It’s late afternoon in Recife, one of the biggest cities in Brazil’s Northeast, and hundreds of young people have assembled in the city’s central point, Marco Zero. As the sun sets over the open plaza, bordered by neoclassical buildings, clusters of girls and boys in matching outfits move through synchronised steps. They spin, roll their shoulders and stamp their feet; flip-flops kick up dust, legs create shapes, bodies gyrate as sweat collects on arms and foreheads.
In front of an imposing sculpture by Francisco Brennand, a celebrated cultural figure born to one of the city’s most powerful families, hundreds of young, poor and mostly black people are showcasing their own art. Portable speakers amplify a soundtrack of beats, bass lines and local slang. The sound is Bregafunk: a fast-growing genre native to the city and created with dance in mind. Rooted in the romantic Brega music (literally meaning ‘tacky’) of the 1980s, it has absorbed far-flung influences (everything from reggaeton to trap) before finding a pulse of its own: offbeat rhythms, clunking cowbells and kick drums that shake car windows even as the beat switches pattern.
In 2019, its spike in popularity has not only reached a wider audience but given rise to an accompanying dance craze: Passinho. The phenomenon is best summed up on the track ‘Gera Bactéria’ by Elloco, one half of the popular Bregafunk duo MC Shevchenko e Elloco: “Esse passinho é novo e nasceu na favela.” (“This Passinho is new, and was born in the favela”.)
MCs and singers are undoubtedly the stars of Bregafunk, but dancers have become an integral part of its aesthetic. Search ‘Passinho Recife’ on Instagram and you’ll find young dançarinos performing together – often with the same backdrop of unplastered red-brick walls common to favela housing or on the tin rooftops overlooking the city, high up in the hills.
On afternoons and weekends, Recife’s young and marginalised gather on street corners, in parks and at school playgrounds to practise. The learning process is a democratic one, with each person sharing ideas and passing on new moves gleaned from Instagram and YouTube. To perfect their steps, they listen to the same song over and over again. Every time another anthem emerges, fresh routines are shaped by the song’s rhythm as different groups break out into dance clashes (duelos) that recall the breakdancing battles of 1980s New York.
Recife and the surrounding region in Pernambuco state have a rich history of cultural performance, particularly in dance. One of the most celebrated styles is Frevo, which originated in the early 1900s to accompany blocos (brass-band parades) during Carnaval. The style was influenced by acrobatic movements from Capoeira and often saw violent clashes between different groups wielding sticks and knives. Today, though, weapons have been replaced with colourful umbrellas and the dance is more of a vibrant, inclusive, cultural performance.
Just around the corner from the Museum of Frevo, in one of the oldest districts of Recife, is Marco Zero. After the decline of the port, this area became synonymous with crime and sex work, but today it’s a focal point for tourists and the city’s middle class.
In recent months, young people from the favelas have begun riding lengthy bus routes from peripheral parts of the metropolis just for an encontro (‘encounter’). Often rumoured to be among the crowd of spectators are Bregafunk MCs looking to recruit the best dancers for their own live performances and videos. That said, finding someone willing to talk about what’s unfolding here – within what is already an insular culture – feels difficult.
One of the organisers of the encontro is Jacqueline Castro – or ‘Jacks’ – a 22-year-old university student from the Salgadinho comunidade in the nearby city of Olinda. She wears denim shorts – the classic attire of Recife females – and a thick, black top with a gold necklace and gold watch. Large, thin-rimmed glasses frame her face and her relaxed short hair hangs loose. She comes across as confident, but not arrogant, and talks quickly, her speech punctured by Recife slang words. In a country where machismo is all too common, she seems unfazed by the majority male crowd.
Jacks is pleased with the turnout this Sunday afternoon: over 200 young people from all over the city are attending, most of them from favelas. Many are dressed in the bright vests by ‘24 Por 48’ – the go-to clothing brand of Passinho, founded by Shevchenko e Elloco. For Jacks, Marco Zero is the perfect place for a meet-up. “It is the centre of the city,” she says, “but it’s also out of the favelas – away from any violence.”
That an event like this can happen here – in one of Recife’s few public spaces – is significant. As a group of middle-class cyclists, clad in lycra, ask to video a set of dancers, Jacks points out that the scene’s popularity is helping to challenge preconceptions of the favela. “I think it’s the first time that the rich have accepted our music,” she says. “This fever is dominating Recife and now the whole of Brazil is recognising Passinho.”
In a city so deeply divided by wealth, it’s easy to see why it would be heartening to see the music and culture of the favela penetrate the electric fences and security guards of luxury homes. Already this year, Bregafunk has become particularly popular at pool-side gatherings in the salão de festas (‘party rooms’) of upper- and middle-class apartment blocks.
But prejudice still lingers. “It’s black culture, from the comunidades, so of course people have these preconceptions,” she says. Racial tension runs deep in Brazil, a country with a majority non-white population and minority (largely white) elite. At a time when the future of Brazilian society looks increasingly precarious under the controversial leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro – a figure widely criticised for being homophobic, racist and destructive – it comes as no surprise when Military Police shut down public Passinho encontros, sometimes using pepper spray and violence. In late January, during one such event in the Torrões neighbourhood of West Recife, a young boy lost his eye when police fired rubber bullets into the crowd.
Bregafunk and Passinho have been criticised by conservatives and progressives alike for their excessively explicit aesthetic. Artists have been accused of misogyny and objectifying women through their lyrics and videos. Despite this, Jacks is one of a growing number of women dancing Passinho and is the head of an all-female group. She started around five months ago, having first stumbled upon the scene online. “Dance routines have always been a part of the comunidades of Olinda,” she says. “I thought it was cool, so then began to teach young people there – inventing different types of choreography and making videos which got some success on the internet.”
