I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never visit Brazil or Angola. Flights from India cost a bomb. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese (or Umbundu or Kimbundu or Kikongo, the main indigenous languages of Angola). Brazil has a reputation for gun violence, Angola for land mines and infant mortality, and that can make it hard to find travelling companions.
Luckily, my BSNL internet connection has allowed me to traverse the fascinating cultural landscapes of the former Portuguese empire, from South America to Sub-Saharan Africa, without ever leaving my home in Chennai. As a result, I’ve become badly addicted to Brazilian and Angolan electronic music, despite the fact that I don’t understand any of the words.
It started when I bought and downloaded an album called Slum Dunk presents Funk Carioca in 2004. This was a compilation of an insanely bouncy new genre of dance music that had originated in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1990s. I’ve seen the aerial pictures of these neighbourhoods: sprawled across the hills overlooking the Guanabara Bay, they look, to me, rather bright and cheery at least in comparison to the drab bleakness of Indian slums like Dharavi. I’ve struggled to square those images with the unrelenting violence and drug crimes described in news reports, and portrayed so memorably in the film City of God.
Despite the law and order problem (or maybe because of it), the favelas of Rio are producing what Pitchfork magazine calls “the most unhinged club music on the planet”. It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Most Rio funk beats are borrowed or reworked from the 1980s genre known as Miami Bass—the early, stripped-down hip-hop of Afrika Bambaataa and 2 Live Crew—and then overlaid with Brazilian tamborzão drum patterns to give them a tropical flavour. A few goofy samples are thrown over the beat: accordion, brass band, or old-school synth effects. To top it all off, there’s an MC screaming his or her lungs out.
The rhythms of the raps are almost playground-simple, but they’re delivered with an infectious defiance that has the power to transform any room into a wild party pad. Following that first release, a number of other Rio Funk compilations have been released internationally, and the style has spread out of the slums to other Brazilian cities like São Paulo.
I’m not clear on the details of the lyrics, but they often seem to be highly focused on the rear portion of the female anatomy. There are apparently many words for “butt” in Brazilian Portuguese—for the same reasons, I suppose, that the Inuits have multiple words for snow. Take, for example, Deise Tigrona’s funk hit “Injeção.” Tigrona’s lyrics, which she delivers in a sort of distressed wail, translate roughly as: “When I go to the doctor, I feel a pain/He wants to give me an injection in my backside… Ai! The injection hurts when it penetrates.” Edu K’s guitar-laced anthem “Popzuda Rock ‘n’ Roll”, on the other hand, forgoes double-entendre: “Vai popozuda, requebra legal!”(Go big-assed lady, shake it good!) It’s no use trying to write demurely about this stuff. The music is absolutely soaked in sex. One of the popular dances to Brazilian funk, the surra de bunda (literally, “punishment by ass”), consists of a woman lifting herself off the ground like she’s going to do push-ups, resting her ankles on the shoulders of a seated guy, and pounding her booty into his face. It will probably take some time before this dance becomes popular on Indian television.
As wild as this scene is, to my mind, there’s a strong competitor for the title of “most unhinged club music on the planet”, and it’s from across the Atlantic Ocean in Angola. This is the land from which the Portuguese slave traders kidnapped most of the black people who were brought to Brazil, so perhaps one could say it’s the motherland of many of Rio’s faveleiros. The slave trade wasn’t the only tragedy that foreign powers have wrought in Angola’s history. For nearly three decades, from 1975 to 2002, the country was embroiled in civil war, with the United States and South Africa funding and arming one side while the USSR, China and Cuba provided support to the other. But for the last ten years, the country has been at peace, and awash in oil money. Luanda, the country’s capital, has become a bustling party town.
The soundtrack to Angola’s boom generation is kuduro—a word that reportedly comes from culo duro, “hard ass”, meaning you are supposed to hold your buttocks tense when you dance to it. Kuduro evolved from earlier Angolan styles like batida, and was also heavily influenced by Caribbean soca and zouk music. There’s a signature flow to the vocals, where five syllables are spat out not-quite-evenly over every two beats. Over the last few years, the DJing has gotten a lot more complex. Most of the beats are created using Fruity Loops—a versatile, freely downloadable software package that has allowed kids from the slums of Luanda to make cutting-edge African techno. In the hands of star Angolan electronic wizards like Killamu, DJ Znobia, and DJ Buda, it’s an incredibly potent weapon.
Some of the wildest kuduro beats are showcased on the phenomenal compilation Akwaaba Sem Transporte. Take Gelu-Six’s nine-minute anthem “In the Building”: DJ Buda’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink backing track incorporates samples of neighing horses, video-game lasers, squealing brakes, car crashes, movie dialogue, the opening riff of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and a positively manic sequence of kick-drum breaks.
Again, I rarely know what the MCs are talking about. A Portuguese-speaking friend tells me that many kuduro tracks are incomprehensible even to her because there are a lot of Kimbundu words mixed in, and Luanda’s street slang is famously mutable, with new words coming into existence all the time. Like in rap, most of the lyrics are variations on themes ranging from oppression and disenfranchisement to sex, partying, and selfhood. Names like Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Che Guevara are frequently used in the lyrics.
At least one MC, Puto Lilas (“Puto” roughly translates to “kid” or “dude”, and is commonly affixed to many male kudurists’ names) includes public service messages in his raps: his song “Lava a Mao” exhorts kids to wash their hands with soap and water so they don’t get gastroenteritis. The video is stylish and hip, with some intense fashion and very sexy dancing.
As with Brazilian funk, international ambassadors have played a big part in popularising kuduro outside its country of origin. The Portugal-based group Buraka Som Sistema, from the locality of Buraca in Amadora (near Lisbon), was one of the first; their 2007 track “Yah!”, featuring the earthy-voiced, stunningly beautiful Angolan-Portuguese MC Petty, brought kuduro to the attention of European audiences. French DJ Benjamin Lebrave, who runs a label called Akwaaba Music, has been busy publishing and promoting urban music from up and down the west coast of Africa, including Angola. In 2007, the British-Sri Lankan star M.I.A. travelled to Luanda, collaborating with local artists Puto Prata, DJ Znobia, and Dama Saborosa on the track “Sound of Kuduro”.
Many of my favourite tracks in both genres of music feature women MCs. Call me shallow if you will, but I’m a guy who likes his pop divas loud, brassy, and dark-skinned. There certainly aren’t many of those to be found in India, where the singers are usually hidden from view, heard only through the pouty lips of wispy actresses who look like they bathe in vats of cosmetic bleach. Even in the U.S., it seems like the wellspring of tough blues-women and feisty lady MCs has dried up. Watching a video performance by Tati Quebra Barraco, Noite e Dia, or Dama Saborosa is a welcome reminder that there are places in the world where women can be megastars without looking like fair-skinned Barbie dolls, and without acting like fainting violets or strip club pole dancers.
Unfortunately, India doesn’t have a lot of cultural exchange with the Portuguese-speaking world. As much as I enjoy virtual musical tourism, I would love to see one of these acts live on stage.
Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “Cheeky Rhythms”.