Feliz Ano Novo from Iemanjá and the Pacification Police

“UPP filho da puta!” (Pacification Police you sons of bitches!) So went the refrain to nearly every funk proibidão blasting out of the walls of speakers lining the main street of the favela Mangueira on a Friday night last month in Rio de Janeiro.  Around the corner, the G.R.E.S. Primeira Estação de Mangueira, the most famous samba school in Brazil with its trademark green and pink trim (verde que te quero rosa sang Cartola, their legendary sambista), had already wrapped up its rehearsal for the evening.  The action had shifted to the jam-packed baile, a series of sound systems lining the narrow street, like a gauntlet of tamborzão.

The baile rolls on, but only because hotheads in Complexo do Alemão, one of the city’s most notorious large favelas, jumped the gun and triggered (pun intended) a police invasion that captured Brazil’s attention toward the end of November.  Akin to the invasion of Iraq and its embedded reporters, Brazilians – not just cariocas (Rio residents) – watched breathless 24-hour TV coverage from their gated condos as life imitated art imitated life.  Comparisons to the current smash hit Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad 2) – whose anti-piracy campaign is a story for another time – have already become tired clichés, but the film and its depiction of the confluence of drugs, gangs, violence, political power, and police repression remains eerily prescient of recent – and certainly future – events.

In Alemão’s case, the added bonus is that a newly installed cable car, modeled on Medellín, Colombia, can soon begin operation.  The idea is to ferry passengers from various hills in the Complexo directly to a nearby train station.  While sound in principle, an architect friend who works for the firm that designed it was emphatic that the spacing of the cable car stations makes no sense and that it’s a vainglorious infrastructure project for election purposes (there was a presidential election in October 2010).

Rio’s prognosticators anticipated that by the end of the year Mangueira would be subject to the UPP – Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit).  Already past its second birthday (the first UPP was installed in the Favela Dona Marta, where MJ shot “They Don’t Care About Us” and where Madonna dropped in for a visit last year, in November 2008), UPP is the word on everybody’s lips – from Zona Sul beachgoers to favela residents alternatively anxious and hopeful about what the future will bring.

For funkeiros it’s a universal loss, as even more recent events have depressingly shown that the state is returning to the bad old days of the early 90s, when funk rose from the urban periphery and its mixture of black youth, crass lyrics, and disadvantaged communities terrified the powers that be.  With the arrival of the UPPs, the equation was very simple: no UPP = baile and UPP = no baile.  However, those lines are being blurred as ever — Cantagalo and Pavão/Pavãozinho hosted New Year’s eve bailes, though the police, it seemed, were in control when it came to the closing time.  Ladeira de Tabajaras, another Zona Sul favela, has a UPP-sanctioned baile that has been universally panned by every funkeiro I’ve talked to.  The trick, it seems, is extricating funk from the patronage of the drug traffic.  Bailes are fun, engaging, exciting, and satisfying not exclusively because there are 14-year-olds with guns walking around — maybe they are for some of the most exocitizing of gringo visitors, but first and foremost its sound & bass — though also lyrical content, which again is now subject to police censorship insofar as throwing MCs into the clink is concerned.

Sure, funk is played in every club in Rio and there are plenty of places to go that aren’t overpriced Zona Sul clubs, but, to paraphrase innumerable dancehall tunes (and the comparison is more than apt), “likkle ghetto yutes” (jovem pobre favelado, or something like that) don’t necessarily have that opportunity.  And if an MC is in jail, well he or she isn’t singing anywhere much less in a favela baile da comunidade.  Not to mention the cultural loss if one subscribes to the Chuck D theory of “rap is CNN for black people.”  Funk é a Rede Globo da favela.

Zuenir Ventura’s Cidade Partida (Divided City) began his analysis of the roots of Rio’s contentious urban violence by looking at the Bossa Nova era of the 50s and 60s, nostalgically remembered as romantic beachside evenings in the Zona Sul, playing guitar while staring longingly at Corcovado (where Christ the Redeemer hangs out) and not worrying about a 12-year-old in surf shorts sticking you up for your watch.

As the New Year came and went, with the hordes crowded Copacabana Beach for midnight fireworks and offerings to Yemanjá, goddess of the sea, the police will have the neighborhood on lockdown.  Despite some pickpockets, one could very easily sing paeans to the smooth contours of a bossa nova beat without worry, the noise notwithstanding.  At a Christmas concert in Copacabana, the state Secretary of Security, José Mariano Beltrame, who oversees the UPP, was serenaded by fans with cries of “Way to go!” “Show them who’s boss!” “That’s a real man for you!”

Upper class Brazilians, so petrified that they’ve installed a continuous high-tech architecture of security at nearly every corner (from cameras to razor wire to gated entrances to armored cars) feel impotent in the face of the growing poverty they have unwittingly abetted through social and economic exclusion.  They have projected their lost sense of control onto Beltrame, a modest bureaucrat but at least a real life figure, unlike fictional, but universally adored, Capitão Nascimento from Tropa de Elite 2.  (When the first movie came out, he appeared on the cover of Brazil’s Time equivalent as “O Novo Herói Nacional.”)

The favelas that ring the Zona Sul – with the notable exception of Vidigal and Rocinha, which are surely in the crosshairs – pacified, we might be heading for Bossa Nova Era: The Sequel.  The raw, rough reality of funk is an unwelcome intrusion on that vision, and thus the geography of the baile has been pushed out of the center of the power elite – the Zona Sul – and what remains is back on the periphery, where it began.

Funk is only one dimension — though a prescient one, perhaps a canary in the mine — of the ongoing transformation of Rio’s landscape, especially the landscape of hillside and peripheral poverty embodied by favelas, conjuntos, and loteamentos irregulares.  As umbanda worshippers sang call-and-response about “raízes africanas” (african roots) and dove belly-first into the sea, white dresses and all, the new year in Rio is pregnant with possibility for good and for ill.

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For quality, alternative media/information sources in English on Rio, favelas especially, check: RioReal Blog, Catalytic Communities, RioOnWatch, and Good Hood News.

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