The Power to Name and Other Dilemmas Presented by Brazilian Funk Subgenres
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
Goldsmiths University of London (United Kingdom)
Playing recorded music through a purposedly assembled or custom-built mobile sound system, often in the open air, is a consolidated practice and a distinctive feature of popular culture in many countries across the Global South and beyond. Launched in 2021, Sonic Street Technologies (SST) is a European Research Council-funded research project aiming to document, map out and compare these subaltern and street-based uses of sound technologies.
Jamaican sound systems, Colombian picos, Brazilian radiolas and Mexican sonidos are examples of highly sophisticated SST. They are designed to enhance the sonic features of one or more specific music genre and cater for a certain crowd. The large music-fueled street gatherings are often at the beating heart of local and diasporic communities who creatively resist exploitation and marginalization through music and dance. Because of their demographics, they are often seen as suspect by the authorities. Despite persistent middle class disdain and police repression, SST are the engine for several decades of popular experimentation with music, sound, and technology. They not only succeed in providing affordable entertainment, but kick-start the informal economy and nurture skills and talents among disadvantaged sectors of society.
In researching the knowledge and ways-of-knowing (Henriques 2011) of sonic street technologies, the project aims to investigate some of the ways technology can be repurposed to suit specific social needs—sometimes rather different from those intended by the original designers or manufacturers. As part of the research team, we are committed to working in close cooperation with practitioners and local researchers in a non-extractive fashion. Sharing our findings, seeking out and supporting local strengths, and using our institutional base to build recognition from outside the scene are some of the strategies we employ to add value to the SST scenes as well as the research entities already active in the field.
One of the project’s main goals and commitments is to produce an online map of functioning sound systems and other SST around the world. Launched in October 2022 and currently in progress, the Sonic Map aims to consolidate the idea of SST as a grassroots technological continuum able to account for a rich and varied field. To populate the map, a survey form aimed at SST owners and practitioners has been drafted. The form asks for information about each particular sound system (or sonido, or radiola, etc.): the technology employed, the music played, the crew demographics, and so on. Delivering the questionnaire to the appropriate stakeholders is a job in itself. To do this we rely on a tentacular network of researchers, promoters and music connoisseurs active in the different scenes.
Designing the questionnaire has been quite a laborious process. We wanted to respect the culture’s natural inclination towards secrecy and protect sensitive data, ask for detail without being intrusive, all of which posed difficult problems. Even more complicated has been making sure that the survey form can work across different environments and cultures, and especially that the data collected will make sense and allow comparison on a global scale. To do so, the survey had to achieve a certain degree of standardization. This required a process of linguistic and cultural translation that inevitably involves the power/knowledge nexus of any research project, but especially those dealing with popular music and culture.
The section of the questionnaire related to music genres was one of the most challenging to draft. The focus of our research is on the technology rather than the music and the project builds on the idea that sound engineers from different scenes might have more in common than DJs or selectors, precisely because technology provides a common ground between very different music cultures. But from an insider’s perspective music is undoubtedly the force that brings a community together, the reason behind technological experimentation, and ultimately what people identify with. In short: without the love of music there would be no sound systems playing on the street. So, the survey design could not take the music lightly.
Drafting a classification of music genres that can be recognised within different SST scenes around the globe shows up the theoretical and political implications of the survey tool. As researchers, we conceived the Sonic Map as one way to try to facilitate dialogue between sound practitioners and music lovers that we tend to consider distant relatives—while those involved may never have heard of their “extended family” and we do not always have precise knowledge about what they call the music they play or listen to. As we take decisions on the categories to be used in the survey, we find ourselves with having to use names, a knowledge/power game that requires not only acknowledgement of sources and other appropriate strategies of self-mitigation.
A first aspect to be considered in these decisions is the geographical and temporal limits of cultural and linguistic codes. Music is a fluid entity in constant mutation and migration, and a genre may change name over time, be marketed under different labels in different countries, or be identified according to its different—culturally perceived—features. A good example of this is the nuances of Jamaican dancehall music terminology. By working with researcher and practitioners in the field we found out that the term “bashment”, very common, especially in the US and the UK, to describe the “harder” style of 2000s dancehall is barely acknowledged in Jamaica at all, while the term “ragamuffin”, widely used outside of Jamaica to refer to late 1980s and early 1990s dancehall, today may sound derogatory to a Jamaican connoisseur.
