I’m in a small red dressing room at the Triple Rock with Bonde do Rolê, the band that sits in the eye of the baile funk (pronounced “buy-lay funkee”) hurricane that is making its way from steamier shores. The goal is to find out whether the baile funk scene of Brazil is really the blood on the walls, glowstick-lit cuss fest it’s been cut out to be.
Sources like “Rolling Stone” have made their lyrics out to be the equivalent of mace in a nun’s eyes, but after extensive investigation with my “Brazilian Portuguese Phrasebook,” the songs seemed to be a Babelfish-proof mix of slang, alliteration and diminutives that left me only able to make out the occasional “legs open!” or “I’m a lollipop!” It’s usually safe to assume that a baile funk tune is a tale of a cocktail gone wrong or a sexcapade that got amplified over the grapevine, but that doesn’t give credit to the quirks behind them.
I ask the lead singer/shouter, Marina, chain-smoking and trying to keep her spandex-clad legs warm, about a word that was particularly mystifying: “vitiligua.”
“Oh, it is that skin disease, where your skin turns white,” she explains, thrusting out a tan forearm.
“Oh, like Michael Jackson.” It all seals together after that. The song, which is set to the music of “Summer Lovin'” from “Grease,” is about a guy at a party who puts a lemon in his drink only to have it squirt onto his skin in what appears to be “vitiligua.”
“I thought ‘vitiligua’ had to mean sperm,” I told them.
“Well,” Marina shrugged, “There is a part where we talk about a guy putting lemon on his cock, so you weren’t too far off.”
Graphic lyrics in Portuguese tend to slide more easily under American earmuffs of censorship, but many types of baile funk remain contentious by sampling copyrighted material.
The producer of Bonde do Rolê’s music, Diplo, just might be the primary funk trafficker in the United States. Following the model of tax-hating businesses that set home base on slack-law islands, Diplo often dabbles in bootleg-boasting nations for his mixing needs.
“Diplo is the most American favelado we’ve ever met,” says bandmate Pedro. Nursing a Jarritos soda, he looks suspiciously giggly when he pipes in. He explains, “Diplo takes anything free, like breaking into a swimming pool.”
“Favelados” can be compared with the U.S. rap icon of the “ghetto superstar.” Both the American ghettos and the favelas of Brazil – the Portuguese word for slum – have had a major hand in determining each nation’s respective musical progression.
Crowded, eclectic, poor and often switching hands between drug lords and police, both have been hotbeds of musical trends that eventually pool into the mainstream. The slums in Brazil’s Bahia region generated the Samba, Harlem fueled the momentum of R&B, and now hip-hop and baile funk are developing parallel to one another.
The members of Bonde do Rolê grew up in the suburbs, but seem to identify more with the rough and tumble city scene. They nostalgically argue over which type of vodka they polished off writing a track from “With Lasers,” their recent album, and spent most of high school toking up and checking out local DJs. According to Marina, fellow band mate Gorky was the best DJ in town because he didn’t let his routine fall into just one niche.
The sounds of drunken shouting and tumbling bar-stools interrupt our conversation, and the band anxiously slithers out of the dressing room to see what is going down. Instead of a terrified crowd and flying fists, it turns out to be a DJ sampling a recorded fight, and the band sighs with relief.
Marina swears the rumored excessive violence in the baile funk scene died in the ’90s, and there’s not really any back-and-forth smack talk between bands.
Asking sleepily for “two weeks in a bed,” and giving each other tips on Nintendo DS games, the members of Bonde do Rolê don’t seem to be lost in fueling their extreme reputation. Sure there’re some drinks, a glimpse of a pipe now and again, but it would appear that most of the baile funk shock appeal is reserved for the stage.
When they finally go on set, Pedro pours a beer down his mouth from a foot above, Marina jumps on him and starts gyrating, and the funkee begins.