The Beating Heart Of Rio de Janeiro’s Underground
How the inclusive electronic networks of Brazil’s musical mecca are working to educate and unite the local scene
In preparation for two worldwide sporting events – the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games – the city of Rio de Janeiro underwent a significant overhaul. Big investments were made, by both the municipal government and private sector, to update and create new infrastructure. Beginning in 2003 and ending in 2014, Brazil’s Ministry of Culture developed and enacted generous new policies that, according to media studies academic Leslie Marsh, were meant to foster a cultural democracy, with the wider aims of overcoming social exclusion, attracting investment and creating jobs. As the state broadened its definition of culture, more public funding and grants were made available to artists operating within music, theatre, visual arts and film.
Independent electronic music artists in Rio existed on the periphery of this bonanza, but still reaped the benefits of a climate that was much friendlier to alternative artistic expressions. Informal venues weren’t busted up as often, and permits for block parties were obtained without much of a fuss. The street parties thrived during the weekends, making for excellent meeting points between casual partygoers and the scrappy underground scene.
One of the best examples of the time was a street party called O/NDA. It was one of the biggest events catering to underground music culture in Rio, and enabled techno, house and noise to flourish. But just as independent artists and musicians were beginning to establish an audience, conditions around the city and the country began to deteriorate at a rapid pace. The one-two punch of an oil revenue crisis and a rise in violent crime occurred in tandem with “Operation Car Wash” – a massive anti-corruption operation that began in 2014 and is ongoing. Helmed by the Brazilian Federal Police, it uncovered the laundering of more than 9.5 billion dollars by government officials, resulting in the arrests of former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva and former Rio governor Sergio Cabral, among others, and the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff. Soaring unemployment and the worsening political, economic and public safety crises have made it nearly impossible for any sort of artistic endeavor, much less an underground culture, to thrive, and the city falling under the hands of the ultra-conservative politician Marcelo Crivella hasn’t helped much either.
Are we willing to burst our bubble or not? I think that’s the fundamental question that we’ve been asking ourselves in Rio for 300 years.
Ananda Nobre and Érica Alves, both Rio de Janeiro natives, returned to the city in 2015 and 2016, respectively, right in the middle of its steady decline. They had become friends while they were separately trying to establish their music careers in the prolific São Paulo scene, with moderate success – Alves as a singer/songwriter focused on shoegaze and techno, and Nobre as a newly minted techno DJ ready to take her game to the next level. A set of personal circumstances (for Alves the dissolution of her former band, the Drone Lovers; and for Nobre, a lack of opportunities for artistic development) drove them back to Rio de Janeiro to start anew.
For Nobre and Alves, Rio was a much needed blank slate; a big city with a smaller scene and a chance to build things from the ground up. Before their arrival, Alves explains that the relative safety and abundance of street parties with low or no cover charges had complicated the terrain for clubs, making it more enticing for audiences to attend outdoor events more in line with Rio’s beach culture. Over the past couple of years, however, block parties have become all but extinct.
“All of a sudden the clubs started to come back because the streets are not as safe anymore and the government is making it difficult for street parties to happen,” Alves explains on a call from her home. “The mayor didn’t even go to Carnival! Carnival is such an important and formative part of Rio culture. Because of his religious stance, he chose not to be present and he also cut funding from the community. There was no police on the streets. When it comes to culture, he abandoned the city.”
While clubs are now once again the main place to hear electronic music, they are faced with an increasingly impoverished public that isn’t accustomed to paying for an entrance fee. EDM festivals like Ultra Brasil and the Rio Music Carnival remain popular but, while they’re willing to pay attention to homegrown EDM acts like Alok and Marcelo Cic, they haven’t been very interested in booking leftfield live acts, much less women and LGBTQ performers. The underground community, say Alves and Nobre, has been systematically left to its own devices, with limited opportunities to perform and very little chance to earn a living as artists in one of the premiere culture capitals of the world.
As techno artists unwilling to cater to trends, Nobre and Alves decided to laboriously carve out a space for themselves, creating the women-led collective UNA (which translates to “unite”) in 2017. With UNA, the duo began giving synth workshops to women, and created NUA (which translates to “naked”) – a house party meant to showcase the students’ work. Independently, Nobre ran the techno-centered street party KODE, and Álves the Manga Rosa Convida…, the flagship event of Manga Rosa, a DJ collective that includes local producers João Pinaud, Gustavo Tata and Pedro Piu. Despite their efforts to help regrow the city’s techno networks, Alves and Nobre were left with a myriad of existential questions, the most essential being: What will Rio’s underground electronic music community have to do to secure its survival?
