Saturday, February 21, 2009

Skillz to Take Brazil: Bom Dia in Bom Jesus


Bom Dia in Bom Jesus

I am half awake at midday Friday, a week into this tour, completely humbled and amazed by the experience that we had yesterday.

Thursday night we were subjected to what could be termed a disastrous show. After a fantastic soundcheck at Garagem Hermetico, we grabbed a bite to eat and returned to the venue to rock. The crowd was far from thick, but is was peppered with Porto Alegre’s finest Hip Hop artists, all of whom came out on the strength of Zajazza’s reputation and affiliations. We spent some quality time building with them before our set, which didn’t hit until nearly 2:00am.

As soon as we started, Zajazza had issues with the turntable outputs. Songs were cutting out in the middle, then the sound was disappearing entirely. Next, our microphones took turns trading electrical interference and distortion. Then one began to completely cut out, followed by the other. Halfway through the set, we had one mic between the two of us (three of us when Alessio guested for “Nao Tem Preco Nao”). By the middle of the last song, we had no working mics. During our final number, “Playback,” I unplugged the mic from the cord, jumped off the stage and rapped into the crowd wielding the detached mic as if it was wireless. Then tried to wrap up the set by sparking a beatbox cypher in the middle of the floor. We never stopped throughout, gave 200% of our energy, tried to remedy the sound from the stage while performing, and never flinched. We left everything out there despite being totally discontented as it was taking place.

Fortunately, Thursday brought salvation. One of the local MCs in attendance was Nego Prego. He is a local Porto Alegre artist, and has one of the most popular albums in southern Brazil right now. We spoke with him for a while at the show, and, with the hope of getting into the studio with him, exchanged contact info and music. Apparently, he recognized the heart and energy that we put into our set and invited to come chill with him on the following day.

DJ Only Jay, Nego Prego, Rabbi D

Porto Alegre EOW Crew

The plan was to call Nego in the afternoon, meet up with him, and have him escort us into the favella, where we’d visit his studio. We finally got in contact and met up with Nego at around 7:00pm. He met us (HG, myself, Zaja, Alessio and Zoio) at a gas station just outside the favella, and we proceeded in a two car caravan into the favella as dusk settled.

Nego Prego translates “Black Nail.” Nego Prego is from the largest favella in Porto Alegre, known both as “Bom Jesus” and “470.” 470 is derived from the bus route that goes to the favella. There are really no words to describe the scene that unfolded as we extended past the end of this bus route. As darkness descended, we wove through narrow streets, uneven and pockmarked, lined by children running, wild dogs barking and folks chilling in the evening cool. Zajazza noted that we were probably the first Americans to ever enter this favella, a little city that is currently besieged by a war between the upper and lower neighborhoods.

Nego´s guidance was our pass. There was no way we would ever set foot within the walls of Bom Jesus without him. On this occasion, we were welcomed by warmth and Hip Hop camaraderie. We spent the first 2 hours meeting his crew, “A la Dos Pretos Ducorre” (“Circle of Black Men”) and walking the streets. We handed out our CDs and stickers to his peoples, posed for pictures holding a “470 Bom Jesus” sign, and were introduced to local folk in their homes, businesses and housefronts. The barber, the market owner, the bar proprietor, the independent newspaperman. Children looked on curiously and excitedly. Nego is clearly a local hero of sorts, and more than that, a favella diplomat and O.G., keeping the peace between warring parties and representing 470 to Brazil through rap music.

There was no way to misunderstand the sense of community that Nego and A la Dos Pretos nurture, and the righteous path that they walk. They are collectively planning a big Hip Hop event for March 8 to celebrate International Women’s Day. This was the buzz amongst everyone we met. We were introduced to Santa Casa, a local journalist who publishes his own newsletter that focuses on the positive community work and youth development done by people like Nego. As we conversed through translation and broken language, we were passed by rickety carriages drawn by horse, by kids zipping by on bicycles, by the stench of excrement, by the continuous smiles of roadside favella residents.

