Echoes from Afar
LISBON—On a warm, moonlit fall night, the band Buraka Som Sistema took the stage at an outdoor festival here. Andro Carvalho, known as Conductor, shouted out lyrics while Blaya, the band’s high-octane frontwoman, leapt around in sparkly short shorts.
“From Portugal to the world!” Kalaf Angelo, another vocalist, called out to the crowd, which ranged from pre-teenagers to retirees, all dancing to the intense beat.
Founded in 2006 by two club kids from Lisbon, the band mixes Kuduro, a strain of Angolan dance music born in the late 1980’s, with electronic music and some Caribbean inflections. In a country better known for its mournful fado music--and for the general gloom induced by the euro crisis--the band reveals a side of Portugal and of Europe as a multiethnic musical melting pot. This is post-colonialism you can dance to.
“They’re the opposite of fado,” said Vitor Belanciano, a music critic at Publico, a Lisbon daily.
This five-member group, which has toured worldwide, released its latest album, “Buraka,” on iTunes and on CD in September. The well-known Lisbon street artist Vhils was a co-director for the video of one of its hit tracks, “Stoopid.”
When they were growing up in Amadora, a lower-middle-class suburb of Lisbon, the band’s Portuguese founders, Joao Barbosa, 34, who goes by Branko, and Rui Pite, 36, who goes by DJ Riot, used to hear African beats coming out of car windows. As teenagers, they fell into Lisbon’s club scene, coming of age in the Europe of open borders and low-cost airlines that made it easy to travel to hear new sounds, and in the world of Myspace, YouTube and now SoundCloud.
They named the group after Buraca, a working-class section of Amadora with a large population of immigrants from Angola and Mozambique, former Portuguese colonies, and spelled it with a K because it seemed cooler. (The group’s full name means Buraca Sound System.) They found new sounds through friends and bootleg Kuduro CD’s that they came across in Lisbon. “The sound was generated in the city,” said Mr. Angelo, 36, the vocalist, who moved to Lisbon from Angola to study when he was 17.
“Even though this is very local, it has a global appeal—it’s communicating and it’s talking to different scenes,” he added, speaking in the band’s small studio in downtown Lisbon. “The Rio de Janeiro scene via the Jamaica scene--all those movements somehow made sense on a big scale. For us, rhythm was one part of that chapter.”
The band has toured the world, including Angola, Mozambique, Latin America--where it played its largest concert yet, to an audience of 150,000 in Bogota, Colombia—Moscow, Japan and the United States. And it holds regular dance parties at Lux, the historic Lisbon club, of which John Malkovich is an owner.
They search the web for new sounds from South America and Africa (lately, Ghana and Nigeria), listening for fragments and chord progressions that could become the basis for new songs. Recently, they’ve been inspired by what they call Zouk Bass, an electronic variation of French Antillean zouk music.
Buraka Som Sistema “is a typical example of world urban music, music being created, being mixed and developed in suburbs of big European cities,” said Marc Benaiche, founder of Mondomix, a Paris-based online world music and culture magazine. “It’s a very genuine and very new mix and it’s why, in a way, it works very well,” he added of the band. “It’s a music which is talking more and more to young people because young people themselves are more and more of mixed ethnicity.”
Since the euro crisis started in 2009, thousands of young people have left Portugal to look for work abroad, including going to former colonies like Angola and Brazil. Investment from Angola has been helping prop up Portugal. In many ways, Buraka Som Sistema reveals through music how the developing world is giving a jolt of energy to Europe.
“In Europe, we’re managing the fade-out vibe,” Mr. Barbosa said. The band still stays true to its Lisbon roots and influences: Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde.
Mr. Angelo said: “Lisbon is quite unique. The whole aesthetic. The dance, the colors. The city has all these secret sounds.”
Self-aware and self-effacing, the members of the band have an easy camaraderie. They all grew up middle class and come from a generation generally at home in its multiple identities. Mr. Pite’s father, who is half Indian, is from Mozambique, and his mother is Portuguese. Mr. Carvalho’s father is Angolan, and his mother is Cuban; now 34, Mr. Carvalho spent part of his childhood in Cuba and moved to Lisbon at 18. He’s now obtaining a passport from Cape Verde, where his wife is from. “He’s like the third-world Jason Bourne,” Mr. Barbosa said, teasing him.
Buraka received a huge boost in 2007 when M.I.A., the British-Sri Lankan star, called the band, asking for advice about the Angolan music scene. She wound up recording a song with it, “Sound of Kuduro,” which has had nearly eight million views on YouTube. This year, Adidas used one of the group’s songs in an advertisement for sneakers, timed to the World Cup in Brazil.
The band’s three albums and one EP have sold more than 100,000 copies combined, but most of the members’ income comes from live performances. As is true of many musicians today, the wide availability of free music online has made it difficult for them to make a living from their recordings. Mr. Pite, Mr. Barbosa and Mr. Carvalho work as D.J.s on the side. Mr. Angelo writes a newspaper column for Publico and is also writing a novel.
Blaya, 27, whose name is Karla Rodrigues, teaches her high-energy dance moves to classes of women trying to stay fit. She has become a minor celebrity among teenage girls in Portugal. After the outdoor concert, many sought her autograph. “You’re so pretty, and you dance so well,” one star-struck girl said to Ms. Rodrigues, who is Brazilian and has pictures of her grandparents tattooed on a well-toned thigh.
From the world to Portugal.
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