“If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state. The ’Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate controls vast portions of its territory and economy, and accounts for at least three percent of Italy’s GDP (probably much more) through drug trafficking, extortion and usury. Law enforcement is severely hampered by a lack of both sources and resources.”
– Cable from J. Patrick Truhn, Consul General, exposed by Wikileaks
“And when I was born / I was born crying / And the midwife ran away and screamed / A child of bad luck has been born.”
– Giuseppe Colosimo, “Quannu niscivi iu” (“When I was born”)
Songs of Beauty and Evil
Speeding along the autostrada through the craggy Mediterranean landscape at the southern tip of Calabria, two things dominate the coastline: the volcano Mt. Etna, which has been emitting black smoke for the past two weeks, and the myriad construction ruins that dot the region’s steep hillside. The buildings are in various states of completion and range from medium-sized houses to fully blown architectural absurdities made of ludicrous amounts of concrete to form shapes that appear to have no function (obvious even to the untrained eye). Referred to simply as “disgraces,” they serve as a constant reminder of the political corruption and organized crime endemic to Calabria. I am sitting shotgun and holding on to the edge of my seat with Hamburg-based journalist and photographer Francesco Sbano at the wheel. A native of Paola, a small town some two hours north of the region’s most populated city Reggio di Calabria, the tall, silver-haired Sbano is a controversial figure in Italian cultural circles. Over the past fourteen years, he has become the go-to guy for countless international media interested in getting face time with members of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, currently Italy’s most powerful mafia organization. But he is even better known for promoting and distributing the lone cultural contribution of the ’Ndrangheta to Italian culture: its music.
Since 2000 Sbano has released several volumes of so-called malavita songs, a genre of mostly acoustic Calabrian folk that romanticizes the trials and tribulations of ’Ndrangheta members’ lives of crime. Lyrically, the texts are often written by or based on stories of imprisoned Mafiosi and usually take the form of a wistful lamentation, with the narrators singing their hearts out about not receiving enough visits or being forced to kill out of honor or about never talking to the police—all to the pace of a slow waltz. Sbano, with the help of some of the genre’s most beloved songwriters, mined hundreds of malavita cassettes for the compilations, which together have since sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide. Almost overnight, music that had been exclusively available in small town markets or specialty record stores in Calabria was being distributed and discussed all over the globe, and just as quickly condemned by various European anti-mafia organizations. Critics accuse Sbano of spreading mafia propaganda and creating folklore out of brutal gang activity. Having become something of a thorn in his side, they regularly protest his work and public appearances, which currently includes the release of his fourth and perhaps most compelling compilation, La Tarantella Calabrese, documenting the relationship of the Calabrian tarantella to the rituals of the ’Ndrangheta.
As Sbano explains over long lunches and many hours of driving, Calabrian tarantella, known locally as sonu a ballu (music for dancing), presents a kind of historical blueprint of malavita culture. Unlike classical tarantella from Apulia, which gained its name in the Middle Ages as a kind of musical exorcism for the effects of spider bites (tarantella is Italian for tarantula), the classical Calabrian tarantella is said to derive from the ancient Greek Pyrrhic dance, a dance of war. ’Ndrangheta tarantella ceremonies don’t just celebrate the criminal class in song—they also play an integral role in their rituals. Unlike the dozens if not hundreds of different kinds of regional tarantella in southern Italy, an ’Ndrangheta tarantella is a codified ceremony reinforcing or establishing new clan hierarchies and held on special occasions, from successful acquisitions to the release of a clan member from prison. It’s almost always the local don, or someone delegated by the local don, who decides which two dancers will dance together within a circle of potential participants, with the first five men chosen representing the elite garde of the clan. While most dances are purely celebratory, occasionally they can become a dangerous competition when the goal becomes to literally dance circles around your partner as a form of athletic dominance. Responding to a challenge with a knife or a stick is an uncommon but not unheard of way of defending your honor.
Musically, the Calabrian tarantella is an endless melodic cyclone, frenetic and extremely hypnotic, as I experienced personally during a ceremony with Sbano and numerous ’Ndranghetisti in a clubhouse in a valley of the Aspromonte mountains. Following a memorable meal of pasta with pig lard and massive piles of grilled meats, one or more tambourine players began to set a pace in 6/8, while small box accordions move back and forth between two chords and simultaneously weave a dizzying melodic tapestry. Floating atop the sonic melee were guitars, lutes, lyres, shepherd’s flutes, and the music’s most trance-inducing element, a traditional Italian bagpipe made entirely of wood and goatskin. The instrument’s reedy drone was actually more of a constant wail and synched stunningly with the occasional singer, who belted out stories of love, farming and honor in powerful bursts, with the ends of his phrasing held and wavering until they find their harmonic home, mostly unisono with the drone. The power and elegant inaccuracy of the singing in Calabrian tarantella—particularly that of Antonio Serra or the late Fred Scotti, both of whom feature prominently on Sbano’s most recent compilation—reminded me, in my thoroughly non-ethnomusicologist referential nexus, of the vocal stylings of Jeffrey Lee Pierce or Kevin Coyne. Indeed, the music’s most entrancing strains have retained the historical traces of a kind of musical exorcism.
For Francesco Sbano, promoting music so intimately related to the ’Ndrangheta has become tricky business, but not because he struggles with the ethics. In the five days we spent together he often and candidly expressed a deep mistrust of Italian politics and the country’s judicial system. What at times appeared to border on cynicism revealed itself as the crux of a struggle I associate with the work of artists like Josef Beuys or Viennese Actionists: that is, artists that encourage people to accept that, for better or worse, “evil” is sometimes an intrinsic part of things artistically sublime. Or rather: the art is not sublime because it’s evil, but it’s also not to be discounted for the same reason. Indeed, the longer I stayed in Calabria, the more paradoxical the situations appeared and the less the appearances revealed the true nature of the things themselves. More than one Mafiosi’s crumbling apartment building from the outside revealed itself to be a spotless luxury abode from the inside; the smallest, most harmless-looking guy in the room turned out to be the ruthless bodyguard with the longest criminal record; a young but senior ’Ndranghetista responsible for cocaine and weapons trafficking insisted we name his hometown while the comparatively small town don would barely exchange a word with us.
“Growing up, I had acquaintances who, at a certain point in their lives, were forced to distance themselves from the ‘normal’ world when they became members of the ’Ndrangheta,” Sbano told me. “I had gone to the beach and played soccer with these people, and suddenly they lived parallel lives. And this is the most surreal aspect of it all, because the parallel world is hard to tell from the normal one. That is, unless you know the codes, and both music and dance are important aspects of that.”
Of course, this also applies to the ’Ndrangheta’s social by-laws, which are firmly established. For Francesco Sbano and myself during the interview process, this meant being identified as non-mafia members who nevertheless pose no obvious threat to the ’Ndrangheta and therefore are to be treated with respect—i.e. having our questions answered either honestly or not at all. In the following series of monologues, our interview partners candidly describe their relationship to the tarantella and, where applicable, their role in a clan hierarchy. With the exception of a legendary malavita songwriter, names have been changed. This is who we met, how we got there and what we ate in the process.
Sergio is a local ‘Ndrangheta boss of multiple villages an hour northeast of Reggio de Calabria. A dark and poorly lit collection of hillside roads led out of the regional capital Reggio di Calabria toward Sergio’s small farmhouse and preferred meeting space. We turned onto almost hidden and unlit paths off the main streets of a local village where nothing was marked. These led deep into the rural mountainside and were oddly better paved than the crumbling streets built by the local municipality. Passing pitch-black fields we pulled up to the base of a small hill on top of which stood Sergio and an acquaintance, their persons obscured entirely by a bright security light which shone directly into our car. I ask Sbano what Sergio’s main form of income is. “People tell me it’s not extortion. They all say, ‘No, he’s a good person. People just give him things.’” I was told to wait while Sbano went up to greet them and explain who I was and what I was there to do. I was certainly not the first journalist they had been introduced to, but wariness remained. After ten minutes, Sbano whistled me out.