Another issue has to do with the classifications employed by the global music industry and the way they are appropriated, translated and challenged out on the streets. Grammy-influenced macro labels such as “Latin” or “World” music are often contested and make very little sense in the Global South, where the music is actually produced and initially consumed and called by other names. On the other hand, ultra-specific, short-lived categories can be understood as mere marketing and rejected out of hand. This was the case a few years ago with Rihanna’s “Work”, based on a well-known dancehall sample but labelled as “tropical house”, causing outrage in Jamaica (see Campbell 2016). Even categories apparently more “neutral” such as “electronic” or “rap” can be shaky. A lot of the music of the African diaspora currently flooding both the streets and the charts worldwide could easily fall into either category. But it is called Afrobeats instead, a name created in the UK and for some time also quite contested (see Akinsete 2019). Meanwhile, the algorithm-driven classification of music by “mood” and the proliferation of national, regional or city-based subgenres used by streaming platforms will increasingly complicate the problem of classification by genre in the future.
Finally, common to all such major categories of music is the necessary “ear” that distinguishes, say, between norteña, peñonera and sonidera as different styles of cumbia that are played in Mexico, distinctions that may be obvious to the ear, but are difficult to describe in words, much less generally recognized—which is important for the purposes of the Sonic Map. This is especially problematic for a questionnaire aimed at SST practitioners who do not usually produce the music but rather play it, or re-produce it, sometimes decades after and thousands of miles away from the time and place in which the music was originally created. How, then, to make a survey questionnaire that, on the one hand, is sufficiently granular to allow comparison between different SST, and at the same time does not increase the number of subgenres to the point that there are so many separate grains that they cannot be gathered together? In short: which strategies to employ to make sure that the sonic map both reflects the local communities of practitioners and music lovers and is useful as a globalized reading of many local scenes by them and by academic researchers, which are also the project’s target audience?
The project experimented with thinking about all of these tensions when it came to the group of musical styles classified as “Brazilian funk”, internationally known too as “funk favela”, and referred to as “funk carioca” in Brazil, or simply “funk”. Brazilian funk is a genre-bending phenomenon from the beginning. One of its first academic chroniclers, anthropologist Hermano Vianna (1988), traces its development from the Black music balls that started in the early to mid 1970s (partly at the initiative of Black cultural associations), playing all kinds of US American music and slowly narrowing to emphasise soul. This phase ended when the idea of five thousand stylish Black young people getting together in the Canecão concert venue, in the heart of the predominantly white and middle class southern zone of Rio de Janeiro, spooked the authorities. In 1976, organizers and musicians were accused of subversive activities, while the Canecão preferred to hold the MPB (música popular brasileira) concerts for which it became known for forty years. Vianna uses “baile funk” to refer to the balls at the Canecão, as well as those that arose in the slum neighbourhoods and favelas of Rio de Janeiro and around the country.
He also recounts how soul gave way to rap, which began to share the stage with funk by the mid 1980s. The distinction between funk and rap is a delicate one. Funk carioca is less influenced by US funk than by the Miami bass variant of rap, from which it adopted electronic beats and sexually explicit lyrics. While rap artists like Edi Rock and Mano Brown of Racionais MCs reaffirm their common cultural origins and social nexus, rap has mostly moved elsewhere. Balls are now not only known as baile funk, as in the 1980s, but effectively play funk rhythms measured in BPMs and identified by name (like Voltmix, Tamborzão, Beatbox). Meanwhile funk lyrics continue to challenge bourgeois mores in other ways than “excessive” sex.
Today, Brazilian funk is perhaps the most influential contemporary music genre in the country, vital in the favelas but sung and danced to at middle class parties, and producing a seemingly endless stream of subgenres. The problem for the questionnaire and the map was apparently technical: how to name these many subgenres of Brazilian funk in a way that was sufficiently fine-grained to be used in future research? What happens if five years from now someone wants to know “what was really played” in a specific scene? How does one translate very local and intimate understanding of music in terms that can speak to completely different geographical, cultural and social environments?
As the questionnaire evolved, Brian D’Aquino drew up an initial list of nine subcategories of Brazilian funk including brega (or kitsch) funk, which started in Recife and is oriented to dance.
Funk carioca, from Rio de Janeiro, relatively well known abroad and indebted to Miami bass.
Tati Quebra Barraco, an early female funk star, famously received funding from the Ministry of Culture to participate in a feminist festival in Germany in 2004. Her hit “Sou Feia Mas Tô Na Moda” [I’m ugly but trendy] became the title of a documentary by Denise Garcia on women funk stars, launched in 2005.
Then there is funk melody, with a light electronic beat and a pop sound; funk paulista, from Sao Paulo; funk ostentação, which is sometimes compared to gangsta rap and (see below) may be the same as funk paulista.
Proibidão, which focuses on the violent side of favelas, exalting—at least apparently—drug traffickers and organized crime. Here is a sample, unfortunately very dependent on understanding the words.
