Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil

An example of a pancadao car.

When I got to São Paulo in January, 2012, I had only a slight idea of how my fieldwork would unfold. Even though I had planned to investigate the relationship between everyday sounds and ways of using public spaces in São Paulo, Brazil, I was certain that that I wanted to observe São Paulo’s Anti-noise Agency (known as PSIU), responsible for supervising noise emission from bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other commercial establishments. My original idea was to consider noise from an anthropological perspective – as a point of entry to discussions regarding social problems in the city. To meet this end, I began to focus on ‘controversial’ sounds.  ‘Controversial’  sounds are interesting to study because they make audible the question of spatial rights and the intersections of private, public, and civil spheres in the constant (re)construction of a city.

More than 11 million people live in São Paulo; on average 110,ooo in each of the city’s 96 districts, a population higher than that of 95% of Brazilian cities. São Paulo is known for being Brazil’s economic hub. It boasts the highest rate of migrants from other countries and from other Brazilian cities (including many from the northeast of Brazil, which is a notably impoverished region). There is a striking economic disparity: 1.3 million people live in slums spread throughout the city. While the richest district holds 300 thousand jobs, in the poorest there are only 136. While some can afford to pay R$ 500 (roughly 245 US dollars) just to get into a nightclub, others will spend that amount over the course of a  year, going to unlicensed bars in peripheral districts. São Paulo has more helicopters per capita than any other city in the world; and one third of its residents spend more than 1 hour commuting to work, usually in overcrowded busses and trains. There are two very different cities here – one which is impoverished, and the other wealthy.

Sao Paulo, Brazil. Borrowed from Fernando Stankuns on Flickr.

Within the context of a broader discussion of citizenship, controversial sounds need to be studied across social sectors. These sectors work in tandem to form  the democratic society of São Paulo. For this reason, I have focused my research on four interrelated social branches.

As I said, first I went to PSIU, the executive branch of São Paulo. At PSIU I learned how certain sounds are regulated and how those responsible for making loud sounds are punished. I accompanied the agency’s engineer to a routine weekly inspection, and learned that people do not know much about legislation (sound limits allowed, zoning law, etc.), and that they know even less about what they need to do to achieve the sound pressure limits established by law.

Street art by El Bocho in São Paulo “shhhh…”. Borrowed from barretto-rodrigo on Flickr.

I also observed the legislative branch. There, I was happy to discover that the technical standards most related to urban noise and acoustic quality were going through a major revision in 2012. These standards are important because most city ordinances are modeled after their criteria of measuring and evaluating sound.

The third branch is economic. In 2010, a coalition of professionals (mostly from São Paulo) specializing in ‘acoustic quality’ created ProAcustica, a non-profit organization whose mission is “to disseminate the benefits of acoustic solutions in civil construction as a primary factor for comfort and health of users at home, work, or any other urban space, and also as a element for sustainability of enterprise and of the environment.” ProAcustica’s constituents are mainly architects, acousticians, civil constructors, engineers, and building material developers.

Over the course of my fieldwork, I have attended many ProAcustica meetings and interviewed many of its members. Only in the last few years has there been an articulation of acoustics and economics that demands more effective urban planning and, most importantly, quantitative criteria that can encourage civil constructors to deliver acoustically comfortable dwellings. ProAcustica members want to relate the risks of noise pollution to the greater public in order to expand their market. ProAcustica is particularly interested in traffic noise as a critical aspect of our urban soundscapes. Still, most people seem to consider traffic noise an inevitable consequence of urban life. They either get used to it or move somewhere else. For example, I live with my cousin next to Congonhas Airport. I can see the airstrip from my window. Even though he spent a few thousand dollars installing noise-isolating windows, I still wake up everyday when the first planes landing at 6AM. Thanks to these planes, the sound in my bedroom reaches 90 dB(A) with the windows open. My cousin says that he has gotten used to it. But if we leave the windows opened it is impossible to listen to the TV.

The last social branch that I examined was civil society. What is the practice of making and listening to sounds in São Paulo? Are there localized ‘controversial’ sounds? In 2012 loud music in public spaces has been at the center of debates in the press and community meetings.

The pancadão (‘big punch’ in Portuguese) are parties that happen mostly in the peripheral neighborhoods of São Paulo, where very little leisure space is able to accommodate large numbers of people. For this reason, these parties happen on the streets and plazas, attracting thousands of youngsters that go to flirt, drink, and dance to the sound of Brazilian funk. The music comes from car speakers. Sometimes three or more cars will park a few feet from each other, blasting Brazilian funk throughout the night. Most of the lyrics contain metaphors referring to sex, but recently there has also been a wave of more extreme “ostentatious funk” (funk ostentação) coming from São Paulo. Here are two examples of popular funk ostentação songs that can be heard emanating from the pancadão, the first is MC Guime’s “Tá Patrão,” and the second, MC Rodolfinho’s “Como é Bom Ser Vida Loca.”

There has also been a link between the pancadão and drug traffic. Tellingly, there is branch of ‘forbidden’ funk that exalts drug dealers and robbery while also affronting the police. These parties persevere because everything is mobile: the music, the drinks, the drugs, and even the place for having sex – everything is supplied by the cars and can move around whenever there is a risk of conflict with the police.

An example of a pancadão car. Photo by Leonardo Cardoso.

Other things kept within a pancadão car. Photo by Leonardo Cardoso.

Presently, I am conducting research in two peripheral regions. One is the place where most funk MCs originate, and the other is where new strategies of shutting down these parties have been implemented by the police. The Operação Pancadão is an operation that gathers military and civil police, PSIU agents, and other administration officers. This task force measures sound emissions, apprehends and punishes the responsible, then impounds the cars. Once you cut the sound, partygoers disperse – often seeking another pancadão close by. One police chief reports having mapped more than 200 places of pancadão in São Paulo.

Because of this fieldwork, I believe that the field of ‘applied sound studies’ needs to be developed further, both inside and outside of the academy. It is crucial for urban planners to develop qualitative methods to understand how residents evaluate the everyday soundscape. In Europe , for example, there is a group of scholars working on new methods for assessing and improving soundscapes based on how residents perceive the environments in which they live. I also see the potential for scholars interested in sound-related nuisance to work with conflict mediation. During the weekend 60% of all calls received by the police dispatcher (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.) are from people complaining about some nuisance, usually loud sounds. Understanding urban sounds as a phenomenon which impacts several different social sectors can empower interested parties to put forward alternatives. Ideally, these alternatives will allow marginalized youth to enjoy their music without being bullied by drug dealers or assaulted by policemen. At the micro level, conflict mediation scholars could provoke a sense of dialogue between neighbors and help them to find solutions for conflicting sonic behaviors.

Please listen to the accompanying podcast, “Listening to São Paulo, Brazil,” for the opportunity to listen to the soundscape of São Paulo, as I walk you through these spaces of sonic conflict.

Leonardo Cardoso was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he studied music composition at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul). In 2005 he entered the Ethnomusicology Group at UFRGS as a research assistant. From 2005 to 2008 he participated in projects with indigenous communities in Rio Grande do Sul. In 2008 he started his Master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin under Prof. Veit Erlmann’s advising. His interest in film music led him to write his thesis on the experimental field of visual music in Los Angeles. He is working in São Paulo, where he is currently conducting fieldwork on urban noise, for his PhD. Leonardo is also a photographer, composer, and sound collector. Contact:

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About lcardoso

Phd student in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas, Austin, doing fieldwork in São Paulo. Doutorando em etnomusicologia pela Universidade do Texas-Austin, atualmente fazendo pesquisa de campo na cidade de São Paulo.

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