At the top of the hill I opened the door and entered a small, brightly lit room that doubled as a kitchen and a clubhouse. I shook hands with Sergio, a short, powerfully built but soft-spoken man with extremely calloused hands that betray his lifelong activities as a farmer. In his early fifties, Sergio has a high-pitched voice and speaks with a slight lisp. His companion, Aniello, is a white-haired older gentleman whom I am told is not a member of the ’Ndrangheta. I take a seat at the table, and Sergio summarily fetches a juice bottle filled with chilled red wine made from his own small vineyard. This is followed by a massive hunk of crumbling, aged, homemade pecorino, which he cuts off in chunks with a large kitchen knife. Then the fennel salami; that morning’s hard, crusty bread, which he softens with cold water; the homemade olives and, finally, the pickled mushrooms. Up in the mountains it was close to freezing and the door to Sergio’s hut was left open for the entirety of our lengthy nosh. About two hours in, Sergio started to feel comfortable enough to talk.
Sergio: The first time I ever led a tarantella was when I was sixteen. I was chosen by the elders of our organization, because—well, it’s hard to say exactly why, but I am pretty sure it was because I was a wild kid: people respected me, I solved problems both with and without my fists, and I had also grown up with the dance. It goes without saying that being the master of the dance is an extremely important role. Depending on the reason for the tarantella and if the rhythm is good, it can go on for four to six hours. I’ve been in trances before, soaked from head to toe with sweat, but only if the specific rhythm is being played from the foothills of my birthplace. I remember that my very first tarantella wasn’t that long, but it was important in terms of figuring out who to choose to dance and why. I recall the first time understanding that it was important to invite dancers from the surrounding towns to dance before my friends. It was a sign of respect and hospitality, one with which you also gain more respect. And I get a lot of respect around here. I am the boss, which means that I am bound to my territory. I don’t go on trips or travel abroad.
Generally, when we host a tarantella only within our clan, then it is full of ’Ndrangheta codes. If a young buck gets smart with an older member, he may raise his hand to tell the youth: “You will know your place, you will respect me—or you will pay the consequences.” Of course, nobody challenges the dance leader because his decision is law, even if this means that they aren’t chosen until later on in the ceremony. This also means that nobody would dare attempt to dance around me.
In tarantella, dancing with sticks or knives is something that happens for tourists, but believe me, it’s not a joke. The tarantella establishes respect and order but it can also be the arena for brutal conflicts. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, people can be carried out on a stretcher. Independently of the danger involved, I always have the best musicians to commemorate the event at hand. I want people to respect our culture. You see, so many things you see around here—the roads, the buildings, the stadiums, the markets—were created by us, the ’Ndrangheta. But only the politicians get the credit. The bourgeois don’t respect what we do. Exporting the tarantella is a way of gaining at least what we contribute to culture. The fact of the matter is that I represent a different, older ’Ndrangheta—one that is fundamentally different than the younger hotheads who operate the trafficking and do all the killing.
Mimmo Siclari is a producer and songwriter of malavita music. Driving west along the beachfront of Reggio di Calabria we end up in a neighborhood on top of a hill not far from the city’s small downtown amidst a series of illegally built tenement-like apartment buildings that run to a dead end. It’s sunny outside but the brightest thing in this dark alley are the whites strung across the clotheslines connecting the buildings. We’re there to pick up Mimmo Siclari, one of the most famous malavita songwriters who records his equally romantic and violent songs right here in his home studio. Siclari in particular has been the object for much criticism by anti-mafia activists and has given dozens of interviews over the years with journalists looking to find out more about the small round man who has been dubbed the 50 Cent of Calabria.
We walk together to a local restaurant and take a seat where Sbano takes care of the orders: a three course meal including an antipasto of pecorino and olives, a primo piatto of pasta and fennel sausage with broccoli and a main dish of grilled meat. Before the interview begins, Siclari immediately asks us to lower our voices regarding Mafia questions as the waitress’s husband is currently in jail. He didn’t elaborate why. When the wine arrives, Siclari begins in a hushed voice to tell us how he first started writing songs for and about the ’Ndrangheta:
Mimmo: The voices in tarantella have a very special quality: they are natural, untrained. These musicians sing beautifully, but it’s not formally studied in any way. It’s an authenticity that’s impossible to teach, I would imagine. The funny thing is that back in the day, everybody loved the tarantella, but only the farmers and the mafia were the ones who openly bought the records. The bourgeoisie would actually send someone to pick up the record for them because it was somehow a crossing of an invisible divide. They were ashamed to buy it, but loved listening to it in private.
Before physical recordings the music and the dance were always one. That’s obviously changed, but for me they remain inextricably linked. Also, it used to be you could always tell who was playing if you heard the musicians from a distance because each had their own distinct style. These days, lots of the musicians attempt to copy what they hear on the record which makes it all somewhat less individual. Certain musical habits have become more widespread and musicians are far more competitive. It’s almost a kind of fight between them, and I’ve seen tambourine players play so fast and intense that their hands are bleeding. And they still won’t quit until somebody picks up another tambourine and smoothly continues on, like with the DJs changing of the guard. The music never stops, it just mutates slightly.
For some musicians, playing for an especially important group of ’Ndrangheta might add extra pressure to perform. After all, it’s an extremely intimate musical relationship that they enter. But this isn’t true for the true musicians. For them it doesn’t matter who’s dancing, who’s listening, who’s armed and who’s not. Of course, there is some overlap between the ’Ndranghetisti and the musicians themselves. Fred Scotti, one of the most famous tarantella singers and musicians, was also in the ’Ndrangheta and was killed in a feud with another member. But there are rules to this stuff and for the most part it doesn’t matter if they’re playing in front of the Madonna, a boss or a group of housewives. The music doesn’t change, only the atmosphere and the intensity when ’Ndrangheta dance. The air is thicker, especially in the Aspromonte, where musically, the tradition is the most pure. And the most intense.
I started out my career by selling cassettes from a wagon, where I would design the covers of the tapes myself. The lyrics were about the malavita, or the criminal underworld, which I had been surrounded by since I was a kid. It’s a different kind of music than tarantella—more like individual songs as opposed to endless rhythms. But they’re closely related. I’ve traveled all over Calabria and I was always fascinated by the respect and behavior of the ’Ndranghetisti, especially speaking in a kind of code. When I eventually spoke to them myself, they were eager to teach me some of the songs and texts because I was so fascinated, which is how I came to compose malavita music myself.
I was really hooked on the power and respect when an ’Ndranghetista solved a little problem I had: I was arrested in a small town on the Ionian coast by the police after it was found out I didn’t have the right license to sell my tapes. Because the local Mafiosi knew me and liked my music, a feared member of the local clan came down to the station to pick me up. When the officers saw him their jaws dropped. They immediately released me and apologized for having confiscated my tapes. They also promised to never confiscate my tapes ever again. From that point on I often had two friendly men stand next to my wagon while I was selling to keep the police away. And they always bought me lunch. At some point a local boss invited me over almost every day for dinner for two weeks. I met his whole family and at some point I became afraid that I would be expected to pay him back for all of his kindness and generosity. But the boss wouldn’t even accept a single cassette. He just appreciated the respect that I had shown them in some of the texts I had written.
Pretty much from that point on I have written almost exclusively about ’Ndrangheta heroes romanticizing this life, while ignoring the more disturbing details of their criminal reality. This was easier to do with the old school ’Ndrangheta, who are different than today’s cowboys who absolutely cannot be romanticized. If you read the newspaper and heard anything about all the cocaine trafficking and all the unnecessary murders, then you know what I mean. But ultimately I write songs about Calabria. This is my land. It’s who I am and it’s what I do. Historically, this part of Italy always got seriously fucked, but ultimately it’s a kind of paradise.