We finally made our way to the studio. If entering the UR$ Fundao studio in Passo Fundo was humbling, this was nothing short of awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping. Proceeding one at a time up a shaky handmade wooden staircase, we entered the house of crew producer/engineer Abolicionaise. Within the confines of the unfinished brick, glassless windows and uncovered electric, we wove through hanging laundry and his daughter’s bedroom to emerge in a fully furnished, fully sound-proofed, fully professional recording studio. The walls were layered with Hip Hop posters and noise dampening materials. The mic was installed on the far wall, the monitors, mixboard and computer stationed on a workdesk. It felt like Hip Hop home, Anywhere, Universe.

We sat down to listen to some of Abolicionaise and Nego’s studio work. But the plan was to use one of Zaja’s beats to record. Zajazza had presented us with a track called “Little City” while we were in Passo Fundo, and Gun and I were instantly drawn to it. An intro that makes the song cry, thunderous horns and thumping drums. We had been methodically soaking up our experiences, preparing to sit down and pen this song. As soon as he played it for the Dos Pretos crew, we knew this was the song we would record right then and there. For the second time in less than a week, we were holed up in a Brazilian home studio, collaborating with the city’s finest artists, zoned out and locked in.

The entire song was written in about 45 minutes. We took turns spitting our verse for Zajazza who then mapped out the order. The chorus was co-written in Portuguese and English. The mic was fired up and we started to lay it down. I was the leadoff hitter, followed by Nego, then the hook... and that was as far we got. The studio computer’s Cubase couldn’t handle the processing weight of the session and the microphone began digitally distorting. We took a break from the hot humid studio. Zajazza & Nego made the call to keep the ball rolling on this incredible experience and drove back to our crash pad 20 minutes away to retrieve his laptop and redo the session in Ableton Live.

During the break in recording, we had a chance to really talk with Nego, and interview him informally. The first rap song he heard was “Colors” by Ice T. He noted Nelson Triumph as the Brazilian artist that brought American funk and Black Music to Brazil in the late 1970’s. He spoke of the intra-Favella war going on right now, and how he and his crew are peacekeepers, fostering a light truce between the upper and lower regions of 470. We sang lyrics to classic songs. He spoke of Tookie Williams, Mumia Abu Jamal and Bob Marley. His first hat was a Signature Chicago Bulls cap. He had the same reverence for Brazilian rap group Raciones MCs that we saw in Passo Fundo. While in the confines of the studio, shooting the breeze and drinking brews, it felt like home. Then as soon as I stepped into the two-tiered living room and gazed out over the spotted lights of the endless favella, my breath left my body and my pulse froze. Abolisionaise’s daughter, Evelyn, walked about, button-cute and up way past her bedtime. I did my best to converse in my nascent Portuguese. “Eu so uno professoro…” His mother made us all a batch of deep fried Brazilian goodness, which was just what we needed to fuel the rest of this marathon session.

Zajazza returned at around 2:00am. We had to redo the whole song. No problem. We were all so hyped on the topic, the verse and the experience that the time flew by. We laid down what is probably the greatest song I have ever been a part of. 7 MCs, each with a completely different style and vocal timbre, over a top-notch beat with a spitfire chorus. At around 5:00am, we wrapped up the session, Zaja did a rough mix and we called it a night. Just wait till you hear it on the "Skillz to Take Brazil EP.":)

We bid farewell to the crew, all of whom had stayed for the entirety of the night. Nego guided us back out of Bom Jesus, stopping along the way to drop off his boys. They have a show in the favella on Sunday and have invited us to perform. It looks like we might just stick around Porto Alegre for a couple more days and build on the spirited experience that we had yesterday. After dealing with utter unprofessionalism and strung out posturing on Wednesday night, we were embraced by the heart of the little city and exposed, again, to the transformative and redeeming power of Hip Hop culture. A bom dia in Bom Jesus, indeed.

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