Our story starts in the jungle.
The man who whistles is the harbinger of chaos. But we don’t see him at first, we only hear his shrill call-to-arms. Instead, our attention is on another young man, shirtless and wearing a black balaclava. He’s climbing down a rope into a steep red ravine. A third man, also shirtless and masked, and clutching a rifle, scrambles up the slope to intercept the rope climber. This all happens while the whistle, as tuneless as it is infectious, is still in the air. As the camera tilts down, we see two teenage boys, one wearing a sailor’s cap, the other a brightly coloured shirt. They are poised over a deconstructed drum kit that’s made from paint tins and ice cream boxes. The pair start pounding out a tribal beat, crooked grins on their faces. But we probably don’t take in this detail—not on the first watch—because by then we are looking at the boy. And the boy is staring straight back at us. Straight down the lens of the camera.
He’s frowning, this boy. He looks about thirteen years old, but it’s hard to tell because there’s a toughness there, an edge. Perhaps it’s the way he’s bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter waiting for the bell to ring. Perhaps it’s his haircut, a style that evokes fifties Havana—although, in this case, Rio de Janeiro from the same era would be a closer comparison. But this chaos is not taking place in chic, upmarket Rio, it’s happening in a jungle in the interior of Brazil’s northeast, a state called Maranhão. You may never have heard of Maranhão (I hadn’t), but the United Kingdom would vanish inside this vast expanse of land.
The boy sings at the top of his lungs, his high-pitched voice cracking with the effort, his eyes never leaving the camera. Suddenly, the rope climber comes hurtling towards us. The fabric of his mask is in an obsidian shade that creates an uncanny effect, like a void, like a nothingness, a gaping black hole where a head should be. The rope climber pats at his crotch as if he’s trying to put out a fire. He starts to dance. The rifle-man, who’s now discarded his rifle, is dancing too. But before we can take this in, a large bear-like man comes crashing into the frame, a small boy tumbling from his shoulders. This boy, who’s maybe no more than nine or ten years old, bounces up from the dust seemingly unscathed and starts a furious dirt-stamping jitter. Dancing and drumming and singing and rope climbing and a series of increasingly vicious sweep kicks ensue. This violence, though bruising, seems not to deter the camaraderie of whatever it is we are watching. The boy continues to belt out his song with a fervour that verges on manic. The bear-like man bursts back into frame, cradling an oversized keyboard. We discover then that he is the source of the tuneless whistling.
None of what we are watching makes any sense, but it’s hard to look away, hard to not get drawn into the weird world of Fundo de Quintal OFC.
The name Fundo de Quintal roughly translates as “backyard” in English, but in Portuguese the phrase is something closer to “the back of the backyard” and it carries the evocation of a passion project that takes place within this mystic terrain. At first, I wasn’t sure what the OFC part of the name meant. I searched online and discovered that, in English, OFC is text slang for “of course.” I also read (on that ever-reliable source of unquestionable facts, the Urban Dictionary) that OFC stands for Orphan Fight Club. This seemed momentarily plausible when taking into account the group’s Lord of the Flies style jungle scrapping. But my wife, Marina, who comes from the neighbouring Brazilian state of Ceará, just walked into the room and told me that OFC simply means “official.”
It was Marina who introduced me to this strange and compelling spectacle back in May 2020. We were already a couple of months into a restrictive lockdown here in Barcelona. And while I count myself very fortunate in the context of these difficult times, after eight weeks of barely being able to leave the house, I was starting to feel gloomy.
I had also found it difficult to engage with the usually dependable escapism that new music so often provides. Like all music obsessives and jobbing musicians, the focus of my year typically revolves around buying records and attending gigs and music festivals, both as a punter and as a performer. The knowledge that it would be months (probably longer) until we could again share in the communal exhilaration of live music had made listening to new records an oddly dispiriting experience. It felt easier to pull on the comfort blanket that classic albums offered. But ultimately, nostalgia also felt like a limited way forward—because, by its very nature, it’s not a way forward.
‘You have to watch this video that Fred sent me,’ Marina said, trying to pull me out of my self-indulgent moping.
Since that day, whenever I am feeling downbeat, I just tune into the visceral vibes of Fundo de Quintal OFC and their brilliantly inventive chaos.
Each video, posted at a rate of about two per week since late January 2020, has a certain crazed formula. Most start with that tuneless whistling. Almost all have those distinctive clanging beats and the boy barking out his words. At some point the dancing begins, then the play-fighting. Sometimes the older teenagers are dressed in women’s clothing, sometimes the group wear blue COVID masks, sometimes the singer has a microphone, other times he sings into a piece of fruit or a plastic bottle.
The songs are a mashup of modern-day Brazilian hits and pop classics from long before these boys were born. While the comic skits that the group riff on may appear to be completely chaotic, on closer inspection, many follow some kind of loose narrative structure with a set-up and a series of surprising comic twists, before the inevitable dancing, wrestling, and sweep-kicking begins.
I’ve seen a similarly electric energy at street parties and impromptu outdoor gigs on my travels around the northeast of Brazil, particularly at the rowdy pre-Carnaval parties (a series of big parties that build towards a series of bigger parties each February). But the irreverence of Fundo de Quintal OFC sets them apart from other more conventional bands who take the stage at those events.
After some research, I discover that Fundo de Quintal hail from the village of Centro dos Rodrigues, a municipality of fewer than ten thousand residents. The singer, it turns out, is a fourteen-year-old named Riquelme. He and the rest of the troupe—Methuselah (25), Simão (24), Vitor (18), Denilson (18), Jhayme (18), João Vitor (18), Rhuan (17) and Eulisses (11) —formed in Denilson’s parents’ backyard, which is where the group got their name—and not, as some fans speculated, in tribute to the popular eighties samba band from Rio. And both geographically and culturally, this is very far from Brazil’s most iconic city.
