Heading to a music night in the back of an Uber through Centro’s grungy streets dotted with dilapidated, graffitied-covered buildings, I couldn’t help but think ‘Rio is like the Berlin of South America’.
These two cities aren’t the the richest in their countries, but they're the coolest, and if walls could talk, oh the stories each could tell. Rio is about as edgy as cities come, a word also synonymous with Berlin, and they achieve it in their own unique ways underpinned by a common philosophy.
Each oozes culture which gives a sense of freedom that seems to be being strangled away in other parts of the world like my home of Sydney, where knee-jerk regulations and conservatism make societies nice and safe but cookie-cutter and boring. Personal responsibility is still a thing in these cities, the nanny-state is an anathema to their way of life.
In Rio it’s the hot sun and the cold water on your skin, a shirt off in the street, a small bikini, a hike into the clouds, the free-spirited people, the mix of black, brown and white skin, favela funk and most strikingly its pulsating samba and carnival culture. Neighbourhoods like Lapa and Pedra do Sal where you can samba in the streets are Rio in all its vibrant, rough around the edges glory, intoxicating in a way that only the country's coolest city can pull off with such barefaced confidence, Sao Paulo has nothing like it.
Rio, the one-time national capital but ever-present national force, feels edgy because it’s always exciting, it is a melting pot of everything Brazil has to offer, the good and the bad.
In the turbulent atmosphere of Brazilian politics a strong counterculture has existed in Rio from the time of the 1964 anti-Communist inspired, US-supported coup which brought in a 21-year-long military dictatorship (note the communist flag at a rally above). It runs from middle-class university students through to the favelas, the latter collectively a counterculture or counter-society even of epic proportions which has shaped Rio beyond measure in a way completely disproportionate to their residents actual power and influence.
Last year as the months-long impeachment process of former left-wing President Dilma Rousseff played out and the country, divided, waited to see whether incumbent conservative President Michel Temer would become the country's next leader, the voices against him came together weekly in Rio to protest. A high-rise government-department building in the city was occupied by 'Fora Temer' (Out Temer) protestors for months, where part demonstration, part concerts were thrown in the front courtyard every weekend, police seemingly not caring (the building has now returned to government hands).
Germany’s capital, Berlin, shaped today by its divided past between Soviet east and democratic west, really comes to life at night in a more subterranean way, where people of different sexual and music subcultures find their place amongst other like-minded souls without judgement. After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall electronic and punk music exploded amidst the rise of a counterculture gestated in occupied buildings of East Berlin neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg and Mitte, where vibrant street art and world-famous nightclubs were born.
In one of them, Berghain, where taking photos inside is forbidden, facially-tattooed doorman Sven Marquardt will decide with a nod or a thumbs up or down whether you can enter its walls and dance to any hour you want, while also possibly seeing people having sex around you. Do morally-righteous authorities shut it down? No. Does the world take notice? Yes.
Going to Berlin now is on just about any young person’s to-do list when visiting Europe, not necessarily to fulfil the extremes of having sex on a dance floor, but to simply enjoy themselves, in a place where it’s encouraged and not looked down upon. It might go against some peoples sensibilities but authorities estimate one third of visitors come to Berlin for its nightlife, and the Germans are a pragmatic people.
The beaches of Rio and the clubs of Berlin are kind of like night and day versions of the same part on the spectrum, you can come and feel free and forget about the hate so often filling our social media feeds. In Ipanema there is a gay-proud part of the beach with a rainbow flag which helps the city pull in over 1 million LGBT tourists a year, while in Berlin LGBT acceptance is woven into its history with clubs like the aforementioned Berghain as well as Tresor foundered on their embracement of gay culture (both pictured below).
Then there are their world-famous street festivals. In Rio it’s the sparkling madness of Carnival and its blocos where traditional Brazilian bands travel the streets to a moving, ever-growing costumed crowd. Berlin had the legendary Love Parade, which started as a tiny demonstration for global peace in the late 80s, where DJs on trucks with huge speakers were followed by dancing crowds through the city.
Both were landmark calendar events drawing millions, until the unfortunate demise of the Love Parade after a crowd crush killed 21 people in 2010. But it’s clear that both cities embrace a freedom of living which is not the norm and people the world over travel to embrace (like me at a bloco below and the Love Parade pictured after).
Rio can be dangerous though, and like in the Uber that night, as you leave the south zone and enter some of those dingier parts you can’t help but feel this permeating from the cracked, broken walls surrounding you. You’ve gone from affluence to struggle in a matter of minutes, but in such a way which while maybe confronting depending on your fortitude, is oddly mesmerising.
When we arrived at the club in some gentrified Centro streets that night with the same types of once-dishevelled low-level buildings I’d just passed now rejuvenated, seeing the queues of young music lovers outside them it was hard not to make the comparison to Berlin and its clawing back of urban decay for artistic culture. Compared to Berlin though quality electronic music is hard to find regularly here, as samba, funk, hip hop, pop and more commercial dance music dominate.
But then every number of weeks or month an event will come along and just blow your mind. A huge crowd, an awesome venue, passion, fun and not even the biggest-name artist bringing everyone together. No agro drunks, no hordes of cops, most importantly there’s good dancing and good vibes. And when you leave with a head full of memories you can spend the next day reminiscing over them under bright blue skies at the beach instead of languishing inside a cold European apartment.
At these nights I’ve often been the only or one of the few gringos I’ve noticed. But if more found their way to them then I’m sure word would spread overseas that Rio has potential for another defining image - electronic music destination. With the younger generation here more plugged into the global music scene than ever before thanks to the internet, plus loads of old out-of-the-way buildings ready for conversion and a liberal attitude to entertainment, the city is as ripe as any to become another icon in global music and nightlife culture like Berlin is.
On the other hand its biggest strengths might work against it - why would tourists want to be up late when they could be playing beach volleyball, bike riding around a lake or climbing a mountain in the day? Berlin is usually cold, dark and grey, like London it’s made for the night.
And Rio, blessed at is, is already an amazing place to be at night too. Its bars, clubs and neighbourhoods like Lapa pulsate to Brazil’s own beat which keeps people coming and coming back. But if on top of all these great things Rio starts producing some global electronic music stars and attracting more people for their beats on top of its beaches then it truly will be like the Berlin of South America.