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Far From DaresburySuperclubbing in the Southern Cone
Greg Scruggs reports on the socio-economic parallels and maximal house beats of 2011's Creamfields Brasil, held on the island paradise of Florianópolis.
By Greg Scruggs
In a recent editorial in O Globo, Paulo Alberto da Silveira Soares, the Brazilian ambassador to Sinagpore, issues a clarion call for his home country to export bossa nova to a supposedly ravenous Asian public. The ambassador’s perception that Brazil’s national musical identity should continue to rely on the strumming of upper class Rio is quaint, almost cute. Already, Tokyo hosts one of the largest samba parades in the world. More to the point, however, had the ambassador frequented any of Singapore’s clubs in 2008, he surely would have a caught a more recent, and arguably just as smooth, Brazilian beat in the form of Gui Borrato’s hit Beautiful Life.
Unlikely, given that Ambassador Soares refers to “technomusic” (his phrasing, not mine) as “deafening” in the same article. Besides, the Asian nightlife scene probably runs a bit past his bedtime. He likewise would have been hard-pressed to make Gui’s 6 am closing set at Creamfields Brasil, held January 22 in Florianópolis, the capital city of the southern state of Santa Catarina. Admittedly, I had trouble myself, after a long and stumbling night navigating the house-mad clubbers of the Southern Cone, also known as the Mercosur (Mercado do Sul), a customs union between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
Nary a two-hour drive from the Argentine and Uruguayan borders with Brazil, seaside Florianópolis, spread out over the picturesque Ilha da Santa Catarina, is quickly establishing itself on the international club circuit, an Ibiza or Mykonos for the southern hemisphere. During the South American summer, from December through March, the island’s 42 beaches are crammed with Argentine license plates and Spanish commingles with Portuguese. Add to that a recent dose of in-the-know Europeans and Americans who have discovered a new wintertime getaway, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a crowd that wants the predictable and familiar thump-thump-thump of the dance music industry.
Creamfields Brasil is only one of the latest incarnations of the UK brand, which capitalised (emphasis on the capital) on the emerging acid house trend of the late ’80s by packaging the rave experience into a tightly managed, highly commercialised operation. Beyond outposts in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, and Mexico City, South America is something of the next frontier after an already saturated European market. Creamfields Argentina, in Buenos Aires, already draws 50,000+ and has set several attendance records for the festival, while other iterations can be found in Lima, Peru; Punta del Este, Uruguay; and Santiago, Chile. For Brazil, however, after editions in Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre, they have set their sights on Floripa, as it is affectionately known, and along the way reveal some interesting truths about the city and the growing regional wealth its weekend visitors represent.
The relatively small city of 400,000 is a manageable alternative to the mega-city chaos in São Paulo and Rio. Indeed, much of Floripa’s population growth over the last 20 years has come from professionals who have left Brazil’s most densely populated corridor. As my host, Rio-born, put it, “I didn’t move to Florianópolis. I fled from Rio.” They have brought their wealth with them, as Floripa — and southern Brazil in general — maintains a relatively high standard of living compared to the rest of the country. While Floripa is for many an ecological paradise with 40% of its land a conservation area, the festival at Pacha (the international club chain par excellence) was located in Jurerê Internacional, a resort area specifically designed to accommodate the jet-setter looking for an interchangeable beach, restaurant, party (lather, rinse, repeat) experience.
Leo Sanchez, director of festival organiser Industria de Entretenimento, outlined the timing and location for me with the precision of a marketing expert. The date, Saturday, January 22, fell squarely during Argentine summer vacation (January 15-30) and over a long weekend for both São Paulo and Rio residents. With Buenos Aires as a stand-in for Argentina (apt in a country where over a quarter of citizens live in the greater capital area), that’s three metropolitan areas with a combined population of 50 million within a two-hour flight. At the peak of South American summer with 42 beaches at visitors’ disposal the next day, I can’t say I disagree with the business plan.
