In 2003, UK electro artist M.I.A. initiated an international tsunami whose waves of crossover global music are currently hitting Finnish dance floors. However, the roots of these rhythms lay deep in the society they emerged from and bear political meaning beyond mere entertainment value.
Whether it’s Eastern European Balkan beat, Brazilian baile funk or Tanzanian bongo flava, a refreshing wave of beats from beyond the usual bastions of club music is gaining momentum. It is world music armed with 808 drum machines and booming bass lines, fit for a block party from Manila to Mexico City. Although these styles are mainly known to Western audiences for their wild beats and crazy lyrics, most of them harbour a deeper social or political dimension.
Both Brazilian baile funk and South African kwaito, for example, represent the actual way of living; dealing with life in general in some of the poorest sections of those societies. An outgrowth of house music, kwaito has sometimes been compared to American hip-hop, and not without reason. It is a brazen street style reflecting the way young people in townships live – much like hip-hop represents life in the American ghetto.
If kwaito has fought its way out from the townships of Johannesburg, baile funk – or funk carioca, Rio funk, has its roots in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Like kwaito, baile funk stems partly from North American musical imports. It combines elements of similar Brazilian rhythms used in the martial art capoeira with a deep Miami bass sound adapted from Florida, and mainly refers to the parties held in the favelas of Rio. Although in Brazil the genre is largely associated with the urban poor and greatly criticised for its sexualised and violent lyrics, its influence has inspired DJs and producers all over the world.
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Whereas baile funk might not have a reputation as being particularly politically aware, the sound has been utilised by Anglo-Sri Lankan rapper, musician and visual artist Maya Arulpragasam. Better known as M.I.A., she has been conspicuously political in her art and expression since the beginning of her career.
Bongo flava is a nickname for Tanzanian hip-hop. This genre is a unique combination of Afrobeat and arabesque melodies, dancehall and hip hop beats as well as Swahili lyrics and English phrases. The term bongo comes from the Swahili word for brain (ubongo) and it refers to a slang expression for the capital Dar es Salaam. Bongo flava is highly popular throughout Tanzania, not least since it often incorporates social themes such as HIV, AIDS and community struggles.
Check out: www.bongoradio.com.
Kuduro was created in Luanda, Angola in the late 1980s, when local music style batida (African percussions mixed with simple calypso and soca rhythms) was incorporated with European and American electronic music. The name itself translates to either “hard ass” or “stiff bottom” in Portuguese, referring to the dance style that is similar to Jamaican dancehall.
Check out: Buraka Som Systema.
Kwaito emerged in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the beginning of 1990s. The timing is no coincidence: Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994. This opened up some windows for black artists in the mainstream music business. Rage, a South African lifestyle magazine, describes the kwaito sound as “a mixture of all that 1990’s South African youth grew up on: South African disco music, hip hop, R&B, ragga, and a heavy, heavy dose of American and British house music.”
Balkan beats is the term used for the mix of music from the Balkans – Serbian Gypsy brass, ska and ethno rock. The term was first developed by Bosnian DJ Robert Šoko, who has organised parties in Berlin since 1993. The genre is all about reinterpreting folk melodies, given electronic beats and blended with western styles.
Baile funk breaks down into several different styles, the main ones being funk sensual, funk melody, funk realidade and montagem. Funk is a direct derivative of the Miami bass and freestyle (also Miami-based) genres which migrated from the United States. It has been a mainstream phenomenon in Brazil since the mid 90s and started gaining popularity and media attention in Europe and the USA after 2000.
Mashing together musical references from Asian, African and South American sources often overlooked by other mainstream artists, she has created a sound that updates world music in a club-friendly manner. Her music is nowadays familiar to millions, thanks to the Oscar-hogging box-office success of Slumdog Millionaire, as she successfully infuses politics into her music without scaring away the mainstream audience.
While a Tamil refugee herself, M.I.A. has not confined herself to merely criticising the actions of the Sri Lankan government towards the Tamil people. She has been extremely vocal in speaking out about topical issues, including the “war on terror” and the situation in post-civil-war Liberia. In a post-colonial vein, she has taken the socio-political dimension of the non-western musical genres she appropriates to a global level, highlighting inequality between the haves and have-nots on a global scale. “Hands up / guns out / represent the world town,” she sings on the track World Town, a particularly volatile manifesto of third world resilience.
A similar significance might lurk in the infiltration of music styles from the ghettos into nightclubs in Europe and America. Countries often seen as little more than receivers of western culture are now being scoured for fresh and original ideas by beat-hungry DJs and club crowds looking for something considerably sweatier and grimier – or simply for something more exotic than the pumped up bling that they’re accustomed to. At the very least, the blistering global beats sounding out from the ghettos lend new vibrancy to the notion of “word music.”