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The State of Sao Paulo Night-life; Is Pop Killing the Club Scene?

Reported by JontySkrufff on May 7, 2011

(Picture: DJ Camilo Rocha)

Magal, Renato Cohen, Camilo Rocha, Benjamin Ferreira, Alisson Gothz, Eduardo Corelli  (feature)

“While our generation took ten years to be able to distinguish house from techno, the next generation that is starting to go out at night has a completely pop background. And today’s pop music is just like mainstream electronic music". Facundo Guerra (Vegas, Volt, Lions).

Speaking to leading Sao Paulo media figure Claudia Assef recently, nightlife entrepreneur Facundo Guerra, 37, sparked a firestorm of debate when he suggested underground club culture- and international DJs – were no longer viable in the city. Rival club promoter Renato Ratier, who months earlier doubled the size of his landmark club D-Edge, disagreed, though Facundo, a partner in seminal underground nightspot Vegas and new pop centred nightspot Lions was firm. 

"Today, if you do not play pop on the dance floor people leave,” he insisted.

“At Lions recently I saw a scene that shocked me: Mau Mau, a DJ we all love, started spinning after Roque Castro, who had just played an extremely pop orientated set. Guess what happened? Mau Mau cleared the floor, something I had never seen in my life!”

Mau Mau (one of Brazil’s most popular and critically acclaimed DJs, overseas as well as at home) was understandably furious and denied Facundo’s claim categorically though given that I’ve just arrived in Sao Paulo for what will be my seventh mini-DJ tour, the tale provokes a touch of concern for me. Not least because both my first and last gigs from five take place at Facundo’s newest club: Lions . . .

Lions:

Saturday nights at Lions are hosted by leading tech/house DJ agency 3 Plus so I’m optimistic I’ll find a typically receptive crowd though when the dance floor thins noticeably soon after I’ve started I’m a little alarmed. Four tracks later just a small group remain but they’re enthusiastic, flamboyant and totally up for it, with the street style and attitude of international clubbers.

Approaching me with his thumbs up, one promises to drag more people into the room and moments later he’s back with a healthy sized bunch of friends in tow, who in turn attract more clubbers from the disco/ pop floor outside.

One hour later, the same guy approaches and says ‘I’m the promoter, I LOVE what you’re playing, do you want to finish in the (larger) bar room?’ so I finish up the night satisfied: but only just.  With four more gigs to go (D-Edge, A Loca, BAR DO NETÃO then Lions again) this trip looks like it’s going to be trickier than previous tours . . .

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D Edge:

“I'm not completely against pop, I genuinely like some pop and I have no problem with playing famous tracks sometimes in my sets. But

It’s one thing surprising your crowd with an unexpected Prince classic and quite another dropping that Lady Gaga track that is heard everywhere else.” Benjamin Ferreira.

Disco-house DJ (and Skrufff man) Benjamin Ferreira was selected as one of DJ Magazine’s Breakthrough DJs last year and regularly headlines parties and clubs throughout the city.  He’s also a first choice opener DJ for internationals such as Derrick Carter, Horse Meat Disco’s Luke Howard and Made To Play boss Jesse Rose, opening for him the Friday before me, on the main dance floor of D-Edge.

While Benjamin used his local knowledge to pack out D-Edge’s main space, the nowadays LA based Panorama Bar favourite uncharacteristically struggled, finishing early as the clubbers chopped and changed between the club’s three floors. So tonight I’m taking programming advice from Benjamin, which he sums up with one word- disco. 

Like big name Brazilian DJs Renato Cohen and Camilo Rocha, Benjamin spent most of the 90s spinning exclusively techno though like both Renato and Camilo in recent years he’s embraced disco more and more and tonight’s party is an all disco DJ line-up: plus me.

