Buraka Som Sistema are a Portuguese group whose forceful and luscious music is meant for dancing. In their touring form they consist of a DJ, live drummer, DJ/drummer, two MCs, and an MC/dancer. But when they play it’s as if there is another member perched on a black corner speaker, hurling plums and diamonds onto the dance floor. Your legs glitter with fruit juice and the shards of gems.
Recently, Buraka Som Sistema came to play in Montreal. They played at a dance-club called Zoobizarre located on a peculiar section of Avenue St-Hubert, where the street becomes a covered, never-ending strip-mall. It feels as if you have been teleported from Montreal’s back streets into a suburban retail experiment. Baby clothes and wedding dresses are propped up, fading in the shop windows.
Zoobizarre has been modeled to look like a tunnel, or a wine cellar, or the underside of a bridge. The room is long and the ceiling is very low. Everything is done up in rough gray brick, and when you are inside it is hard to come to terms with the fact that this grotto is on the second floor, high above street level. But of course there are no windows.
Sometimes Zoobizarre is one of the worst venues in this city: cramped, claustrophobic, and it is hard to see the stage. But at other times it is the best venue in this city. The room becomes a prism. The speakers thump and the whole room dazzles. A hundred shades of sound refract across the curved concrete ceiling.
The show by Buraka Som Sistema is sold out. It is the kind of crowded where you touch other people’s sweat, where you accidentally brush a stranger’s hand. And yet there is no discomfort here tonight. We see BSS as soon as they arrive—they slip through us, grinning, awkward, over the stage and into the sliver of offstage space. We can see them there too—adjusting their hats, peeling off trousers. When finally they come out to play, setting up behind MacBooks, a drumkit, drumpads, and hoisting microphones like they are the keys to the city, their awkwardness is gone. They look playful and certain; men with irresistible secrets.
Buraka Som Sistema set up a long drone, a weave of noise, and after the MCs call out their welcome, the beat drops. Very suddenly, undeniably, we are brought together. The audience, the performer—all of us are dropped into the mesmeric kuduro rhythm. We are sweating emphatically, we are touching hands purposefully, and we are imagining jewels and fruit-pulp under the soles of our running shoes.
The first time I saw Buraka Som Sistema it was in their home city, Lisbon, on a visit to Portugal last fall. That concert-hall was the opposite of Zoobizarre—a giant wooden building, a place for children’s art classes, community dances, amateur operas, with wide staircases and a balcony where one of the MC’s fathers stood, clapping. Most of us danced in the wide room below that felt free, large, with space for our hearts to send us staggering. Buraka Som Sistema’s light-show strafed through the steam, images flashed on big screens, and guests interceded, dancing like maniacs or spitting Portuguese rap.
In their visit to Montreal, Buraka Som Sistema are just people, just players; there is no backdrop save the songs. But in Lisbon their imagery flashed sinister. There were lashes of light, looming typography, the opaque menace of a hand-drawn black diamond. Across the sea, the music still matches this look. The snare is hard and loud, the bass subterranean. Blaya, a female MC and dancer, spends much of her performance glowering. And yet Buraka Som Sistema’s greatest gift is the way they gild this grimness in joy. The principal MCs, Kalaf and Conductor, goof and celebrate. They pose, they grin, they yell “LISBOA!” (there) or “MONTRAY-AL!” (here). DJ Lil’ John drops thundering samples − “A Milli”? “Rhythm is a Dancer”? − and Kalaf and Conductor lead us in group dance-moves, crouching on the ground and leaping into the air …
… Until suddenly these novelties fall away. They’re gone. Our hands are raised but the instructions are over, the Lil Wayne sample has been swallowed up. Now there’s just this cloaked beat, expert and artificial, RAT-a-tat-tat-tat, and with jerk and sway and step I feel a kind of terror, or maybe a dark and sharking joy; in all this roaring flash I feel like I should cower. But instead I, and all of us, dance.
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