Ghetto Fabulous: Scarred by Violence and Political Repression, Brazil's Shanty Towns Have Responded with an Outpouring of Art, Music and Film. but as "Favela Chic" Becomes All the Rage in the West, Are We in Danger of Glamorising Slum Life?
Bellos, Alex, New Statesman (1996)
The decor is made from scrap found on the streets. The interior is styled with lovable and exotic informality, like some kind of tropical party shack; customers can listen to samba, drink caipirinhas and eat feijoada. This is the recently opened Favela Chic, one of the busiest bars in London's already bar-heavy Shoreditch.
Less than a mile away is an art installation without which, you could argue, Favela Chic may never have happened. Tropicalia, made in 1967 by Helio Oiticica and recreated at the Barbican for a festival season of Brazilian culture, is a gallery space turned into an ad-hoc Brazilian shanty, a favela. There is sand on the floor, rubber plants and bamboo fencing. Both Tropicalia and Favela Chic are middle-class interpretations of slum life, and both feature a playful juxtaposition of cliches, whether it is the squawking parrots in the Barbican or the funky remixes of traditional folk songs that have diners in Shore-ditch dancing on tables.
Oiticica's installation gave the name to an artistic movement that is much better known for its music. Tropicalia became a focus for counter-cultural experimentation as Brazil, in the late 1960s, headed into its darkest years of dictatorship. The singers Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa and the band Os Mutantes were the most visible Tropicalistas, and their innovative and energetic combination of international and domestic musical styles really did change the course of Brazilian pop music (and inspired northern-hemisphere artists from David Byrne to Beck). On Favela Chic's website there is an image that is a blatant parody of the cover of the movement's definitive 1968 album, Tropicalia.
I wonder quite what a Brazilian shanty-dweller would make of a venue such as Favela Chic, which glamorises poverty, and where a round of drinks costs the equivalent of his monthly salary. The answer, I suspect, is that he would be quietly flattered. Favelas may be dangerous and impoverished--as the world saw in Fernando Meirelles's film City of God--but their people are increasingly proud of their outlook on life. As a story of one favela's triumph over adversity, there is hardly anything more inspiring than the tale of Vigario Geral and AfroReggae.
The Brazilian Portuguese word "chacina" has no direct translation in English. It means the killing in cold blood of more than one person--less dramatic than "massacre" and more specific than "slaughter". Chacinas are in the news almost every week, and some acquire an epoch-defining status. Such was the case in Vigario Geral, a favela on the outskirts of Rio where, in August 1993, police shot dead 21 residents with no apparent motive. The image of corpses lined up in wooden boxes, in dark contrast to the usual Rio postcards of bikini-clad girls lying on Copacabana Beach, was seen around the world.
In the aftermath of the killings, local kids started a newsletter-cum-Bob Marley fanzine called AfroReggae News. Even though Brazil has more black people than any other country in the world apart from Nigeria, there are, with the obvious exception of Pele, surprisingly few home-grown role models. Favelas such as Vigario Geral are predominantly black: despite Brazil's reputation as a "racial democracy", race is still the most powerful indication of social status. There have been only three black members of government in Brazil's history. The first was Pele, a decade ago; the second is Gilberto Gil, the former Tropicalista rebel who became minister of culture in 2003; the third lasted a year in office.
Around the newsletter arose a community centre and a musical group--organised by the local promoter Jose Junior and musician Anderson Sa--which offered percussion classes and then moved into dance, capoeira, football and recycling. …