Roundtable | Music and the Public Sphere, “Globalizing the Periphery: Transnational Extensions and Local Tensions in a Global/Underground Music Scene in Brazil,” by Ivan Paolo de Paris Fontanari

Globalizing the Periphery: 
Transnational Extensions and Local Tensions in a Global/Underground Music Scene in Brazil

Ivan Paolo de Paris Fontanari
Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul1

Invitation 

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 his friends. 

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 sambaon 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 sambaaxépagodeforrósertanejo 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 social actors. 

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 debate.3

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 processes. 

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. 

Transnational Extensions

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 axépagodesamba, 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 repertoire. 

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 and Canada.7

Local Tensions

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 them. 

Conclusion

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.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Bennett, Andy and Peterson, Richard, eds. Music Scenes: Local, Translocal and Virtual. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2004.

Burke, Peter. The European Renaissance: centers and peripheries. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Erlmann, Veit. “The Aesthetics of the Global Imagination: Reflections on World Music in the 1990s”. Public Culture 8.3 (1996): 467-87.

Feld, Steven. “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discurses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Music’ and ‘World Beat.’“ In: Keil, Charles and Steven Feld. Music Grooves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Featherstone, Mike, org. Global culture: nationalism, globalization and modernity. London: Sage. 1990.

Inda, J. Xavier and Renato Rosaldo. The Anthropology of Globalization. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.

Marcus, George E. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 24 (1995): 95-117.

Merrian, Alan. The Anthropology of Music. Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1964.

Monson, Ingrid. “Riffs, Repetition and Globalization”. Ethnomusicology 43.1 (1991): 31-65.

Slobin, Mark. “Micromusics of the West: A Comparative Approach.” Ethnomusicology. 36.1 (192): 1-87.

Stokes, Martin. “Music and the Global Order”. Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 47-72.

Taylor, Timothy D. Strange Sounds: Music, Technology & Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 2001.

Tsing, Ana. “The Global Situation”. In: Inda, J. X. and Rosaldo, R. (eds.). The Anthropology of Globalization. Blackwell, Malden, 1994, p. 453-485.

Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-systems analysis: an introduction. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.

Williams, Gilbert A. “The Black Disc Jockey as a Cultural Hero”.Popular Music and Society 10.3 (1986): 79–90.

Footnotes

  1. The research and writing of this paper were made possible through the sponsorship of CNPq (National Council for the Technological and Scientific Development ) Brazil.
  2. 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.”
  3. The debate on the global implications of music industry is usually left to the fields of Musicology and Ethnomusicology.
  4. The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) by Michel De Certeau is maybe the best reference for this approach.
  5. An ethnomusicological review of the topic should start with the contributions of Erlmann (1996), Feld (1994), Monson (1999), Slobin (1992) and Stokes (2004).
  6. 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).
  7. 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).
  8. 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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