Kuduro shakes things up: Buraka Som Sistema

Boston Globe, May 9, 2009

So you’ve grooved to house, tranced to techno. You’ve shaken to ghetto-tech, Baltimore club, and Miami booty bass. Perhaps you’ve undulated to Brazilian baile-funk or hard-charged the floor to London grime or dubstep. In the process you may have noticed dance music getting faster – and its geographical origins blurring in the riot of samples, loops, polyglot vocals, and cascading remixes.

In short: You may be ready for kuduro.

Dance music’s new craze – with roots in Angola and Portugal – hits Boston tonight as the genre’s standard-bearer, Buraka Som Sistema, appears at Harpers Ferry fresh from blowing festival-goers’ minds at Coachella. The buzz is intense around the four DJ-producers (and floating cast of dancers and MCs) and their melange of heavy percussions, layered electronics, and exhortative Portuguese rapping – delivered at 140 beats per minute with sensuous, acrobatic accompanying dances.

Backed by tastemakers like Diplo and M.I.A. – the Sri Lankan funk polymath appears on “Sound of Kuduro,” a track on Buraka’s new album “Black Diamond” – kuduro is a new sensation on these shores. But the music – an adaptation of traditional Angolan rhythms modified by European electronica – has been brewing for well over a decade, explains Buraka producer Conductor on the phone from Lisbon.

“In the early ’90s there was a boom in electronic music from Portugal that ended up on the scene in Angola,” Conductor says. Budding local musicians began to blend the new sounds with local rhythms, as well as with the Congolese and Cuban flavors popular in Angola. “Kids would play with whatever they had,” Conductor says, using makeshift electronica like cellphone ringtones on top of percussion.

Forged in the driving poverty that beset many Angolans during the country’s long civil war, the scrappy kuduro contrasted with the refined, guitar-led music of an older generation. “It was associated with gangster kids, the way early hip-hop was in the United States,” says Conductor. “Some of the radio stations wouldn’t play it.”

Conductor and rapper Kalaf, who came to Portugal separately from Luanda, Angola, to study in the mid-1990s, connected with the group’s two Portuguese members, Lil John and Riot, on the club scene. They also found a kuduro community in Lisbon’s working-class suburbs, populated by immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies in Africa, including Angola.

“Kuduro is a kind of music that kids in the suburbs are always listening to,” Conductor says. “A lot of kids have grown up here listening to what comes from the motherland.”

It was one of those suburbs, Buraca, that inspired the group’s name. “We put the `k’ to make it a little more glamorous,” Conductor says of the spelling.

Musically, Buraka Som Sistema quickly departed from anything one might call orthodox kuduro: While still highly percussive, the Buraka sound uses traditional Angolan elements as just one part of a sonic barrage liberally sourced across genres and locations.

The result has instant appeal, says Dave Sharma, a New York producer and percussionist on the dubstep scene who has followed kuduro’s emergence.

“Kuduro generally lives in a high-energy state,” Sharma says. “It’s faster than house or techno. As dance music continues to globalize and genres continue to eat each other up, kuduro fills a really good space.”

“People lose their [stuff] immediately,” Sharma says, when he drops the needle on a Buraka track. “It’s gonna be the biggest point of the night” – that climactic moment of dance-floor ecstasy.

Conductor confirms: “We see a lot of crazy people dancing.” With catchy hooks and slogans to shout out (“wegue wegue, wegue wegue,” one song goes), the music is instinctively accessible. “We try to do things the normal way, where you have an idea and just take it to the point where you can dance,” Conductor says.

But Sharma says Buraka exemplifies a welcome trend toward more complex music in the clubs – away, for example, from the cold minimalism of techno.

“There’s a whole move in dance music toward more syncopation, more interesting beats,” he says. It leads to a warmer experience and more individuality on the floor. “People are dancing to more involved rhythms, and it makes for cooler nights overall.”