Brazil has a highly developed soundsystem culture – a homegrown version of the trendsetting soundsystems that have been rocking Kingston since the 1950s, becoming testing grounds for the newest music and riddims, and battlegrounds for MCs and selectors. But the Brazilian soundsystems vary from region to region, breaking from the reggae and dancehall format to typically focus on popular local genres. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, the most sought-after soundsystems focus on funk carioca and its many variations, while depending on where you’re standing in Northern Brazil, you can easily find tecnobrega, axé, bass or samba reggae pumping through massive walls of speakers lined up during weekend street parties.
Reggae soundsystems are surprisingly sparse, though, the most visible ones coming from São Luís, a small coastal city in the state of Maranhão that is consistently referenced as the Jamaica Brasileira. In a 2012 article for RBMA Daily, Jamaican music historian David Katz described how, starting in the mid-1980s, reggae became a significant part of the lives and identities of the people of São Luís, defying racial and class divides to form the backbone of the city’s cultural patrimony. But reggae’s all encompassing presence pretty much stops in São Luís, and nobody can pinpoint exactly why it hasn’t gained more widespread recognition across the country. Some, like selector DJ Raíz, theorize that it has to do with racial and class divides.
“The truth is that there is an institutionalized racism throughout Brazilian society, specifically within those people that have a lot of purchasing power,” Raíz explains in a phone call from Salvador, the state capital of Bahia. “For example, in axé music or in Brazilian samba, if you can count with your hand more than five black singers, you’re lucky. The biggest names in samba or axé music are white singers. Reggae is a Jamaican thing, a black thing, so we’ve reached an impasse. The reggae bands that have the biggest platforms all have white artists. You get what I’m saying? The media doesn’t have an interest in giving a platform to reggae music, but there’s a huge audience for it.”
The catalyst that transformed MiniStereo Público was less about external influences and more about their general affinity for the sonic possibilities afforded by dancehall.
Despite the media’s resistance, however, there’s local hunger for spaces that cater to reggae music. The deep roots reggae has put down all over the North and Northeastern Brazilian states has slowly led artists and record collectors to find ways to expose the style, and its Brazilian iterations like samba reggae, to wider audiences within their communities. DJ Raíz is part of one of those efforts. More than a thousand miles away from the Jamaica Brasileira, he works as one of the selectors for the only soundsystem in Salvador, focusing on spreading the gospel of dancehall and reggae in the bairros of the coastal city. MiniStereo Público Sistema de Som has been running for more than a decade, and has been slowly inspiring a sonic revolution that not only puts the culture and music of Afro-Brazilian communities in Bahia front and center, but also provides a model of representation and action for the disadvantaged youth of Salvador.
MiniStereo Público began between 2004 and 2005, when a group of friends and music aficionados in Salvador got together wanting to show off their vinyl collections – full of not only Jamaican reggae classics, but also hip-hop, funk and Brazilian popular music (MPB). They wanted to play some tunes in public, and the traditional Día de Lemanjá festivities, held every year on February 2nd in the city’s Río Vermelho neighborhood, provided the perfect setting. While the festivities have religious origins, the rituals now lead to massive street parties. “People from all over the world show up to that neighborhood to party at midnight,” DJ Raíz says. “At 5 AM there are fireworks, and then we start the tributes to [the Yoruban deity] Lemanjá at sea. There are so many people in the neighborhood during the whole day. In 2005, the guys decided they would play. They wanted to play their records and songs on the streets. They had some struggles, but they finally got a soundsystem and did the party anyway. They played everything! That’s how MiniStéreo Público started – friends who collected records and wanted to play music for the people.”
“At the beginning, we didn’t really think of the soundsystem as a culture,” says DJ Pureza, one of the founding members of MiniStereo Público. “For us, it was simply just having the will to show off our record collections, to enjoy ourselves and to start a block party where we could mix our traditional music (samba, samba-reggae, forró) with black music, soul, hip-hop and reggae. Over time, and thanks to our ongoing research, we discovered the soundsystems in Maranhão, the soundsystem culture in Jamaica and the United Kingdom and the different genres within reggae. That was how we consolidated MiniStereo Público as a reference for creating soundsystems in Bahia.”
Even as the crew learned more and more, the catalyst that transformed MiniStereo Público was less about external influences and more about their general affinity for the sonic possibilities afforded by dancehall. “The language of Salvador’s contemporary music scene is rap, reggae and samba, and dancehall is the closest cousin to those genres,” DJ Pureza says. “In Bahia, it’s a rhythm that we can perfectly fuse with samba or samba reggae. So it’s a music that gives space for everyone – the reggaeman, rappers, sambistas – to expand their rhythmic vocabularies. Both MiniStereo Público and DJ Raíz, for example, have sambahall riddims on their SoundCloud pages.”
After settling on a reggae and dancehall-only format, the collective soon pushed the genres into prominence on Salvador’s scene, inspiring musicians, fans and partygoers to recognize the similarities in Northern Brazil’s music and way of life. “Before MiniStereo Público, there wasn’t a soundsystem dedicated to dancehall or reggae, and nobody really talked about it either,” Pureza says. “[The soundsystem] opened up an unexplored path in Salvador. Before MiniStereo Público, neither the artists or the big, conventional soundsystems played [reggae music]. Time, our insistence on doing our weekly parties and technology’s role in the exchange of information helped [reggae] gain more visibility, and it started to appear in new musical productions, DJ sets and the city’s music scene. [MiniStereo Público’s] mission in this city is to keep the culture alive because, even though it’s not directly our own culture, soteropolitanos do identify enormously with the way of life and the social and racial struggles of Jamaicans. This started as a dream, and now it’s a reality. We were pioneers, and it’s our duty to continue growing and strengthening this culture so that we can share and learn from one another.”