Kicking off with a lower bpm than I’ve EVER played, I mix in house with disco classics from Yazoo (Situation), Lindstrom (I Feel Space) and even Madonna (the dub version of Everybody) gradually splicing in killer tech-house cuts from the likes of Perfect Stranger and (ironically) Made To Play. D-Edge has long rightly been recognised as Brazil’s best underground electronic music venue, due to its sound system, lights and most importantly crowd and tonight it (thankfully) turns out the same. 

2 hours in and I’m playing peak time hands-in-the air techno with everybody screaming and dancing and as the club shut the newest floors leaving just mine open I end up spinning for an extra hour again, to a packed house. AMAZING. One of my best ever gigs in Brazil. 

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A Loca

“I think the problem isn't exactly with pop music, the DJs also have their share of guilt - it's totally possible to be creative and innovative playing pop, you have four decades full of great hits to choose from. So you don't have to play the entire Lady Gaga album in one night.” 

This is what makes some of these parties so awful. Sometimes they play “I Gotta Feeling” (Black Eyed Peas) four times in just one night. Of course everybody will dance but are you a DJ or a jukebox?” Alisson Gothz: http://www.alissongothz.com/ 

As a former party hostess at pop club Gloria and one of Sao Paulo’s best known performance artists, Alisson Gothz says many on the gay scene want only ‘tribal house or radio hits’.

“There’s nothing wrong with pop music parties but I guess this ‘scene’ has become over-saturated,” says Alisson, “There are tons of parties that look alike - and play the exact same tracks over and over again. It’s as if the entire city was playing “Bad Romance” in every corner”. 

One such club is once notorious transvestite institution A Loca (where for many years Alisson worked the door) where I’ve been invited to spin tonight by lovely DJ blogger/ man-about town Eduardo Corelli. Like D-Edge, I’ve played here five times previously though tonight I’ve been warned that it’s music policy has changed.

To pop it appears when I arrive, as Lady GaGa and Beyonce are blasted out to a young, markedly different crowd from the freaks, hookers and misfits who once defined the basement institution. 

Eduardo spins just before me and thankfully replaces Gaga with classic house from the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Inner City though tonight’s crowd for me is simply too pop orientated to reach and apart from 4 minutes of euphoria (when I give in and drop Beyonce’s Crazy in Love) it’s a grim overall experience.

Speaking afterwards Eduardo remains confident about overall club culture, though admits he loathes the auto-tune robo-voices dominating so many hits.

“These tunes featuring those false voices are killing pop music,” he complains. “Remember when you’d hear Chic or Soul 2 Soul,’ he sighs, “ I hope pop productions change in that direction again in the not too distant future.”

“Why do I think pop has become so popular in the clubs here? Well it’s always been so,” he points out.

“So for example we had Abba disco at the same time as Larry Levan, the Smiths and U2, or you had Frankie Knuckles on the one hand and Erick Morillo on the other. The best pop is actually timeless,”

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POSH! @ BAR DO NETÃO

“I think it’s pretty obvious to say that in short term, things will get more and more commercial but in the longer term, there will be always a small group growing up looking for quality music, it’s cyclical. In the last fifteen years, I’ve seen that happen about three times and I always end up being pleasantly surprised.” Renato Cohen (Renato on soundcloud; http://soundcloud.com/renato-cohen )

Opening his first club Vegas in a former strip club some eight years ago, Lions owner Facundo not only helped to gentrify Sao Paulo’s seedy sometimes dangerous transvestite prostitute strip on Rua Augusta but created a landmark club for underground house and techno in the city.

Eight years on, though still trading, Vegas is seen as over by most of the clubbing cognoscenti, though Rua Augusta continues to thrive attracting thousands of clubbers nightly to bars and venues dotted in between the sex clubs and strippers that remain on its lower downtown stretches. 

50 metres up the street from Vegas is BAR DO NETÃO, a tiny basement sweatbox bar with a dancefloor the size of Berlin’s Club de Visionaire that’s nevertheless one of the coolest nightspots for underground clubbers. And leading its program is POSH! a predominantly gay affair that attracts a wild and stylish crowd of bears and allsorts.

