Buraka Som Sistema – Sounding Off

June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue # 320, January 2009.

Buraka Som Sistema are bringing the gritty sound of Lisbon’s outer suburbs to the world.

The MySpace generation has had to endure more bad press and moral panic than most. Vain, distracted, celebrity-obsessed – these are some of the charming descriptors by which the greying legions have come to characterise technology-savvy teens and twenty-somethings.

Joao Barbosa, aka Lil’ John, of Lisbon ghetto-funk crew Buraka Som Sistema, casts his generation in a very different light. “I think the strongest thing about MySpace and our generation this beautiful notion that people get to mix all these ideas and all these cultures together,” he says, chatting on the phone from Portugal on the eve of Buraka’s maiden Australian tour.

According to the 27-year-old producer, his age-bracket’s defining trait isn’t that of narcissism, but community, creativity and cultural bleed. “Communicating is very immediate and very easy, you know, like this whole concept of moving around the world in 30 seconds,” he urges.

“It’s like we’ve entered this era of the ultimate in DIY; it’s just about making a song on your brother’s computer with crappy software or something like that and then posting it on you MySpace page. Somebody from the other side of the world can be listening to it within seconds.”

It’s a sensibility that cuts to the heart Buraka Som Sistema – who released their kinetic debut Black Diamond last month – and has seen them tipped as the new stars of the global urban underground. Following the likes of predecessors such as Diplo, M.I.A. and Brazil’s Bonde do Role, the quartet’s propulsive take on Angolan Kuduro and raw ghetto-funk finds its orientation in impromptu cross-cultural expression and exchange. Pounding African rhythms meet Latin inflection; tradition meets the contemporary; dance music meets hip hop; the street meets the club.

“Buraka is a band that couldn’t have come from anywhere else,” says Barbosa. “The suburbs of Lisbon is the place where you are exposed to Angolan culture more that anywhere Europe or probably around the world except Angola itself.”

The earliest incarnation of the group began to take shape at the turn of the millennium, when old school friends Barbosa and Rui Pite (aka DJ Riot) began co-producing raw tracks with old samplers and dodgy, pirated music software. They made beats for local hip hop crews and from there, started DJing random parties in Lisbon’s northern suburbs.

It was in this context that they started experimenting with the Angolan Kuduro rhythmic pattern. “Kuduro has been around the suburbs since the mid 90s,” explains Barbosa. “It had a huge explosion in the beginning, but it got too big too fast and it kind of faded away and went back underground and no one was listening to it for a while. But in that time, there was a huge evolution of how people were making the beats and it became more about creating really strong rhythm patterns and all that stuff.”

“We started coming across all these strange old Kuduro compilations,” he continues. “So we did 20 or 30 of these re-edits and remixes of those songs just to make them DJ-friendly, and ended up doing a few beats ourselves. In the end, we decided that we wanted to do a whole club night based around this incredible beat.”

Producer Andro Carvalho (aka Conductor) and Angolan MC Kalaf entered the fold, and as Barbosa remembers, their Kuduro night began to gain a life of its own. “We only had four months in the end, then the club shut down because of police issues, but we knew there was something special going on.”

“From day one it was really packed and there were always a couple of microphones hanging around, so all these people started coming up on stage and dancing and rhyming and going crazy,” he laughs. “There was just sweat dripping everywhere…my laptop was always sparking and shutting down because of heat. We knew that this thing needed to continue, you know, not as a club night but as something a little bit more ambitious.”

Preceded by cult 12’ single ‘Yah!’, featuring young Lisbon MC Petty, Buraka’s debut album Black Diamond is the articulation of that ambition. Pulsing with abrasive electronics and hammering Kuduro rhythms and rapid-fire, multi-lingual raps, it sees MCs as diverse as M.I.A., Angolan vocalists Pongolove and Saborosa and UK grime legend Kano spit verses over some of the most danceable cuts you’ll hear.

“We used this beat pattern from Kuduro and tried to transport that around the world by mixing it with elements from Brazil, stuff from London, with even more stuff from Angola and even more with stuff from Lisbon, so it’s kind of a world tour sonically.”

Despite it’s club appeal, there’s a serious side to the record. “Obviously there’s some big issues about diamonds and oil in Angola and that was something we wanted to translate on the album,” explains Barbosa. “We’re lucky that we have an international platform to do that.”

“But at the same time,” he continues, “Black Diamond is also the idea that when you find a diamond in nature, it’s just like rock. It has no interest. Only when you polish it and make it something really beautiful do people notice it. To us, this music is raw like rock, but with beauty inside it.”

by Dan Rule

Buraka Som Sistema play the Laneway Festival in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne in late January and early February

Black Diamond is out through Fabric/Inertia

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