“We live in a very closed bubble,” Alves explains. “Are we willing to burst our bubble or not? I think that’s the fundamental question that we’ve been asking ourselves in Rio for 300 years. It all boils down to the same things: How do we expand our public? Do we expand it? How can we achieve sustainability working this way or that way? It’s very hard to move around Rio. If you want to get an audience, you have to go to a different part of town where people will want to go. You have to spend a lot of cash on advertising and communicating with people. It’s very difficult.”
In more ways than one, Éden became a victim, not only of the economic crisis, but of a shrinking underground audience – the very things the group was trying to combat.
Seeing a lack of cohesion between the clusters that form around different genres and aesthetics within the underground scene in Rio, Alves decided to set up a community meeting to discuss possible solutions for the problems at hand. In March of 2018, Alves, Nobre and a roster of producers and artists – including renowned old school DJ Mauricio Lopes; Cabbet Araújo, the owner of Fosfobox club; the founders of the Manga Rosa collective; and Cristiane Pinheiro, owner of Club Éden, among others – began meeting regularly to define their agenda and start collectivizing Rio’s underground. Lots of big picture ideas came out of the first few meetings, including the development of workshops and creating awareness about the fact that artists are workers too. “We’re trying to make some sort of association or guild to help each other and to create a more healthy vibe amongst us in these tough times,” explained Alves at the time. “We’re noticing that we can’t really do business in isolation.”
Initially, they rallied around Éden, a five-floor club owned by Cristiane Pinheiro and Letícia Dantas, located on Rua Sacadura Cabral, near the port of Rio de Janeiro. At the height of the public policies enacted during the presidencies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in the early 2010s, the derelict zona portuária was slated for revitalization. When the project, dubbed Porto Maravilha, was abruptly halted due to a bursting real estate bubble and the corruption scandals involving the municipal government and the state petrol company, Petrobras, most developers were left with unoccupied buildings. Pinheiro and Dantas, both businesswomen and producers of the LGBTQ party Desviadão, convinced the owner of one of those buildings to turn it into a nightclub. In November 2014, Éden opened its doors, focused on creating an inclusive space for the underground electronic music community.
“Through this whole process, we had the opportunity to see how many people we had here in Rio which were talented but didn’t have a place or project,” Pinheiro explains. “In 2017, we invested in a great soundsystem called Pure Groove. It was astounding for Rio, because we didn’t have an underground club with a great soundsystem. Not at all since my youth. So, we started talking with all these artists, and we concluded that we needed to have Éden as a place to host these people. Not only the clubgoers, but the artists needed some comfort. They needed to have the right tools to show their work – to get the whole scene moving all the time.”
The club became a temporary hub for Alves and other producers in the scene looking to host events that fell outside of EDM, funk or other popular genres. Most importantly, they were events that were inclusive of all types of audiences and all types of artists and DJs. It quickly became the home of Manga Rosa Convida…, and Alves hoped to help turn it into a headquarters for education as well, with the initial idea to host DJ and producing classes for aspiring artists that didn’t necessarily know where to start honing their craft. But a few months after the community meetings started, Éden closed its doors, due to high overhead costs and a lack of clubgoers wanting to venture out of the city center. In more ways than one, Éden became a victim, not only of the economic crisis, but of a shrinking underground audience – the very things the group was trying to combat.
“During the first years, we started hosting parties for 800 or 700 people, but as time passed, all the parties have been reducing in size and now we have parties for 300 to 200 people,” Pinheiro says. “When we surveyed this scenario, Éden as a house, decided to start hosting other companies on the same building to see if we could survive. But it’s just too big. We can’t have a five-floor building just for underground electronic music. We don’t want to work with non-underground stuff – it’s not our intention, it’s not what we believe in.”
Pinheiro and Dantas are currently looking to start producing events in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, continuing the work they began with the club. Nonetheless, Éden’s closure dealt a big blow to the community and deprived them of one more space to showcase techno, noise, minimal, house and other genres. “Éden is a very good example [of what routinely happens in the underground],” Nobre explains over a Skype call from Berlin, where she has just spent a month playing gigs. “They had a very nice club, they invested in a good soundsystem, but at the end they weren’t able to pay their bills because they also tried to do more alternative music and they had to close. That’s how the scene works there. Since I came back to Rio, like four years ago, I’ve been really trying to push through, and it’s very hard. But if you don’t keep pushing, then you don’t have the opportunity to play, and the scene will never happen if no one does anything, so you just have to keep on pushing it.”
