Representing Buraka with Buraka Som Sistema

Sjimon Gompers

buraka som sistema

Buraka Som Sistema backstage at TIMF 2011. Photos by Jenz.

At this year’s Treasure Island Music Festival Impose had the opportunity to talk to Li’l John João Barbosa, DJ Riot Rui Pité, Conductor Andro Carvalho and Kalaf Ângelo of Buraka Som Sistema. We were schooled on the sounds from the streets of Lisbon’s Buraka neighborhood by way of the music scenes from Angola, Botswana, and Nigeria, to name a few.

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You guys put on a great show, how many times have you toured the States?

Li’l John João Barbosa: This is our fourth time here in the U.S. Our last tour was in 2008 with just small DJ/emcee sets then we came back in 2009 when our Black Diamond album came out and we had that tour and then we came back in 2010 and now this year as well.

How did things change for Buraka Som Sistema with the M.I.A. collaboration “Sound of Kuduro”?

Li’l John: For us and our lives it didn’t change that much, but honestly, it gave our music some extra credibility because suddenly all her fans could connect to something that she appeared on, and I think that was a big boost for our music. No doubt, it’s undeniable.

Here in the U.S. the kuduro sound is not the most well known. For all of us yanks, what is kuduro?

Li’l John: Honestly, we all have been getting this chatter for a long time with us, especially outside of Europe. I feel like it is trying to justify our existence in a way, but first of all, most importantly, it is not about explaining kuduro, it’s about explaining what Buraka is. It's important for us that Buraka has kuduro, but I think it is much more than that. I think the fact that it is our fourth time touring the U.S. also shows that we have been developing and that we have our own music and we’re doing our own thing. We’re not here to support the general or dress like the kuduro shirt. I don’t think it’s about talking about kuduro. It’s about talking about Buraka and all the music out there that you don’t know.

Buraka is a district within Lisbon, right?

DJ Riot Rui Pité: Yeah.

What’s the scene like in Buraka?

Conductor Andro Carvalho: I mean, there are a lot of immigrants living there, a lot of strange sounds, strange foods, a lot of exotic , you listen to a lot of kuduro tracks, and a lot of different tracks as well. We call ourselves this because it is something very near to us. We live in a suburb very close to Buraka, so it would be the same as if we called it Compton—

DJ Riot: Compton Sound Sistema! Ha ha!

I know kuduro was born out of intense pressures of a Portuguese-occupied Angola, and then continuing with the MPLA uprisings and the people’s struggle for independence. How do you describe the history and development of the Buraka sound, growing out of these boiling points and spilling out from the Lisbon capital into the neighborhoods of Buraka?

Kalaf Ângelo: I think we cannot answer this question! Ha ha, you put it in such a way, it is impossible. I will destroy your dreams! It is so beautiful the way you put it, it should remain like that idea, it’s very romantic! If I tell you the truth, you will be disappointed.

That’s what I want to hear! It’s a history of such struggle and I want to hear how you create something that sounds totally different and unique out that.

Kalaf: We don’t believe in this concept that you describe and we just want to go in the opposite direction. We don’t want to grab any dogma, actually we want to break it, all the dogmas. That is our approach in music, in art and everything we do in life. We don’t follow any political rule; we don’t have any flags on us. It would be easier for us to embrace a flag and say like MPLA, or kill that or break this. We don’t live that way. We are just kids who grew up with all that musical influence. That is a big part of us. It would be like walking up to an African American, and saying “How do you feel about slavery?” And he would say, “Fuck off! It happened, I had nothing to do with it, I wasn’t there, I couldn’t really stop anything, but it happened.” And all everything you have said about MPLA, struggle…whatever, whatever; I don’t know, I wasn’t there.

It’s interesting to see the difference between things like kuduro and then the South African zef scene, because it seems like kuduro has so much more impetus with taking traditional Southwest African percussion and sampling it to make new musical frontiers.

Conductor: I mean that is kind of normal because that is generally the music that is made by kids where they listen to the same thing as their grandparents did and try to do something new, something electronic, something kind of 2020! So they try to mix whatever they have with the same tools, and when they try to break it down to what sounds to them like house or whatever, it comes with the new generation. Like what they have in Brazil when it comes to funk and what happened in the UK for a long time and look at what happened with dubstep and grime, or what happened in the Americas with the reggaeton. Same stuff, it is something that is happening all over the globe.

Kalaf: And if you look a little deeper at funk music and like how someone in Chicago heard it and made Chicago Trax.

It’s fascinating because kuduro has a real revolution thing and not just a bunch of European kids jumping around being crazy for crazy’s sake. There seems to be more of a power with kuduro.

Kalaf: You need to go to Angola! Ha ha!

Conductor: You need to, yeah!

Li’l John: In a way it’s kind of weird the perspective you have on things because in the same way you grew up and the way you related with the people who lived on your street and people who went to your school and that’s kind of your world you know. And obviously you hear about all the news and all that stuff, but that stuff doesn’t interact with you on a daily basis. So you just grew up on that street, you grew up in that view, you know your neighborhood, you know your school, you grew up like that. Suddenly you start using all those people you know, and whatever they listen to, and whatever they show you, and one day you start making your own music. Then you start listening to what they’re saying, and liked whatever music that was introduced to you like over the last 3 or 4 years.