Dario, ‘Ndranghetista and trafficker in the port of Gioia Tauro. Our first meeting with Dario from the port town of Gioia Tauro had been two days prior in the parking lot of a sporting goods store which, according to Sbano, his crew ran and operated out of. I had also heard lots of intimidating things about the wealth and fearsomeness of the ’Ndrangheta’s new garde both by Sbano and by older bosses from smaller villages, so it was with some surprise when Dario pulled up behind us in his decidedly unostentatious Fiat Panda with his wife in tow. We were greeted warmly by a handsome, soft-spoken, medium-sized Mafiosi, who compulsively played with the cross hanging around his neck. After exchanging pleasantries and working out the details with Sbano he agreed to meet us on our last day to show us around the port and tell us a bit about what he does for a living.
Forty-eight hours later we find ourselves in another parking lot in the center of town, this time, ironically, behind the city’s municipal government building. We spot Dario and follow him through Gioia Tauro, which, as Sbano explains, was built around an ancient Greek necropolis. But I have a hard time paying attention because things have gotten noisy. Every car we pass seems to honk at Dario and most of the pedestrians wave and shout a greeting. Everybody knows Dario and he doesn’t leave town much, if at all. As a higher-up in one of Gioia Tauro’s two major clans, he is literally bound to his turf by ’Ndrangheta code, like Sergio. Bosses never leave town unless they are on the run or in jail and accordingly become threatening fixtures that most people greet out of deference because they are bound to see them every day at the grocery store, the cafe, the pizzeria, the bar.
We pull up next to a fish restaurant and Dario leads us inside and introduces the manager as a “friend of mine.” As we’re seated, Sbano tells me that this isn’t the right place to talk about Dario’s business, so I settle in for small talk and one more enormous meal, this time a plate of perfectly al dente, no-frills spaghetti and tomato sauce to start and a delectable grilled whole calamari main. And lots and lots of red wine.
As Sbano and Dario become increasingly immersed in conversation my mind wanders until I look up to see we have visitors. We shake hands with Al and Enrico who take their seats at the far end of our table and seem to want to talk business. Looking at Sbano, I can see their arrival comes as a surprise. Both men are extremely young, intimidating looking toughs. Al, a prematurely balding, welter-weight Italian Mike Tyson leads the conversation, while Enrico, his small, wiry driver and, as I would later find out, muscle, looked around the restaurant nervously, absently running his hand through his long hair. The next twenty minutes were the only time during my stay in Calabria that I felt truly frightened, and I spent most of it alternately staring at Al and Enrico and trying to avoid making eye contact. I understood almost nothing of what Al was insisting to Sbano except the names Spike Lee and Oliver Stone. Eventually, the two got up to leave and shook our hands, which came as a relief. Dario then explained that the duo were also friends of his and were there to ensure our safety, as well as to let us know that they knew who we were and what we did.
After lunch we left the restaurant and followed Dario along the beach and back into town, past derelict gas stations and the cracked concrete poverty typical of semi-urban areas in the Mezzogiorno, until we arrived at a small pizzeria owned by his cousin. There, to my initial fright, we were joined again by Al and Enrico for espresso. But this time instead of feeling threatened, the two were all smiles and did their best to make me feel at home, even giving me some fake body blows and pinching my cheek. Dario explained that wiry Enrico was a picciotto or soldier, which is the lowest rung in the ’Ndrangheta ladder. This is why he was constantly being asked to do menial tasks, like clean out the ashtray or fetch things from the car. Al and Dario both seemed to relish making Enrico do something and then break his balls about how he was doing it all wrong.
Across the street in a grey, unassuming apartment building is where Dario lives with his wife. He invited us to take a look inside. The spotless four-bedroom apartment was lavishly decorated with a wise-guy baroque sensibility, boasting various copies of Dutch Masters and courtly looking things. In the kitchen, a hundred dollar bill with the face of Al Pacino as Tony Montana was framed next to a Montecristo cigar, all perched atop a wine rack. While Sbano set up his camera to take some portraits of Dario, Al whipped out his phone to show me some pictures of his three pit bull terriers. In the meantime, Dario reached into his cupboard and pulled out some leather gloves and a ridiculously large handgun and placed it on the coffee table to use as a prop for the photo shoot. As Sbano started snapping away Dario soon realized that the gun wouldn’t do because of its engravings on both sides. And because it looked too intimidating. “It’s a gun for war,” Dario explained. “As opposed to just the everyday shoot out?” I thought to myself.
Concluding that it would be much better to use the unmarked guns located in a clan safe house down the street, we ended up driving to a nondescript, three-story apartment building. Inside there was only one door to a single apartment, with lots of space in the building that otherwise seemed to disappear. The small one-bedroom apartment was cold, austerely decorated and smelled of air freshener. On the walls hung a historical calendar of Calabrian saints and a generic picture of a palm tree paradise. Dario explained that this was where they stashed weapons, gangsters on the run and cocaine. He then told Enrico to fetch another pistol for the shoot. A few minutes later Enrico reappears with a gun shaped package wrapped in multiple layers of plastic and newspaper. The weapon inside was fully loaded. Enrico started to empty the clip onto the table with the gun pointed sideways uncomfortably close to my direction. Dario snatched the gun out of his hands and started berating him, then showing him how to do it properly in exaggerated motions with the barrel pointing towards the floor at all times. Enrico hands me a bullet and smiles. I nervously turn it around in my hands for a few seconds and give it back to him. For the next ten minutes Dario poses with the gun for the portraits, after which Enrico is instructed to thoroughly wipe all the prints off of everything we’ve touched. “Enrico’s got priors,” Dario tells me. “He can’t be too careful. Me on the other hand…” he laughs. “What do you want to know?”
Dario: Gioa Tauro is the largest commercial port in the Mediterranean, and of the circa four million containers that come through here a year, companies pay us a fee of a few euros per container for processing at the port, which in the end is a lot of money. But collecting money is not my job. I am a trafficker, and my clan controls an extremely large amount of the drugs that comes through Gioa Tauro. There are also two other main cities where Europe’s favorite and most expensive powder enters into—Siderno and Vibo Valentia. My other main job in the family is securing weapons. I’m the arms guy.
I became inducted into the ’Ndrangheta four years ago and now have a pretty high position as a contabile or treasurer, and this is something I’ve entered into for life. There is no getting out of it. But I don’t find my job stressful. Shipments come in from South America, and I just deal with it. As for the tarantella: yeah, it’s a part of ’Ndrangheta culture, but I think it’s become less important for the new guys than the old guys. But in Gioa Tauro we do things a little differently anyways, and often times have as many as five men dancing together in the circle. The tarantella for us still remains important, and when you’re asked to attend or dance, you do as you’re told. The last time I danced was about a year ago when a friend of ours was let out of jail. The fact of the matter is that it’s not so uncommon to not go to jail these days if you’re lucky. It’s not like I get up at dawn every morning and commit crimes all day. That’s not how it works. Some days I have very little to do indeed. I am usually working when something isn’t working. I solve problems—figuring out why a shipment is late or why something at the port isn’t functioning. You see, there is an extremely important distinction that I would like to make between the ’Ndrangheta and practicing ’Ndrangheta. The former has to do with being named an honorable man and being able to protect yourself and your family. The latter isn’t just about being in the ’Ndrangheta. It’s about proving yourself constantly. I didn’t get to be where I’m at because of my name, but rather because of what I am committed to doing. Part of that is being extremely generous without asking for anything in return.
If someone needs money, you give it to them without thinking twice about it. It is a classic aspect of being a man of honor: helping those in need, helping the poor. These are the seeds you sow to have them one day grow into trees of honor. I don’t speak so much about what I do and that’s exactly what keeps me safe. I like to think I have a pretty good sense of who could and would rat on me. And I’d like to think I’m protected by God, because I pray all the time.
