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Born In Brazilian Favelas, Funk Carioca Breaks Into Spotlight

Like hip hop in American cities, funk carioca was born in Brazil's inner cities, and now has arrived in one of Rio’s most prestigious theaters. Yet police remain wary of what's behind the beats.

Clipe do Passinho's "Todo Mundo Aperta o Play" music video
Clipe do Passinho's "Todo Mundo Aperta o Play" music video
Arnaud Robert

RIO DE JANEIRO — The battle takes place in the midst of Rio's city center. Cops are parading with their bulletproof vests, the crack smokers in their rags. A small, rebellious and shirtless troop, wearing brand new Nikes, is standing in front of them, dancing on the stairs that lead to the Joao Caetano Theater.

It is only a few minutes before the curtain raise.

A huge poster covers the façade of this cultural institution, founded in 1813. On it, you can see a young man, his body stretched out, and a title that now resonates through RioNa batalha, in the fight.

We hear nervous laughter inside the theater. These dancers don't seem to be more than 18 years old. They're a dozen boys and only one girl. "I'm in this theater for the first time and, imagine this, I'm going to perform," said Endrew Nobre, a young man with tiny braids and childish postures. "Nobody believed in this project, not even my family. And now we're here."

Nobre isn't being pretentious: you can see tears in his eyes. He adjusts his steps to those of his colleagues. His movements are not only reminiscent of the capoeira but of the frevo, a dance from Recife carnivals and of breakdance. These steps are unique — no one really knows where they come from.

They were born in the slums.

A favela tempo reaches the upper class

The outskirts are taking over the heart of the city, precisely where they're most feared. Here, favelas are considered the ultimate repulsive place, an area of terror — dramatized over and over by television.

This is a recent story — the story of funk carioca and passinho. This is the story of an electronic music that sprung out of Brazilian favelas and of a dance that grew at the door of open-air nightclubs, in the exorbitant vibrations of boundary walls.

Has it been ten, twenty years already? Everything moves so fast in Rio. Mateus Aragão, a nonchalant 30-year-old Brazilian born in the upper middle class, discovered funk from his privileged window when he was younger. He was listening to the sounds of the favela perched on the neighboring hill.

Since then, Aragão has been organizing "bailes funk", or funk balls, in the upper-class districts of Rio's southern area.

“I was fascinated by this rhythm, so I decided to bring the favelas music into town as soon as the opportunity presented itself," he said. "I created the "Eu Amo Baile Funk" parties here. Rockers hated us. Yet they had to recognize that funk was the rhythm of the carioca youth."

What is currently hatching here in Rio is somewhat similar to what took place in New York in the 1980s — the rise of hip hop. Think about it. A jeered cultural movement from the suburbs conquered Manhattan, then the world. Here, everyone sees that story as a model.

And this first show in a 200-year-old theater, right in the midst of a city that hosted the World Cup, feels quite like a conquest.

Dance v. public order

The adventure is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture to give it credibility. Nike is dressing the dancers. These favela kids cannot believe their eyes in their new fluorescent shoes.

Everyone, literally everyone, is here: the favelas, that seem to have migrated to the city's lower areas, the headlining DJs, and the media, eager to finally see this fresh, new blood. Even Coca-Cola shot a video featuring these young dancers for the World Cup. In the clip, you see them proudly presenting their passinho.

Has Brazil reconciled with its fringes? Are favelas now fashionable? It takes no more than an hour to drive to the north and realize that the situation isn't that simple.

A few hundred meters before the entrance of the "dry tree" favela Arvore Seca, your stomach starts trembling. There, a deep bass sounds like a slow earthquake. Gangs are guarding the entrance, and the military police are keeping watch on the other side. They all have the same weapons.

A historical baile funk is back in the favela, after being banned for several months. The dances were a collateral victim of the pacification campaign that took place among several carioca favelas. Brazilian security forces seem to abhor musical buzzing as much as they hate drug trafficking. Many funk songs, glorifying crime or being simply licentious, were banned by a special law. Funk, in the minds of World Cup cleaners, is a threat to public order.

Yet the baile finally resumes, under patrol scrutiny.

A new life to Rio's culture

Eddy Excelent is watching the opposite favela from a concrete roof overlooking Arvore Seca. He sees a multitude of small, lit-up houses in a stillness only broken by the sound of the dance. Excelent is rehearsing his steps with a friend, Jean Valentim. He's only 21, yet had already learned ten U.S. dances before taking on passinho moves.

He does meticulous moves with his feet and arms, and can create martial, frenzied and astonishingly precise combinations. The young Brazilian looks like a samba dancer, plugged into the digital age with a USB cable.

“I live a bit further up, in the favela. The pacification prevented us from organizing any ball. We now have an authorization, so it has to go well. Otherwise, this will be over."

These young dancers know the violence of their neighborhood, but also the morgue of those who don't live on these hills. They faced the bans of the happenings after publishing their videos on YouTube. They know that, with their agile steps, they are giving a new life to Rio’s culture. But they also know that a return to normal, to exclusion, could happen very quickly.

Facing a fortress of loudspeakers, which could outdo even Jamaican sound systems, Eddy, in his small, mischievous body, embodies the history of Brazil — a fascination for America, some African somersaults, and the Atlantic audacity. Music is poor, but dance will prosper.

It is 4 in the morning. All lights are shut down so the curfew isn’t broken. The Maracanã stadium is a bulging shadow around which soldiers are wandering.

The Na batalha show went on at the Joao Caetano Theater until the World Cup final match. The favela dance gained a moment of international visibility, an artform with roots in the U.S. was transformed into a local expression. These ageless, genderless dancers recover their uniqueness, miming cabaret queens and urban warriors.

As if nothing, not even Nike, could standardize this language from the hills.

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