Dubspot Interview: Branko (aka J-Wow of Buraka Som Sistema) Talks African Rhythms + Inspirations

When Buraka Som Sistema started making noise in the mid-Aughties, they smashed parties and eardrums with a uniquely boisterous sound unfamiliar to most of the world. The Lisbon, Portugal-based team has been heavily influenced by an African dance music genre from Luanda, Angola called kuduro, and they can be largely credited with bringing the sound to the outside world. Kuduro is a raw, electronic beat-driven style with a tropical flair, complimented by riotous MCs. Although the group has always been closely identified with the kuduro sound, their particular brand incorporates a personal approach and a variety of other global influences. As the popularity of kuduro has waned a bit in its hometown, Buraka has begun to bring other global club sounds into their orbit. Branko (formerly known as J-Wow), one of the group’s core members who also runs their label Enchufada, linked up with Dubspot recently for an interview and discussed the elements behind a live show, how the members of the group work together in the studio, the politics (or lack thereof) of working with kuduro, and some fresh sounds coming out of Venezuela. - Mike Steyels

[Buraka Som Sistema - "Tira o Pe" | Enchufada, 2012]

Are Buraka Som Sistema’s performances strictly live?

Buraka is pretty much live all the time. We only do DJ sets on special occasions. When I’m by myself I always just DJ. With Buraka, I’m controlling a laptop running Ableton with two Novation controllers, an external synth, and an iPad. Rui (Riot) uses an electronic drum kit and we have three vocalists. In Europe we tour with a drummer. On the iPad I use TouchOSC to control Ableton when I walk around the stage and trigger samples. There’s a backing track with most of the stuff in stems and then I trigger samples on top and play the synth lines while the guys play over the beats, but it’s pretty flexible.

I loop parts of the songs whenever I want to or simply just make songs shorter if I’m not feeling it. We’ve been doing this for a while now, so everyone’s used to improvisation, they roll with it. But that’s not something that happens very often. We are mostly performing our actual songs, that’s our favorite thing to do. But we include little bits and pieces of other songs and artists to hype it up a bit sometimes, especially when we play in the US, because in festivals people aren’t really familiar with our songs, so there’s room to experiment a bit. In a festival when we have like an hour we’ll do a straight set as planned but if we’re doing our own show in a club, there’s almost always that extra half hour of random stuff. But not really in Europe because we have video attached and a drummer. The video guys that travel with us use a laptop with Modul8. They’re called Dub Video Connection. If we’re working on a new show, we’ll get all the music done, and then do a couple of rehearsals with video. But it usually takes a couple of shows to nail it. When we started touring Komba, our new record, we recorded the first four or five shows and watched it all together, then fixed all the little details and things that we didn’t like.

What is your production setup?

A bunch of computers with a bunch of software (laughs). But it’s true. We all use different things–it’s chaos. I’d say our main platform is Cubase, and then we use it all, like Fruity Loops, Ableton, etc. Three laptops and everyone pressing play at the same time so it syncs up. Pretty dumb, like 1,2,3 GO. We render all the parts and add everything to a Cubase session when we are finished. I personally start everything with Ableton because it’s easier and faster and it loads up quickly. But I never finish a song 100 percent on it. I always have to jump to a proper old school sequencer, and I can pretty much handle all of them, like Cubase and Logic. I can mess around with Pro Tools as well. In the mixing process we use some analog processors, especially compressors and reverb. I have two distressors, one TK Audio BC-1, a couple PF DBXs, and a TL Audio C1. But one of my favorite things in the world is an Eventide reverb unit. It just glues shit together.

How do you produce as a group? Do each of you have specialties?

It’s a chaotic democracy, but each one has our own comfort zone. There’s no limits or anything like that, it’s just that after a while you know a certain person is gonna be better then you at something specific. I’m good at synths and songs structures and Rui (Riot) is good on drums and all the tech aspects of the song. He can listen to the same kick drum for hours until it sounds like he wants it to. I can’t. Conductor is good at getting a song to make sense. He’s got the vocal approach to the songs. Like, he’ll listen to what we’re doing and ask us to add certain elements, or move things around, or create a vocal loop that just fits perfectly with the beat we’re working on. And suddenly a beat that was just a “beat” or “idea” becomes a cool Buraka song.