The Mercosur countries collectively have a GNP of $3 trillion USD, a sixfold increase in the two decades since the union’s creation, and represent the world’s fifth largest economy. It’s no surprise then that the buying power of that population includes discretionary spending on products like dance music. The proliferation of a trademark like Creamfields is consequently noteworthy insofar as it illustrates Europhilia on the part of youth in South America’s growing middle class. Commercial house speaks to the generally whiter, Euro-descended population of southern Brazil and Argentina. The samba school rehearsal I attended two nights before Creamfields was decidedly less packed, and while Florianópolis still pays homage to the supposed “national” music of Brazil with a Carnival samba parade, I suspect the real crowds that week will be back at Pacha, whose line-up includes David Guetta, Axwell, Armin Van Buren, and Bob Sinclair. Meanwhile, hip-hop remains the idiom of gritty São Paulo, funk carioca the raw beat of Rio de Janeiro, and reggae the Afrocentric symbol of Salvador da Bahia and São Luis de Maranhão. Music follows the country’s stratification on racial and geographic lines.
It was also intriguing to note the sheer number of South American DJs on the bill. With a new fan base comes new talent. Creamfields Brasil headliners included Erick Morillo (Colombia), Hernán Cattáneo (Argentina), and aforementioned Gui Borrato along with five of his countrymen. Even tiny Uruguay was represented on the bill with Southmen. As I wandered back and forth from the mainstream main stage to the slightly more alternative back tent, I principally wondered if there is an identifiable South American sound in the maximal house beats and minimal techno strains cranking out of the speakers. At least in the guise of the festival, my impressions were generally no, as musically I heard tired remixes of Fat Boy Slim and Booka Shade alongside the standard commercial/electro-house fare of a festival like Ultra, the capstone to Miami’s Winter Music Conference.
To some extent I’m not surprised. No different from the South American football players who decamp to the European leagues and, especially in the Brazilian case, are accused of losing their native style, the top-flight South American talent at Creamfields Brasil generally hails from elsewhere. Gui Borrato is a Berliner and a fixture on Kompakt; Erick Morillo seems to be on a constant New York-Miami shuttle; Cattáneo, while based in Buenos Aires, is on a regular world tour rotation. Football and dance music, admittedly, have little in common other than the propensity for the latter to serve as patently awful anthems for the former, but there still might be some merit to the comparison. The kind of big money that can create international popularity, whether for a footballer or a DJ, has an uncanny ability to deracinate national identity.
The medium of dance music, with its instantly recognizable, non-linguistic signifiers, fits perfectly as the soundtrack to notions of media-driven cosmopolitanism. Seeing Above & Beyond play at Creamfields Brasil (indeed, simply attending Creamsfield Brasil) connects the participant with the tour circuit — suddenly Florianópolis, and by extension Brazil, is as glamorous as Ibiza, and by extension Europe — as well as the tastemaking power of the brand. In an ironic twist, it was the gringo Etienne de Crecy whose live set included a Kraftwerk-imitating, vocoded-recording of “Flor-i-an-op-o-lis,” the only reference I picked up to the continent where we were standing. It didn’t have quite the same ring as “Au-to-bahn,” and besides, I don’t think the crowd was particularly interested in local references. That said, the notion of South American house need not be something as hackneyed as samba remixes or cumbia samples (the most famous example done by a Swiss-Iranian, anyway). One only need look at another house music vernacular whose initials are S.A. to get a glimpse of the booty-shaking possibilities.
I am lucky to have consciously heard anything at all, however, because I was simply bombarded by the visual noise of the event’s ultra-commercialisation. From the free gum samples handed out in the parking lot to the razor brand that sponsored the beach balls bouncing above the crowd to the most pernicious, the repeating flashing of brand names on the screen about the DJ booth that should have been the artistic purview of United VJs, it felt as though festivalgoers had basically paid anywhere from £50 to £150 to attend a giant advertisement with music. I realise that commercial sponsorships defray costs and the savings can be passed on to attendees, but Creamsfields Brasil was truly a promotional overload.
Then again, with rising discretionary income to spend on a wild night out, so comes a need the next morning to get rid of that nasty beer breath and shave off the stubble before hitting the beach. It’s a routine that European party animals know well, and one that the Creamfields brand has successfully exported abroad, for good or for ill.