Trailblazing Afro-dance DJs Buraka hit pause in new era
Born in the cultural crossroads of Lisbon, Buraka Som Sistema shook up the global dance music scene and won a cult following by weaving infectious African rhythms into electronica.
A decade after Buraka Som Sistema’s first release, the DJ collective finds itself in a drastically changed musical landscape, with artists everywhere able to upload music instantly online, and the group has decided to call an at least temporary hiatus.
Buraka Som Sistema plans to wrap up a global tour on April 9 at New York’s Webster Hall and, after a farewell show back in Lisbon, to take time to reflect on the direction of world music.
“We don’t want to waste people’s time. There is so much music online and on iTunes,” said co-founder Joao Barbosa, who goes by the stage-name Branko.
The proliferation of music “makes me not want to put something out unless I think it’s essential to the world,” he told AFP.
While Buraka Som Sistema has developed fan bases in Europe and the Americas, the band is inextricably linked to Lisbon with its vast diaspora from former Portuguese colonies.
“It is somewhere between a European city and an African city almost, but there wasn’t any music being made based on that,” Branko said.
He recalled growing up in the midst of dance music with roots in Africa — funana from Cape Verde, samba from Brazil and kuduro from Angola — yet going out on weekends to see drum-and-bass DJs.
The synthesis, he said, created the blueprint for Buraka, an “urban world music that people have sort of failed to categorize somehow.”
– ‘From Buraka to the World’ –
The band’s name means sound system of Buraca, a heavily immigrant area in the Lisbon region, although the group stylized the spelling to a “k” to give an edge.
Starting off in Lisbon clubs, Buraka Som Sistema released an EP in 2006, “From Buraka to the World,” whose first run quickly sold out.
The group at first was most identified with kuduro, the festive Angolan music that cheered the country during its civil war and, much like hip-hop, is built on samples. One of Buraka Som Sistema’s four core members, Andro “Conductor” Carvalho, was born in Angola and had been a prominent kuduro producer.
But over three albums, the group experimented in more styles, notably zouk — accordion-led party music from the French Caribbean territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique — which Buraka Som Sistema infused with bass.
Branko said Buraka Som Sistema had already achieved a primary goal of bringing kuduro and other genres to a wider audience.
The rapper M.I.A. threw a new spotlight by teaming up with Buraka Som Sistema on the 2008 track “Sound of Kuduro,” recorded in Angola.
“The whole band shares a feeling that there is some sort of cycle closing,” Branko said.
“That is why we feel like it’s a good time to breathe in some other influences and other ideas, so we can bring something fresh back to the table,” he said.
– Not the Indiana Jones of music –
Yet Branko said he was searching for the universal in music, not necessarily hunting down obscure genres.
“It’s not like we’re Indiana Jones. We’re not sitting here and thinking of what city we’re going to conquer next; we’re here thinking about what music we like,” he said.
Global influences have increasingly been entering the mainstream. Diplo, who has worked with Buraka Som Sistema and emerged as a star producer, brought Indian and reggae hints to last year’s “Lean On,” which is the most streamed song ever on Spotify.
More recently, Diplo created a new tropical house sound for pop celebrity Justin Bieber.
Branko doubted that many listeners picked up on global elements behind the hits. And in an era of streaming and social media, artists have been forced to become “marketing businessmen” who produce and promote without stop, he said.
“Sometimes posting a stupid video of your trip somewhere is going to have a bigger impact than an actual song release,” he said.
Branko, who released a solo debut last year, said Buraka Som Sistema could decide it serves a more useful purpose through another medium, such as a television or radio show.
Yet Branko also saw greater democracy in music. Unlike a decade ago, young people anywhere in the world with a laptop can be DJs.
“That’s why I kind of feel like traditional ‘world music’ has become a thing of the past, even though there are a lot of festivals,” he said.
“People need to come up with a new term. I don’t think it’s been invented yet.”