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Passinho is The "Brazilian Footwork" Craze That Even Beyoncé's Vibing To

For years, Passinho has swept Brazil. Now, a feature-length film explores its raw power.

by Jez Smadja
May 21 2014, 4:12pm

All images courtesy of Batalha do Passinho

This March, MC Bin Laden released his answer record to one of Brazil's biggest underground hits this year ('Passinho Do Romano'), a track called 'Lança de Coco'. The original by MC Bruno IP - with a Middle Eastern lick, a lethal funk rhythm, and a strange, skittering dance - has become the Harlem Shake of the Lusophone world. It's been replicated in a thousand copycat videos on YouTube, and Neymar even added a version after scoring in Brazil's recent 5-0 demolition job over South Africa.

'Lança de Coco', a reference to the air freshener that Brazilians have been substance-abusing since 1905, has to have one of the strangest music videos on the scene. A Harmony Korine-esque dream sequence, the rapper is surrounded by his crew in a Toys 'R' Us smash-and-grab of Shrek and Guy Fawkes masks - and they're all skanking out to the music. When the beat drops out and the high-pitched whistle sounds, they cover their ears to simulate the effect of a hit. 'Lança de Coco' is a bomb in a scene that was waiting to go off.

There's never been any doubt that Brazilians are mad about dance, but the craze known as Passinho has rekindled a flame amongst the legions of funkeiros; those kids across the country who, in Biggie Smalls' immortal words, live for the funk and die for the funk. Diplo and M.I.A. utlitised the sound in 2004 on their joint mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism and went on to enjoy a short half-life in capitals around the world; filed erroneously in iTunes libraries under baile funk (named after "bailes"; the parties where funk is played). 

Passinho is just the latest chapter in a near 40-year history of Brazilian funk. It began in the 70s, when afro-sporting Brazilian DJs introduced the music of James Brown and Lyn Collins to the "morros" (hills) of Rio, and by the 90s had grown into the mutant child of Miami booty bass. But it was around 2000 when a new rhythmic strain called the tamborzão - full of percussive Brazilian offbeats - began to do damage in the bailes of Rio de Janeiro.

Julio Ludemir, author of 101 Funk Songs You Need to Hear Before You Die, explains that it was a gangster from the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) in the favela of Jacarezino, home to an enormous outdoor baile, who set off the trend. "This foot soldier was creating a real scene. He was drunk, probably high, and looking for attention. He knew how to dance and started messing around, doing this new step. In Portuguese, it's called 'passo'."

When a dancer called Beiçola recorded a video of himself and friends demonstrating the dance at an afternoon BBQ in 2008, it went viral overnight. Search "Passinho" on YouTube, and you'll find tens of thousands of pixelated, home-made videos, shot on old Nokias and edited on Shareware. They're a near-constant blur of movement, as the dancers bounce around like Bambi on amphetamine: drop down to the floor, pull of capoeira moves, throw in some kuduro, give it a little samba lilt. If the bailes were where the dance was sparked, it was on YouTube where it burned bright.

Passinho YouTube channels like Diguinho Video and Tico Maneirinho push out all the latest styles and the hottest talent. The dancers all carry nicknames, but their badge of honour is name of the crew that they earn the right put after it. The elite "bondes" like Os Fantasticos, Os Dancy, Mister Passista, Os Perfects, and Bonde do Passinho recall the Xtravaganza, Prada and Dior houses in NYC's ballroom community.

The scene finally emerged from underground movement and became a bona fide national phenomenon with the battle-style competition to discover Rio de Janeiro's best dancer, called 'A Batalha do Passinho' ('Passinho Dance-Off'). Emilio Domingos, one of the judges, began filming the events, and it quickly snowballed into a full-length documentary. With the raw feel of Wild Style, the film follows some of the scene's biggest dancers as they fight it out for the title, king of passinho.

Months after its release, I met many of the dançarinos at a small battle in the community of Chapéu Mangueira, where they'd filmed Black Orpheus in 1959. The dancers were out in force: Cebolinha, one of the circuit's most innovative technicians, Bolinho, with his pop n' lock style, and Pablinho, in a turquoise Brazil football shirt and a peroxide crop of hair, like a Brazilians Wesley Snipes circa Demolition Man. Jackson, the most laid back of the lot, was surrounded by ladies in the gallery. "Passinho isn't about being a big star. It's about dancing, enjoying yourself - and making sure other people enjoy themselves, too," he told me.

Just a few months later came the track that really blew the lid on the scene: MC Federado and Os Leleks' 'Passinho do Volante'. This crew from across the bay in Niteroi, dressed in lensless glasses and self-made Katharine Hamnett t-shirts, had penned the catchiest anthem of the year with an earworm of a hook. It clocked up 40 million views on YouTube, and their driving-wheel step went national. Neymar did it in training. Beyoncé performed it at Rock in Rio. Even Cara Delevigne was doing it for Vogue Brazil during this year's carnival.

"Since then, Passinho hasn't stopped growing. The kids are endlessly on TV, on the most popular shows in Brazil," explains Emilio Domingos. When the second 'Passinho Dance-Off' came around in 2013 it was televised live on Luciano Huck's weekend TV show, and the some of the best dancers ended up in a manufactured pop group called The Dream Team who have since starred in an advert for Coca-Cola. Curiously left out of the dream team were Michel Mister Passista, who came in second-place despite having two underdeveloped arms, and Camilla Perfects, the not-very-svelte lesbian who got through to the semi-finals. They're not crying over split milk. Michel has since been invited to appear on funk superstar Menor de Chapa's video.

Then, out of nowhere, in 2013, after exerting creative control over passinho for a decade, Rio was eclipsed by São Paulo with 'Passinho do Romano' ('The Roman's Passinho'). The style's creator, a dancer called Magrão, who brought it to funk parties in the east of that sprawling concrete metropolis, died before the year was out in a motorbike accident. But videos soon began to circulate on YouTube under the name Passinho do Romano. 

It's turned into a fever in the raves, and spawned a string of records on the Romano rhythm, like 'Não Quero Flash, To Com Vergonha' ('No Flash, I'm Embarrassed'), and MC Bin Laden's 'Lança de Coco', all with dances worthy of Jamaica's Bogle, aka Mr Wacky (RIP). The latest is the 'Passinho do Farão' ('The Pharaoh's Passinho'); another reliably psychotic release from MC Bin Laden. "The pharaoh's coming out the tomb," he raps through the chorus in a deathly monotone, presumably channelling the spirit of Ramesses III. Around him, a trio of zombified brats beatbox a rhythm, adding macaque squawks for effect.

Passinho's certainly come a long since that first video (2008's 'Passinho Foda'), and Rio purists like Cebolinha complain that São Paulo has bitten their style. But that's just fair game in Brazil: a country that made Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons public policy since 2004. You can be sure that this little movement - just like its big brother funk - will continue to mutate, and keep its fans literally on their toes.

'Passinho Dance-Off' is showing at Curzon Soho on May 27th, followed by a Q&A with the director.

Watch the trailer below:

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