Ciccio, former ‘Ndrangheta member member Despite having left his criminal past long behind, Ciccio was not an easy person to get ahold of. Numerous emails and meetings with mutual acquaintances proved futile in our attempt to speak to the small, heavily tattooed seventy-seven year old native of Cosenza. When we finally reached him on the phone through a friend a week after leaving Calabria, Ciccio was quick to reminisce about a time when the tarantella and the increasingly obscure and more brutal aspects of its rituals played a central role in his life as an ’Ndranghetista. This happened to be especially true for the now part-time baker, whose former status as a camorrista, or clan muscle, placed him in the center of brutal conflicts, which were occasionally carried out in the form of dance.
Ciccio: I was eighteen when I first went to jail for robbery and assault, and if I am honest, I had always admired ’Ndranghetisti, or “men of honor” as we often refer to them. I had sought their attention since I was a kid, but growing up poor, the only thing I could impress them with was my courage and ability to adhere to the principle of Omertà, or code of silence. That, I had a lot of, which is why almost immediately when I entered jail I was inducted into the ’Ndrangheta, which of course involved dancing a tarantella held in the prison yard. I got out a year later on good behavior and proudly reentered my small town as a man of honor. But that didn’t last too long and only a few years later I went away again for twelve years, again for assault, but this time it was a bit more serious.
By the time I got out in the mid-seventies, things in the ’Ndrangheta had changed. They called it “reforms”, but really it was all about the new garde literally killing off the entire old garde and instituting new goals, which revolved around ruthless killings and drug trafficking. I won’t say there wasn’t murder back in my day, but at the time, people warned you before you got killed so you had time to escape. But that was then. Anyhow, my boss went along with the changes, but I didn’t see the honor in it so I did something pretty uncommon: I asked to be released from my duties in the organization. He granted this, which happens extremely seldomly, and since then I have been degraded to the status of “contrasto onorato” and no longer have contact with my old clan. But I still have my ’Ndrangheta tattoos, which I am proud of and which are symbols of humility and pain and badges of honor. All of mine were done in prison by other Mafiosi. The enormous butterfly on my back represents freedom and its size is directly related to the length of my time spent on the inside. The snake is a symbol of my former status as a camorrista, and represents the fact that I can bite without warning.
Which brings me to the tarantella. For the ’Ndrangheta it’s much, much more than a dance: it’s our training ground and reflects so many aspects of our world. The circle of men represents the territory of our crew. The dance master is the boss, of course, and participants are there to show who can dance the longest and who has the fastest moves—just like in real life. For us, violence is as much a part of tarantella as it is part of the world of the mafia, and my skills in knife fighting, which I learned in jail, have come in handy on more than a few occasions. You see, in tarantella you employ the same tricks: in order to stay as far away from you opponent’s knife as possible you circle each other counterclockwise, but always face to face. This way you also protect your own liver. My most serious knife attack was actually planned beforehand by my boss. I cut a guy’s face and only afterwards found out that he was a boss from Sicily. My capo invited the annoying young don to the dance because he wanted to teach him a lesson. At the time I remember thinking, “I guess Sicilians don’t dance tarantella as well as us Calabrese.” But later on, and for the next twenty odd years, I worried he was going to seek revenge.
Ultimately, the tarantella is about entering a trance, an animalistic state. This is when you move instinctively, automatically, with speed and precision; looking, judging and reacting all happen in a single movement. This is when you have no fear, come what may. It’s the same state of mind a Mafiosi achieves when he’s planning or carrying out something evil.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. A.J. Samuels and Francesco Sbano conducted the interviews. All photos are by Francesco Sbano.
Above: Den Sorte Skole’s Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland in their caravan while on tour last year supporting Trentemøller. Photo: Luci Lux.
On their latest album, Lektion III, Copenhagen-based DJ and production duo Den Sorte Skole (AKA Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland) deconstructed and reassambled thousands of samples across the genre spectrum in order to create music that questions the notion of authorship and originality. The result is a sonic safari through a veritable jungle of styles and ideas that shot to the top of more than a few year-end best-of lists for 2013. But it also made the ambitious Danes too illegal for labels and distribution alike. Max Dax spoke to the pair, who recently played at our EB Festival in Zagreb, about the philosophical and cross-cultural conundrums that sampling evokes.
Max Dax: You’ve used literally thousands of samples from all possible genres to create Lektion III. Since we have to start somewhere, I’d like to know how you stumbled upon the work of Karen Dalton, whose violin on “Katie Cruel” you used on “Did You Ever.”
Simon Dokkedal: I think Martin read about her and bought the LP a few years ago. But there’s an interesting reason why we were even able to sample the violin: When Karen Dalton recorded the song, it was in fashion to keep the instruments sonically separated.
In a similar act of creative appropriation, Nick Cave also based “When I First Came to Town” on “Katie Cruel.”
Martin Højland: It’s all about appropriation, and “Katie Cruel” is a prime example of what you can do with sampling that modern production can’t. When you listen to her voice on that track in particular, it has this completely unique and authentic feeling about it. Hopelessness and the feeling that the end of the world is near are present in her voice, as well as in the tuning and sound of the violin. It’s so raw and real. When you sample it, you’re importing this feeling of authenticity into the music. You could never recreate that feeling with any violinist from any orchestra. So, samples, for people like Simon and myself, are like voices from a forgotten time. They represent something that has to be kept alive.
In other words, Lektion III is a kind of “protest against forgetting,” as Hans Ulrich Obrist would say?
MH: Yes, you could say so. People tend to define history on the basis of its biggest milestones, the most iconic people and the most dramatic events. But history is richer than that and full of forgotten pearls. When Searching for Sugarman about Sixto Rodriguez came out, everybody was so surprised that such a musician could exist without the world knowing about him. But there are lots of these forgotten people that played an important role in shaping the paradigms and times in which we live. On Lektion III, some of these people get another chance to shine: Exuma, Eden Ahbez and Brigitte Fontaine, people with very open minds, crazy thoughts and rough lives on the edge of society. They did things you couldn’t have and paved the way for all the normalizers that turned their weirdness into something more mainstream.
SD: When we started doing the album, we talked a lot about how we’d like it to sound, and gradually the idea of reviving old voices became more and more central. It became clear to us that we would only sample old and obscure stuff from all around the world rather than newer and known music from the West. And that’s why you’ll find very few samples on the album that are from after 1979, when I was born.
MH: I was born in 1980, so we basically grew up with the music of the nineties.
SD: We wanted to open our ears to stuff we didn’t know. As a band, we started out spinning hip hop in the nineties and understood early on that almost every hip hop track is based on a sample and thus references something older. We wanted to base our album on samples that no one had used before us, but found that this is really hard these days. Most of the North American and Western European stuff has been found and used already. Almost all of the soul and funk records have been mined for usable samples. So we tried to dig deeper and wider. We had to go further back in time and extend our hunting grounds to include the whole world, and especially more unusual genres like early modern classical music, field recordings and Indonesian jazz.
Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland acquired the albums pictured here through months of research on eBay and Discogs following the disapearance of their favorite blogs and music archives in wake of the dismantling of file hosting site Megaupload.
MH: That’s also why we ended up listening to the entire catalogues of Asmus Tietchens, Conrad Schnitzler and S.P.K. At a certain point in the process, these early experimental electronic musicians came into the picture. That was a real turning point, because they provided us with a really fresh electronic sound that balanced the otherwise dustier atmosphere on Lektion III. Actually, these “early” experimental electronic artists—including people like Igor Wakhévitch—were doing things in the seventies that people are still struggling to emulate today.
