Reissue label Soundway gets into modern dance music, and they're off to an excellent, noisy, relentless start.
Near the end of Batida’s vaguely sinister song "Ka Hueh", some guy helpfully sneers the word “Freestyle!” Frankly, it’s hard to tell what he means by that.
The song itself is jerky kuduro, the "hard-ass" club sound of Angola and Portugal, Angola’s former colonial benefactor/oppressor -- the relationship between the two countries remains even more complicated than kuduro’s beats. Portuguese poet Ngongo chants the hook, sounding a little like a lounge singer. Batida mastermind DJ Mpula tricks out the beat with a kaleidoscope of echo and FX, including what sounds like a bunch of oversized resonant fork tines jangling together in space. Like everything else on Batida’s self-titled debut album, "Ka Hueh" is magnetic and hypnotic, but it doesn’t have much to do with freestyle rapping or the Latin freestyle pop of Lisa Lisa and Exposé. Nor does "Ka Hueh" seem a suitable accompaniment to swimming or wrestling.
No, Batida’s Free Style is all about mixing up genres and voices into fiery everything-music for clubs. Throughout Batida, DJ Mpula samples a stack of ‘60s and ‘70s semba music, Angola’s crystalline three-chord guitar pop, and contrasts it with stern kuduro beats, most notably on the joyful first single "Alegria". Absorbing that contrast in your body is like finding warmth and humanity amid the concrete deathscape, or like Wall-E discovering his first plant -- it’s a beautiful effect. And not an unprecedented one: last decade Baltimore club DJ Lil Jay livened up his Operation: Playtime mix with a similar sound, Samir’s lovely "Club Africa". Like Baltimore house and Brazilian baile funk, kuduro music can intimidate and punish, but it can also tantalize you with touches of beauty that gain power from their harsh surroundings. You appreciate when kuduro at least tries to make you happy.
Besides using blissful Afropop, Batida also imitates beats from Cuban son ("Saudade") and Dominican merengue ("Cuka"), along with skiddy electronic buildups from Fatboy Slim. Especially smart was Mpula’s decision to hire MCs. Where the kuduro collective Buraka Som Sistema mostly slices and dices human voices, weaving the bits in and out of songs, Mpula uses the live rhythmic smarts of his rapping friends to create another layer of interest. And really, unless you speak Portuguese, the interest is just gonna be rhythmic though, according to interviews, topics include poverty, revolution, and music. Like Ngongo, Lisbon’s Bob Da Rage Sense is swanky and laid-back. The Angolan MCs, on the other hand, are tense and tight, their chewy voices taunting the beats and competing for attention with the DJ’s laser sounds. Dama Ivone, Ikonoklasta, and Sacerdote -- a woman and two men, it’s worth noting -- tear up their tracks and deserve to be heard far and wide. And hey, even The Economist just ran an article on Angolan rap, so you know it’s hot.
Batida marks the Soundway label’s first foray into new music since they’re primarily known for reissues. They’re off to an excellent start. DJ Mpula has dug his share of crates, but he convincingly ties his archives into the musical present. Only occasionally does this music sound like old guitar pop roped to an ill-fitting beat. More often, Mpula fundamentally transforms his source material -- as in "Allegria", when sample dissolves into sample, choirs appear out of nowhere, and the textures shift like a dream. It’s an uneasy early-morning dream full of noise and relentless beats and freestyle, whatever that means.