from different backgrounds and social classes. Moving to Rio that year she realized that despite much talk about social and racial mixing in what has been construed as the national genre par excellence, samba, relationships between the rich and the poor had become tense in the cultural capital of the nation. That was the time when poor and more often than not black girls were emerging from the favelas (the slums), such as MCs Vanessinha Pikachú and Tati Quebra-Barraco. Vanessinha, whose epithet may be construed as an infantile allusion to the male organ, states in “Rap da Kawasaki” that she wants “to go to the shopping mall” rather than “stay at home washing piles of dishes.”7

Get closer on your Kawasaki, baby, bring money in your pocket:
Partying at someone else’s expense hurts nobody.

No more walking home; I ride back on the Kawasaki, my booty raised up.
Get it right, guys, I’m no mercenary. I just can’t stand this precarious situation.
I don’t want to end up with a broken man, wiping the floor, washing piles of dishes.
I want to go to the shopping mall, the hell with everything else, to buy clothes and outfits by Gang.

Similarly, Tati, whose epithet may be translated as the Do-It Girl,8 sings that:

I spent three months not doing it.
I’m ugly but I’m trendy.
I’m now able to pay the hotel for men
And that’s what matters.
Do it with me, do it with me!9

{6} The immediate reaction Vanessinha and Tati faced from newspapers, magazines and television was outright rejection. Ms. Garcia remarked on this public outcry: “The feeling I got then was that those girls weren’t supposed to use their knowledge, their experiences in the music they made, which means they weren’t supposed to express themselves.”10 Her feelings of empathy soon turned to solidarity, leading to her decision to make a movie. She phoned the Do-It Girl for an interview and spent one year in and out of the favelas, going to bailes funk all over Rio.

{7} Dwellers of Brazilian slums are not unused to the foreign gaze, which is ever in search of glimpses of “true” Brazilian authenticity thought to stem from the harsh realities of life in the favelas. Aracy Côrtes’s wonderful 1932 Columbia recording of Assis Valente’s “Tem francesa no morro” (“There’s a French Lady in the Slum”), sung entirely in pidgin French, can be heard as a humorous take on the exotic nature of the supposedly harmonious blending of black and white that would become a mythical trait in the discourse of racial relations from the 1930s on. And although sambas dealing with the visit of a wealthy beachfront dweller to the hills on whose slopes most of the favelas rest are rare,11 accounts of the problematic descent of the slum dweller to the beachfront are not uncommon. See for instance “Comigo não” (“Don’t Try it on Me”) by Heitor Catumbi and Valentina Biosca (Victor, 1935); “Sambista na Cinelândia” (“Samba Dancer in the Cinelândia”) by Custódio Mesquita and Mário Lago (Odeon, 1936); “Cabaret no morro” (“Cabaret in the Slum”) by Herivelto Martins (Odeon, 1937); and “Mulato antimetropolitano” (“Anti-metropolitan Mulatto”) by Laurindo de Almeida (Odeon, 1939), all performed by Carmen Miranda. In “Cabaret no morro,” the music passionately takes sides with a character who is an open invitation to caricature: the woman who no longer likes scamps and decides to leave the favela hoping one day to return arm in arm with a rich man. Foreshadowing the personal tragedy that will likely follow, Carmen Miranda’s voice rises and plunges in fantastic timbral figurations enveloped by arabesques in the lowest register of the clarinet in one of her greatest performances.

{8} How have the people of Cidade de Deus (City of God) reacted to Ms. Garcia’s visits? She says, “Since the beginning I was welcome, probably because I was one of the first women they saw that could speak Portuguese, was interested in them and was Brazilian like them.”12 No one ever hinted that she should request the drug dealers’ permission and Ms. Garcia sensed that she was allowed to do her job as long as she was honest to the people involved and herself. She continued: “If you see the ones you are documenting as people just like you, you are in a good direction.”13 A big fan of the Ramones, Ms. Garcia sees funk carioca as the local avatar of the punk spirit. The roughness of punk is certainly a trait of funk carioca. Much to the filmmaker’s regret, however, it is also a trait of her movie: Ms. Garcia strove to get funding from local companies, but their replies were invariably the same: “we do not wish to see our name associated with bailes funk.” I’m Ugly But Trendy was made with no money at all. So much the better: just like the subjects it portrays, the film bears the scars of undeserved poverty.