Like everybody else who took to it after seeing the videos surface online, she believes that Passinho, despite the signature move being clearly evocative of male sexual performance, is inclusive and open to all genders. “It’s not a sex thing, it’s just a dance now. Anyone can do it, male or female,” she says. “Anything men can do, girls can do, too. We’re all equal.”
The term putaria is often used to describe the explicit aesthetic of Bregafunk. DJ and journalist GG Albuquerque, 23, has been following the scene closely and recently convened a module on the genre at the local university. He sees the hyper-sexualised lyrics and dance moves as a subconscious subversion of old stereotypes about black people. “Historically, the black body has been fetishised in Brazil,” he says. “Passinho tries to invert this kind of thinking in an almost ironic way.”
GG can often be found playing music to the city’s alternative crowd at one of Boa Vista’s neighbourhood bars. Slight framed, with dark hair and a beard, GG speaks softly but with an astuteness beyond his years. Today he arranges to meet on the site of a former slave market that now hosts small restaurants and shops – a spot where locals sit under the shady trees at bright plastic tables eating plates of meat, rice and beans.
There are few parts of the world, GG says, where the black body has been as forcefully controlled as it has in Brazil. “Don’t forget, we were the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery,” he says. GG believes that Bregafunk and Passinho must be viewed in the context of the historical ‘othering’ and dehumanisation of black people and their bodies – the same values originally utilised to justify slavery.
“Black men were referred to as beast-like, and women were seen as whores,” says GG, adding that the way black bodies are used and displayed remains inherently political. “For some, the body is the only unique thing they have.” It’s why the mere presence of black people in middle-class spaces, such as Marco Zero, can be viewed as an act of resistance in itself – a recolonisation of ‘civilised’ space by the so-called uncivilised.
Bregafunk and Passinho are feeding into a culture associated with aspiration, enjoyment, inclusivity and community. It has helped bring together MCs and dancers from different neighbourhoods, GG says, giving agency and opportunity to people who have been “socially, politically, economically marginalised”. And in a country with soaring youth unemployment, Recife’s urban music scene is contributing to the local economy. “It’s creating work for everybody,” he says. “From the dancers to the guys selling beer at shows.”
Traditionally, there has been little space for artists from Recife to make an impact in Brazil’s cultural landscape, with the likes of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador competing for attention. But Bregafunk and Passinho are an unapologetic representation of Recife’s comunidades: produced, written and danced-to by its residents. Now it’s beginning to escape these winding alleyways, infiltrating festival line-ups and even spreading to the US and France.
Erik Eduardo is a 16-year-old dancer from Coque. Back in the 1980s, Recife was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world – and even today, Erik’s favela has a reputation as one of the most notorious in the city.
“I have probably listened to this song over 1,000 times,” he says with a beam, referring to the track ‘Tem Que Bater’ by MC Sapão. “I never get bored of it.” Erik has short, dark hair and bright eyes; his top lip is crowned by a thin and fuzzy moustache, typical of adolescents from Brazil’s favelas.
Erik is one among thousands of young aspiring dançarinos in the city who practice every single day. Here, in a rusty overpass above a busy highway, he dances with the bravado of someone who knows he’s talented. But in conversation, he comes across as sensitive, thoughtful, even a little shy. “Passinho in Rio and São Paulo is only with the feet, but here we use the whole body to dance,” he says, before drifting off into a digression with his friends about middle-class Recifenses who are trying, unsuccessfully, to catch the wave. “They don’t know how to roll their shoulder; they’re too stiff!” His friends, Raphael, Mayra, Michely and Whitney (all in their mid-teens), respond by performing the botched shoulder roll in light mockery.
Despite this tendency to poke fun at the wider embrace of the culture, Erik recognises its value in providing a bridge between communities. Coque sits in a prized location between beaches and the central commercial area, not far from Recife’s most upscale shopping mall. Just over the road lies the rubble of Cais do Estelita, a large site of now-abandoned waterside warehouses. Estelita was earmarked for demolition in 2012, but activists managed to disrupt plans while advocating for better public use of the space. Despite their occupation-led efforts, the site was bulldozed in March. The enormous apartment blocks taking its place, locals believe, will do little to serve the housing needs here and will only further blight the city’s skyline. Worse still, they threaten the very existence of nearby favelas. “That’s why Passinho is important: to show that the favela exists,” says Erik. “We are here living – even if they want to destroy it all to build apartment blocks.”
Like most 15-year-olds, Erik is still figuring out his place in the world. But the more time you spend in his company, the more that Recife’s divisions loom in the background, underlining the significance of this subculture. It’s not just an escape, but a source of pride.
The uniform favoured by dançarinos serves as an extension of that. Basketball vests, surf shorts, wraparound Oakley-style shades and, perhaps most intriguingly, flip-flops. Erik explains that flip-flops “help identify [dancers] with favela culture”. The surf shorts, meanwhile, are favoured for their pure aesthetic appeal “because of the way the fabric moves in the breeze when we dance”.
Erik has been dancing since he was just four years old. Before Bregafunk, his passion was Swingueira – a Samba-style music originating in the neighbouring state of Bahia. With his crew ‘Novatos do Passinho’, he recently featured in a music video for MC Kelvin Zika. While the young dancers have ambitions to go professional, they are also content with simply representing their community. More than than that, though, Erik and his friends dance for the sheer joy of it: a mode of temporarily getting away from the harshness of reality. “It’s [a] good way to escape from your problems,” says Erik. “And of course, it makes me proud to think that [outsiders] want to know our culture.”