Gentrification Has Left Techno Without a Home in São Paulo
Photo by Vitor Cohen/Remirar

Gentrification Has Left Techno Without a Home in São Paulo

A Kafka-esque battle for downtown space has put Brazil’s electronic music collectives and established nightclubs on opposite teams.
December 22, 2017, 7:36pm

A version of this article originally appeared on THUMP Brazil.

"Al-al-al-alvará/Al-al-al-alvará!" was the battle cry of Brazilians who attended an event organized by the Mamba Negra collective on Sunday, May 28. The parade float leaving Francisco Matarazzo Avenue, in the neighborhood of Barra Funda, São Paulo, was equipped with DJ decks to sound out the four-year anniversary celebration of Mamba Negra, with sets by notable local acts Jerônimo Sodré, Jo a o, and MJP.

"An emergency exit and a safe escape route. Emergency exits; wide and spacious stairs. Do you have that, Renato?" asked Laura Diaz, one of Mamba Negra's two organizers. Her question was directed at Renato Ratier, the owner of D. Edge nightclub, as the parade float made its way down Auro Soares Avenue toward the club.

Carol Schutzer (AKA Cashu), the second organizer of the event, walked behind the float with the rest of the crowd, which included other prominent figures of the city's nightlife scene: The founders the parade, Carlos Capslock, L_cio and Tessuto; Pedro Zopelar, of the electronic music festival ODD; and producers Bad$ista and Amanda Mussi, the organizers of the Bandida and Dûsk collectives, respectively. At their side were dozens of people, shouting the Mamba Negra chant amidst cries of "Out Temer!" and "Out Doria!" in protest of Brazilian president Michel Temer and São Paulo's wealthy mayor, João Doria. At one point, "Out Ratier!" was also heard.

The event was announced two days' prior on Mamba Negra's Facebook page, as a sort of street protest meant to clarify the core reasons behind the collective: Fabriketa, the nightclub where the event was originally supposed to be hosted, had been seized by city officials on Friday, May 19. The Mamba Negra organizers looked for other warehouses they could use to house the event, but failed to find one. The gathering was then held at Via Matarazzo, an event space located between Audio Club and Villa Country in western Sao Paulo.

Photo by Vinícius JPG/Remirar

Over the course of the previous weekend, other events scheduled on May 20 and May 21 were also compromised by bureaucratic obstacles: Virada Cultural, a 24-hour cultural festival held annually in the city, was effectively dismantled—Doria and the city's Secretary of Culture, André Sturm, asked that the performances scheduled to occur in the city center be spread out across different neighborhoods, which enraged the festival's producers and resulted in an overall weak audience turnout. ODD, another electronic music fest, was also scheduled to occur on the evening of the 20th, but was shut down by Fábio Lepique, Adjunct Secretary of the Mayor's Office. Lepique posted on Facebook that he cancelled the event because it "didn't have the proper permits from City Hall," citing concerns for the safety of the São Paulo public. Mamba Negra actively spoke out against these decisions, including the police interventions that happened in Cracolândia, stressing that the "facts simply did not connect, but reveal instead a political agenda by the current administration [of Mayor Doria]."

All difficulties aside, Doria's political party PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) isn't the only catalyst behind the decline of São Paulo's independent street parties. In 2015, THUMP suggested that these electronic music collectives were losing their strength and presence. Isolated gatherings have become rarer and less frequent, while events like Virada Cultural have declined since 2016. Even SP na Rua, an event created by the city's former mayor Fernando Haddad that was designed to kick off São Paulo's Independent Culture Month, was almost cancelled the year before due to pressure from Mamba Negra.

The story of the rise and fall of electronic music collectives and their street parties in São Paulo started back in the early 2000s, predominantly thanks to sound system crews associated with dub and traditional Jamaican ragga—like Dubversão and Barulho, for example—that started a dialogue about the occupation and use of public spaces. According to cultural producer and Barulho founder Márcio Black, the first electronic music street event in the São Paulo scene was Voodoohop, launched by German DJ Thomas Haferlach.

Photo by Vitor Cohen/Remirar

Haferlach played a set at Bar do Netão, on Augusta Street, back in 2009. He noticed that his music had attracted a gathering of people on the sidewalk just outside the bar. "It wasn't even called Voodoohop yet. [My set] wasn't anything special—I would just play some of the songs that normally in Sao Paulo you could only hear in expensive clubs." The idea took root: Haferlach and the other organizers started hosting events in the old center of the city, such as República Square in Largo do Paissandú. "We'd reached people who were used to going to places they already knew—such as Vila Madalena, on Augusta Street—and we took them to places they'd never been to. And it always worked."