{9} Alas, perspectives for even modest returns are slim. Far removed from the slumsploitation aesthetics that have come to dominate approaches to the favela by Brazilian television and cinema,14 I’m Ugly But Trendy is much closer to a homemade video. Ms. Garcia has had to rely on the goodwill of friends in Europe for takes in London and Paris, and she has had to rely on the goodwill of an English friend for subtitles. She has had to be confident in slum dwellers’ perception of herself as one of them and in strict enforcement of the ethics of so-called organized crime — one does not commit violence against those from one’s own communities — to get in and out of the favela and not be robbed of the equipment which she could not afford to insure and on which her daily income depended. But had she gotten in with the same apparatus as Fernando Meireles and Kátia Lund for City of God in 2002 or as Spike Lee and Michael Jackson for their “They Don’t Care About Us” video clip from 1996 (Brazilian version), would she still have been able to depict the intimacy of human beings whose subjectivities are tirelessly effaced under the favelado15 moniker?

{10} So far as one can judge from the documentary results, in the favela at least, honesty is the best policy. The level of empathy between Ms. Garcia and those whose everyday life she records is striking. As a result the viewer is brought into intimate contact with people whose trust he or she might only be able to gain after much labor if at all. Returning from excursions to fields into which few of us would venture, Ms. Garcia brings back the marvel of a music in the making. And we hear funk carioca as it has never been heard before, not even on the most forbidden of pirate CDs. MC G3 opens the film singing a cappella against the silent backdrop of a massive wall of loudspeakers, thus connecting the equipes de som of Rio to other musical expressions of the African Diaspora.

A vocal improvisation to the accompaniment of handclaps by a group of friends connects funk carioca to the Brazilian traditions of repente16, samba de roda17 and partido alto18 while establishing a link between these traditions and the proto-rap of The Last Poets.

Deise da Injeção sings a cappella in her front yard while Ramona — a transgendered woman — performs an overly explicit choreographed act.

{11} While filming, Ms. Garcia was unsure what the end product of her efforts would be, and yet the funk acts she was working with remained collaborative and open. She believes it was only on watching the film at the classy Odeon cinema in Rio that they realized what she was up to. She said, “In my film there is no sociologist or anthropologist to explain the funksters’ words; they talk by themselves.”19 In her view, their reaction to the Rio première testified to her success: “they were happy and loud during the whole session.”20

{12} But is I’m Ugly But Trendy really a film where funksters speak by themselves? Of course not! If this were true Ms. Garcia would not be a movie director. The reality she presents is a highly contrived one. From seventy hours of recorded material she made an hour-long film, thus leaving out sixty-nine hours of original footage, and not always at the funksters’ request. Rather than a film about funk, I’m Ugly But Trendy is a film à thèse, a film about sexual explicitness as a means to women’s empowerment. The idea that repetition of sexist male discourse by favela women may constitute a form of gender activism has met with derision. This possibility was nevertheless explained by Elizabeth Wood and Philip Brett apropos of lesbian and gay music in 2001:

     Music, especially popular music, often seems to respond in its playful, coy or disruptive tactics around the vocal as well as visual representation of sex and gender (consider Madonna, Prince or Boy George) to Judith Butler’s notion of these supposedly natural characteristics as “performative” utterances (i.e. like speech-acts) to which subjects submit in a constrained repetition as part of entry into language and society. Butler proposes the notable inversion in which “if a regime of sexuality mandates a compulsory performance of sex, then it may be only through that performance that the binary system of gender and the binary system of sex come to have intelligibility at all.”21

{13} As the Finnish musicologist Eero Tarasti remarks in his book on Villa-Lobos, “Brazil has always been the promised land of rhetoric and all kinds of roundabout expressions and embroidering of facts, where nothing is expressed directly.”22 From the eighties to his death in 2005,23 Bezerra da Silva (1927–2005) resorted to the authenticity matrix of partido alto24 to unashamedly sing the black, the poor and the slum in so-called gangsta sambas (sambandidos) by otherwise unknown favela artists. When Miami bass comes to underscore lyrics that are even blunter than those Silva sang, a break with the integrationist paradigm is nigh complete.