Around the time of Éden’s closure, the community meetings between underground artists and club owners started to focus on a number of specific issues: limiting parties with no cover fees; finding new ways to market underground events outside of Facebook; and having representation from women, minorities and LGBTQ folks. Most importantly, the group realized that one of their major problems was the lack of an artistic class and an educated audience.
“I think there are more events than necessary because, since we don’t have a sustainable nightlife economy, all DJs have to have their own party,” Alves explains. “Nobody hires anybody, that’s the thing. Hiring [artists] from the local scene we’re trying to put together would be killing their parties as well, because it’s the same public and they already saw them, so why would they pay twice, you know? We need to create a surplus of technically and musically proficient artists, and a surplus of public.”
In August 2018, a new home arose in Fosfobox, a 15-year-old club near the Copacabana subway station – an area more accessible to clubgoers. It’s owned by Cabbet Araújo, a club scene veteran who, during the ’90s, had been at the helm of one of Rio’s electronic music temples, Bunker 94. Having been a photographer and member of the nightlife community for most of his life, he’s seen the cycles Rio goes through, specifically when it comes to interest in more mainstream electronic music – his clubs have booked artists like Josh Wink, Laurent Garnier and Monika Kruse, among others. He’s also a proponent of education. In order to foster an artistic movement in Rio, he’s made Fosfobox the home of WAVE, a DJ school where Alves, João Pinaud and researchers like Fernanda Mello and journalist Camilo Rocha, are taking a holistic approach to creating a scene. Mello, for example, recently organized a workshop titled “Cidades que Dançam,” focused on discussing the history of dance music around the world, the steps cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, London and (until recently) Tbilisi have taken to ensure a healthy nightlife economy, and how Rio de Janeiro could eventually learn from their experience.
“[We want to create] a conscientious artistic class, who are aware of what we’re doing, where this music comes from, why we are doing this,” Alves explains. “One of the classes we teach is centered on the creative process, so it’s not just ‘Let’s play some live music or whatever.’ It’s more like, ‘How can we become artists? How can we make dance music artistic?’ We’re going to be teaching techniques, we’re gonna go into psychology and painting and dancing. We need culture. The Rio vibe is a lot like Los Angeles, in a certain sense. There’s a lot of beautiful people, who wanna have a good time and want to go to the party, but they’re not so concerned or they still haven’t been touched by art, I think. We’re trying to elevate the quality of music to an artistic level so that it can be more solid.”
Another immediate effect of the community meetings was the creation of an events calendar – a master Google Doc that was born out of the union between different groups in the underground scene. It was a big achievement, and a step towards a more united front, but it was also one that started to signal the end of collective organization. Towards the end of the summer in 2018, the meetings stopped. According to Alves, the group couldn’t seem to reach a consensus on what issues to focus on and which ones could be realistically resolved. Nobre, for her part, believes the differences between the working methods of those with more commercial success and those deep in the underground made it difficult to design a working plan that would benefit all.
Nonetheless, the meetings have had positive reverberations. Musicians and revelers have been rallying around two bars, After Bar and Dama de Aço, to form a small after-hours party scene. New partnerships between groups have been formed and, according to Alves, there’s a burgeoning gig poster industry, with graphic designers producing “beautiful printed artwork.”
Nobre has also seen a positive change in the scene as a result of her and Alves’ work with Coletivo UNA, which focuses on pushing for women and trans artists to have better representation in parties and artist rosters. “There are two things that I see happening: one is that girls are sending me messages and saying that they want to learn how to play,” Nobre says. “They see that it’s possible for them to have a career in music, so that’s happening and that’s very good. And the other thing is that other parties in Rio are feeling like they can’t have a complete lineup without women, so other parties text me and they say: ‘I’m having a party and it has this sound, do you have a girl that you can tell me that is good for this lineup?’ I’m always pushing it, even if that makes me unpopular.”
However, artists, club owners and producers all acknowledge that creating successful collective action in Rio, specifically when it comes to groups with different or competing interests, is a difficult and sometimes frustrating endeavor. The reality of Rio de Janeiro’s underground is that, as Alves explained, everyone’s circumstances are completely different. Yet, the building blocks for future unity are slowly starting to stack up.
“We have to realize that we’re just two years into this economic and political depression,” Alves says. “How can we not make it so tragic? What can I do to make my events sustainable in times like these? Maybe these small, segregated initiatives need time to incubate. What do we have to do when we’re in the shell? Educate, get informed, read, experiment, act things out, chase some ideas. So when the time comes, when the economy starts to kick in, we have a solid cultural base. We’ve been through tough times together – we’ll know how to celebrate when things get better again.”