Brazil dances to controversial beat of the slums

It's not your father's bossa nova.

The crowds packing the dance floors of Rio's clubs and discos are moving to baile funk, a rhythm that six months ago was denigrated as the music of the black or mulatto youngsters of Rio's favelas (hill slums).

Today, funk's clientele includes millionaire soccer players and entertainment celebrities, middle-class kids and their mothers. A hard-core, not-quite rap music created by Rio's disenfranchised, funk here is being embraced by mainstream society.

"Even I didn't think it would become so popular so quickly," admits Romulo Costa, the promoter behind funk's biggest acts. "[Now] if you don't play funk you are going under."

But it's more than a commercial success in Brazil's dance clubs. The music is introducing dozens of new words into the Portuguese language. And most controversial, its aggressive and sometimes violent dance moves combined with sexually explicit lyrics have prompted a nationwide debate over

whether the music is fomenting gang violence, abuse of women, and sexual promiscuity.

"What funk reveals is more important than the music itself," says Manoel Ribeiro, a Rio professor who has studied and written about funk since the early 1990s. "Funk gives a voice to those who have no voice," he says. "[But] it is not meant to be listened to, its roots are sensual, it is meant to be felt."

This musical trend has little in common with the laid-back jazz rhythms of other Brazilian musical styles such as samba or the bossa nova. Featuring a heavy beat and lyrics that are as much spoken as sung, Brazilian funk is also nothing like the funk of groovers like James Brown. The uninitiated could be forgiven for confusing it with American rap. Like rap, the samples are eclectic and the moves aggressive. But Brazilian funk lyrics make Eminem's songs sound tame.

The lyrics, while creative and frequently amusing, have caused much controversy in Brazil, first by romanticizing drug trafficking and more recently by stereotyping women as "good girls" or "whores." The choruses - unsophisticated and easy-to-remember chants like 'It's under control' or 'Take off your shirt" - are not meant to be taken too seriously, says Professor Ribeiro.

But the success of songs like 'Little Slap," in which a female singer tells her boyfriend, "A little slap doesn't hurt," has already caused some to attack the movement.

"Children, adolescents and youths aren't old enough to filter these messages and they could grow up thinking that hitting women is normal," said Deputy Lara Bernardi, a Congresswoman who petitioned radio and televisions not to play funk music. "Funk is [a] violent movement and the words offend women. This culture of machismo is what we have spent years trying to fight."

The mayor of the northeastern city of Salvador was one who responded to her plea by asking musicians not to play the offensive songs during last month's carnival. Several radio stations boycotted the songs and one popular singer, Daniela Mercury, replaced the words "Slap on the face" with "Kiss on the mouth." Armed police on Saturday closed down two Rio funk balls - dances where the music is played - after reporting many of the patrons were minors.

However, much of the Brazilian media has ignored the appeals. At least two television stations have aired programs devoted exclusively to funk, and countless others have featured the requisite sexually provocative dancers and heavy beat even on daytime shows. Producers, and more importantly their middle-class audiences, see funk as just another harmless trend, which has arrived almost 30 years after it was first played on crude sound systems in the impoverished Rio suburbs.

Two years ago funk won headlines after the police and media realized the funk balls were being used as venues for youths to stage sometimes fatal bare-knuckle battles. Critics called funk "the soundtrack for gang violence."

The death of several young men at the funk balls in 1999 and last year prompted authorities to crack down, and the decline of violence has allowed the funk balls to become more acceptable and accessible.

After years of struggling to get air space on radio, Mr. Costa's Furacao 2000 DJs launched their own radio show last year, and when that led gymnasiums to use funk songs during aerobics classes, the genre began to reach a wider audience. It is now so popular that samba schools turn over their halls to funk DJs, and shirtless male soccer fans chant funk slogans at matches.

Rio's youths adore the high-testosterone funk culture, even if they do not always identify with the music.

"I like a lot of music, but funk is simply the most fun," says one 20-year old funk fan. "I don't take it too seriously, it's just that most people my age are into it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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