Kalaf: When you walk down the street, it’s just one little world that you hear.

Li’l John: This is where we’re coming from, regardless of a huge political movement, or a huge social difference or a huge whatever, you are what you are. You are your family, you are your friends. When we get together to make music, that is what we use. Our main influence is each other and what we want to do and that’s how we want to sound. We neglect the whole, “Please listen to our music because we are from poor, social-struggle countries.” It’s like when you go to an art exhibition and some dude is a painter and you go and see his paintings and you like it or not. Then when you add the word ‘African painter’ to the name of the exhibition, suddenly everything becomes better because he can be shit but you are going to feel sorry for him so you don’t really say that it was shit…

Kalaf: You feel guilty.

Li’l John: Because you think, ‘poor guy! He comes from a place with no money. This justifies the fact that all the paintings are shit but I am going to like it anyway and I am going to say good things about it and I don’t want to sound inappropriate. And our vision of things is like, fuck that, that is bullshit. We come from a weird place. You have no idea what is going on where we grow up, and a lot of the western regular world doesn’t, like the U.S. has no idea what goes on in Portugal. So many people here don’t even know what Portugal is! We could take that approach, but we don’t. We would rather get our music as much in the front of everything we do as possible. It needs to be as good for people to come and see our shows and to buy our record or even fucking download our record, we don’t really care. You hear it, it’s in Portuguese, it’s going to sound weird as shit, but we just make it as reachable as possible and that’s our mission we don’t have want to have too many tags around us.

Kalaf: The only thing that matters is Buraka. The only thing that matters to us is Buraka.

The name Komba, your most recent album, referring to the post death ritual of taking the things that the dead person would like, drinks they would drink and celebrating in the way that they would want to celebrate, reminded me of Day of the Dead. How has that ritual informed the sound of Komba?

Kalaf: The reason we took this concept is because we found it ironic that the biggest part of your life happens when you are already gone. It should be the other way around, it should happen now, you should be the one telling your own story. Of course it is nice when people remember you and people say, “Oh, he was great!” But it is nice if you can come and say without sounding cocky or pretentious, “Yeah! We are living a great and exciting life! Why not celebrate it and share it with the people we like now and right here?” And that is more or less the idea of the album.

It sounds like future dance music; it has the polyrhythmic thing happening, although that word is over-used in talking about African-influenced music. What are some of the producers and people from around the world that you all like?

Li’l John: We research; we’re always listening to new stuff. I remember a couple of songs from Nigeria, that faster R&B. There is an artist named Yung Gas who has a song called “One For Me”. Some of that stuff, obviously, and what is going in the UK with the bass thing. All these things are very important to us. South America and all the percussive stuff from all over are very important to us.

Conductor: We listen to music from all over the world. We are very different, as you can see. We are just trying to bring our own interests into the music as well. It is very complicated to give a full description of what we’ve been listening to. I have been listening to a lot of Latin music and some from Nigeria, Botswana and South Africa. There are a lot of things going on over there. Amazing, like P-Square and a lot of amazing African music, I don’t know.

Kalaf: A lot of zouk.

Conductor: A lot of zouk! There is a lot of sub-genres going on and small things going on and once you get into that movement you’re going to get some new ideas!

Kalaf: And when we get together in the studio, everyone goes, “Did you listen to that track?” Or when we are working on the beat and maybe we grab a hook not from dance music but something we remembered as a child or whatever, something we heard on YouTube, or on television or in a film. We don’t have rules when it comes to our music, we get it from everywhere.

How do people get down and celebrate in Buraka?

Li’l John: Everyone just goes out to clubs!

Kalaf: Life is simple, like if you are playing good music and if you are relevant enough to be here and have an audience in front of you, I think people follow that. In terms of producers around us I think people are starting to realize that if in order for use to get out there you have to understand our local scene. I think that is happening more. It’s more on a small scale but still it has grown. It’s like I said you should go to places, if you have a curiosity you should get on a plane and go there. Because if I come to you and I say, “Oh, it’s amazing living in Lisbon,” that is not true because you are going to have your own perception of things. It’s nice to research it on Google on computers, but sometime it’s nicer to go there. The other day a journalist came up to us and said, “Hey, take me to a kuduro party.” I said, “Look, there is no real kuduro party. There is not. What you are going to have is a party with kuduro songs playing.”

Conductor: Playing a variety of different styles of African music, you will have random kuduro songs played amongst some zouk songs, some kizomba songs, R&B, kuduro is part of the DJ craze basically.

Kalaf: …and that guy got really disappointed! He was really frustrated because he didn’t find it. And that is why when you read about these movements; look bigger than they really are. For us it’s quite cool and that’s how we grew up and we take it the way it is, we don’t add or subtract anything, it’s just the way you know, things are.

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