Rasteirinha, funk played at less than 100 bpm, with samba, reggaeton and other influences; rave funk, more electronic; and pagofunk, which combines funk with pagode, the music played at “backyard” samba parties.
Checking these categories to make sure they cover the Brazilian funk scene meant consulting scholar-connoisseurs of funk who might answer such a query on a national scale. A first question by Liv Sovik on the listserv of the Brazilian Association of Ethnomusicology (ABET) yielded a reply from Michel Brasil, a scholar of rap from Belo Horizonte. He suggested, along with melody, ostentação and proibidão, already included in the nine suggested categories, those of consciente, montagem, and aquecimento (warm-up), while deferring to funk researcher Carlos Palombini, of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais.
While waiting for further responses, Liv also consulted Leonardo Moraes Batista, of the Quilombo do Pensamento Negro at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, who backed up eight of the nine initial categories, though he said that funk paulista and ostentação are the same thing and added funk pop (think: Anitta), trap funk and funk putaria (literally, indecent funk). In sum, he fused two of the proposed categories, endorsed six of the remaining ones, excluded rave funk and added pop, trap and putaria as subgenres of Brazilian funk. Here are samples of the funk pop and trap subgenres.
When Carlos Palombini weighed in, he referred to an article in which he and co-author Dennis Novaes discuss proibidões and quote MCs as saying are more like common journalism than sensationalism. They introduce the article as follows:
The proibidão is a subgenre of carioca funk music, together with consciente, putaria, montagem, melody and ostentação. These terms refer mainly to themes: proibidão to “life in crime”, putaria to erotic prowess, melody to romance, ostentação to the praise of possessions. But they also refer to techniques: montagem to the repetition of vocal fragments of different origins; and to standpoints: funk consciente adopts explicitly critical, pedagogical or moralizing perspectives. To the six subgenres, one could add: gospel funk, named for its theme; comedy funk, neurotic funk and pop-funk, each named for their ethos (Novaes and Palombini 2019: 287-307).
These categories are complicated because music can crosscut categories of theme, technique, ethos and standpoint: “When the fragments come from proibidões, is it montagem or proibidão?” the authors ask. The subgenres proibidão and consciente can be understood as expressing different positionalities on involvement with violence; classification of a given piece of music as one or the other depends in part on how it is performed and by whom. On the other hand, in the 1990s wearing given designer brands indicated affiliation to different gangs in favelas, so what is basically funk ostentação has the connotations of a proibidão. One might add to Novaes and Palombini’s list of complications the fact that subgenres emerge, reach a certain ascendancy but can drift off the scene, remaining associated to a certain historical moment without creating new memories.
Thinking through the subgenres of Brazilian funk made clear the difficulties of trying to serve the interests of different audiences while operating on both local and global scales. It also provided a chance to reflect once more on the meaning of doing “global” research on popular culture, because a global perspective is most evidently the one presumed by the music industry—and parts of academia. These actors clearly tend to see—or, in this case, listen to—the world from the Global North, while insisting on their perspective being neutral. Through their eyes and ears the West thus reaffirms itself as the “universal measure of mankind”, as Iain Chambers (forthcoming) aptly puts it. Echoing this perspective is a risk inherent to any research that aims to classify, in order to analyse, street music and culture all over the world. Nurturing extended research networks that include both practitioners and researchers can be one way to minimize this risk.
This exploration of Brazilian funk nomenclature thus comes full circle to the problem that any choice implies for an international project: reinforcing a single subject position—and the authority of the researcher over the researched—by choosing a set of subgenres that not everyone will agree with, or including so many lesser categories that they become unintelligible. The decision, now informed by the considerations of different authors and actors, was to come full circle and use only the broader category of “Brazilian funk” which is understandable to everyone. Likewise cumbia, champeta and dancehall will just be listed as broad categories on the surveys, whilst subgenres are to be further investigated in the qualitative research.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Blog section of the Sonic Street Technologies website: https://sonic-street-technologies.com.
Liv Sovik is Researcher and Research Coordinator for Brazil of the ERC-funded Sonic Street Technologies. She is a professor of the School of Communication of Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, author of Aqui ninguém é branco (2009) and Tropicália Rex (2018), and editor of Stuart Hall’s Da diaspora: Identidades e mediações culturais (2003). Since her PhD thesis (1994), she has worked with the Brazilian popular music tradition as a field in which imaginaries are developed and evidenced.
Brian D’Aquino holds a PhD in International Studies from L’Orientale University of Naples and is currently a Senior Research Assistant to the ERC-funded Sonic Street Technologies project at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Black Noise. Tecnologie della Diaspora Sonora (Meltemi, 2021) and a founding member of the research group Sound System Outernational. He has been running the Bababoom Hi Fi sound system and released vinyl records under the Bababoom Hi Fi imprint since 2004.
