Buraka Som Sistema aims to move body and spirit alike
On first impression, Buraka Som Sistema’s “(We Stay) Up All Night” seems just another club banger, its ominous synth intro leading into an archetypical house beat. And while mono-monikered singer Blaya’s Portuguese rapping is an exotic touch, when she dips into English it becomes clear that the song is a paean to the pleasures of the flesh.
If we’re interpreting “booty call” correctly, that is.
In the context of the Lisbon-based ensemble’s 2011 release Komba, however, the tune takes on another, arguably more interesting meaning. The album’s title refers to a weeklong Angolan ceremony for the dead, several of its tracks are built around African ritual drumming, and Buraka’s members are quite explicit about how their concerts can be spiritually as well as physically entrancing.
“We’re always playing with the known and the unknown—giving people something they can connect with, but also something that people have no idea is possible to listen to in a very posh or very trendy or very hipster club,” says poet and vocalist Kalaf, on the line from Buraca, the Lisbon suburb that gave his band its name.
Thus, the celebrants in “(We Stay) Up All Night” are likely partying with a purpose: sending a fallen friend or family member off into the afterlife, while also enjoying a drum-driven, dusk-to-dawn good time. Kalaf—who was born Kalaf Angelo in the Angolan city of Benguela—doesn’t specify how the song should be taken, but in his world-view the spirit and the flesh are not to be separated.
“In house music, it’s quite simple: there, the ideal is the loop, that hypnotic loop that goes on and on and on and on and on,” he says. “And if you listen to santeria or candomblé [rituals], if you listen to those drums, they also go with the idea of a loop, like when you get entranced. Your mental state goes beyond ordinary reality. Music has this power, and there are certain artists who definitely understand that power, understand that idea—and, really, it’s magical.”
Live, Buraka Som Sistema’s own brand of magic starts with two full drum kits, in addition to programmed beats. Its songs often draw on the rhythms of kuduro, Angola’s indigenous dance music, which are not necessarily foreign to North American ears. Komba’s title track, for instance, is built on a syncopated pulse that survived the slave trade to become a staple of Afro-Caribbean music. Over this percussive foundation, the Buraka instrumentalists add samples and often surprisingly abstract electronic touches, while the singers comment on everything from ritual scarification to, well, booty calls.
It’s a heady mix, but Kalaf cautions that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously—or, perhaps, that its playful and purpose-driven aspects are irretrievably intertwined.
“It’s dance music,” he stresses. “There’s always that pop element that makes it a little bit shallow. But when you really connect with it, you feel something deeper than just drums, just rhythm. It gives you something that touches your soul.”
Buraka Som Sistema plays Fortune Sound Club on Tuesday (July 31).