I recently spoke to occasional Kraftwerk collaborator Emil Schult about the relevance of the connection between electronic music and Joseph Beuys. Did you know that both Schult and Conrad Schnitzler were students of Beuys and were taught that every artwork has to serve a societal ideal? Schult stressed the fact that in the 20th century, there were only two real innovations that foresaw the universal language of the 21st: the invention of the transistor and electronic music’s use of algorithms on the one hand, and Beuys’ social sculpture anticipating the Internet as a social network on the other. I think this is particularly interesting in the context of this magazine, which is financed by a multi-national telecommunications company and focuses on the rhizomatic aspects of electronic music and human interaction, online and off. I think that you guys operate precisely at this conceptual intersection.
MH: That’s why, for us, listening to echoes of the past doesn’t necessarily mean doing something nostalgic. Today’s world is truly globalized and it’s possible to merge musicians, sounds and styles from everywhere. I think the real question is when this will happen in a non-sampled form. The danger is, of course, that our ethnocentric Western attitude will probably erase these wonderful regional cultures before it can happen.
Did you really travel around the world? Or did you virtually travel on the Internet?
SD: Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money to really travel the world on the scale we would have liked.
MH: But it was very surprising for us to find that vast amount of information online. We found so much inspiration on the countless music blogs like Mutant Sounds, Holy Warbles, Ghostcapital, and MFT3F. There was also a thrilling blog by a Norwegian guy living in Indonesia, who uploaded hundreds and hundreds of Indonesian jazz and folk records and tapes from the ’60s to the ’80s and organized them into a massive archive. He scanned all the liner notes and pictures and every copyright credit. We were in Copenhagen, searching for samples from completely obscure stuff—it was so overwhelming and it could never have happened 15 years ago. We combed through all these blogs and transferred massive amounts of music onto our hard drives. Then we sat for a whole year in our studio listening to two hundred albums a week for seven hours a day and eventually creating our own archive with all the usable samples that we’d find during these listening sessions. Quite boring at times, but I guess we are very geeky by nature and aware that structure and discipline lie at the heart of most good things.
SD: From the beginning, we tagged each and every sample according to style, tonality, speed and its instrumentation. We had folders for easy listening, with psych, noise, jazz, field recordings, folk—you name it. We were shocked how much the music from, say, Ghana differs from Mali. But then you suddenly encounter a rhythmic pattern in Thailand that corresponds with another pattern in Colombia, and with our DJ backgrounds we tried to figure out if they somehow match. We also refused to use the advantages of modern software like Traktor or Ableton. We didn’t pitch any of the samples to make them fit. We insisted on finding matches instead. The whole process was like searching for needles in a haystack. It wasn’t intuitive or funky or anything; it was just plain discipline. No rocking, beer-drinking jam session up in our studio—maybe just a mindexpanding joint once in a while. Of course, every now and then we’d have a session with matching material. But the real magic would appear if, after hours of inconclusively trying to match a sample with something from our archive, something suddenly truly beautiful touched our ears—simply because two musicians from different times and different worlds started to play together.
MH: We had a plan and a vision, but on January 19, 2012, the file sharing host Megaupload was closed down by the FBI, and within a few months, the FBI, Google and some of the other big players shut down the entire infrastructure that these blogs depended on. All the blogs we loved were suddenly cut off from their archival basis. All the links went dead, and all the music disappeared. It was a catastrophe for them. The Norwegian guy in Jakarta had built probably the biggest online archive of Indonesian popular music ever—I think because the Indonesian government doesn’t see the need or doesn’t have the money to take care of running an archive of their own. It’s sad and upsetting to see all this work erased over night by the biggest players in the market in an attempt to protect their own shares.
SD: But thanks to the extensive copyright credits by all the bloggers, we started to purchase the original vinyl records of all the samples we intended to use and replace the MP3’s with better quality recordings. Discogs and eBay were really helpful at this stage, and we spent a lot of money.
MH: We succeeded in getting approximately 70 percent of the source material we had originally collected for Lektion III on vinyl. The missing 30 percent were mostly WAV files created from otherwise impossible-to-find vinyl sent to us upon request from the people who were running the original blogs or from record collectors all over the world. For us it was a really special feeling to witness how all this energy came together in this project.
Did you ever feel like the cyber successors to Alan Lomax?
MH: You know what? We didn’t know about Alan Lomax and his work as an ethnomusicologist when we started working on Lektion III. We didn’t even have a clue who Harry Smith was, who compiled the world-famous Anthology of American Folk Music, until we were researching some unknown folk track.
For a while now, I’ve been dreaming of writing a novel based on the exact experience that you’re describing: you start with Internet research, say, on Alan Lomax and the Delta blues, and then you loose yourself in the labyrinth of information and cross-references and hyperlinks. It’s only a short way from there to, say, Greil Marcus. It was Marcus who coined the term “invisible republic” to describe the importance of weird, old, eerie folk music whose singers and songwriters wrote a kind of counter-history to the official narrative. These people had the task of mapping out another America, the invisible republic that only shows its face through the haunting imagery of the songs they’ve written.
SD: You’ve hit the nail on the head with the connection between Greil Marcus and the old folk tradition. That’s why it was so important for us to release Lektion III with an extensive booklet of liner notes describing not only our ethnological approach, but also carefully listing each and every sample that we’ve used and crediting the artist, year, country, song and the album we found it on. Just putting out the music wasn’t what it was all about. We wanted to give life to the various voices from the past. Sharing information was a big, big part of the project. In that way we were able to honor our sources and hopefully inspire people to dig into these amazing discographies.
MH: And you’re right that we ended up being a kind of successor to Alan Lomax. Technology today made a completely new project possible compared to the limitations Alan Lomax had to deal with. We were able to virtually travel to Honduras, India, Lebanon and Siberia through the blogs and were not limited to the Mississippi Delta. Thanks to the Internet and the effort of all the bloggers, we could sample the sounds of 51 different countries for the same project, and create a “counterhistory to the official narrative,” to put it in your words.
Speaking of technology, you mentioned the FBI shutdown of Megaupload, which was essentially carried out to protect copyright holders—i.e. international corporations who own catalogues of artists’ rights. I think that the whole copyright system should be radically reconsidered and reshuffled as we have such different systems and standards for different entities. Take cooking for example: I understand the current state of cooking as the product of thousands of years of experimenting and refining tradition. So if you want to cook, say, spaghetti Bolognese according to a recipe, you’re not infringing on anyone’s copyright. Of course, this is more comparable to playing a record than sampling it. The latter would be more like the physical reprinting of a copyrighted recipe, for example from star chef Ferran Adrià i Acosta. But you can’t digitalize cooking. It’s still a physical act. In light of current copyright law, you’ve produced a highly illegal album. What’s your take on the issue?
MH: In music, copyright is the domain of lawyers and record companies. But like in cooking, as you say, music has always been about appropriating something, altering it and turning it into something new. Much of African music, for instance, has been about singing songs in a religious context that were written long ago. By singing them in a new century or in a new context, you alter them and you don’t have to ask anybody for permission. That’s how the blues developed, and nobody stopped early rock and roll bands from turning the blues into something “white.” Copyright truly became an issue with the rise of big business in music and entertainment in the ’70s, when their lobbyists started buying up all the rights in order to regulate access. I mean, according to our laws today, Brahms could have been sued for mashing up Beethoven’s ninth in his own first symphony. And genre-defining albums from the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and De La Soul could never have been released today. The old system has worked successfully for hundreds of years. We could even extend this back to Homer and, later on, the Bible.
SD: Actually, the whole concept of oral history is based on the ability to use and write down the words of someone else and turn it into a book. Copyright in music today favors big corporations and successful musicians. You can’t sample Madonna without immediately facing a lawsuit from her lawyers or paying her off with a lot of money. But if you are an African, Belgian, or Chinese producer and doing something interesting, you can be sure that it’s much more difficult to sue the American production company who took your idea and changed it into something new. You’ll starve before you get your day in court. This is, of course, an oversimplification. But the American producer who just sampled an old Turkish record won’t be sued by the family of the copyright owner because they won’t know about it. He didn’t credit the original source and will run off with both the fame and the money.
