African music has been so heartily embraced by today’s indie world that it’s hard to even remember the old days of scratchy field recordings, obscure French record labels, and sheets of liner notes written by Western ethnomusicologists. These days, African street musicians roll with Western indie rockers, and musicheads in the US and abroad are influenced by a whole slew of new sounds coming out of Africa. Buraka Som Sistema are a microcosm of this new system of musical dissemination. Inspired by African immigrants living in European ex-colonial countries, Portugal in this case, and supported by European labels and distribution, select African artists are now gaining exposure to audiences outside their region.
This is the context through which Buraka Som Sistema come in. The group has an interesting story, fusing the little-known kuduro genre of dance music from the South-Central African nation of Angola (a former colony of Portugal) with European techno. Kuduro (meaning “hard ass”) itself comes from Angolan DJs taking on Western club sounds, so it’s not like they’re remixing traditional music here. It’s kind of like Dengue Fever’s story: a group of Western indie heads discover an obscure and intensely vibrant genre of immigrant dance music right in their own backyard and dive in head first, collaborating with artists from the culture they’ve fallen in love with. As a result, Buraka Som Sistema work well: we get music that’s familiar enough to be palatable, but strange enough to be intoxicating.
On their new album, Komba, the beats are hard. Hard and deep. “Hypnotized,” despite its slightly annoying sample, has a bare-knuckle boxing feel, all adrenaline and zigzagging beats. Opener “Eskeleto” is easily the strongest on the album, thanks partially to Nigerian/British rapper Afrikan Boy. I’m reminded of the French expression “La goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase” (“the drop of water that breaks the vase”; the French equivalent of “the straw that breaks the camels back”), as it feels like Buraka Som Sistema have shattered the standard four-on-the-floor techno sound by introducing African rhythms, taking Euro-techno and adding just enough new sounds that the beats spin out and break into angular shapes. “Candonga” nails this style, bringing in slightly syncopated percussion to throw the techno beats off track and to move the music away from the expected. Komba is an album informed by African music, but beholden only to the dance floors that birthed the band.
Buraka Som Sistema aren’t new to the scene, this being their second album. They’ve previously collaborated with M.I.A. and Diplo, both old hands at breaking new, obscure sounds from the world’s dance clubs. Kuduro is also getting picked up by the mainstream, with the song “Danza Kuduro” by French-Portuguese produer Lucenzo getting featured in the film Fast Five. Hell, Buraka Som Sistema’s “Sounds of Kuduro” video with M.I.A. has 4.5 million views. But Buraka Som Sistema don’t have the Latin music vibe of the many other Angolan kuduro producers, like Os Lambas. Angolan DJs’ remixes of Latin styles may have birthed the genre, but Buraka Som Sistema are traveling a more avant-garde path. On Komba, their beats are deeper, darker, and more powerful than before, pointing the way towards a new direction for the band and, consequently, their audience.