[Drake - "We'll Be Fine" (Branko's Bubbly Version)]

Are you very honest with each other?

You have to be. It was harder in the beginning but now we sort of developed a level of communication that makes things easier. You learn to interact with people when you’re working with them all the time, so you know what to say. And when something isn’t good, you have to say something about it because otherwise it’s just going to stay there and make the whole process longer. I always leave some room to let something roll a little and see where it goes because we trust each other as artists. Things usually end up fitting into place once all the elements are there. You add something, and somebody else adds something, then suddenly what was weird isn’t anymore. There’s not a lot of disagreements, where we’re like, “No, this can’t go in the song, I hate this.” That’s never happened. If something like that happens we just cut it out of the song. One of the reasons I like to make music alone, is because it’s just my opinion, and I don’t have to be thinking about how I’m going to say something or change it, because it’s just you in the studio. But then again, you get a vibe going in the studio with someone. You get to the same conclusions, but much faster. We never start something where you put a kick or a snare down and see where it goes. We always think about what we are going to do. Like, “let’s revisit this sound,” or “lets make something with a club vibe so I can use this synth that I made a preset for.” Or sometimes they start with a vocal idea. So there’s always a reason to start a song. That way there’s an objective for it, like you’re trying to get to a certain place. Maybe one of the reasons we don’t get into arguments is because we discuss the song before we start.

How do you feel about kuduro made outside of Angola (where it started)?

It’s a local scene, from Luanda, Angola. There’s enough people there making it. Everything that happens outside of there is a variation of it, and I don’t feel like it’s the same genre. Like if I started a Baltimore club track, I would think it was a Baltimore-influenced track, not a Baltimore track, because I didn’t grow up there and don’t have the same references. Kuduro in Luanda is now evolving into a deeper, housier sound. I think it’s because of South African influences. But an Angolan kid living in Lisbon, Portugal, who’s making kuduro now would probably have the same vibe as a couple years ago. The difference is because people would still relate to it in Lisbon, but not in Luanda because the scene changed. But there was never really a proper club scene for kuduro in Luanda, and that’s why I think the sound is changing there. There’s a lot of types of Angolan music, and people there consume a lot of music from America, South Africa, and Zaire. So a regular DJ set would have a lot of different styles, with maybe a half hour of kuduro in there. But there was never a kuduro club. I think people consume it more on MP3 players, not in the club. Kuduro raves are usually in someone’s backyard, where there isn’t a proper sound system.

How do you incorporate tracks with lower-quality production values into a set?

When we play Angolan kuduro in our sets, we usually re-edit them because the low end gets totally distorted in the MP3s. So we’ll just filter the song a little bit and add a different kick and restructure it so it fits into a normal set. That’s what we did since the beginning in like 2006.

What is kuduro’s role in Portugal right now?

Buraka changed it a bit and brought it to wider audiences and festivals and stuff, but it’s still a local culture from the suburbs. But more and more there’s kids like Marfox. He’s one of the only kids who has been able to bring a proper kuduro sound out of the suburbs of Lisbon. He’s got a residency in a Lisbon club called Music Box, and he plays our Hard Ass Sessions night sometimes. He’s been able to jump into a different world and develop a little following.

Do you think there’s an extra level of responsibility needed for more affluent artists working with a genre like kuduro?

Responsibility in something like music is never that simple. If I’m making music, I’m not thinking, “Am I offending someone?” or “Am I doing something wrong?” There’s no wrong or right in music. You just do it or you don’t. What happened with Buraka is that the whole thing started off as an idea for a club night, a residency at a place in Lisbon. We would play these kuduro re-edits that we did and all our remixes or whatever. And we’ve just been developing our own style and the way we approach it. And getting to know all sorts of different sounds from around the world and incorporating that stuff. It’s been a lot of levels that we’ve gone through, and I think the sound is becoming more and more personal. I think it kinda sounds like a band now.