MH: That’s cultural imperialism in disguise, and that’s exactly the reason why we made an extensive booklet that functions as a guide to Lektion III. Not a single artist is left out, everybody can trace his or her sample. As I said before, we didn’t try to disguise the samples by pitching them up or down or by playing them backwards or by processing them through an effects filter. Yes, we used the violin that can be heard on Karen Dalton’s “Katie Cruel,” but we put it in a completely different context and it now lives again in a new piece of music. And yes, we used Asmus Tietchens’ “Tina, ich liebe Sie!” that was originally released on a cassette compilation called Sex & Bestiality from 1984. In fact, that was one of the few samples we used that was released after 1980. And you can go check out all of Tietchens’ work, because it is brilliant. So now you know.
It’s interesting that you mention Asmus Tietchens. He’s an old friend of mine, and we frequently discuss his work at Electronic Beats. I fondly remember a seemingly endless boat trip with him through the most remote corners of the vast Hamburg harbor. He and his assistant had installed an underwater microphone next to the ship’s propeller and on the deck he’d manipulate the sound and fade other sources into the mix—that is, while everybody else got drunk. I don’t know if they recorded or ever released it, but it was an afternoon to remember.
SD: Every sound tells a story, and every voice has an echo. By providing the booklet we made sure that anyone who wants to dig deeper can easily do so. If someone wants to know more about the foundational loop of “Staklenih”—the Tietchens track used on Lektion III—then they can go for it. I bet that in Denmark next to nobody has ever heard of him.
Coming back to the copyright issue: Even though I think that the system is not fair, you still didn’t clear the rights to any of the samples you’ve used. How do you plan on dealing with that?
SD: Having used thousands of samples in the recording process, we could never get a hold of all the copyright holders and make a separate deal with every single one of them. It’s fifty-one countries and every one of them has different laws.
To me, the album is like a big question mark. You ask the question, but nobody has an answer.
MH: That’s true and a very good description. And this is the political part of our project: to challenge the existing laws and the music business. We actually posed the question directly to the Danish branch of the IFPI, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. We asked them for a collective clearance of all the samples and suggested that we split the royalties with all the respective copyright holders. We waited for three months, and then they said they wouldn’t do it. They essentially pretend to be representing the interests of the authors but somehow always seem to reject solutions that would benefit them. And we got word the day we finished mastering the record—the day before we were supposed to send it to the pressing plant!
Photo: Kristoffer Juel Poulsen
Which reminds me of other inconsistencies of the copyright system. German television directors for instance can use whatever music they want, because they pay a flat fee to the GEMA, the German royalties collecting and broadcast licensing society.
SD: By now the problem has multiplied for us: Because we were not allowed to clear any of the samples we used via the IFPI, we can’t sell our album on iTunes, Boomkat or any other download platform. So we did an illegal pressing of a thousand triple-vinyl copies and self-released it on our website. And we also sell it on tour. We ship it ourselves, we have no distribution, and if you want to get the digital version of Lektion III you can download it for free on our website—including a PDF of the booklet.
MH: I think that the IFPI was afraid to set some kind of legal precedence. By the way, we were invited together to talk about this on Danish national television during the evening news with the IFPI, but they refused to join the discussion, and we were left alone with the news host to explain the issue. Despite this little triumph on prime time, it’s still very complicated for us. We don’t have a label, we are not part of the established music business, and we simply don’t have access to the market. We are living in a virtual parallel reality to the so-called real world that all of us are exposed to on a daily basis. But one thing is for sure: the FBI can take Megaupload offline, but this doesn’t mean that they’re doing the right thing. On the Internet, a new culture of sharing content has already spread. I think the kids of today don’t give a shit about copyright. They simply don’t understand the problem and they speak from a completely different place in history. They grew up with the iPhone and all kinds of copyrighted material just floating around and up for grabs in the social sphere. They can’t understand why the old laws should kill creativity. They can’t understand why they are being criminalized for doing what people have been doing throughout history: taking the things that surround them, altering them, developing them with the technological methods. And the whole copyright issue gets even nastier when you look at vaccines or AIDS medication for instance. Things have to change, and we are proud if Lektion III can play even a microscopic role in this process. ~
Photos by Luci Lux.
Brazil today is a country divided. And nowhere is this division more palpable than in the cultural capital Rio de Janeiro. There, in the hilly tropic idyll, rich and poor live side by side. They share the same beaches, dance to the same rhythms, and are watched over by the same monolithic Christ the Redeemer. But they live drastically different lives. Since being awarded this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the appalling differences between rich and poor and extremely wasteful spending on public projects have sparked violent mass protests in South America’s largest economy.
As a founding member of activist group Mídia Ninja, Felipe Altenfelder became notorious amongst Brazil’s bloggers for reporting live from last year’s numerous riots. We met him on Arpoador Beach during the Ninja’s annual gathering. To read the rest of our Brazil story, go here: part one, part two.
In 2003, the then minister of culture Gilberto Gil formulated the great idea of a “Deep Brazil”: taking the focus off of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo as the sole cultural centers and involving each and every citizen of this vast country. It made us realize that everything that was already happening just lacked visibility, so we started the Mídia Ninja movement to use the web as a platform to promote independent cultural exchange.
Round about 2011, we were becoming a social movement of sorts. By then we were already occupying spaces all over Brazil, discussing and suggesting new ways of using money and housing and had gathered a network of journalists and social activists whose causes we helped promote. While our generation has always been inspired by free media, a new energy rose in our group, drawn from the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and similiar movements happening at that time.
The idea was that everyone can be a Ninja when they need to be: a philosophy of free journalism and crowdsourcing. We wanted to let people know that the mass media does not have a monopoly on truth—and by creating our network the credibility of state controlled TV stations and news outlets started showing cracks. The political consciousness of our country is growing.
Last year, our efforts resulted in the streets becoming a democratic space for the first time. The people were fed up with being held for fools—and the government got nervous. The police lost their cool, and their violent reaction propelled the attention of the protests to an even higher, international level. This was also due to Ninjas reporting live from the epicenters of the riots, thus streaming live videos that showed police brutality without editing.
Having said that, it’s important to stress that the initial idea was not an anti-government one. Our former president Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva took forty million people above the poverty line, which is amazing. We are not talking about a few hundred Brazlian real more a month: It’s about the self-esteem, education and critical reflection of the next generation of young Brazilians.
Our state has to take better care of its citizens’ human rights, cultural possibilities, the environment, the access to independent communication and of course drug policies. The demonstrations took place to pressure the government, to remind them that there is still a long way to go. To say: “We want more!” ~
Sixty-five year-old Paulo “Caju” Cézar is one of Brazil’s greatest heroes and a model for the “Brasilian Dream”. Growing up in one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas, the footballer was part of the seleçao that won the World Cup in Mexico 1970. We met Caju for dinner in the Gavea district at the home of Brazil’s leading bossa nova reformer, Vinicius Cantuária. Photos by Luci Lux.
Brazil today is a country divided. And nowhere is this division more palpable than in the cultural capital Rio de Janeiro. There, in the hilly tropic idyll, rich and poor live side by side. They share the same beaches, dance to the same rhythms, and are watched over by the same monolithic Christ the Redeemer. But they live drastically different lives. Since being awarded this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the appalling differences between rich and poor and extremely wasteful spending on public projects have sparked violent mass protests in South America’s largest economy.
In the second part of our extended investigation which saw Electronic Beats travel to Rio De Janeiro to hear preeminent cultural ambassadors explain the current state of affairs in their own words, former world class footballer Paulo Cézar gets angry with the Brazilian government over dinner at the house of singer Vinicius Cantuária. To read the rest of our Brazil story, go here: part one, part three.
