[7 May 2009]
Tackling dance music is unlike any other form of musical analysis. Instead of examining the philosophical topics broached or the complexity and strength of the musical composition, one aspect of dance music remains most important: is it danceable? Does it have a strong beat? Does the artist bring a unique voice to the endless torrent of copycat dance music flooding the airwaves of the world? On song after song, Buraka Som Sistema’s debut LP Black Diamond clearly answers a resounding “yes” to all of these questions. Black Diamond is a dance music opus, the Portuguese answer to France’s Daft Punk and Justice, a perfect blend of African, Carribean, and European techno, all placed inside a genre gaining immense popularity in Portugal: kuduro.
For the uninitiated, kuduro actually comes from Angola. It began by mixing African rhythms with genres such as soca and calypso, then later incorporating European stylings, as European music began to make more of an impact on Angolan musicians. Rather than being a world music genre that rejects Western tradition, it is an amalgamation of Western dance music and African percussion rhythms.
Given that Portugal colonized Angola during their period of imperialism, a large number of Portugal’s immigrants are from Angola. Settling in suburbs of Lisbon, they brought this musical style to Portugal. Now many Portuguese DJs and MCs are starting to specialize in the genre, adding a larger European influence to the blend. MC Kalaf and the production trio of Lil’ John (not to be confused with Lil’ Jon), Riot and Conductor rose to fame with their hit “Yah!”, which appears on Black Diamond. Gaining acceptance and support from artists such as M.I.A., they frequently tour Europe and made their way to the Coachella festival in California this year. In 2008, they won the MTV Europe Music award for Best Portuguese Act.
Riding on all of this steam, Buraka Som Sistema released this relentlessly energetic and uptempo album in America, hoping to make a splash. As hardly any of the album is in English, there will be a language barrier to cross, but the beats here are so strong that at least hipsters should catch on. The album begins with four of its strongest, most danceable songs, including “Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)”, which topped the charts in Portugal and peaked at #6 in the UK, and “Sound of Kuduro”, where M.I.A. carries the chorus. All four songs are at nearly the same exact tempo (“Aqui Para Voces” is slightly slower than the other three), but manage to carry very different moods. “Sound of Kuduro” is angry, defiant, and rebellious. With M.I.A. headlining, these emotions come across clearly, even if the verses are in Portuguese. The song, which wants to define kuduro, makes kuduro seem like the sounds of the underground, an image that could connect with many in the Western music world. “Aqui Para Voces”, on the other hand, is something slightly less aggressive, although still full of energy and speed.
As all of the songs buzz, crackle, and distort themselves, the album feels like the playlist of an underground radio station. As it continues, it gets more and more experimental. “Kurum” uses strange, tribal samples to carry the vocal melodies, while the beat and instrumental melodies combine to create a blend of Basshunter, Daft Punk, and Vybz Kartel. “IC19” puts a definite groove to undeniably techno melodies, allowing for more styles of dance than jumpstyle. Meanwhile, “Skank and Move” epitomizes the album’s hip-hop and Caribbean influences, with British rapper Kano providing the album with its only purely English track. “General” begins playing like a track straight out of an Amadou and Mariam album. They released perhaps the best African pop album of 2008, Welcome to Mali. After their initial definition and establishment of the kuduro sound, Buraka Som Sistema decides to exploit all of their influences by bringing them out for a track.
The two-part “New Africas” goes completely against convention. This is easily the most experimental section of the album. It proves that Buraka Som Sistema can make music to listen to, not just to dance to. In fact, without the aid of hallucinogenic drugs, no one can dance to the constantly shifting tempos and frenetic rhythms. It also closes the album, perhaps giving a sign of things to come. The end of the second part builds in typical techno fashion. But just at the point of climax, the album ends – proof that the party never stops with Buraka.
With the perfect mesh of club bangers, sonic experiments, and songs that fall just in between these two extremes, Black Diamond has everything a successful dance album needs. The language barrier will undoubtedly and unfortunately hinder the trio in much of America, but it seems that their ride to stardom in Europe has only just begun. It may be a bit premature, but if anything beats this for best dance album released in America in 2009, it had best reinvent the wheel.