interview by RJ Cubarrubia
photos by Hilary Harris
After releasing one of 2008’s best music videos, gaining near universal critical praise with their debut album (including an MTV Europe award), and tearing apart the most talked about set of Coachella, Lisbon, Portugal’s Buraka Som Sistema is ready to take the US by storm. Unlike the majority of today’s electro-bangers lifted off of countless blog remix contests, producers, DJs, and multi-instrumentalists DJ Riot, Lil John, Conductor, and Kalaf cite the Angolan and Portuguese phenomenon of kuduro as their main influence, bringing the originally African street sounds to the club. After their KEXP in-studio, I met with DJ Riot and Conductor to discuss their home, becoming friends with Diplo and M.I.A., and the background of kuduro.
The big thing you guys are known for is this kuduro sound. Where did it originate and why is it so important to you as a group?
Conductor: We grew up in Lisbon and if you live near the suburbs, you can hear a lot of kuduro because there’re a lot of immigrants from Angola living around us. And we weren’t present or too much into the movement itself but the music was always around us, so we wanted to pick up that sound and try to mix it with things that we’ve listening to since forever.
DJ Riot: It’s kind of the same thing when you’re in Rio de Janeiro, with people passing by in cars playing baile funk. You may not live it 100 percent, but it’s always there.
So you took this type of African music and brought it to a club?
Conductor: Yeah, it’s not that traditional in Africa, you know? It’s more in the urban scene. It’s not even that old.
DJ Riot: It’s African kids making techno.
It’s reflected in your name, but how much does your suburb in Lisbon and your home as Portugal influence what you do?
DJ Riot: Like 150 percent! For many years, Portugal imported lots of music from other countries. We had some sort of lack of creativity or something, especially in the 90’s. That’s why we grew up on Seattle’s rock scene. I mean, everybody did, but it was quite big in Portugal. For example, in Spain, they would get their Pearl Jam and their Nirvana and their Mudhoney, but they would get that specific CD or that hip track. In Portugal, we couldn’t get that. People were always trying to look for it, like really hardcore crate digging. So I think now, Lisbon has evolved into its own scene, and with all the software and the new tools that a musician can use and kids trying to make music in their own places and in their rooms and stuff like that, it’s created a small Lisbon scene, a very interesting music scene, so now you can really feel like you’re surrounded by musicians and producers and singers from a “scene”. Now you can call it a scene, so you’re constantly inspired. It’s like a novelty to us; it’s like something we’ve only felt since around 2000, being surrounded by musicians that you can look up to or compare music with, so Lisbon inspires us like 150 percent.
Because you’re from a different area of the world that not as many musicians come from, is it different approaching the music scene in general? You guys made friends with Diplo and M.I.A. but is it different spreading the word because of where you’re from?
Conductor: Honestly, music works a lot in circles and as soon as you get into a circle of musicians, even when you don’t want to, you start spreading yourself and start spreading your word.
DJ Riot: You don’t get to choose that, I don’t think.
Conductor: You do your job, you do your music, and if the music is good and you really stand for it, people will understand and you’ll have a circle of people supporting you.
DJ Riot: The hard part about it is that there aren’t many examples of Portuguese musicians making it in pop or underground or bassline music or whatever. It’s always about world music and stuff like that. So the hard part is being the first ones, you know? You know how things work in Portugal; I’ve been a musician in Portugal for like 10 years so I know the bits and pieces of Portugal’s music scene. But the world’s music scene, I have some idea, but only when we travel or sign deals with distributors in the UK or Switzerland or something like that, when you get to see different stuff from the music scene.
You guys got into a good circle though. How’d you find your way into a good group of people like Diplo and M.I.A.?
Conductor: When we decided we needed to do something with kuduro we started DJing one night a month and started producing some tracks. We got a spot in Sonar [Music Festival, Barcelona] and we handed Diplo our CD. He liked our tracks and started communicating with us through the internet.
DJ Riot: It’s a mixture between the internet scene and the “gotta be there” scene. If the music sucks, the people won’t like it anyway, but if it’s good and you care... Kalaf gave it to Diplo and he never thought it would be such a big deal.
Conductor: You know, honestly, we didn’t think Diplo was going to listen to it.
DJ Riot: At the same time, we had a guy called Sinden who was very interested in getting some tracks as well, and you start to exchange beats and remixes and stuff like that and then you’re off.
There’re definitely two sides of it: there’s the internet “this is my track” produced side and then there’s the “we’re in the club, let’s spin a live set for these people,” but I’ve noticed a big difference with you is that live performance. When you guys are live, it’s like you guys are a full band. How have you incorporated that and was it a conscious choice to perform differently?
Conductor: Well, we also come from a DJ background, so what we wanted to do when we started making our live show is make different than the album. In an album, you’re thinking about making tracks and maybe having a proper story and introducing everything. When you’re doing a live gig, you have to be as energetic as possible. You need to show people the vibe they need to get into. So we make like little sets with a lot of things going on for 10 or 15 minutes and we do the whole show almost like a DJ set.
DJ Riot: Call me old-fashioned, but for me, a DJ and three MCs is not a live band. So we started feeling guilty and thought, “If we were going to take this to another level, we have to take this to the garage.” We all had our own different bands before too: a hip-hop group, I had a semi-grunge thing before and I’ve played in some rock bands. We’re used to playing something. I’m a drummer, so now playing electronic percussion, it’s not that hard for me. And if you know how to do it, you might as well do it in your project anyways. We put on a big show and a very tiresome show as well, very exhausting and very intense.
Conductor: Thank you.
DJ Riot: We appreciate it.
Buraka Som Sistema’s latest album, Black Diamond, is out now on Enchufada Records. For more information, visit their MySpace page.