Kuduro’s International Wave

If Os Kuduristas is problematic, there’s no one to blame for its existence but perhaps us, the international community and the media.

Photo: Marc Wathieu

Earlier this month, I had the rare opportunity to throw on some of my favorite Kuduro tracks at full volume in back-to-back succession as part of the first Os Kuduristas showcase at the iBomba party at Bembe in Brooklyn. (Listen and download here.)

The Os Kuduristas brand arrives in New York on the back of a wave of international attention afforded the Kuduro genre, with little credit given to the Angolan originators of the sound. The tour is an attempt to rectify that lack of recognition by promoting Kuduro as a distinctly Angolan phenomenon, which incorporates local fashion, dance, music, and other elements of urban Angolan lifestyle. As a nationalist project, Os Kuduristas does not come to us without its share of controversy. However, it does mark an interesting chapter in the game of international identity politics, as an African nation (in the form of a private company) takes a page out of the U.S. State Department’s playbook, and taps into a socially marginal youth culture to assert its belonging in global society.

I first became aware of Kuduro when searching out Angolan Hip Hop on the Canal Angola website back in 2006 (I hadn’t realized it then, but my first exposure was through a Jamie Foxx routine). I was introduced to it as a ghetto music, rejected by the upper classes in Luanda, and wildly popular amongst youth living on the margins of the city’s socio-economic life. At that time Kuduro wasn’t huge on the international radar, but I was to soon become part of that wave of international bloggers, DJ’s, dancers, producers, singers, and young people around the world who would pick up on and promote the sound incubated in Angola.

In that initial international exposure, non-Angolans briefly entertained questions of origin and authenticity, as web-savvy Angolans who were experiencing Kuduro first-hand were still the central source of information on the culture. Frenchman Frederic Galleano was the first Northern DJ to venture to Angola to collaborate with people on the ground in Luanda. At that time, Galleano was quoted in interviews saying that the only real Kuduro comes from Angola. His project would draw some attention in Europe, and set the stage for the French mainstream integration of Kuduro in the wake of the Coupé-Decalé explosion in Paris.

The US-based record label Mad Decent did a National Geographic type podcast on the genre, and without any form of formal international distribution Kuduro started to enter the vocabulary of Internet-savvy young Americans and Europeans. I remember at that time it was often just characterized as the “next Baile Funk” in international media, and hipsters in the Northern capitals paid it some brief attention before moving on to the next black music from a strange and exotic place (like Chicago).

The first major international group who spoke of producing Kuduro was Lisbon-based Buraka Som Sistema, a group of mostly Portuguese young people who heard the sound from peers and neighbors in their multicultural and cosmopolitan city. Buraka Som Sistema would come to define Kuduro for much of the genre’s audience outside of Africa. DJ Znobia was also an early star, and he would even appear alongside Buraka Som Sistema on a Mad Decent produced EP. But it was actually Costuleta, the Angolan amputee based in Paris who spread the genre across the rest of Africa, and beyond Northern hipster circles.

(Children in Nimba County, Liberia singing Tchiriri)

With his song Tchiriri, Costuleta enjoyed Macarena levels of fame in the Francophone world, but this success didn’t come along without its own share of controversy. Oddly concerned with authenticity himself, Costuleta’s hit was allegedly a cover of a song performed by Magnesio, an artist still based in Angola.

The growing international attention was perhaps unprecedented for Angola, and probably caught a few people off guard, causing some Angolans to react adversely. Specifically, I  remember hearing complaints that Cape Verdians didn’t do real Kuduro, or that Buraka Som Sistema wasn’t really a Kuduro band. But, I also remember at some point seeing some Buraka Som Sistema’s songs near the top of the Canal Angola charts so there was definitely a transnational conversation going on. Also, by this time people like DJ Marfox and his crew in Lisbon were running their own Kuduro clubs, and crafting their own underground sound, that strayed a little from the Luanda sound, but still carried a strong Angolan identity.

Kuduro would spread fast in the Lusophone, Francophone, and Spanish-speaking worlds through mainstream media channels. Major labels joined the production and promotion of artists such as Costuleta (who is signed to Sony France). And Buraka Som Sistema became one the world’s most popular touring bands. Kuduro also made its way into underground channels in unexpected places. I come across versions of Kuduro from independent artists in places as far removed from Angola as the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, and Martinique. In fact it has become so popular in the Caribbean that one can come across Kuduro bumping out of house parties when walking through Brooklyn on Labor Day Weekend.

Interestingly, Kuduro retained a marginalized status in Luanda during most of this initial international exposure. Costuleta recounts that being a music from the ghetto, it was associated with violence, and Kuduro parties were often the target of police raids. Considering this, it is interesting that soon Kuduro would start to take a more central role in the promotion of Angolan identity abroad, and Hip-Hop would come to bear the weight of government attacks.

Perhaps the first official international release of Angolan Kuduro of up-to-the-time hits from the streets of Luanda was Akwaaba Music’s compilation album Akwaaba Sem Transporte. It was at this time that Benjamin Lebrave, the owner of Akwaaba Music, did the above interview with Kuduro producer Killamu, which referenced the lack of material support he was receiving while being one of the most popular producers in Angola.

(Batida and Ikonoklasta’s political take on the genre)

The acceptance of Kuduro music and culture by more elite Angolan audiences coincided with the international success Cabo Snoop enjoyed after winning Best Lusophone song at the MTV Africa Music Awards. Snoop’s Windeck track had become a staple at parties across Africa and the diaspora. And, its high production value, brightly colored, global youth oriented video (skinny jeans and all) introduced the world to another possibility for the representation of Angolan reality, one beyond slums, war, and violence. When Fat Joe went to Luanda to perform at a concert he jumped on a remix of Windeck, as if to signal to the hometown crowd that the homegrown genre had officially arrived on the international stage.

Kuduro’s international wave would perhaps hit its peak when Puerto Rican Reggaeton superstar Don Omar hopped on the remix for Portuguese pop singer Lucenzo’s Danza Kuduro. Lucenzo and the Don really just appropriated the name more than anything. The lack of representative fashion, dance, or even musical style is perhaps a perfect example of the misappropriation of a culture by a major international music label.

It was in this particular context that Zedu dos Santos (Coréon Dú) decided to launch his Kuduro project. He had the means to put together a brand and push it in Europe and the United States. When talking to friends who were better informed about the project than I, I was told that perhaps not all Kuduro artists would get their proper due because they didn’t have a close relationship with the Da Banda or Semba (the companies Coréon Dú runs or is associated with). Are the artists involved with the Os Kuduristas project the most relevant or representative in Angola? Probably not. What’s more, the campaign doesn’t reveal any of the intricacies of urban life in Angola, or really document any of the politics that are lurking just underneath the surface. It’s an advertisement for a country, promoted as a brand, with a campaign built by a significant budget, and run by a private U.S.-based company. But, perhaps that’s what it takes in this day and age to be seen as an equal contributor to our contemporary global cultural conversation. If Os Kuduristas is problematic, there’s no one to blame for its existence but perhaps us, the international community and the media.

As a final note, the conversation around cultural ownership, authenticity, credit, and fairness isn’t contained to just Angola. Any nation or local community that doesn’t have the resources or influence to ensure the local integrity of its cultural production must do so on the terms set-out by more powerful nations; Jamaica and Ghana are notable examples. Wrestling with these issues is something that is very important to me, and remains a major motivator of my own intellectual explorations and artistic practices.

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