Akinsete, Korete. 2019 “Call Us by Our Name: Stop Using ‘Afrobeats’”. Op-ed, OkayAfrica digital platform, 2 April. Available at: https://www.okayafrica.com/afrobeats-genre-name-stop-op-ed/ (accessed 12 October 2022).
Cáceres, Guillermo, Lucas Ferrari and Carlos Palombini. 2014. “A era Lula/Tamborzão: política e sonoridade. Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros 58: 157-207.
Campbell, Curtis. 2016 “Give Dancehall Its Due – Richie Stephens, Lisa Hanna”. The Gleaner, 12 February. Available at: https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/entertainment/20160214/give-dancehall-its-due-richie-stephens-lisa-hanna (accessed 12 October 2022).
Chambers, Iain. Forthcoming. “Learning from the Sea: Migration and Maritime Archives.” In Fabris, Angela, Göschl, Albert and Schneider, Steffen, Sea of Literatures: Towards a Theory of Mediterranean Literature, De Gruyter (pre-print available at http://www.peopleinmotion-costaction.org/2021/02/24/2702/ (accessed 13 October 2022).
Henriques, Julian. 2011. Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Novaes, Dennis and Carlos Palombini. 2019. “O labirinto e o caos: narrativas proibidas e sobrevivências num subgenera do funk carioca”. In Nó em pingo d’água: sobrevivência, cultura e linguagem, ed. Adriana Carvalho Lopes, Adriana Facina and Daniel N. Silva, 287-307. Belo Horizonte: Mórula/Insular.
Palombini. Carlos. 2009. “Soul brasileiro e funk carioca”. Opus, Goiânia 15(1): 37-61, June 2009.
Sovik, Liv. 2018. “O rap desorganiza o carnival”. In Tropicália Rex, 103-27. Rio de Janeiro: Mauad.
Vianna, Hermano. 1988. O mundo funk carioca. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.
Gloria Groove. “Gloria Groove - YoYo (feat. IZA)”. YouTube, 3:11.
Uploaded on 13 June 2019.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKfMYbbWEJY> (accessed 19 October 2022).
Junior Lopes. “Tati Quebra Barraco - Sou Feia Mas Tô Na Moda”.
YouTube, 3:05. Uploaded on 21 March 2012.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVNjQ8F-CAA> (accessed 19 October 2022).
Kondzilla. “Funk Ostentação Antigo”. YouTube, 1:31:38. Uploaded on 4
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M3CRYQJMfM> (accessed 19 October 2022).
MNR YG. “Sequência Das Mais Tocadas No Tiktok 2022 Vs Os Funks Mais
Tocados No Rj [ Funk Carioca ] @Pl-1”. YouTube, 13:04. Uploaded on 17
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_ZqplAHSuA> (accessed 19 October 2022).
Onda Dos Bailes. “Pagofunk 2022 - Seleção Das Mais Tocadas (Tik
Tok)”. YouTube, 59:41. Uploaded on 9 April 2022.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lh-eloMKFFY> (accessed 19 October 2022).
PL Sheik. “15 Minutinhos De Funk Carioca X Musicas Internacionais
Versão Funk Rj 🇧🇷🔥💣 Brazilian Funk”. YouTube, 14:51. Uploaded on 5
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBrt4Eb4iEs> (accessed 19 October 2022).
Ryan Elenco do Funk. “É O Trap, É O Funk 1.0 - MC Hariel, MC Kevin,
MC Pedrinho, MC Ryan SP, MC Brinquedo, Salvador, MC IG”. YouTube, 41:07.
Uploaded on 13 June 2019.
<https://www.youtube.com/embed/X11iXqBwL5c> (accessed 19 October 2022).
Spotify Brasil. “O Brega Funk Vai Dominar O Mundo”. YouTube, 18:51.
Uploaded on 12 November 2019.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qLr-qILt1k> (accessed 19 October 2022).
Victor Músicas. “Funk Proibidão Com Grave 2022 - Funk 2022 (Set Funk
Atualizado 2022) Seleção Dos Melhores Funk 2022”. YouTube, 31:00.
Uploaded on 31 July 2021.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6QE2GkpIhs> (accessed 19 October 2022).
VS Fest Music. “Funk Ostentação Antigo”. YouTube, 1:31:38. Uploaded
on 4 May 2020.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVX-HZKwf08> (accessed 19 October 2022).
 See Palombini (2009), Cáceres, Ferrari and Palombini (2014) and the introductory pages of Sovik (2018).