Funk baile (dance) begins to make a return to Rio favelas

Pacification banned all funk dances initially, because they were the province (and the culture) of drug traffickers

UPP Police search a car and its occupants

Last night was a night with drama so gripping one could barely pull away and pay a real to get down the hill to placid Tijuca by way of  a crumbling VW bus with a barefoot man at the wheel, driven in reverse half the way because a patrol car was blocking the usual turnaround.

Would the pacification police allow Fogueteiro, a favela pacified in February 2011, to hold a funk dance late into the night? Would there be a discussion, a fight, arrests, shooting?

Or would there be tranquil acceptance of the screaming electronic jackhammer music that makes so many butts bob and shimmy?

Adult attraction winds up the family funk dance

Strangely, this drama had drawn no Brazilian media.

And strangely, this is the hook, symbolic and possibly even real, on which pacification hangs. For it’s all about who’s in charge, in territories so recently beyond government purview.

It’s a hook with history: back in the early twentieth century, samba was the banned music. If you so much as walked the streets with a tambourine, you could get arrested and your instrument confiscated. Samba was considered too sexy, too African, a bad influence.

It’s this theory of relativity that certain gringas keep reminding themselves of, in the clear-eyed knowledge that chairs aren’t involved, as little girls bob and shimmy their butts onstage to a song that tells them, Senta, senta, senta! (Sit, sit, sit).

Xuxa’s kiddie shows of yore look tame

The baile was a reward for the girls’ soccer team’s victory in an intra-favela championship. The state health secretariat paid a bigtime funk dance production company, Furacão 2000, to come in and run the show. As one of the emcees urged on on those little girls, he parenthetically told the crowd how to avoid dengue fever (never allow water to collect). One couldn’t avoid the thought, looking around at dozens of derrière-endowed women clutching babies, that family planning information might have been more on topic.

Once the teen funk contest was over and the soccer players had been feted, neighborhood association president Cintia Luna took center stage to ask residents to sign a petition demanding that a state regulation effectively banning favela funk dances be rescinded. Created unilaterally by the state Public Safety Secretariat in January 2007, the regulation seems to have laid the groundwork for what might be called the cultural aspect of police pacification, which began in November 2008.

The warmup

As a result, funk lives a bizarre double life. Fully accepted in venues on the “asphalt” (formal city), the music that has become Rio’s most popular sound is mostly prohibited in pacified favelas. The situation has led droves of young people to abandon their own relatively safe territories for those that pacification hasn’t yet reached, where the proibidão (the version with prohibited lyrics), glorifying violence, sex and drug trafficking still reigns.

The quadra (community samba court), built by local merchants three years ago, sits on a slight dip way at the top of Fogueteiro Hill, part of a series of favelas covering hilltops between Santa Teresa and Rio Comprido, not far from downtown Rio. Inside, moms and babes and teens cheered and shimmied. Outside, by a couple of snack and drink booths, mototaxis let off passengers, swooped around and zoomed back up the incline.  A few yards down the street, just beyond the spot where the swooping around was happening, at the rear of the quadra, sits the municipal Zélia Gattai Amado Child Development Center. Raw-brick houses and alleys stretch away and down, with more in another favela twinkling off in the distance. “Go look at the view,” American journalist Taylor Barnes had suggested. “It’s gorgeous”.

Boys dance the passinho

Barnes wasn’t the only one who appreciated the view. Built nine years ago, the Center had never functioned because drug traffickers used the spot as a lookout. Reinaugurated this past April, the area seems to retain some of its karma; just off the road, among the doorways and alleys, dozens of young men puffed on marijuana cigarettes, producing a smoke cloud so thick that Julia Tierney, an American doctoral student in urban planning from UC Berkeley, suggested moving away since she was getting a headache from it.

Brazilians are famous for their friendly disposition, but centuries of weak institutions and broken promises have built up a huge store of mistrust behind the smiles and kisses. Back up the street from the smoke-o-drome, neighborhood association president Luna– more a fan of Marisa Monte than of funk– hung around outside the quadra entrance, stressing over the grim police. “They’re just looking for an excuse to shut it down,” she said, before moving up the street to a small area where cars were pulling up by a couple of snack bars.

Times have been tough. Only last month a Fogueteiro resident was killed by police, possibly for no good reason, possibly because he was involved in drug trafficking.  On the other hand, last September another confrontation left a police officer tetraplegic. And this community is also part of a city region where police have been indicted for “selling back” the drug market to local traffickers.

Outside looking in

At about nine p.m. a couple of pacification police ran down the incline in the direction of the quadra, rifles in hand. Barnes and American videographer Jimmy Chalk ran after them. The cops didn’t go as far as the smoky lookout; they quickly returned to the high ground. It looked like the gringoes had asked them to playact a bit for the mini-documentary they were shooting, on pacification. But no, the action was real, Chalk and Barnes said on their return a couple of minutes later.

