Fofa Ndo kuduro show in Luanda, June 2012 (Photo by Dj Satelite)
A couple of months ago I wrote about the emergence of kuduro in Lisbon as a symptom of the increasing socio-economic collusion between Portugal's mainstream media and the cultures of its urban peripheries. I was fortunate enough to visit Luanda shortly after, and now wish to indulge into another round of kuduro goodness, this time looking into its recent evolution in Angola, where it was born. While we're looking at Luanda, I will also shed some light on another powerful musical phenomenon in Angola, which is in many ways stealing the spotlight: house music.
Without retracing kuduro's detailed history, let's start with a quick recap: Angolan electronic beats existed by the early 1990s, before the name kuduro was coined, and before the dance existed. It is interesting to note that the genre started as a type of domestic Angolan techno or house, on top of which people eventually started to sing or scat, then rap.
Today, in Luanda, most creators of kuduro follow a very specific definition: the batida needs to be set at 140 beats per minute, and it is made for MCs - kuduristas - to rap over. If the tempo is different or if there are no rhymes, most people I spoke to would say it's not kuduro.
Others might define kuduro more broadly. I spoke to my good friend Toké, who for a long time was practically the only source of Angolan kuduro online, via his abundant blogs, such as Kuduro Files. He sees kuduro quite differently, and adds the prefix ku- to practically anything that comes out in Angola. Ku-house, ku-dance, etc. I have no legitimacy in defining the genre, but for the sake of clarity, I will refer to kuduro today as it is described by kuduro creators: 140 bpm batidas with raps.
As such, kuduro is not evolving much at all musically: Fruity Loops remains the weapon of choice to conceive the beats, new producers are coming in and old ones are fading out, but overall the batidas pick from the same pool of preset sounds, they are put together in the same way, and I did not notice a significant shift in the way they sound.
Please note I am staying as open as possible to musical shifts in batidas: for example if we were looking at coupé décalé instrumentals, I would acknowledge their evolution since 2002 towards a more poppy dance sound, with more synths and David Guetta-esque build-ups. If you listen to a DJ Arafat track from the early 2000s and from today, you will hear a difference. Most people not fond of coupé décalé may not hear it, but it's there. I don't see such a change with kuduro batidas in Angola, beats from 2012 sound like beats from virtually anytime in the past decade.
Lyrically, while kudurists seem to compete in the speed of their delivery, the hooks are still meant to invade your brain as quickly as possible, so they remain simple and repetitive. When I was in Luanda the current hit was Vamos Là:
So in my experience, kuduro - again, as defined by its creators - is stagnating musically. But limiting this quick snapshot to musicality alone here would be missing the point entirely: kuduro might not have evolved much stylistically, but recognition of its cultural significance or legitimacy has. If you watch the following video I did with Killamu in May 2009, you will hear him lamenting over the lack of recognition kuduro faced in Angola. 2009 was a time when Buraka had started to make waves overseas, and kuduro figures such as Killamu were well aware of this success. He was hoping Buraka's pioneering moves would change kuduro's perception at home - but it still hadn't.
Today, Killamu is much more at ease, as are most figures in the kuduro game: everybody agrees kuduro is more accepted today than it has ever been. One testimony to this evolution is the fact that my last trip to Angola was to answer an invitation to participate in the Kuduro International Conference, an event which gathered scholars and activists from Angola and around the world. The event was thoroughly featured on the evening news several nights in a row in Angola. The Angolan government has also indirectly decided to spread Angolan culture globally by using kuduro: the I Love Kuduro concert series last year was the first round of this global push; the next round is coming later this year in the form of more concerts and workshops in various metropolises, and a stronger blog presence online.
Fofa Ndo kuduro show in Luanda, June 2012 (Photo by Dj Satelite)
Despite this, though, there are still people in Angola who refuse to recognize kuduro as a cultural expression worth noting. It is difficult for many among the cultural elite to accept that a genre associated in many ways with the musseque (settlements housing the urban poor in Luanda and other large towns), may be more culturally relevant than perennial genres such as semba or kizomba. Outside of the country however, it is more clear that no genre defines Angola today like kuduro. Consequently kuduro carries a heavy symbolic role for Angola and its representation abroad, and can therefor be exploited to reflect what the powers that be wish to show of their country. It will be very interesting to see how kuduro's newfound cultural significance will allow it to grow and evolve.
But back to music: I am at first a music lover, and since I was not all that impressed with kuduro's musical evolution, I had to look elsewhere for sonic satisfaction. Before traveling to Luanda, I had recently spent numerous evenings of exploration on Soundcloud, and I was blown away by the amount of Angolan house music I had heard. Everyday I'd log on, I'd discover new accounts with new songs, sometimes by the dozen. Remixes and edits of South African or Lusophone hits, original songs, a lot of tracks incorporating traditional ceremonial vocals, from traditional Masai or Swahili rituals to classic Olatunji samples: clearly there was a house music renaissance in Angola, and young producers were hungry to give virtually any type of sound an Angolan house twist:
But I'm often wary of online music buzzes, I've witnessed online noise fade into oblivion more than once before. So I was eager to arrive in Luanda and see what's up. And I am happy to say the online profusion of house music was nothing compared to the major smack on the head I received upon arrival in Angola: house music there is simply enormous. A genre that was practically absent just three years ago during my last visit can now be heard virtually anytime, anywhere. On my last day I witnessed a teenage girl's birthday across the street from where I was staying: from 2pm till late, house music ran the joint, and everybody was getting down, the teenagers, their parents, even their grandparents!
Initially, I believe house music appeared as Angolans came back from South Africa or Namibia, where house music has been a major musical force for a few years now. So South African hits started to make their way into Luanda's clubs, then gradually Angolan producers started to give house a try, first by creating more percussive edits of SA jams, and eventually by creating their own sound. DJ Djeff and DJ Jesus are instrumental in this evolution, as are DJ Silyvi, DJ X-Trio, Renato Xtrova and a growing army of talented beat-makers.
What is interesting to me is I feel that kuduro's musical creativity stops where house music's unstoppable growth starts. There are so many sub-genres, so many new producers, house music is becoming the growing creative force in Angola's musical panorama. As I said earlier, kuduro producers tend to be reluctant to opening the genre up musically, which is a bit unfortunate, since, from a non-Angolan perspective, kuduro is a much fresher sound, it is much more unique. Angolan house is amazing, but it is not nearly as revolutionary.
What I hope for is a fusion of the genres, or rather, to see boundaries disappear. Kuduro makers are not the only ones with blinders on; a lot of house heads I met are completely closed off from kuduro. One unusual connector I've already written about is DJ Satelite, who is one of the few versed in both scenes. Another producer I deeply respect for his creativity and open mind is Tchoboly, whom I've also written about. I believe it is artists like these who may pull Angolan music forward in coming years. One foot in kuduro, one foot in house, and probably a few other limbs up in other genres, both inside and outside of Angola.
While I salute kuduro's social and cultural recognition in Angola, I hope it doesn't hamper its makers' creativity. If kuduro doesn't evolve, it will become a tool for advertisers or politicians to spread messages. And that's just not what music is about now, is it?