Collectives started to pop up after that, as did parties like by Akin, Free Beats by Mauro Farina, Sonido Trópico, Mamba Negra, Carlos Capslock, Selvagem and others who took to the streets of downtown São Paulo. The movement was later captured in the documentary O que é Nosso (Reclaiming the Jungle) by filmmakers Jerry Clode, Murilo Yamanaka, and Allyson Alapont. The public events were generally made possible by the organizers themselves. "One week we'd throw a ticketed event and make a profit, then we would use the funds to pay for the next party. Since the events were free, we'd often get good deals and pay less to rent the equipment, since other people in the industry also supported the idea," said Haferlach.

Black described the events as "barely legal." But the event organizers managed to establish a rapport with the Department of Culture around 2003, when Voodoohop was invited to Virada Cultural and asked to recruit other collectives for the lineup that year. In 2004, the festival SP na Rua was also created, with the help of Karen Cunha, the Department of Culture's Director of Events.

Former Mayor Haddad's administration generally allowed the electronic scene and its events to prosper—or at least the ones that were organized by the city. "What we aimed to do during Haddad's term—since the direct plan was established to guide the use of public space—was change mobility," recalled Nabil Bonduki, who was the Secretary of the Department of Culture from 2015 to 2016, when he left his position to run for city council. "[We were] trying to reduce the [prevalence of cars], and simultaneously encourage projects and actions that utilized public space."

But little by little, problems began to bubble to the surface. "When these [events] took place downtown or on the west side of São Paulo, there were lots of middle-class citizens who'd never occupied public spaces before, and the spaces [themselves] also weren't well-equipped," Black said. The noise of the events caused issues and tension between residents of the area and the event organizers.

Photo by Vinícius JPG/Remirar

Since 2014, one-time events have occurred more and more sporadically. Some have third party organizers—like the São Paulo street carnival, for example, which is organized by the Dream Factory and received sponsorship investments of 800,000 Brazilian reais in 2015, and 4.5 million in 2016. But most electronic music parties still depend on the money and efforts of the organizers themselves in order to happen at all. Over time, the parties became mostly private, with tickets costing an average of 20 to 30 reais. "If I choose to do a public event over a private one, I'm losing money, but when I do an event in the streets I'm also working," explained DJ Tessuto. "I spend hours planning it and deciding where it'll take place. There are artists [who perform] without getting paid. Although it's a movement with a purpose, I'm still working behind the scenes."

Today, most of the collective-run events have moved off the streets and into abandoned factories or other downtown spaces that aren't being used. The "purpose" Tessuto described—the intrinsic discussion about the occupation of public spaces—is still present behind closed doors. During an interview with THUMP Canada in February, organizer Laura Diaz said that Mamba Negra is an act of political resistance: "We have this [arts] occupation movement, which is close to the movements of people who fight for housing—these kinds of social movements."

But the political and artistic claims of the shifting parties occur in tandem with other issues that complicate the city's nightlife. The 2013 fire at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul, is a tragedy considered to have stirred the ambitions of politicians and club owners alike. During the 2016 elections in São Paulo, several candidates for city council used their campaigns to propose legislative changes to the cultural occupation of public spaces, and discrimination of clubs and music venues.

Photo by Vinícius JPG/Remirar

In the interim, the city took action. In 2013, shortly after the Kiss fire, the Bar, Nightclub and Entertainment Association of São Paulo (also known as ANEP), was created by local business owners and prominent figures. "The event [launched] a certain 'witch hunt' across the whole country, and pushed forward the need for an entity that could promote quality and safety in the entertainment industry," said Lucas Baruzzi, a representative at ANEP. The group's main aim is to tackle a charter law of 1992, which, Baruzzi explained, is outdated and not meeting the "entrepreneurial reality" of the associates, in addition to contradicting other city regulations. The association also strives to enforce safety measures at the events.