Then a fancy white car pulled up, and the police busied themselves with the examination of documents, seat cushions and trunk. “There are a lot more police here than usual,” commented Luna.

After an impromptu visit last Wednesday from UPP chief Colonel Rogério Seabra, Luna had taken it on herself to write him an email, asking for permission to extend the state-sponsored kiddie funk dance to a later hour, for adults.

Drama onstage and off

“He didn’t answer,” she told RioRealblog. “So I assumed that meant to go ahead, carefully. Otherwise he would have come out and said no.” She paused. “But I imagine he sent in all these extra soldiers and told them to clamp down any way possible.” On camera, Luna told Barnes and Chalk  that the way things are going, she believes a military dictatorship is in the offing. Since the end of Brazil’s last dictatorship, in 1985,  its democracy has slowly developed to the point where it became possible– and  necessary– to begin including the poor in the formal economy and start integrating favelas into the formal city.

But the challenges this implies are enormous. Pacification means that a favela’s supreme authority is no longer a drug trafficker. Should pacification police should take his place? In the absence of vibrant community participation and without vigilance by media and civil society (aside from us gringoes, Luna stood watching the night’s events unfold with one other local woman, plus an intrepid UFRJ Social Services student and her protective boyfriend), the authority vacuum is huge and limits aren’t clear.

Car inspection completed, the cops climbed into their car, turned on the siren and zoomed out of the crowded street, rifle nozzles sticking out the windows. Ten minutes later they were back. Another carful of people turned up and the cops took out flashlights to peer into the hood.

It would be a good idea to try and talk to the soldiers, but who knew how they would react?

Looking down the incline towards the entrance to the quadra

Despite her aching head, Julia Tierney, who just finished a Master’s in city planning at MIT, commented that her thesis research found that many police say they need to overemphasize their authority so as not to allow things to slip back to the gradual encroachment of criminal gangs into urban territory that started in the 1980s.

Just down the cross street of the main way up the hill, another group of police had some guys with their hands up against a wall in the dark. When we finally dragged ourselves away and walked a few steps down that main street to the VW bus pickup point, we could see yet another automobile search going on.

One should remember that Rio’s military police and its pacification units within that institution are by no means a monolithic entity. State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame has shown himself to be open to discussing human rights issues. But the soldiers below him have a long tradition of tough-guy training and street behavior. It was easy to imagine, looking at their stony faces and easy ways with those  rifles, that the wildly sexy moves of funk dancing might just mess a bit too much with the hearts and minds of some men whose job it is to keep order.

As of almost midnight yesterday, the dance was still on, a small victory for residents.

By 1 a.m, we well-behaved gringoes, the UFRJ student and her boyfriend, and Cíntia  Luna were all in bed with ringing ears, leaving the cops to search every car that came up Fogueteiro Hill. Most likely, we didn’t see half the fun that a “real” baile funk is said to provide. We also didn’t see the police firing shots in a crowded space at  1:30 a.m., as Luna later reported she heard was the case. Apparently no one was hurt.

Post baile funk pitstop in Tijuca: queijo coalho a la hairdryer

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About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro almost 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Funk baile (dance) begins to make a return to Rio favelas

  1. Zaida Knight says:

    Admirável sua trajetória, Julia. Parabéns! Ah, se eu fosse um pouquinho mais jovem, estaria nessa. Tenho gratas memórias de tardes dominicais no morro da Ladeira Tabajaras na minha infância e juventude. Muito mais interessante do que a Avenida Atlântica da minha avó. Esperemos que a situação continue a melhorar no Fogueteiro.

  2. Selvagem! Surpreendentemente descritivo.

  3. Lee Weingast says:

    Beltrame says that the UPP is just meant to pave the way for services (UPP Social) and not to be the governing force in pacified favelas. But how will order be kept, and drug traffickers be kept out?
    Also, just to provide a wee bit of perspective for folks who don’t live here in Rio: the police frequently drive around all parts of the city with their rifles sticking out the car window. This wasn’t special behavior for the favela.

  4. Rio real says:

    Lee, order will be kept, eventually (if all this works out and continues) by ordinary police, as in the rest of the city. Where there are drug traffickers… the UPP is basically a retaking of territory. And thanks for the wee bit; I forgot to say that!!

  5. ARvWD says:

    Julia: of course, I was thinking of your blog when I mentioned funk, so I’ll put in a link … and thanks for the like!

  6. Pingback: Beyond Pacification in Rio de Janeiro

  7. Pingback: Opinion: Beyond Pacification | The Rio Times | Brazil News

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