The city is known as Latin America's financial center, and is often seen as a kind of antithesis to Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Rio, the most interesting attractions aren't the natural landscapes. Sao Paulo is resolutely urban. It's impossible not to observe the chaotic streets, which are dominated by motorcyclists riding at top speed, honking and weaving their way through cars. The popular image of a citizen of Sao Paulo in Brazil is closer to the workaholic stereotype.
As a result, Sao Paulo's biggest attraction is the people, and what comes with it. The city was built by huge groups of immigrants who, in the past 100 years, moved from countries like Italy, Japan, Portugal and Lebanon. Today, the city boasts some of the largest expatriate communities from those countries. Spaniards, Germans, Africans, Koreans and of course, Brazilians and South Americans of all backgrounds, have joined many other groups to form a truly cosmopolitan environment.
Due to its geographic position, Sao Paulo is far from where typical Brazilian rhythms like axe, forro, samba or even bossa nova began. An old national joke refers to the city as the "tomb" of samba. Unlike other cities, though, this has meant that Sao Paulo has taken influence from outside the country as well as inside. It wouldn't be unfair to say that Sao Paulo has inherited the role of the country's main cultural center, housing artists, musicians and bands from all parts of Brazil.
It was the poorest areas, though, from which the first electronic sounds with a typically Brazilian "touch" emerged. Based around a club called Toco, producers and DJs such as Marky, Patife and XRS produced a style of drum & bass laced with traditional Brazilian sounds. Marky, of course, is the most famous of the trio, and his excellent DJing skills led him to move England and become one of the genre's biggest names in the late '90s. Despite drum & bass' hard times, Marky still remains among the most cherished Brazilian DJs working today.
The early '00s were marked by different styles (techno, house, drum & bass and psytrance) splintering into distinct scenes. Curiously, psytrance has always had a strong foothold in Brazil, with a scene that has developed almost in parallel to the other aforementioned styles until a few years ago, when the massive raves parties began to add genres to the line-ups. Gabe, AKA Gabriel Serrasqueiro, is probably the best example of this change: He was one of the biggest local psytrance DJs during the '90s, and nowadays is a successful producer for labels such as Renaissance and Audio Therapy.
One of the biggest local events over the course of the last decade was Skol Beats. Despite being focused on international attractions, the festival always gave room for local artists to shine. Starting in 2001, it grew steadily each year, peaking with 60,000 attendees in 2006. In 2008, the festival had its last edition, after unsuccessfully expanding into a two night event and making changes in the line-up that angered the local crowd. Since then other events have slowly filled the space left open by its exit from the scene.
Probably the most important landmark in the Sao Paulo scene, however, is a club called Love. The small venue opened in 1998 and functioned as a kind of crossover place, appealing to both the underground and mainstream. The club was where many international DJs performed for the first time in the country, and as a result they have started to add Sao Paulo more frequently to their world tour calendars. In 2008, Love closed its doors with a feeling that their mission had been accomplished. The club owners saw that they were now operating in a very difference scene, one which they were crucial in creating. Sao Paulo had moved on, and had plenty of other places playing the role of genuine clubs.
The infamous D-Edge? Nope. This is Hot Hot, one of the clubs to take inspiration from the Sao Paulo stalwart's lighting scheme.
There is a certain consensus about what the local nightlife in Sao Paulo is going through today. You'll hear it repeated by DJs, hostesses and nightlife people in general. Almost everyone points out that you can go out every night of the week and still find at least one good option, whether it be a Monday or a Saturday. In this competitive scene, though, the name D-Edge stands out. The brainchild of DJ Renato Ratier, the club opened in 2003, and is located in Barra Funda, a neighborhood mostly occupied by old or abandoned warehouses.
When it opened, the biggest lure of D-Edge was its futuristic appearance. The floors, walls and ceiling of the two room club are all made up of panels with colorful neon lights that seem to dance to the music. Brazilian designer Muti Randolph was responsible for the look, and capped it off with the wall behind the DJ booth, which appears to clubgoers as an enormous equalizer, but is actually formed by columns of LEDs. In July, a new room attached to the club will open, which will double its capacity.
Although the club's atmosphere is a special attraction, D-Edge's fame is not only due to its visual aspect. Over the past seven years, the place has hosted an intense schedule of DJs, accompanied by an insatiable crowd. Ratier doesn't hide his surprise (and satisfaction) when he recalls the time that Tiefschwarz, Ellen Allien and members of !!! threw an after-hours party on a Sunday morning in 2005 at the club after a big festival.
