Sunset rays dart from behind scattered rain clouds across the sky in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as a sea of samba schools prepare their opulent floats and fine-tune their dance moves for the city’s internationally-heralded Carnaval week. The nationally recognized dance schools will battle throughout the entire week in a series of parades and stadium-sized competitions.
Everywhere you turn, the metropolitan streets are alive with a mixture of citizens wearing shimmering heritage garb, comic hero-inspired Halloween costumes, or sometimes barely anything all. Sporadic drum circles and pop-up performances maintain the energy and pulse of the inebriated crowds — including a street singer performing Top 40 covers ranging from Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Drunk off national pride, a freeze frame of this moment parallels the foreigner’s fantasy of what Brazilian Carnaval is all about.
Between the Uber drivers playing ’60s-’80s pop/rock classics to the monotony of pop radio primarily led by dominant U.S.- and U.K.-based artists, the country’s Western-leaning music spectrum is reflective of the culture’s people and history — through Portuguese colonization, as well as immigration by other European communities. However, more rhythmic and colorful genres like samba, funk and choro can be traced back to Brazil’s indigenous influences.
A venue exemplifying and experimenting with this culturally and historically diverse scope is Laroc Club, located about an hour south of Sao Paulo.
“I remember the first time I came to Brazil, all I did was play samba remixes,” recalls Armin van Buuren, backstage at the mega-club just moments before his sold-out headline set during Carnaval week. “That’s a mistake, you know. They want me, they come here to hear my sound. I play as European as it gets, to be honest, because that’s what they want to hear. I’ve really seen the scene evolve over the years, and I’ll never make the same mistake again of playing Brazilian-inspired music. It’s kind of strange because I get inspired by places like this, and I feel the need to start playing the samba all of a sudden, but I shouldn’t.”
While the eighth largest economy in the world, Brazil was hit hard by a recession in 2015 and 2016 and is regaining its former foothold. And just like the rebirth of the country’s financial system, dance music too is being reborn, and in a way, allowing the country’s young talent to emerge more so than before.
“They had some problems here with the government that has had a massive backlash, but the good news about that is there was a focus on local talent, because it was cheaper,” Armin adds. “And they all got inspired by the guys who came here with Tomorrowland, and that happened. I would really say there’s a Brazilian sound coming up.”
Some of those rising Brazilian superstars like Bruno Martini, Nato Medrado and Rodrigo Vieira, among others, opened that evening for the trance legend.
“The challenge is the price of the artists,” says Laroc’s CEO and co-founder, Mario Sergio de Albuquerque. “There is a low number of promoters who can afford many big DJs in Brazil, so most of the time we can’t bring them in, because we don’t have any other event / club to share the expenses and make it attractive.”
A dance industry veteran, Mario has operated multiple nightlife venues in his home country since 2002, and helped produce major events like Tomorrowland’s spin-off in Sao Paulo in 2016 (which was held only once before being canceled in 2017, influenced by rumored concerns over Brazil’s economic stability), and Electric Zoo Brasil in 2017. His genre-spanning bookings at Laroc range from Kolsch, Luciano, Guy Gerber and Erick Morillo to Goldfish and Ferry Corsten. The diverse list of performers is a testament to the country’s flood of globally influenced musical tastes.
As thousands of flag-toting Armin fans chant his name over the sound system, playing Danny Tenaglia’s remix of CELEDA’s unifying anthem “Music Is the Answer,” the Dutch icon, rushed by stage handlers and managers, leaves his final thoughts before departing to the stage: “Maybe we’re a little spoiled in Europe and the U.S., I guess. But everything in Brazil is still new and fresh and it feels like how dance music was in the States and Europe — maybe in 2004. It’s still being perceived as young, as energetic, and it’s not something you hear on the radio all the time…yet. It’s getting there but Brazil has some catching up to do.”
Or does it? According to Mario, Brazil’s dance scene might be young as Van Buuren suggests, but the style and influence during its infancy stage is much different.
“In Brazil now, everybody is consuming what they call ‘Brazilian bass,’” Mario explains. “Names like Vintage Culture, Alok, Illusionize, Cat Dealers are spreading these styles all over the world. So, we are facing a different moment, because we always brought sounds from abroad. That’s why, as I mentioned before, the difficulties are to find promoters who have the same ideas and are ready to invest. So, we will always be behind the rest of the world. Of course, we need to support the local talents, but for me it doesn’t make sense to close the market only for these.”
Laroc’s menagerie of electronic acts is a nod to Brazil’s tumultuous history, and at the same time, an unwavering representation of their infectious culture seeping into the world’s musical palate. While the aesthetic of the venue resembles that of a Vegas or Ibiza day club, subtle yet enhanced differences steer it away from the traditional big room house atmosphere.
“Laroc is a big room club, so it doesn’t matter if headliners are underground or mainstream, they just need to be energetic and with power,” Mario explains. “At the same time, nights with less explosions create a completely different atmosphere and we don’t use all the effects — it’s more about light, video and music — and we had incredible nights with names like Guy Gerber, Kolsch, Luciano and many others.
“We will open 19 times this year,” he continues. “Two dates we use for local talents, nine dates are more commercial and eight dates are more underground. So, we have a balance and we tried to be democratic to satisfy our clients. Nights with superstars like Armin, Hardwell, Axwell, Alesso with no doubts are more attractive, but to create the concept we want, the mix is needed.”