{14} The world of funk carioca moves fast and leaves few footprints behind. By 2007, the sight of non-conformist women who have rejected preconceived standards of beauty taking to the stage to shout their readiness to engage in the most outrageously wild forms of sexual intercourse had all but vanished, replaced with duels between a generic male subject’s mistress (amante) and faithful wife (fiel), who challenge each other to rap about the advantages of their respective positions. Ms. Garcia’s documentary remains a tribute to the former incarnation of funk carioca.

I have observed countless students watching it, and the memory of their faces remains as vivid as the memory of the film’s finest moments: alert, their bodies projecting from their seats, their eyes wide open, their faces smiling in wonder at a culture that most seem intent on keeping away from them.

References

Assembléia Legislativa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro. Lei 3410 de 29 de maio de 2000. 29 May 2000.
<alerjln1.alerj.rj.gov.br/CONTLEI.NSF/c8aa0900025feef6032564ec0060dfff/
756831a75d413aa4032568ef005562d8?OpenDocument&Highlight=0,3410
>.

Brett, Philip and Elizabeth. “Lesbian and Gay Music.” In Electronic Musicological Review. Curitiba: Universidade Federal do Paraná, 2002. <www.rem.ufpr.br/_REM/REMv7/Brett_Wood/Brett_and_Wood.html>. Reprinted in Queering the Pitch: the New Gay and Lesbian and Musicology, edited by Philip Brett; Elizabeth Wood; and Gary C. Thomas, 351-389. 2d ed. New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2006.

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, edited by Diana Fuss, 13–31. New York and London: Routledge, 1991. Reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove; Michèle Aina Barale; and David Halperin, 307-320. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Cecchetto, Fátima Regina. Violência e estilos de masculinidade. Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2004.

Coelho, Marisa C., ed. Tesauro do folclore e cultura popular brasileira. Centro Nacional de Folclore e Cultura Popular, 2004. Online:  <www.cnfcp.gov.br/tesauro>.

Essinger, Silvio. Batidão: uma história do funk. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo: Record, 2005.

Frias, Lena. “Black Rio: o orgulho (importado) de ser negro no Brasil.” Jornal do Brasil Caderno B (17 July, 1976): 1, 4–6. <festablax.multiply.com/photos/album/24/Materia_Black_Rio_de_Lena_Frias_-_Jornal_do_Brasil_170776>.

Gilligan, Melanie. “Slumsploitation: the Favela on Film and TV.” Mute: Culture and Politics After the Net 2 (2006): 28–34. <www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/slumsploitation-favela-film-and-tv>.

Lopes, Nei. Partido alto: samba de bamba. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2005.

McCann, Bryan. “Black Pau: Uncovering the History of Brazilian Soul.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 14 (2002): 33–62.

McGowan, Chris and Ricardo Pessanha. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil, new edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Melo, Dafne and Ivana Bentes. “O contraditório discurso da TV sobre a periferia.” Brasil de fato: uma visão popular do Brasil e do mundo. 2 February, 2007.
<artenaperiferia.blogspot.com/2009/10/o-contraditorio-discurso-da-tv-sobre.html>
and <www.geledes.org.br/areas-de-atuacao/comunicacao/312-artigos-de-comunicacao/
2767-o-contraditorio-discurso-da-tv-sobre-a-periferia
>.

Tarasti, Eero. Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Life and Works, 1887–1959. Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1995.

Thayer, Allen. “Brazilian Soul and DJ Culture’s Lost Chapter.” Wax Poetics 16 (2006): 88–106. <soulspectrum.blogspot.com>.

United Kingdom. Parliament. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994). Office of Public Sector Information. <www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1994/33/contents>.

Vianna, Hermano. O mundo funk carioca. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1988.