This year could and should have been a triumph for Brazil. But there is no reason to celebrate. The World Cup will direct the world’s attention to our country, of course. But if you want to know my honest opinion, I think that Brazil has missed a great opportunity to present itself as a progressive country to the world. This is especially embarrassing as Brazil for many still is one of the world’s leading football nations. The way the government has spent insane amounts of money to build the most modern stadiums in the world while ignoring the country’s serious problems—corruption, failing healthcare and fucked up education. My position is crystal clear in this regard. I was born and raised in a favela. I know the bad sides of the system, I know how it is when you are refused entry to a school or to university just because you’re from a poor family. You know, keeping the prices for public transport low would have been a signal for the future, but instead they raise the prices, as well as for gas and food. The recent violent riots have shown the amount of anger that the poor have accumulated and you don’t need a weatherman to know that everything will get way worse during the tournament, or on the road to the Olympics here in 2016. The government is afraid already. Not since the military government has the country seen such an outburst of violence against the state. And, I repeat myself, it will get so much worse.
Maracaña football stadium.
The absurd thing here is that football in the past has more than once successfully served as a catalyst to channel people’s aggressions into something positive. Instead, the stage that has been set up to celebrate football will for sure be used to televise an attempted revolution on the streets. And the worst thing is the people cannot even afford to attend the matches because the ticket prices are ridiculously high. They are more expensive than Wimbledon. FIFA has sacrificed the democratic idea behind the game: the idea that football is for everybody. Take for instance the refurbished Maracanã stadium in Rio that used to have a capacity of 200,000 for general admission. Now it seats barely 75,000 fans. They turned a people’s sport into something elite. Even normal league games are insanely overpriced. You pay fifty or more real for a normal ticket, which is a lot if you compare it to the minimum income of 724 real per month. If you attend a normal game nowadays you will be sitting in an almost empty stadium. And there’s another reason why Brazilian football is currently going down: the standard is watered-down. European clubs hires all the good Brazilian players. Almost the same can be said about the national team, the seleçao: under national coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, the team is playing a particularly unattractive, almost German style. There is no finesse in the Brazilian game anymore. It’s become athletic instead of playful, all forseeable long passes and tall attackers trying to hammer the ball in the net. Don’t get me wrong: the Germans nowadays, they play like Brazil used to play. They probably just need a bit more luck. I wouldn’t be surprised if Germany wins the World Cup in Brazil. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 37 (1, 2014). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Above: Caetano Veloso (left), Arto Lindsay (right). All photos by Luci Lux.
Brazil today is a country divided. And nowhere is this division more palpable than in the cultural capital Rio de Janeiro. There, in the hilly tropic idyll, rich and poor live side by side. They share the same beaches, dance to the same rhythms, and are watched over by the same monolithic Christ the Redeemer. But they live drastically different lives. Since being awarded this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the appalling differences between rich and poor and extremely wasteful spending on public projects have sparked violent mass protests in South America’s largest economy. We met Rio and Brazil’s preeminent cultural ambassadors to explain the current state of affairs in their own words and, throughout the course of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, we will be publishing the results of our trip. First up, no wave icon turned Brazilian music champion Arto Lindsay sits down with influential Brazilian superstar Caetano Velosos to discuss poetry and infinity over the latter’s kitchen table on Leblon Beach.
Caetano Veloso: The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once wrote in a poem: “An East, east of the East”, where he describes his longing for and the promises and riches of new and exotic lands. In that sense, to me, Brazil is a West, west of the West. Even though Fernando Pessoa is not from Brazil, his poetry—and poetry in general—is a strong force in this country. It’s one of the things I like about Brazil because poetry can actually be a very strong tool to project visions of the future. With poetry you can be ambitious about discussing a new role of Brazil. Currently, Brazil is a wreck. Brazil doesn’t work. Actually it’s never worked. Everybody knows that. But it has promise and the possibilities that one can imagine are fantastic. Suffice to say, the same applies especially to Rio de Janeiro as it represents all the good and bad of Brazil to the rest of the world.
Arto Lindsay: Even to itself. Rio represents Brazil to Brazilians. The city formulates a kind of ideal of how to live.
CV: But because Brazil is a failure, it also provides obvious opportunities to create something new.
AL: I think that Brazil is capable of catching and nurturing the imagination of the world, like the United States. Of course, the U.S. is brutal, imperialistic, destructive, as you know, oppressive, racist and exploitative. But at the same time it has represented all these incredible ideals of freedom to the world. And it spread these ideas. Brazil being a huge country also means it’s empty. It’s a kind of basin of possibilities.
CV: I have the impression that you are a little more optimistic than I am about those dreams. Maybe it’s because you’re American and I’m Brazilian. Because all the bad things you say about the United States, they all could be said about Brazil. Only the success is missing. My dream is that we could catch the opportunity to create something new, free from being successful in those old ways.
AL: That should be possible. Because Brazil is different. Rio is different. It’s tropical.
CV: When I was young, we didn’t even believe in the world outside of Brazil. We lived mostly looking and thinking inside of Brazil, not outside. The world outside was not real. Now it’s more real as lots of Brazilians have immigrated, especially to Europe and the United States. So today we have the experience of the reality of the outside world that was missing in the past.
AL: Unlike me, you were even forced to leave Brazil and to look at your country from exile. I wonder how that informed your thinking.
CV: The military government was like a nightmare for us. When I was forced to leave I was young. I lived in London for two and a half years in exile, and it was something oddly Brazilian that happened to me abroad: I started to miss the language. I remember when I came back after my exile, I would always change the radio station if they would play an English song. I’d try to find a Brazilian song instead, for the sake of the Portuguese language. I was tired of Europe and its culture.
AL: The decade when I was just beginning to know the world, you were already creating it. You are ten years older than I am. It makes a huge difference what you are referencing when you grow up.
CV: I totally agree. When I was a teenager in the fifties, rock and roll wasn’t respected the way it was in the second half of the sixties. That change only happened because of The Beatles and because of the young British people who believed that American rock and roll could and should be taken seriously.
AL: Speaking of change: I would like to know if you consciously tried to change the shape of Brazilian music.
CV: It was a very conscious thing for us to make popular music. We knew that it had lots of power. We were a group of people that deliberately wanted to change Brazilian music.
AL: What you are saying is totally important—Bob Dylan for instance didn’t want to change American music.
CV: Didn’t he?
AL: No, not deliberately. He was trying to do a lot of things but not that. People forget how folk music was contemporary with bossa nova and how at first it was all about historical excavation. The American folk movement was about finding and unearthing old blues and folk songs. It wasn’t about deliberately changing music like the Tropicália movement in Brazil. In your book Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, you describe how poetry became part of the program within Tropicália.
CV: Yes, we were discovering the program while we were doing things. And in the process we became more and more conscious of what we wanted. We discussed these things, and I thought a lot during that period.
This is the view from the living room in Caetano Veloso’s house on Leblon Beach— he says he cannot live without feeling the movement of the ocean. Veloso is to this day Brazil’s most influential contemporary songwriter and singer: One of the main figures in the Tropicália movement with Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé and Os Mutantes, he was among the first to open Brazilian music towards American and British rock, à la The Beatles, Hendrix or Bob Dylan. He was forced into exile in 1969 after using his popularity to openly discuss philosophical and socialist ideas. His time spent in London with fellow artist Gilberto Gil would permanently alter both Brazilian and British music.
AL: Who were some of the people that you discussed these things the most with at that time?
