As if there weren’t enough music genres and subgenres in the world, on February 15th yet another was introduced. This time it was presented by Buraka Som Sistema, live at the first Boiler Room session in their hometown of Lisbon. Those first 15 minutes of the now legendary set were baptised with a surprising new name: Zouk Bass
What do we know about Zouk?
Zouk is the Antillan Creole term for ‘party’. It’s also known as a musical genre that was created by the iconic group Kassav when they were living in Paris in the early 80s, placing the French Antilles in the francophone musical map. They blended traditional rhythms like Cadence-Lypso, Gwo Ka and Compas Direct, which ignited the French music scene and inspired a new generation of African musicians, shaping the creation of new genres that would define modern African music.
While this group of musicians from Guadeloupe and Martinique were introducing tropical beats on the Parisian music scene, the second half of the 80s was crucial for the development of pop music. Michael Jackson and MTV redefined the way we relate with music, MIDI technology became common and widespread, and clubs began opening everywhere from the Caribbean to Europe, Africa included. The night now belonged to those who claimed it for themselves and the DJ was finally recognized as a legitimate profession.
While Boney M and Duran Duran dominated the dancefloors from Paris to Lisbon, not that far away from iconic clubs like Le Palace or Les Bains Douches there were places like Keur Samba, Timis or La 5eme Dimension, which catered to a crowd hungry for something different. They were mostly people of African heritage living on outskirts of Paris, who didn’t crave the songs that were topping the charts: this crowd was there to dance zouk.
The 90s would be promising years for the genre. Several subgenres developed, like Zouk Love and its distant relative Kizomba from Lusophone Africa. The trio Zouk Machine would go the farthest, managing the feat of topping the SNEP Singles Chart in France with the track ‘Maldon’ – 1 million copies sold in the Summer of 1990. This created the notion that Zouk could survive beyond the limits imposed by the ‘World Music’ label, as well as the certainty that there was a market for this kind of music and all of its ramifications.
Fast forward to the present day, hearing local rhythms from southern hemisphere ghettos being adapted to a new electronic reality is no longer a new thing. While computers and pirated software slowly replaced traditional instruments all over the world, a new generation has dedicated itself to interpreting the rhythms of its youth with these new tools. These new electronic sounds transformed the local rhythms into new sonic languages, and eventually Luanda gave us Kuduro and Rio de Janeiro gave us Baile Funk. These genres, though electronic in their execution, would still be lumped in with the rest of the World Music’ records, for lack of a better term.
A full reconfiguration was necessary. By fusing these local electronic languages with the universal rhythms of techno, house and dubstep, the sound of the ghettos took the so-called first world’s dancefloors by storm. This is what Buraka Som Sistema did with Kuduro and Bonde do Role with Baile Funk. However, those who followed Buraka’s career know they are defined by their ability to reinvent themselves, constantly adding new rhythms their sonic melting pot. If Kuduro was always deeply anchored to band’s core sound, we also had the chance to hear Baile Funk or Moombahton beats thrown in the mix, and the latest of these new styles – as those who’ve seen them play on Boiler Room know – is Zouk.
Be it on the African nightclubs, on cellphone ringtones on the subway or through the neighbour’s stereo, everyone in Lisbon has come to know Zouk’s lusophone relative, Kizomba. However, despite having been heard and danced to for years – and actually topping the compilation charts – few Portuguese could actually identify any key players of the genre. What’s missing for this kind of tropical R&B to achieve its deserved legitimacy and finally step out of its niche? Buraka Som Sistema’s answer: if mainstream culture won’t embrace Zouk, let’s take it to the clubs – essentially the same solution that brought the Kuduro phenomenon to the world.
By lowering the BPM and taking Zouk’s rhythms and melodies to meet the electronic and bass-heavy sounds of the UK underground, a new genre was born inside Buraka Som Sistema’s studio, the exact same place where a few years ago a tropical revolution in dance music was starting.
The need to make the world dance stays the same, but the rhythms are radically changing. Please say hello to Zouk Bass.
(Mark next Wednesday on your calendar, as a new tropical revolution begins on March 20 with Buraka Som Sistema’s fresh Zouk Bass club banger, which will be part of the Upper Cuts free download series. Stay tuned.)