Buraka Som Sistema's Joao 'Lil' John' Barbosa
Published Mar 30, 2009In a very short while, Buraka Som Sistema have become the official flag carriers for the Angolan/Portuguese Kuduro movement. So what is Kuduro? Picture breakneck speed tribal BPMs, dirty-bass-driven dancehall rhythms and blaring MCs and sirens blasting off all over the place and you'll get an idea of where to start. Similar to Baile Funk but with an African flavour, Kuduro is the newest kid on the ghettotech block, thanks mostly to Buraka Som Sistema and globetrotting tastemaker Diplo. Their first full-length release, Black Diamond (featuring M.I.A., Deize Tigrona and Kuduro innovator DJ Znobia) has music critics re-evaluating what "world music" really is and has dance floors rumbling all across the globe. Talking over a crackling cell phone from their studio in Lisbon, Portugal, Buraka Som Sistema's Joao 'Lil' John' Barbosa talks to Exclaim! about Kuduro, Jean-Claude Van Damme and water guns.
Tell me what the beginning of Kuduro was for Buraka Som Sistema?
Well, we basically caught up with Kuduro in Lisbon in an early stage when it was still developing. First thing we heard were two songs, the two biggest hits that made Kuduro what it is today - that was around 1995, 1996.
So in 1995 to '96, the scene was already well established in Angola?
Yeah, it started off with guys just trying to make beats and make dance music inspired by all that was going on with house and techno music. Actually, the name Kuduro comes from a song made by a guy named Tony Amado - and that kind of became the name of the movement.
Okay, so I've read that the name Kuduro translates more or less to '"hard ass" - why hard ass?
I'm not sure. We're kind of living far away from the beginning of the story so I'm not really sure about the details on how the whole thing started. All I know is that it's somehow all related to Jean-Claude Van Damme dancing in the movie Kickboxer. There's a scene in the movie when he's drunk in a bar dancing and fighting - and I think that ended up naming the song that ended up naming the movement.
So what do you recall as the turning-point for Kuduro outside of Africa?
There were a couple of songs, the first songs with vocals, that we first heard in Lisbon and they were a little bit stupid too be honest. I didn't really go for it in the first place - it was really commercial and was being done for the wrong reasons. The Kuduro hype was happening in the mid-'90s and all those artists were coming to perform in Lisbon and they established the name of the movement really well and then the whole thing just faded out, disappeared completely. It went back to being only for Angolan people and for Angolans living abroad. From the beginning we knew that the concept of what they were doing was interesting but they were just doing it for the wrong reasons - we didn't enjoy what we were listening to but we liked the concept and we liked what we heard on the instrumental side of the music. We just kept our eyes and ears on top of what was going and we saw a couple of producers started developing the beat and being more creative and taking it to another level. One of the guys that was very important to us as an inspirations for us to dig deeper into Kuduro was DJ Znobia. We also got him on our album because for us he's a proper artist, he's not selling out, he's in his bedroom creating some crazy tracks and redefining dance music.
And that's when you guys jumped up and decided to get involved with Kuduro, right?
We couldn't ignore the movement and the first idea we had was to do a club night where we could play Kuduro in Lisbon. We just grabbed all the beats we had and found even more and created a library - we had to re-edit a lot of them and some songs had to be remixed to be able to play them in a way that made sense to people here in Lisbon. Obviously, the people in Lisbon grew-up with different references than the people in Angola. It was something we wanted to do because we wanted those songs to make more sense for ourselves. So we ended up doing this club night and people would not stop coming in and dancing and having lots of fun. It was a really sweaty, smelly club with a shitty sound system but everyone was very eager to jump on stage and show their dance moves or show their MC skills. Everyone wanted to show-off what they were doing. It was almost like all these people were hiding that side of themselves in the closest and when we decided to do this club night, everyone just appeared.
It was a success.
Yeah man! Everyone was hiding their dance moves at home and we just gave them the perfect opportunity to show them off! I think that really established a very special relationship with the crowd, especially a Lisbon crowd. We import much more music than we export or that we actually produce, so I think people have a triple-emotional feeling towards a song that has been developed in their city and with the references they know. It lasted for four nights and in the end we felt that we needed to take the project further and keep on developing it.