We keep this soundsystem going because it’s provided a foundation for everything that’s going on in Bahia right now.
Assembling the soundsystem itself wasn’t an easy task. Without strong mentors, the members of MiniStereo Público – which was founded by Dudoo Caribe, Ed Brass, Lucas Papão, Ozorio, Pablo DiNada, Luciana, MárcioMFR and sound engineer Regivan Santa Barbara, but is now comprised of Santa Barbara, DJ Pureza and DJ Raíz – doubled down on their research. According to Pureza, they consulted friends who were sound engineers and existing soundsystem operators for advice on equipment purchases, but the decision-making ultimately fell, and still falls on, their dub master, Regivan Santa Barbara. Today, their equipment is comprised of Shure mics, a Mesa Soundcraft rack, two Technics MK2 turntables, a Pioneer DJM 600 mixer, a Roland SPDS sampling pad, amplifiers, Yorkville monitors, effects racks and more. The rising costs of imported electronics, the iffy quality of Brazilian ones and the difficulty in finding adequate replacement parts when something breaks all make maintaining the soundsystem a costly and time-consuming effort. The weather and Salvador’s urban planning don’t help in the upkeep, as the city’s proximity to the ocean and its hills and stairwells prove to be a logistical nightmare for the transport of heavy equipment. And like most underground endeavors, MiniStereo Público is funded independently by the selectors and engineer, who maintain day jobs and solo careers as DJs.
“We’ve had to renew our soundsystem in order to keep going,” DJ Raíz says. “We had to buy new stacks of speakers, and that left us with a debt of almost 30 thousand reais [about 7,800 USD]. Every time we do a party or an event, we pay some of it off. The soundsystem isn’t something that gives us any returns, we can’t live off of it and it doesn’t really pay our bills.”
Still, after so many years of activity, MiniStereo Público has simultaneously fed into and fed off of Salvador’s scene. They’ve even laid the foundation for popular groups like BaianaSystem – whose vocalist Russo Passapusso has been a champion and sponsor of MiniStereo Público since its inception – and the new bass music that’s dominating the Salvador underground today.
“We keep this soundsystem going because it’s provided a foundation for everything that’s going on in Bahia right now,” Raíz explains. “The people from BaianaSystem, for example, do their part in helping MiniStereo Público maintain itself, because this provided a foundation for them as a band. Russo Passapusso does a lot so that the people [in MiniStereo Público] can be stable, so that we can do some maintenance for the soundsystem, and to keep Salvador’s culture bubbling. Beto Barreto, BaianaSystem’s guitarist, had been experimenting with the guitarra baiana and mixing it with other rhythms for a very long time. He wanted to turn those experimentations into a project and spent years wracking his brains, thinking about how he could make something work. Then, he found MiniStereo Público. They can say: ‘BaianaSystem came out of this, Russo came out of this, ÀTTØØXXÁ was inspired by it.’ They, and we all, want to keep this history alive.”
MiniStereo Público has been popularizing their Quintas Dancehall party outside of Salvador, with a residency projected for August 2018 in São Paolo. But their roots always remain on the streets, whether organizing the Arena Sound System festival, where three crews from different parts of Brazil tag-teamed DJ sets of 40 minutes each, or their ongoing social project/festival Mutirão Mete Mão, an event modeled after the famous Meeting of Favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
“Our intention with Mutirão Mete Mão is to awaken interest in the arts, specifically when it comes to children and teenagers,” says Raíz. “Whether they want to be DJs, singers, MCs, graffiti artists or sculptors, our mission is to awaken that interest and drive. We want to tell them that it is possible [to be an artist], in the same way that it was possible for us, people with no money at all, to succeed. If we can do it, so can they. We’re setting ourselves up as an example. We all come from the lower middle-class, and we struggled and still struggle to buy our equipment. We work and invest what little money we make just so we can have a legacy. Today, we have a soundsystem, our own equipment, vinyl records through the roof… We want to set an example for our people.”
“When we set up our soundsystem on the street and play, it’s way more gratifying than, say, playing in a club,” Pureza says. “The simple act of playing music and receiving good feedback, good energy from the crowd… Just seeing people happy, it’s an incredible feeling. It’s an important exchange that we’re creating, with the children that are jumping around, dancing and interacting with each other, the young people that want to freestyle and dance, the old people that are curious about us, our fans who end up meeting other people and other communities, the street vendors and small bars that end up making more business than usual… We all win! Street culture, and the aftermath of these events, is always positive.”
In the end, for Raíz and Pureza, keeping MiniStereo Público alive and focused on highlighting reggae and dancehall music and culture is tantamount to bolstering the culture of Afro-Brazilians like themselves, giving them a proper platform and a renewed sense of local pride.
“Afro-Brazilian culture is our cradle and our roots, directly and exclusively,” Pureza says. “Even though this culture is responsible for everything that there is in Brazil, it is still marginalized, and MiniStereo Público will always carry the flag and represent a humble people with a thirst to thrive and win. We always try to represent that fusion between our sounds and Jamaican music – samba with reggae or raggamuffin; the timbres and riddims of Afro-Brazilian culture. I think MiniStereo Público is our small contribution to that conversation. We’re a direct representation of our people: three black men living their truth, overcoming the struggles of Babylon, in a city where there isn’t as much equity as it seems.”