Shell-shocked from A Loca’s toxic pop, I’m grateful POSH! is just around the corner and even happier when I arrive to hear the DJ spinning deep, groovy, pulsating techno. And everyone inside is TOTALLY up for it, screaming, sweating and snogging (Brazilians in every club are VERY big on kissing). POSH is celebrating its 2nd birthday and Benjamin Ferreira and I do a 30 minute tic-tac set dropping proper Berlin style darker than dark techno which goes down a storm.

Saturday’s been saved, and judging from BAR DO NETÃO, at least, underground dance music is thriving.

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Lions

“The pop nightlife scene has always existed here, like everywhere else. The only difference now is that the pop clubs are having a greater impact because we have so many clubs here generally. But I don’t believe this will finish our underground scene.” DJ Magal. (Magal on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/magalsp )

As one of Sao Paulo’s most experienced and popular DJs, Magal has seen many trends come and go and he’s impressively insouciant about the impact- or otherwise, of Black Eyed Peas style pop. Though he’s invited me to play an all disco set with him tonight, the techno pioneer points out ‘Sao Paulo has 20 million people, there’s no reason all styles can’t thrive’ and promptly illustrates the point with a well received set of immaculately selected underground disco. 

Lions isn’t particularly busy but it’s a Tuesday night and it’s been raining non stop all evening but another factor that’s definitely relevant is cost. Tickets tonight cost 50 REAIS, equivalent to over 20 EURs, a door tax that’s matched at most of the other clubs (except Bar do Netao, which is free).

Camilo Rocha, one of Brazil’s top journalists as well as DJs agrees it’s a problem. (Camilo: http://on.fb.me/9LvrBT )

“A lot of clubs in SP now have become too expensive. This is leaving a lot of people out,” he says. 

“I reckon the main battle is really not against this or that kind of music but against elitism and overpricing. If you want to gather a solid audience for underground music you have to be open to all walks of life. If you just cater for the upper middle classes upwards you are seriously limiting what you can achieve. Also, it makes for a much poorer and boring vibe in the club,” he points out.

He’s also optimistic about the wider picture for nightlife.

 “Although there are many reasons for complaint, with a lot of pop-oriented nights and what seems like a very eager audience for these parties, there are solid underground currents going on,” says Camilo.

“Last weekend, for example, I played at guerilla party Voodoo Hop, after UK DJ Floating Points, and the party was outstanding. There was a perfect vibe, people smiling and going for it until early morning and the most well-known tune I played was probably "Sun", by Caribou!"” 

I know, it’s probably the exception that proves the rule but then you also have  events like the Virada Cultural, SP city's massive street festival, which had people packing and appreciating shows by non-mainstream acts like Skatalites, Fred Wesley & JBs, Deodato, The Misfits, tons of underground DJs. 

“It was for free and once the money issue is out of the way you realize how many people can come and get into different kinds of stuff. It definitely lifted my hopes.”

Benjamin Ferreira is equally hopeful.

“Music-wise I feel people are more and more open for different sounds - new and classic, organic and synthetic. São Paulo has embraced me and it feels like home,” the Amazon raised DJ explains.

“You see established clubs such as D-Edge with wonderful line-ups every week, parties such as Ursound and venues such as Bar do Netão and Trackers (a biweekly Sunday afternoon warehouse party in an abandoned downtown tower block) delivering good music for different people.

“The underground is also thriving with the clubs and parties aforementioned and these places, among others, make the São Paulo nightlife the busiest and more exciting in Brazil,” he says.

For me, I’ve ended up having another fantastic trip to Sao Paulo where I’ve enjoyed playing at- and attending parties that have been as good as any from previous years, not least because of Brazilian people’s all round friendliness and love of partying. Sao Paulo rocks!”

Jonty Skrufff: http://listn.to/JontySkrufff