Do you make an effort to work with Angolan artists?

We made a trip to Luanda in the process of making Black Diamond and got Bruno M, Pruto Prata and all those people on there. So yeah, we always knew it was important to have that sound present. No one in the group actually did vocals like that, so we felt it was an important part of what we were doing. In terms of culturally showing people something new.

Do you like the Angolan house movement?

I like it and consume it, but one of the things I liked about kuduro–especially the instrumental side of it–was that it sounded pretty lunatic. Like, there’s not a lot of difference between an old Znobia instrumental and an Aphex Twin song. That’s the sort of thing that drew me to it. And when you start to use a lot more references to a specific sound like deep house or whatever, you lose a little bit of the whole genius behind kuduro. The way that they built the loops and everything. It’s not that I don’t like it, but culturally, it’s less valid. We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if we started off as a deep house project. There’s better deep house projects being made than what is coming out of Angola, and that’s the fact.

[Who Wants Tuki documentary]

What other sounds are you listening to now?

I’ve been listening and playing a lot of tuki stuff from Venezuela. I think it’s really cool how they did it in the 90s. To me it’s like a tropical version of hardstyle, which is something I’d never imagine would exist. Like really heavy Dutch hardstyle but tropical at the same time. It’s weird and I love it. There’s a bunch of new kids picking that scene up again, two kids especially named Pocz and Pacheko. They’re gonna release a new EP on my label Enchufada. It sounds like a new vision on a movement. Now they understand what they are doing, but before they were just doing it. They made a documentary to go with the EP, which we’re helping to promote. It’s probably the first electronic music created in Venezuela, and a bunch of guys like DJ Yirvin and DJ Baba who made this unique sound. Everything started at 140 BPM and is pretty intense. There’s a big controversy surrounding it because everyone associated it with bad kids. In the end of the 90s, it died out a little bit. It all circulated on CD mixtapes, so there’s not a lot of it online, which is the most difficult part of the whole thing. But I’ve got a whole hard drive of that shit (laughs). And you don’t need to re-edit the stuff, it sounds ready to play. There’s a different culture behind it, people made it for clubs, it’s more like baile funk than kuduro. Not that it sounds like funk, but people played it at clubs. They had a whole sound system culture in Brazil where they fought over who had the biggest system, like Jamaica. So I guess South America is more into the club thing–especially the ghetto club thing–than Africa. Bazzerk, a Swiss label, is also working on a compilation of older tuki tracks. So the whole thing will be explained at the same time the music is brought out.

How do former colonies influence the music in Portugal as a country?

The good thing about Lisbon, or Portugal, is that there’s not a very aggressive tone–especially with people who grew up like me. There’s no discussion about incorporation of African or Afro-Portuguese people. There’s not a lot of sociology crap around it. People just get along because we are in the same school and fuck it, I just go to the movies with whoever was in my class. I don’t think about those things. We weren’t raised to try and make up for the difference. You just went to school and ended up connecting with people. I didn’t even know if people in my school were Cape Verdean or Angolan, you just didn’t talk about it. You were just growing up in the same city together and making stuff together and going to concerts, eating together and whatever. Just random stuff that kids do together. Lisbon is probably the city with the most Cape Verdeans in the world, more than their actual country. So in the process of that sort of relationship, you end up listening to music that you otherwise wouldn’t because you relate to and connect with them. It probably started off with my generation, but all that stuff is just here and you just consume it like anything else. Sometimes you have something like where the number one in sales is called The Summer of Kuduro or whatever. It’s more like a European dance approach to kuduro and others are original stuff. But it’s just here, and I don’t think anyone has ever analyzed it from a sociological point of view. There’s no questions about it, you just do it. When we started Buraka, I didn’t think about how long Kalaf lived in Angola, we just had this idea and went to the studio and started it.