When I traveled to Luanda in 2009, the kudurists' frustration was very palpable: how could they, the originators of the genre, be left behind, while Buraka or even Costuleta reap the benefits of kuduro's increasing notoriety. Why do so few Angolans travel to Lisbon for shows?
I couldn't help but think of Paris and its former French colonies: any successful Francophone African artist will sooner or later go to Paris to perform - that is if he or she isn't already based there. Entire genres even sprouted from Paris, in particular coupé décalé, which emerged in Parisian clubs around 2002. There has always been a dialogue between national francophone scenes in Africa and the African-Parisian melting pot. After coupé décalé appeared in Paris, it quickly spread to become the dominant genre in Côte d'Ivoire, and now, in turn, homegrown Ivorian artists travel to Paris to perform.
Paris is the only place where a sizeable community of Francophone African artists and musicians from all over the continent mingle and collaborate, so it's no surprise it plays a fundamental role for the continent's music. An example: Senegalese-born keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck jamming with Cameroon-born bassist Hilaire Penda and Ivorian-born drummer Paco Sery:
hilaire, cheikh Tidiane et Paco Sery door HilairePenda
So while I was in Angola, I asked myself if the same was true in Lisbon? Lisbon is home to immigrants from Angola, Cape Verde and Brazil, all musical heavyweights, as well as other less musically influential Lusophone countries such as Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé & Príncipe or Eastern Timor. Naturally I would expect Lisbon to be a very creative melting pot, even more so than Paris perhaps, because Lusophone music retains much more of a common Portuguese foundation than Francophone music: if you play music from Cape Verde or Angola to someone who doesn't know much about music, they will probably tell you "it sounds Brazilian". It doesn't in fact sound Brazilian, but the person is able to recognize musical similarities with Brazilian music. The same is not true of Francophone music, nobody will point out similarities between Congolese rumba, Peul and Mandingo music or Togolese agbadja. So given this natural musical foundation among Lusophone genres, Lisbon must be a ridiculously fertile ground for new music, right?!?!
Well as it turns out, it's not that simple. To understand how the Lisbon scene works - a place I've never been to - I chose to limit myself to one genre, kuduro, and see how kuduro came about and evolved in Portugal, if it incorporated elements from other nations and genres, where it fits in popular Portuguese culture, and if in turn its evolution has played a role back in Angola and other parts of the world.
First, a bit of history. As I mentioned earlier, I've never been to Lisbon so I asked people I thought were in an ideal position to school me. In particular I reconnected with DJ Marfox, born and raised in Lisbon's suburbs, kuduro fanatic since its inception, and - it also counts a lot - super nice guy. He tells me kuduro appeared in Angola at the end of the 1980s, but it only came up in Portuguese suburbs around 1993 - 1994. DJ Marfox remembers hearing Tony Amado's Gato Preto: "I was 4 or 5 years old and it felt like I was thunderstruck, it has made an impression on me until today."
Along with the music, Angolan immigrants introduced Portugal to the toque, the kuduro dance moves, which spread through Lisbon's suburbs like a wildfire. By 1996, kuduro could be heard in African clubs, thanks in part to DJ Amorim's support of the genre. In 1999 mainstream coverage spread with the rise of self-proclaimed "King of Kuduro" Rei Helder, and hits like Frique Frique and Felicidade. "Tracks that even today bring hysteria to any party when played" as Marfox points out. Here's a fantastic mix made by DJ Amorim in 1999:
Fast-forward a few more years and the world discovers kuduro through one Lisbon group: Buraka Som Sistema. Buraka's music is not in fact kuduro, at least not in the strictest sense. Kuduro is a big influence, and the one that set Buraka apart when they first came out. But their music draws as much from Western electronic club music. As Príncipe's Pedro Gomes puts it: "For most of their work Buraka start from a kuduro matrix, but they utilize a lot of other vocabularies, their music is more traveled, they use different musics and cultures, mold them into their tracks." I would personally add that the cleanliness of their sound puts them in the same category as most European electronic music producers, rather than kuduro innovators such as DJ Znobia or Killamu.
Since the Buraka-induced kuduro craze took over much of the media a few years ago, the attention has been shifting away from kuduro. It is no longer the new crazy sound DJs got so excited about. I've even jumped on that bandwagon and stated provocatively that kuduro is dead, in a recent piece about Angolan afrohouse.
The fact of the matter is: Kuduro is not dead at all, especially not in Portugal. But it has not benefited from much new attention because it has remained largely confined to Lisbon's periphery, the stomping grounds where it has been evolving since the early 1990s. This area is home to displaced immigrants who fled their native countries after the wave of independence among Lusophone African countries in the mid 1970s.
Although the situation in Portugal was not nearly as shockingly segregated as, say, apartheid South Africa, the lack of infrastructure and the suddenness of the influx of immigrants created a deep divide between central Lisbon - where Portugal's media shape the mainstream - and the periphery, where an almost autonomous culture has flourished from the juxtaposition of immigrant traditions.
African club in Lisbon
Portugal's kuduro producers grew up in this environment, but as the decades past, cultural differences blur, and the stigma around white Portuguese culture or black immigrant culture is fading significantly. This socio-economic evolution is the main reason why kuduro may finally get a break: there is no reason anymore for Lisbon's peripheral culture not to penetrate central Lisbon and the mainstream.
A perfect example of this evolution is the new Noite Príncipe party at Music Box, one of Portugal's most renowned clubs. At the first installment of the party a couple of months ago, Pedro tells me "there were only about 20 people from peripheral Lisbon, mostly guys, producers. They were surprised to see a packed room going wild, white people, city people, going wild for music they have been producing for the last few years." Fast forward one month, and there are now 70 people from the periphery. "Everybody was dancing. it wasn't blacks trying to dance like whites, or vice versa, everybody was doing their thing, everybody was ecstatic, very happy. There was no "us and them […] It was the first time I saw that during a batida kuduro DJ set in central Lisbon"
Contrary to what I assumed while in was in Luanda, kuduro has remained quite marginal for a long time in Portugal. I assumed it played in mainstream clubs, but I was dead wrong! I find it ironic that while much of the international focus has shifted away from kuduro, the genre is now making serious inroads into the Portuguese mainstream. So Lisbon is in fact a serious melting pot, but one that until now only prospered locally, within the periphery, without real outlets to grow further. I find it incredibly exciting that kuduro is taking this peripheral culture into the mainstream, and I can only hope that along with kuduro's spread, the Portuguese embrace their cultural diversity, allowing in turn for other musical hybrids to emerge and prosper. Now that Fruity Loops has enabled for diverse cultures to unite, I hope second or third generation descendants of Angolan, Cape Verdian, Bissau-Guinean or other Lusophone immigrants pick up guitars and drum kits and create music along the lines of this collaboration between Brazilian MPB artists Marisa Monte and Carlinhos Brown, with Angolan semba legend Bonga:
It's all about building up cultural infrastructure in underserved communities: if kuduro can help bridge the gap between central Lisbon and its peripheries, inject visibility, success and cash, if it can give real outlets for the periphery's culture, there is no saying what may come out of Lisbon in future years. Keep your eyes peeled!