That's when you decided to form Buraka Som Sistema?
Well, that was the name of the night. Som Sistem means Sound System. What happened was that so many people jumped on stage to dance and MC and everything - that was the place where we ended up establishing connections with MCs and dancers and everything that eventually became our live-show and our first EPs.
It seems like there's a lot of similarities between Kuduro and reggaeton, dancehall, Baile Funk and Kwaito - where the music is born in one place and then taken to another where the productions become bigger - do you see these similiarities?
Yeah, definitely - I think it's a world movement because everything is changing so fast and you have access to all this stuff through the internet. It's possible to now move from different continents and different countries that you've never heard before and that has everyone thinking of and developing new ideas from all these great influences.
Your music is labelled as 'ghettotech' - so is Baile Funk, so is reggaeton so is Kwaito - that's a funny label because if the music is from a third world country it's immediately ghetto - how does that make you feel?
I think it depends on the artist to develop what they're doing and make it proper music for everybody to get into and without forgetting about all the references of where the music is coming from. I think the artist needs to be a part of the music and they need to be willing to take the music in a different direction.
The music you make is almost strictly in Portuguese, however, it's being played all-over the world. So how important is language to the music?
Well, it shouldn't be that important. What we try to do, and obviously I'm talking about what we're doing, is try to create context and things around our music that are strong enough and self-explainable and that should help the audience make sense of the songs even though you don't really know what's being said in the actual songs. The hope is you'll get the context and you'll get the concept and that whole package should be self-explanatory. Instead of being very objective and trying to be very obvious with the songs and make music in English or something like that. And we would like to work with English artists and I'm sure we will in the future. I think what we're trying to do is build a musical landscape that will allow for these collaborations to happen, regardless of English or Spanish or Portuguese or whatever.
I read about how you guys like to use the voice as a percussion element - tell me a bit about what inspired that and how do you do it?
All the Kuduro MCs in Angola are very creative with their flows and with the way they say all the words and the syllables and how they create their verses and that's definitely one of the ideas that we try to import to our music. We try and capture the voice from the recording point to the mixing point and try to make it sound as much into the song as possible. Its almost like when you were young and couldn't distinguish certain parts of a song you like, it was all the same sound to you and that's how we try to produce our songs as everything being a part of the bubble and the voice becomes part of the rhythm and fills in small gaps in the beat that the instrumental doesn't have. Even how we mix the vocal - we try to balance the whole thing - not too loud like you would in a hip-hop track - but all at the same level so it's part of the same bubble.
Let's talk about Black Diamond. It's become an introduction to Kuduro for the world. What were the feelings going into the studio? Did you anticipate that people would look at this album as the seminal Kuduro album?
Yeah, definintely - we would have to be very naïve if we didn't think about that. Because we think a lot about things before we go in to record and because we knew people were going to listen to the album in the way you're describing now. I don't think it was pressure in a bad way, it was good pressure and we had already released a few singles and a Portuguese EP that ended up travelling through the internet to everywhere. It's complicated because when you release stuff like that you don't get all the elements really explained to people, they'll just get a CD or MP3s and will just judge based on nothing more than what they're listening to. And I don't mind that, I actually love that. But when you're trying to do something a little bit more serious you need to deliver a whole package with artwork, videos, the whole thing. We had this pressure that we had to do something that would explain our music and ourselves out to the world - that was the only pressure we had making Black Diamond and that inspired us more to finish the tracks and create this album.
I keep reading about the live show and it sounds like it's quite the spectacle. Obviously the dancers and MCs from Angola have influenced the live show a lot but what other artists have influenced what you guys do onstage?
I grew up going to live shows and I knew what was really interesting and what wasn't. I remember that some shows had a huge impact on me. I remember the first time I saw the Prodigy live and I didn't even know them at the time and I remember standing there for over an hour watching the show without knowing any of the songs. And the way the whole show captured the crowd and got everyone involved - that's definitely an inspiration. One thing about the live show is to try to be as smashing and big as possible and try to make as big of an impact as possible. It really complicates our lives because it's seven of us onstage and travelling with us. We'll keep doing it this way because this is how we know how to get the people to react. In terms of the album, we put concept over everything. In terms of the live show we are all about putting entertainment over anything else. Oh and we bring water guns!