Vianna, Letícia C. R. Bezerra da Silva: produto do morro. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1999.


Notes

  1. See Hermano Vianna, O mundo funk carioca (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1988).
  2. See Silvio Essinger, Batidão: uma história do funk (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo: Record, 2005), 15–48; Bryan McCann, “Black Pau: Uncovering the History of Brazilian Soul” in Journal of Popular Music Studies 14 (2002): 33–62; and Allen Thayer, “Brazilian Soul and DJ Culture’s Lost Chapter” in Wax Poetics 16 (2006), 88–106.
  3. Vianna, 13.
  4. See Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (New York: Grove Press, 2000), 103.
  5. Clause 63 of the United Kingdom’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994. See United Kingdom, Parliament, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994, from the Office of Public Sector Information, <www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1994/33/contents>.
  6. Clause 6 of Law 3410, 29 May 2000. See Assembléia Legislativa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Lei 3410 de 29 de maio de 2000. See  <alerjln1.alerj.rj.gov.br/CONTLEI.NSF/c8aa0900025feef6032564ec0060dfff/
    756831a75d413aa4032568ef005562d8?
    OpenDocument&Highlight=0,3410>.
  7. For full lyrics, see Fátima Regina Cecchetto, Violência e estilos de masculinidade (Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2004), 234–235.
  8. “Tati Quebra-Barraco” literally means “Tati who tears the hut down,” and figuratively means “Tati who makes trouble,” a term alluding to a heightened desire for sex.
  9. Tati Quebra-Barraco, Bruno DJ and Ricardo Gama, “Sou feia mas tô na moda,” sung by Tati Quebra-Barraco in the CD Tati Quebra-Barraco, produced by DJ Marlboro for Link Records, LNK 074-2. n.d.
  10. Denise Garcia, in an email message to the author, 5 March 2007. All quotations from Garcia’s emails remain in the original English.
  11. “O Neguinho e a Senhorita” (“The Little Black Boy and the Young Lady”), by Noel Rosa de Oliveira and Abelardo da Silva, recorded by Noite Ilustrada in 1965; and “Voltei pro morro” (“I’m Back to the Slum”), by Luiz Peixoto and Vicente Paiva, recorded by Carmen Miranda in 1940, are two exceptions to this rule.
  12. Garcia, email message, 5 March 2007.
  13. Ibid.
  14. See Melanie Gilligan, “Slumsploitation: the Favela on Film and TV,” in Mute: Culture and Politics After the Net 2 (2006), 28–34, online at
    <www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/slumsploitation-favela-film-and-tv>.
  15. Literally, slumized; a highly charged term for “slum dweller.”
  16. Repente or desafio are contests between two vocalists consisting of poetic improvisation. See Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 209, 211.
  17. A dance-rhythm samba in which the melody is sung by a soloist and answered by the choir of participants who stand in circle. Instruments include viola, guitar, cavaquinho, timbaus, tambourines, handclaps and a dish scraped on its edge by a spoon. See Marisa C. Coelho, Tesauro do folclore e cultura popular brasileira, Centro Nacional de Folclore e Cultura Popular, 2004. Online: <www.cnfcp.gov.br/tesauro>.
  18. A type of samba where singers improvise verses after a standard refrain.
  19. Garcia, email message, 5 March 2007.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Philip Brett and Elizabeth Wood, “Lesbian and Gay Music,” in Electronic Musicological Review. Curitiba: Universidade Federal do Paraná, 2002, <www.rem.ufpr.br/_REM/REMv7/Brett_Wood/Brett_and_Wood.html>. Reprinted in Queering the Pitch: the New Gay and Lesbian and Musicology 2d ed., ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas (New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2006), 351–389: 358. The Butler quotation originally comes from Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 13–31: 29; reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove; Michèle Aina Barale; and David Halperin. (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 307–320: 318.
  22. Eero Tarasti, Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Life and Works, 1887–1959 (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1995), 35.
  23. Letícia C. R. Vianna, Bezerra da Silva: produto do morro (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1999), 100.
  24. See Nei Lopes, Partido alto: samba de bamba (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2005).
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