Moving is headed by Anna Biazin, a well-known promoter in Sao Paulo. Biazin is quiet and calm, the sort of figure who slides through a packed club. She knows the dance floor's shortcuts well. Philipp, half of M.A.N.D.Y., came alone from Germany and the club is almost packed. At close to four in the morning Audiofly's Anthony Middleton and Luca Saporito start to play and the crowd shows no signs of fatigue. The clubs in the city usually open their doors at close to midnight; the dance floors usually peak at around 3 or 4 AM and the closing time is always uncertain.
The crowd at D-Edge is an interesting mix, but the core of the club is vibrant and attentive to what happens at the turntables. Philip watches the crowd while Audiofly is playing: "I played here three years ago and the night continues with the same energy. The club is incredible." Close to 6 AM, Philipp, Luca and Tom begin to play together in a back-to-back-to-back that will only end when the streets are already congested with Friday morning's heavy traffic.
The following night I drop by Lions Club, recently opened and one of the new major attractions in town. Lions is located in downtown Sao Paulo, which means that it's in an area virtually deserted at night. The club is inside an old office building, but as soon as you climb the stairs and open the doors to the club, you know you've found the right place.
As you enter, you're confronted by a large room with high ceilings, divided by a bar in the center, surrounded by big marble columns: On one side, a small lane with sofas and armchairs are adorned by luxurious decor, consisting of animals stuffed and chandeliers giving the place a pompous atmosphere. There are two dance floors: a small one beside the bar and the main one, separated and full of mirrors that create a 3D effect when paired with the LED lights. Probably the biggest attraction of the house is a large balcony that looks over the skyline of the old town, overlooking the back of Catedral da Se mixed with the tops of trees and wide avenues.
One reason for all the buzz about Lions is the fact that the club has members, selected by the owners, who pay to jump the queue, receive special perks inside and bring guests of their choosing. The audience is a little older and quite mixed, and perhaps these factors, along with the luxury, seem to bring it a somehow pretentious aura.
Leaving Lions at around 3 AM, I head to Clash, where John Acquaviva is already performing. Like D-Edge, the venue is located in Barra Funda. It was opened in 2007 and is a continuation of the work of a traditional local core of techno heads, responsible for parties called Circuito that have been taking place since the mid-'90s. The club has an industrial feel. It occupies a large shed, and its walls are adorned by posters of countless parties designed in the style of Soviet propaganda. Disproportionally large screens circle the top of the club. The public seems thrilled with the set of Acquaviva, and at times the size of the place resembles a tent at a techno festival. Around 6 AM I leave the club, as the place slowly empties for the night.
Like most cities, Saturday is Sao Paulo's biggest night. On this particular night, the local Pacha is hosting the first edition of a festival that aims to present Brazilian talents. Entitled Future Sounds of Brazil, the event is sponsored by 3Plus, the biggest booking agency in the country and a company responsible for brokering some of the most important names on the local scene.
Gui Boratto has been one of the city's biggest success stories on the international stage in recent years.
A quick guide to Sao Paulo
As Sao Paulo is an enormous city, it's ideal to seek accommodation in dowtonwn or Bela Vista and Jardins, which will let you choose from cheap accommodation or large international brands. Almost every club in town is no longer than 30 minutes in a cab from these areas.
Despite the mass dissemination of digital media, Sao Paulo has a thriving market for vinyl. Most DJs and music fans are divided between the traditional Galeria do Rock (24 de Maio, 62), which consists of an immense shop geared toward the general musician and the Galeria Ouro Fino (Augusta, 2690), a former meeting place for DJs and clubbers in the city. Today there are only two vinyl stores in Ouro Fino, but according to Goncalo Vinha, DJ and owner of Intergroove, this year has seen an increased curiosity from the public in local vinyl, needles and equipment.
One of the biggest attractions of Sao Paulo is the food. Here, you can find typical food from almost all countries, and many local dishes as well. Steak houses such as Fogo de Chao (Santo Amaro Avenue, 6824) are not cheap, but they are an undeniable tourist attraction. The city is known in Brazil for its many Italian cantinas, mostly concentrated in the Italian neighborhood of Bixiga. After a night in a club, it is common for people to eat hot dogs from streets or go to 24 hour emporiums like Bella Paulista (Haddock Lobo, 354).
If you like to warm up before going to the club, try the bars in the region called Baixa Augusta. The Volt Bar (Haddock Lobo, 40) has an interesting soundtrack and is quieter. In Sonique (Bela Cintra, 461) you may end up staying the whole night: DJs often determine whether a night is low key or something else altogether. The Z Carniceria (Augusta, 934) is a butcher shop that plays rock, and Tapas (Augusta, 1246) is a bar/club mix with an eclectic dance floor where the sidewalk is extension of the club.
