Music and mayhem: Sao Paulo’s revival

The Virada Festival in Brazil’s largest city is a testament to urban revival, however violent crime continues to persist

Brazil music and mayhem [Fabio Cabeloduro]
The Virada Cultural Festival, which boasts 24 hours of uninterrupted festivities, has helped Sao Paulo supplant Rio de Janeiro as a premier tourist hub [Fabio Cabeloduro]

Greater Sao Paulo is the world’s fourth largest metropolis. With over 20 million people, it’s been described as the “Blade Runner” of the tropics.

With its fourteen-lane highways, violent crime, megalith high-rises, and the biggest private helicopter fleet in the world, the city can be terrifying for a visitor.

However, the creativity that has sprung from the people living and surviving in Sao Paulo is remarkable. Over the weekend, the city opened itself up for their annual Virada Cultural Festival, with 24 hours of uninterrupted art.

People enjoyed over a thousand free events, from graffiti art to street circus, opera to reggae, video projections to stand-up comedy. There was a stage for all-night Samba and a stage for all-night Beatles.

But in a city where you don’t have to stop at red lights after midnight because of the high risk of car-jacking and kidnaps  and everyone has a story of a hold-up or robbery who actually braved the streets to enjoy it?

More than four million, it turned out. The director of the festival, Ze Mauro, said Virada Cultural 2011 beat last year’s record, and claimed it was the largest street festival in the world.

Culture up, crime down

So, is Sao Paulo more known today for its culture or its crime? It’s now the biggest tourist destination in South America. With more visitors then Rio, it attracts visitors mainly because of the music, art, theatre, and food the city has to offer.

Alfonso Cappellaro, a DJ at the festival who returned to Sao Paulo after living in London for three years, sees a real difference in his hometown:

There have been plenty of changes not only in the city, but the whole country. People started to have access to money, and that changes a lot. Quickly. In terms of culture, the first thing I saw was the amount of international artists coming over. For Brazilian artists it’s also been good. There’s been a lot more gigs, [and] artists are recording better due to access to better studios, instruments, references, and so on.

And crime is down, too. The murder rate in Sao Paulo  which was once described as on par with that of a civil war  has plummeted in recent years.

The mayor’s office is spending large sums on regenerating the abandoned inner city. One such area, nicknamed “Crack-Land”, is a place many locals avoid. But on the night of Virada Cultural, the streets are crowded with locals and it is the site of the main stage.

Groups sat on sidewalks outside burned-out buildings, and couples strolled buggies past graffiti-covered demolition sites. Families and students, young and old, all gathered there to see the Brazilian pop star Rita Lee open the festival. Beer sellers weaved in and out of the relaxed crowd, handing out cans of Brahma and Skol.

But according to one dancer taking part in the night’s events, despite recent improvement, this was still very unusual. Police lining the roads of the festival, with body armour and guns, reminded any tourist that this wasn’t Europe.

“Sao Paulo is still a city of crime. It’s still dangerous. There are huge police re-enforcements tonight. They are everywhere. It’s a great night but not a usual night,” said Danielle Gomez, who dances Maracatu, a samba-like rhythm from the countryside of Brazil.

However, there are critics who say that the significant effort and money spent on Virada Cultural could have been used in a better, more sustainable way.

Poor areas, cultural centres

At one small stage, Nhocune Soul, a local band from the east of the city, had their audience singing and dancing along to songs all about their neighbourhood. They stated that they would like to see more support and funding for communities like theirs, which is known for poverty and hardship.

“This festival has two sides. It concentrates on the centre of the city the commercial area  and funds for the cultural life of the centre are really expanding. But this means that funding and work in the outskirts of the city, in the very poor parts, like the east, where I am from, are losing out,” said Renato Gama, lead singer in the band.

He continued:

The whole financing system of culture is wrong in this city  all the money is here and not where the art is born. The organisers make out that this bit of Sao Paulo is an explosion of culture but it’s not really like that. People in the favelas are not being helped at all, and that is where most the real creativity is going on. I’m afraid Sao Paulo will get [to be] like many African cities: big and rich in the centre with very, very poor people around the edges. This is what I see now in Sao Paulo.

But Sao Paulo’s secretary of culture, Carlos Augusto Calil, disagrees that Virada Cultural and it’s funding are elitist:

This is the seventh time we have put on this festival. We used to have events in neighbourhoods but only people from that particular neighbourhood attended. The centre is a shared space  for rich and poor we have all people coming together and mixing there.

It was clear that people from all parts of the city and of all social backgrounds were converging at the centre to enjoy the festival. Crowds of teenagers surged through the metro, shouting and clapping the names of their particular neighbourhood, many in the east, where Renato Gama is from.

Although these partying groups made the police clutch their guns tighter and other passengers going home early to keep to the walls of the metro, there was no doubt that there was something at the festival for different levels of Sao Paulo society to enjoy, at least for the night.

And people seemed to have come from out of town to enjoy Virada Cultura, too. Couples hung out of downtown hotel balconies, drinking beer above flashing signs advertising rooms at the hotel.

The tourist hub

According to Caio Carvalho, president of Sao Paulo Turismo (the company that produced the festival), bigger hotels further afield were also full.

Tourists were in the city especially to enjoy the 24 hours of culture. He defends the amount of money spent on one night in the city.

“What hasn’t been realised is [that] culture is a commodity. Visitors want to experience culture as much as [the] beach and carnival. Virada Cultural brings attention to this,” he said.

The beginning of Virada Cultural marked a new stage for Sao Paulo. It marked a time when Sao Paulo began to be known for its culture, for good things instead of just bad. The city has more visitors now than Rio; Sao Paulo now has double the amount of hotel rooms as Rio as well.

Virada Cultural helped make this happen: it showcased new artists and new scenes.

“The average time for a businessman to spend in Sao Paulo was two and a half days. Now it is four. People are staying to see what Sao Paulo has to offer,” said Carvalho.

Source: Al Jazeera