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On DJ N.K.’s kuduro and folkloric music in the digital age

| Monday, August 22, 2016

Champeta echoes through Cartagena, Colombia. The slippery African rhythms of this Caribbean fusion genre are ubiquitous — but if you come as a tourist, you won’t hear it. If you live in Cartagena’s gentrified seaside neighborhood of Bocagrande, you won’t hear it. You won’t hear it at the art expositions and you won’t hear it in the restaurants downtown. But if you move deeper into the city, through the foot of La Popa and into the “barrios populares,” down between the murky, seasonally flooded streets of Olaya Herrera and El Pozon, you will hear it — and it will be loud. It bursts from colossal speakers, the beats rippling into the sky; the adults dance and the children dance, too. Their movements are modern, but the rhythm of their bodies echoes the past.

It happens that I don’t hear it, either. My earbuds in — one hand shielding myself from the humid sunset, the other gripping an MP3 player — as I tread the murky streets of my hometown toward Getsemani. I am not thinking about champeta as I sheepishly press play on my digital copy of “DJ Do Ghetto” by DJ N.K., purchased on a curious whim.

The music starts. Sweating, I take a water break. No fade-in: first comes the dizzy vocal sample, then a splash of bare-bone synths. Sitting down, my dog pitiably fails to hop on my lap. In a few seconds, the song explodes into an overpowering wave of tribal-like rhythms. I freeze; this music is unlike anything I have heard before, yet feels uncannily familiar. Who is this guy?

His name is Pedro Cardoso, a half-Angolan, half-Portuguese native of Lisbon, Portugal. He first rose to prominence in 2006, when he joined a production crew known as DJs Do Guetto — meaning “Ghetto DJs” — and subsequently released a kuduro mixtape with them that rocked the dance scene of Lisbon. Ten years later, on his solo debut as DJ N.K. (whose title pays tribute to his early days in the scene), he presents an even more ambitious adaptation of the same folklore-infused dance music that kuduro pioneers first developed in 1980s Angola. But this is kuduro on performance enhancers: the high end more aggressive, the voices and chimes more modular and slick, the rhythms rustic yet exuberantly futurist.

On my way to the Plaza de la Trinidad, the sun under the horizon, I am thrilled as my mind wraps around what I am hearing. Of course this feels familiar — kuduro is much like champeta, both in ethos and sound.

Like kuduro, the history of champeta is colorful, if oft-overlooked. In Joe Arroyo’s “La Rebelion”, a canonical work of salsa music and a key chapter of the Caribbean’s oral tradition, Arroyo, also known as “El Joe,” begins a story about black slavery in colonial Cartagena with a memorable cry: “en los años mil seiscientos!” The line introduces the 1600s, yet the tropical music singer makes no mention of a milestone event that shaped black history in the New World at the beginning of the century.

After escaping his Spanish masters, the ex-slave Benkos Bioho founded the first free town of the Americas, San Basilio de Palenque in northern Colombia. While the historic settlement has remained small, its musical culture — heavily infused by traditional African sounds and rhythms — is vibrant and heavily influential still. It is the heart of the most distinct genre of music born of the Colombian Caribbean: champeta.

Its name is a reclaimed term; since the early 20th century, the Atlantic coast’s wealthy “costeños” of Spanish descent have used the word “champetudo — which comes from the machete-like “champeta knife Afro-Colombians used in the field — to mock and denigrate the poor communities on the edge of town. The word came to signify ignorance, barbarism and vulgarity, but specifically in the context of black culture — like the Spanish equivalent of the word “ghetto.”

But as the late 20th century brought with it the development of new dances influenced by African choreographies, the pioneers of the music that developed alongside adopted the term. In a sort of cultural rebellion, the predominantly black communities of San Basilio de Palenque and the poor, overcrowded boroughs of Cartagena reimagined the traditional music of their African forefathers — which was and is still widespread — with the help of new technologies like synthesizers and drum machines.