This April, ANEP took its first step toward their anticipated legislative changes. During a meeting with Deputy Mayor Bruno Covas, City Councilor Camilo Cristófaro, and the Director of the Program of Urban Silence (PSIU) Wanderley Pereira, ANEP provided São Paulo city officials with documents suggesting changes to PSIU and other public organizations that have an effect on the city's entertainment industry. The proposal is still under consideration, but Covas affirmed that the modifications would be welcomed. "Not even the Federal Constitution can be [remain] unchanged forever. It's always possible to [make revisions], as long as we are able to have binomial progress to help the people and [local businesses] while reducing bureaucracy." Regarding the meeting, Baruzzi stated that "in Sao Paulo's history of nightlife and entertainment, a political figure has never given so much assurance and openness for us to [voice] our fears."

As the city's big clubs and music venues move through the bureaucracy of the legislative process, the Mamba Negra gathering on May 28 demonstrated a more combative approach independent parties have been using to react to the barriers of the current administration. The innumerable obstacles that arise when applying for a permit, the fragmented operation of Virada Cultural this year, and several interferences in public events—to Diaz, it's a "twisting game" with the goal of aligning the Doria administration's political and economic interests.

"What happened [with Virada Cultural] was not new; it also happened during Haddad's administration. [What was new was] the fact that everyone was removed from downtown. Back when there was interest, they used us to bring in youthful energy—and then they cleaned the whole damn thing up to build these horrible-looking condos and tasteless boulevards. It's gentrification bullshit, period," she said.

Photo by Vincícius JPG/Remirar

Diaz's synopsis underlines a clear change in the city government: Their disapproval of electronic music collectives and sound system crews occupying São Paulo's streets. Covas swears that city officials view the collective-run events in a positive light, and says they're "the city's real legacy," adding that the consequent remodeling of spaces downtown was a positive thing.

But Herta Franco, a historian with a Ph.D. in Urban Environmental Structures and professor at the University of São Paulo (UNIP), believes there is a conflict of interests between Doria's administration and the organizers of the shifting events. "There's a clash of the city's representation, and consequently [a clash] of lifestyle. The current administration seems to favor [a type of] North-American city in which cars, private spaces, condos, and malls are praised. Public spaces are, in turn, enjoyed for consumption and only by individuals of the same social standing," she said.

The lack of street access and federal festivals—on top of the many buildings that were recently seized due to tax debts—has pushed the events operate illegally and hit a wall. "The bureaucracy is winning. There are several empty places in São Paulo, including places that are a lot more suited to hold events than the ones that currently have permits to be operate, but they don't even have an emergency exit. If there's a fire, it'll be a tragedy. Some renovations are also totally illegal," Diaz said.

During the Mamba Negra event that weekend, there was talk that the city council was "boycotting the [collective's] events and partnering with big business men of São Paulo's nightlife scene," said Israel Franco, a performance artist locally renowned for his character Euvira.

In a previous interview, Diaz reinforced that argument: "There are no assumptions. You can go on Fábio Lepique's Instagram, or look up the accounts of some other guys on the city council, and there are photos of them meeting with Ratier and other club owners at ANEP, which has been active for a while. Things are very public—we're not making anything up, nor are we making [baseless] accusations. It's quite the opposite, actually."

When we contacted Ratier himself, he chose to answer through Rafael Eidi Enjiul, the lawyer who represents him and the D. Edge nightclub. "Our clients don't have any relationship with illegal events or with city officials. Even ANEP, which [Ratier] was a part of, doesn't have anything to do with event monitoring, with the city council, or with [the city's] attitudes toward these illegal celebrations," he said. "They simply don't support clandestine activities. I don't think anyone does—not citizens, attendees, and especially not the partners in the electronic music scene."

Photo by Vinícius JPG/Remirar

For now, one thing is certain: The nightlife scene in São Paulo is undergoing a period of intense transformation. During an interview with Musicnonstop, Ratier stressed that times are changing, noting that "a serious government must make things easier so that people can obey the law, but at the same time, they need to understand that D. Edge is very important for electronic music."

The fight for public space in São Paulo's nightlife has become more than symbolic, now that alternative events have been taken off the streets and have since become ensnared in slow-moving battles for city permits and authorizations. In competing with larger clubs and venues with established political spaces, an inevitable socio-economic conflict has found the most bureaucratic solution: Facilitating grounds for people with political influence who are able to have a more direct dialogue with the public powers that be. But the battle isn't fully over. For now, all that's left to do is watch and see who will become the next king of the night.