The northeast of Brazil is where much of the country’s natural resources (sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, cotton, and livestock) are farmed. The people from the northeast, as with those from other regions economically reliant on agricultural practices, are often patronised at a wider national level. There’s a common cliché used by some people in the more affluent south that those from the northeast, many of whom have African or Indigeonous heritage, are lazy and a drain on the country’s resources. It’s a sentiment that has been frequently echoed by Brazil’s president, the self-proclaimed “Tropical Trump”, Jair Bolsonaro. In fact, Bolsonaro has singled out the governors of Maranhão as being the worst in the northeast, and suggested that people from the region need to “grow more brains.”
All of which makes Fundo de Quintal OFC a truly subversive proposition. At a time when Brazil is governed by a far-right populist, and with Evangelist puritanism on the rise, this band of cross-dressing, fly-kicking, mask-wearing teenagers feels like a radical expression of Brazil’s vibrant and diverse subculture. And Fundo de Quintal’s 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and 1.1 million Instagram followers suggests that there’s a real appetite in the country for this show of joyous individuality.
But the whole project almost ended before it had even started. When the band surpassed one million Instagram subscribers, back in July 2020, they posted this message on their page explaining:
“Seven months ago, we lost a channel with 12 subscribers, and we were certainly very sad about the situation. And who wouldn’t be? Eight poor boys in the middle of the earth, mud and jungle, recording with only the urge to make people happy. We thought about giving up, but we cooled our heads, thought positively, prayed…and God heard us! Today, five months later, we have a channel of ONE MILLION SUBSCRIBERS!”
For any band, this would be a meteoric rise, especially for a group with limited resources and without a label or marketing machine behind them. That, though, might be about to change. Over the past couple of months, the online attention lavished upon Fundo de Quintal OFC has led to some forays into big(ger) budget productions. Last October saw the release of the slickly produced video Joga Joga ( “Play, Play” in English) with its more conventional modern Forró sound and (possibly ironic) bling video full of hip hop tropes.
Traditional Forró is said to have originated on the coffee farms and sugarcane plantations of Ceará, and migrated with the farm workers across the entire northeast of Brazil. The modern electronic bastardisation of Forró is something closer to Reggaeton, the enormously popular Latin-infused dancehall that has plagued the pop charts for the past twenty years or more.
The group have recently recorded their first album, ‘Banda Fundo de Quintal OFC 2020’ which is available for download on the Brazilian independent music streaming platform, Sua Música. This, too, is a much glossier Forró-style production than the frenetic energy of their live videos. It’s unclear from the online linear notes (there aren’t any) whether any of the core eight members played the percussion, the basslines or the accordion (an essential feature of Forró) on the studio recordings, or whether this is the work of a producer. In spite of this more mainstream sound, the adolescent snarl of Riquelme’s voice still shines through, giving the group an edge that sets them apart from their contemporaries.
However, debate has raged among purist fans of Fundo de Quintal OFC, some of whom argue that this new polished sound has robbed the group of their essential rawness. That’s right, even within the world of Brazilian viral comedy bands there are “I prefer their early stuff” people. It certainly seems that it’s the cathartic energy of the videos, rather than the more produced studio recordings, that has gained the group a following in Brazil (and beyond).
Cultural critics in Brazil have compared the approach of Fundo de Quintal’s videos to the early 1960s ‘Happenings’ of American performance artist Allan Kaprow who studied under the tutelage of John Cage. While it’s certainly possible to see parallels with these situationist movements, or even with the anarchic slapstick of vaudeville groups like the Marx Brothers, the comic references of Fundo de Quintal OFC are more rooted in the contemporary meme culture, which is so prevalent in Brazil that it even reaches tiny villages in the middle of the country’s immense interior. In fact, much of this humour seemingly originates from those places.
The first video I saw of Fundo de Quintal OFC was their unhinged version of ‘Dorime Ameno’ a French pop song from the ‘90s that incorporates a well-known Gregorian chant. The song has been covered many times since then. And in the past few years, the saying “Dorimé” has become a popular Brazilian meme—one featuring pop culture icons (such as Patrick from SpongeBob Squarepants, Super Mario, and Pikachu) depicted deep in prayer. For Brazilian youth, “Dorimé” is a jokey exclamation, a plea to be “freed from all pain,” often used when discussing football. The boys Fundo de Quintal OFC may have been inspired by these memes or by the recent Forró covers of the original ‘90s pop song. Or possibly both. And it’s this combination of madcap comedy and mashup music culture that makes their videos so compelling.
It could be argued that modern pop music and contemporary comedy are both lacking in originality and danger. They are safe and sanitised, streamed into your home via Spotify and Netflix without the real need for delving or discovery. This is why I find the rawness and intensity of Fundo de Quintal OFC’s wildly imaginative work so thrilling. It reminds me of being in garage bands at the same sort of age, making up dumb songs for the sheer joy of it. No masterplan, no label, no marketing team, no streaming stats, just pure teenage energy and imagination.
In a recent interview, band spokesperson, Simão suggests that this approach is out of necessity:
“Life in the interior is not easy. Here we have nothing, we have no access to a singing classroom or to a theater. There’s no place to buy instruments, so we are just creating our own little improvised things.”
A year from now, they may have gone the same way as most idealistic teenage bands. But whatever happens, Fundo de Quintal OFC will always have 2020. And for me, and their legion of followers, 2020 lockdown life has been more bearable and more fun because of them.
James Connor Vincent