A veritable institution in Brazil are called "botecos": Simple bars with no pretense that basically serve beer and snacks (sometimes they're also mixed with bakeries) to anyone and everyone, whether you're wearing Havaianas flip-flops or a suit. They are too many to name here, so my advice is to simply choose one you like, enter, have a beer and enjoy.
During the day
Sao Paulo offers a bevy of options for day trips. The largest museum in town is the MASP (Paulista Av, 1578). In the region of Jardins, you can make a day of walking along Paulista Avenue in search of cafes, shops, bookstores with international magazines and newspapers, bistros and restaurants. For those who seek a bit of nature, Ibirapuera Park is your best bet.
One of the artists managed by 3Plus is Gui Boratto. Born in Sao Paulo, Boratto is now the biggest Brazilian name on the international circuit, a position earned through a repertoire of productions and remixes released on a variety of labels. As I talk to him backstage we're interrupted by DJ Marky, who arrives joking and telling tales about the clubs in Asia, Boratto's next destination.
Boratto is the headliner, but the festival also directs attention on several artists who are part of a new generation that are slowly coming to international prominence. The event had 25 names on the line-up, among them DJs, live acts and bands. This last point is an important one: Brazilian artists are increasingly communicating with other styles. A perfect example is the duo Mixhell, a group composed of the former drummer for the heavy metal band Sepultura Iggor Cavalera and his wife, Laima Leyton.
Despite the vast amount of new names, there is still work to be done in getting recognized locally and, just as importantly, internationally. "I do not exactly feel a responsibility to help new artists here, but when I can, I try to open doors for them," says Boratto. He shares the popular view that the nightlife of Sao Paulo and Brazil in general, is undergoing a Renaissance at the moment, and highlights Dada Attack (the alter ego of producer Saulo Pais who recently signed with Kompakt) as a talented newcomer to keep an eye on. Nonetheless, the festival is not exactly a blockbuster numbers-wise, an important sign that the attention of the general public about Brazilian artists needs further work.
It's an idea that's shared by Philip, from M.A.N.D.Y.: "The Brazilian scene has almost everything: good clubs, nice DJs, a great public. Maybe producers are missing, and I think that a local identity is crucial." Aware of this need to make a bridge between Brazilian producers and international markets, D-Edge is now finalizing the first release of his own label, D-Edge Records: "We must do something that is comprehensive and supports the local talent. The idea is to help create an identifiable Brazilian sound, but at the same time not be limited to certain styles. We'll have our moment when the time is right," says Renato Ratier.
Following Boratto's advice, the last stop of the night is to see Dada Attack performing at Hot Hot, another club located downtown. It's been interesting to see clubs return downtown, especially in the area known as "low-Augusta." It's a space that was once a luxury shopping area, but had been taken over by whorehouses in recent years. Since the opening of Vegas club in 2005, however, the region has gradually seen warm-up and cool-down spaces like Volt Bar and Sonique populate the area. Facundo Guerra, one of Lions' partners and also responsible for club Vegas and Volt Bar talks about low-Augusta in glowing terms: "We have no support from the city to invest here, but it is something made with love."
Hot Hot isn't very big, but it has a large bar with a '70s atmosphere, colorful decoration and nice lights. The dance floor is downstairs, and is full of panels and cubes with LEDs synchronized to the music. Dada Attack's sound is marked by experimentation and circuit bending, guaranteeing a non-linear set, full of surprises. It's 5 AM when I leave the club, and after-hours on Sunday mornings are common throughout the city. (The most traditional is Paradise, which begins at 5 AM at D-Edge and usually goes into Sunday evening. Unfortunately, after the past few nights, I'm tired to jump to another club.
As you can see by these three nights (and five clubs), though, Sao Paulo clubbing is alive and well. You can see flyers announcing nights during the whole week, some of them promoting upcoming events with Josh Wink, Funk D'Void, Fergie and Loco Dice. The city has, indeed, a huge amount of interesting attractions, but most are still based on international names.
Nonetheless, it seems we're getting closer and closer to a moment Brazil, and specifically Sao Paulo, will finally leave the music consumer role and also become a major provider as well. Boratto summarizes: "The sound of Brazil is no longer limited to those obvious things, like bossa nova and so on. There are many people working on new things, and slowly it will give greater respect to our work out there. We have already a spectacular club circuit in the country, not only in Sao Paulo, and most importantly, our audience is becoming more open-minded." While the city waits, Sao Paulo dance floors will no doubt continue to play host to a vibrant and varied scene.