Favela On Blast
by Thomas Brett
The documentary movie Favela On Blast (produced by the American DJ Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo) explores the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. The name of this energized and hard-hitting music is variously known as funk carioca, favela funk, and baile funk. Musically, funk carioca is a particular rhythm that mixes American electronic funk (specificically, Miami bass) with the diverse influences of Brazilian music (such as xaxado, coco, baião, forró, and samba rhythms). The music has its origins in the 1980s when records of Miami bass caught on in Rio via DJs who went to Miami to soak up and bring back the latest sounds.
Early funk carioca sampled these Miami bass rhythms. If you want to hear a seminal track that influenced the course of funk carioca, listen to “8 Volt Mix” by DJ Battery Brain. This track has the elements of what would become the funk carioca sound: the Roland TR-808 drum machine sounds, a syncopated rhythm (that can be traced back to electro music), and the horn stabs:
(If you want to dig further into where Battery Brain borrowed his material, check out this site, www.whosampled.com to listen to ten tracks that found their way into “8 Volt Mix.”)
Since the 1990s, these rhythms, along with short samples of horn section stabs for melodic interest (samples from the horns of James Brown and from the Rockie movie soundtrack are ever popular) have been the backdrop over which dozens of Rio MCs have sung and rapped on the topics of social and racial justice, poverty, violence, crime, and sex.
Favela On Blast has wonderful, “fly on the wall” footage that allows us to watch DJs putting together their funk carioca tracks in the most modest of home recording studios. In one clip we see DJ Jorginho Matarazzo looping a percussion track, adding samples of horn stabs, and moving around audio clips of an MC he just recorded minutes earlier. The software and computer are ancient, but that doesn’t stop Matarazzo from working effortlessly at breakneck speed to finish his track. If nothing else, funk carioca is always, always relevant because it’s of the moment.
In another scene, DJ Sany Pitbull describes how the music has evolved since the 1990s, when DJs would just spin records of Miami bass, to today where DJs literally “drum” out patterns on their Akai samplers on the instrument’s little rubber pads: ”Before the DJ played [the turntable] like that…Today it’s like this drumming…” We see that Pitbull is talking about in clips from funk parties where the DJs improvise the placement of their sampled horn stabs over the massive Miami bass-derived beats. It’s really live, interactive music.
The massiveness of what funk carioca sounds and feels like live is a big part of its affect. As DJ Carlos Machado notes: “Bass makes a mess of your consciousness. It is a tribal song. You to go to understand your ancestry.” And the sheer exuberance and power of the music makes it something people can channel themselves into. Thus, MC Catra describes the music as “a safety valve for crime and prostitution, a catalyst for faith, joy, sensuality, creativity, love and sex. Funk is all this together.”
Overall, Favela On Blast offers ethnographically rich portraits of the funk carioca music culture. The footage is lush, the DJs and MCs speak for themselves, in their locales, about their work and we read their words in translation; they make music and we watch them do it.