CV: First of all with Gilberto Gil, who became Brazil’s minister of culture in 2003. But I discussed things with a lot of poet friends of mine, especially the concrete poets from São Paulo who were true experimentalists. They were as interested in the Tropicália movement as I was stunned by their poetry. I had many discussions with Augusto de Campos, one of the leading concrete poets from São Paulo, who sensed something in my music even before Tropicália started. He sensed that we would change something and that we were coming from the world of poetry as well. Intensely talking to them definitively influenced the whole movement. The other people we would discuss with were mostly from the “serious” classical avant-garde field of music. They started to write arrangements for our songs, and we’d discuss how we could use these and what was going on in the international and in the Brazilian music scene. All the things we did were results of these discussions. All these encounters made us more and more aware of what we were doing. Everything was born out of a need. But we also started to analyze our situation. Bossa nova jumpstarted Brazilian music onto a very high level, because it was very sophisticated and done by very musical and intelligent people who were all still very young when it happened in the fifties. I was seventeen then and I was amazed by what the bossa nova people were doing. So I realized immediately that the creation of popular music in Brazil was a very important thing that should be taken very seriously.
AL: It was the heyday of European cinema as well. Films like À bout de souffle premiered in Brazil at that time.
CV: Godard especially was very important for me because he was everything that pop art meant. I got to know Andy Warhol through Godard. His cinema was the beginning of the new way of understanding American mythology, mostly from Hollywood, but also other aspects, such as music. It was completely different to see a Hitchcock movie before and after Godard and Truffaut. They changed our perspective on these things. And as I said, I was very young. I was touched and I understood it quickly. And then I went to the São Paulo Biennial when I was already engaged with the Tropicália movement in 1967. The pop painters from the United States were presented in Brazil for the first time. I was amazed because everything I had gotten from Godard movies and from Godard’s and Truffaut’s texts about American movies—I found the roots of these perspectives in these paintings. I didn’t know the pop artists before then. I learned about this special consciousness. Concerning myself with the diverse ideas that drove the pop artists as well as the poets surely shaped my own understanding of what pop music should be all about.
AL: I have some ideas about why Brazilian popular songs are so filled with poetry or are so close to poetry. Brazil was an oral culture until the middle of the twentieth century. So, language was very alive, language was spoken, it changed constantly, was played with and examined in a different way than if it had been mainly a written language. Another thing is the particular heritage of the Provençal language, an ancestor of Portuguese. In a country where most people don’t read, the people who do read are in the position to spread their point of view. All these things contribute in some way to why the language in Brazilian music is so charged and powerful. I guess these ideas are a result of constantly thinking about the difference between Americans and Brazilians. In Brazilian songs—from bossa nova to the songs that were influenced by concrete poetry—there is a kind of closeness between the words and what they are referring to. You know, the sea, the sunset, the beach are not only common topics in the songs, they somehow seem to constitute the song. And concrete poetry takes this one step further by concentrating on the shape and sound of the words. In American music it is almost as if you want to escape from language. In soul music made by black Americans singing in English, the intervals sometimes don’t fit the words and there is so much singing beyond the words. A growl, a scream, a yell often follows an otherwise simple line such as “I love you baby—aaarrgh!” You always want to go beyond the literal word. Talking about the “thingness” of words—how important is it to live near the ocean?
CV: I think it’s good to feel the motion of the ocean. When I came back from my forced exile in London, I went to Bahia and stayed there for three years. Only then I wanted to move to São Paulo, but my wife didn’t want to. She found Rio de Janeiro more pleasant. So we came to Rio even though I would have loved to experience the contrast at that time. If I had gone to São Paulo then, everything would have worked out differently, because the sea is powerful. Most of the Brazilian cities were founded and grew during the colonization of the country. The cities were built along the coast. All these various cities have their own tonality and their own spirit, but they have this one thing in common: the ocean. They sense the infinite. If you don’t have that you feel kind of trapped in the city. That’s what most people feel deep in their hearts in cities like Belo Horizonte, Brasília or São Paulo that are not on the coast.
AL: In Rio the beaches are numbered. Certain sectors of the beach over the years were always connected to certain people.
CV: In 1972 when I came back from exile, Posto 9 was the “in” area of the beach. The hippie-ish people or whatever you want to call them would gather there. But the real “in” place was called “Gal’s dune”, as in Gal Costa’s dune, right across the street from where she lived. It was the place where people would go to get high. That’s why it was also called the “high dunes.” Nowadays it’s the gay part of the beach. In fact, the bossa nova people didn’t go to the beach much. João Gilberto didn’t, nor did Carlos Lyra. Tom Jobim told me that when he was young he would often go to Leblon.
AL: Leblon was still in the countryside at that time. Today it’s a concrete jungle.
CV: It was just dunes and forest and farms. And he liked it. But when he started working he was rarely seen on the beach. Unlike me, the bossa nova people were not beach people. I lived in Arpoador near Posto 8 for a while. I would go to the beach alone. The beach was filled with lots of different people, also people from the favelas. They would all come down to the beach. But there were also surfers—blond guys with their surfboards and with nice white girls, and some musicians as well as people from the theater scene. Everything was mixed at Arpoador. I remember talking to a black girl from the favela. We were looking at the Pedra do Arpoador, and she said: “That’s my rock.” And I thought it was touching that this favela girl was naturally and full-heartedly calling this postcard view of Rio her rock, because she had spent her life there. This is so different from São Paulo where the favelas are far away from the city center and the postcard views. In Rio, the people just come down from the favela to spend the day—or their life—on the beach. In that sense, the most important spots in the city really belong to everybody.
AL: And vice-versa. Samba and the samba schools originate from the favelas, and samba is the music that functions like an amalgam to Brazil.
CV: And all the people are proud of it. It’s the other way round, but again, people share what they think is theirs. In São Paulo there is no way that people could mix on the beaches like they do in Rio. Take Mano Brown of the Racionais MC’s for instance. He’s the most prominent rapper from Brazil and he lives in São Paulo, but the favela he originates from is far from the center and there is nothing he could call his own when it comes to his city. It’s absurd, as he represents São Paulo to the Brazilians. In Rio, people feel that they walk on the streets of a city they own. It’s a completely different mindset.
AL: Did you take notice of the other big musical style that originated from the favelas—baile funk?
CV: I used to frequently visit the favela Mangueira during the period when baile funk was growing. I went there very often to be at the baile funk parties where I would also see many heavily armed young people with big handguns and even AK-47s. It’s strange, but after a certain time seeing all these very young guys with machine guns became totally normal.
AL: Did you ever feel frightened or unsafe in the presence of these people?
CV: I always felt totally safe because I would always enter the favelas with friends of mine who lived there. I never went alone. My friends would introduce me to these armed people and their bosses and from that moment on I was under protection. You know, I met some of the drug traffickers in some of the favelas and talked to them. Some of them actually became very famous later on because of their violent style. In fact, I once even met Elias Pereira da Silva, who became notoriously famous as drug baron Elias Maluco. But my most memorable experience in the favelas was meeting some of the old samba people together with Gilberto Gil. We would go to favela Mangueira and talk to these masters of samba for entire nights. And once you are there you’d talk also to the traffickers too. The samba people and the drug traffickers are the flip sides of the same culture. It doesn’t make sense to only talk to representatives of only one part of society.
AL: The traffickers were actually the unofficial mayors of the favelas. They decided what would happen and they would mediate disputes.
CV: I once read the book Brazil: Land of the Future by Stefan Zweig that he’d written in the late thirties. The book is brilliant, but nobody reads it. It is ridiculed for its title. Brazilians can’t stand the idea that someone else could see their country’s future in an optimistic way.
AL: Do you have an explanation for this?
CV: I’d say: They don’t want to take responsibility. If you think that you are crap, that you are shit and that you are nothing, then life is easy. This allows you to hate the Americans because you can point your finger at them and say: They are successful. The lament is the prototypical Latin American approach to responsibility. But I don’t identify with it. I still think that very good and very important things could be done by us. I don’t like to see myself as a loser and to grow resentful of people who do things and change things. Even the failures must be taken as a sign of opportunity. We should not be victors according to the values of the past. That’s at least the way I think. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 37 (1, 2014). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.