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What next for Lisbon’s club music scene?

Buraka Som Sistema look back on a decade of Afro-Portugese dance rhythms and share their blistering set for Boiler Room and Ballantine’s Stay True series

For the past ten years, Lisbon’s Buraka Som Sistema have been flying the flag for global dance music. Fusing sounds from European dance music with African street styles like kuduro, the band’s raucous style of party music led to the release of three albums and collaborations with artists like M.I.A. and Kano along the way. But despite their global outlook, the band always made sure they represented their home country, too, and the diversity of the country’s population – it took a while before they even sung in English. So when the group announced last year that they’d be taking an indefinite hiatus, it felt like the end of a chapter for Portugal’s club community as much as the band.

“We’ve been doing this for over a decade,” explains founding member Branko (real name João Barbosa) backstage at one of Buraka’s final shows, a Lisbon-centric showcase for Boiler Room and Ballantine’s Stay True Journeys series, which showcases underground scenes across the world. “We need to breathe a little bit.” The decision to call a hiatus was to allow the band’s five members to pursue other creative avenues (amongst other things, Branko is using the time off to work on a television series), but it was also to give them time to consider their message, too. “We’re trying to come across with a message of cultural diversity and multiculturalism in general,” says Branko, “We need time to do other things with the same focus, goals, and message.”

Buraka formed in 2006, at a time where new tools for music discovery were starting to open up. The combination of Myspace, YouTube, and music blogs opened the world up to global influences, with musicians like M.I.A. and Diplo being some of the most prominent artists to emerge during the period. “The world was curious,” says Buraka’s Kalaf Ângelo, “You had the internet exploding, YouTube being the first for discovering new music, new artists, new scenes… We came in the middle of that process.”

“We’re trying to come across with a message of cultural diversity and multiculturalism in general” — Branko, Buraka Som Sistema

At the time, the world didn’t know much about Portugal’s music scene, and Buraka were one of the key acts to explain why the country was uniquely placed within the global dance music community. Branko describes Lisbon as being in the middle of a ‘Bermuda triangle” that connects Brazil, Angola, and Cape Verde, but with a close connection to Europe nearby and a small size that means that many of its musicians know one another. “The mix of people coming together here, and the way that we grew up, it’s sort of like everything’s been mixed from day one,” he says, “Even DJing, I remember I was 16 and playing drum’n’bass, and I’d be trying to find dancehall records to mix. That’s been there throughout my life and throughout Lisbon’s musical history as well. I feel that creates the space for things to happen.”

“You can immediately recognise New York to hip hop, Berlin to techno, UK to bass dance music,” adds Kalaf, “Then Portugal you can attach to the global scene. It’s small but wide enough to embrace all those rhythms.”

Today, the perception of Lisbon’s club scene is somewhat different. For the past few years dance music connoisseurs have been drawn to the city thanks to artists like DJ Marfox and labels like Principe, who’ve been issuing off-kilter club tracks born from the Afro-Portuguese communities who live in the housing projects on the outside of the city. A handful of those artists are on the Boiler Room lineup tonight, including DJ Nervoso, DJ Lilocox, DJ Maboku, and DJ Firmeza.

Firmeza is a young DJ who has seen the effects of that changing reputation firsthand. He describes his early experiences in clubs as having clear racial divides, where “white music and black music was separated”. Today, he finds crowds more receptive. “People are more open to African sounds – but in a way that they feel it’s actually African sounds” he says “It’s not a white DJ modifying it. Lisbon embodies everybody else’s culture and makes it its own – it’s not something I can put into words.”

“I’d like to feel we contributed to that a little bit,” smiles Branko, “Music can bring people together. Even though it’s in Portuguese, anyone can enjoy our songs. I think we must’ve generated some curiosity (about Portuguese music).”

Still, there is work to be done. Branko describes how there is still a lot of “invisible music” in the city that isn’t getting media coverage, while Kalaf cites their seven-year club residency, festival curation, and newspaper columns as ways they’ve been trying to draw people’s attention to the exciting music emerging around Portugal. “Hopefully people will catch on,” he says, “We don’t throw it down people’s throats.”

“You need to have an honest local scene before going international,” adds Branko, “As much as we play outside of Portugal, I still feel there’s more that needs to be done locally on that perspective.”