The product was a revolutionary display of ethnic pride. Rhythms and sounds once shunned by cosmopolitan Colombians for their otherness and negative racial connotations — now rendered in a modern, endlessly danceable and catchy form — became quickly and unstoppably widespread. Most importantly, the music provided an accessible creative outlet for culturally disenfranchised Afro-Colombians; for once, they had full control in a domain of their own.

This has been the effect of the digital age on artistic expression: its democratization. Once, producing worthwhile music required expensive classical training. Now, producing requires no more than a laptop, hard work and innovation. Some decry this, but the fact is that new technologies are allowing individuals from around the world to reencounter a key part of their cultural background through the power to mold it at will, to redefine what it means to be, for example, Afro-Colombian.

A chain-smoking “chiva” — a party bus on a good day — skids by a proud clock tower, blaring a nostalgic Daddy Yankee hit. The reggaeton bassline is soon overpowered by a cacophony of claxons, but all that holds my attention is a street vendor’s favorite “vallenato” waltzing melancholy from his pocket radio. Under a mango tree, this absence I had never before noticed becomes cruelly conspicuous. Nobody is listening to champeta – but everyone does.

I feel an unexpected urge to listen too, but with unease I realize that I don’t have a single champeta track on my device. I think about downloading a couple and blush. Somehow this is unthinkable — more of a reflex than a conscious aversion. The music’s absence here begins to make sense. But if racial stigma stifles the music in high society, broadly the genre remains everything but dead. Not far from this part of the city, champeta rises from “pico” coffins like a vampire in moonlight.

For minority groups living in the hierarchical societies of many former Spanish colonies, wide social assimilation of their cultural elements is an uphill struggle — hence the insularity of champeta. For this same reason, it is surprising that waves of Angolan migrants entering Lisbon throughout Angola’s protracted civil war have managed to jettison kuduro to prominence in the Iberian mainstream, with the recent help of artists like Cardoso himself. This trend is even heartening if the diffusion is seen as a means of cultural survival that recalls the genre’s sociopolitical cradle.

But what is most uplifting is the effect that music like champeta and kuduro has had on millennial youth of color, particularly its most precocious musicians. It has become the vehicle of a self-exploratory kind of cultural expression, enabled by the wide availability of musical raw materials sponsored — for better or worse — by global capitalism. From San Basilio de Palenque to Lisbon, these producers are able to explore their cultural roots through music in an unprecedented way, addressing through their art the issues that affect them as individuals of color in places hostile to them. In Cartagena, this has meant reclaiming the word “champetudo.”

It happens as my dog pulls me forth into the plaza. A crowd of backpackers and selfie sticks surrounds an Afro-Colombian dance crew. This isn’t champeta but “el mapale,” a dance close in origin but more faithful to its African roots. The dance’s hyperactive style mirrors that of kuduro but has assimilated none of the electronic trends. Muscular, flexible limbs collapse and rebuild to fast-paced djembe rhythms, bodies communicate through movement. Tourists snap pictures. Someone decided this is folkloric art, but I know these artists will later retire to a bloc party. They will dance to champeta, and someone decided this is not art. They are champetudos, and someone decided this is not good. And who is someone to say that?

On the other side of the Atlantic, the creative process is different for Cardoso: less political, more introspective. On his debut record as DJ N.K., there is an audible clash between the ancient and the modern. Beyond the loud and playful beats is the tension of living in the 21st century, of fearing the loss of one’s identity in a rapidly globalizing world.

Music is how Cardoso comes to terms with this tension, and in this way “DJ Do Ghetto” is a boldly forward-looking record about looking thoughtfully into the past.

“Every time I make music, I try to transport myself to the desert so I can feel my tribal roots through my veins,” the DJ said of his creative process. Cardoso’s own mother is descended from Angola’s nomadic tribes, and he channels these roots through his art. “When I’m making music, I want to smell the desert.”


Artist: DJ N.K.

Album: “DJ Do Ghetto”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

Tracks: “Zuguza,” “Black Magic”

If you like: Ninos du Brasil, El Sayayin, DJ Nervoso

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About Adrian Mark Lore

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