Os Kuduristas World Tour!

What happens to the music—and what happens to us—when a government plays DJ?

At 1 a.m. Os Kuduristas arrived at their headlining gig in a basement nightclub in lower Manhattan. After meeting with a handful of journalists, members of the Angolan dance collective entered the crowded circle of B-boys and B-girls and began to educate their New York counterparts in the breakneck battle dancing known as kuduro.

The crew proved themselves to be incredible at their craft. The ease with which they executed complicated dips, seductive hip rolls, and lightning-fast footwork made some of the more attention-hungry NYC-based dancers look amateur. They carried themselves with the posture and air of ambassadors, wearing the requisite tight jeans, gold-flecked accessories, and dyed and manicured haircuts.

The press release announcing Os Kuduristas’ United States tour arrived in my inbox a few weeks before the gig at Le Poisson Rouge. Landing on the group’s homepage I was greeted by a kuduro dancer suspended in a perpetual GIF loop of skinny-jeaned dance sequences. Easily navigable, the site has sexy fonts and graphics, sophisticated English text, and the showstopper: a visual dictionary that lists keywords associated with kuduro matched with YouTube videos of the music and dance genre’s popular moves.

Following the aroma of big money wafting around the site, I opened the group’s About page, where a blurb described their “executive producer” Da Banda as a “multidisciplinary entertainment company headquartered in Luanda, Angola, and dedicated to promoting Angolan and African talent in international markets.”

There was also a page for the group’s “producers”—Cunning Communications Inc. and Thought Bubble Concepts—who are “producing, marketing, and branding Os Kuduristas globally.” Cunning Communications describes itself as a “solution-neutral creative brand experience company that develops award-winning communications and marketing solutions for clients from offices in London, New York and Dubai.”

“Solution-neutral creative brand experience?” The flags came up in full force: since when did corporate marketing double-speak trickle into the world of kuduro? The deeper I went, the site felt more like an ad campaign than an artist’s homepage. So, I wondered, what does this mean for the future of “world music” marketing and for the Angolan tradition of music and dance in particular? And who is footing the bill? When their first U.S. tour brought them to New York City in December, I felt compelled to see the group perform live.

I walked in to Le Poisson Rouge that night skeptical of the group’s authenticity, fearing their performance was merely an arm of this “solution-neutral brand experience.” Over the course of the performance, however, Os Kudurista’s talent and charisma drained some of the red out of my flags. But after it was over, the words from our pre-show interview rang in my ears as I walked to the West 4th Street station through the December chill, and the haze of their swag wore off. I realized I still needed to learn more about the group, their backers, and the agendas playing out behind it all.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, kuduro was the bass-and-African-percussion-driven “hard ass” dance that percolated from Luandan streets and nightclubs to become a national sensation by the early 2000s. Elements of house music and Caribbean soca balanced by a gritty street-edginess made for excellent party music. After the success of the 2007 single “Yah!” from their EP From Buraka to the World, the Portuguese group Buraka Som Sistema became the most commonly known kuduro group in the West.  As of 2013, their fame has faded, and audiences are hungry for the next, hip, exotic import while trend spotters and music writers have been left asking, “is kuduro dead?”

In Angola, meanwhile, Kuduro emcees—and their ability to lift people’s spirits at rock parties—are still in high demand. A recent article on the blog This Is Africa takes issue with the benign nature of kuduro, criticizing it for missing an opportunity to create exposure for Angola’s political and economic challenges. When African performers tour in the U.S., concert attendees might be satisfied with an experience of Africa that is limited to flamboyantly patterned outfits and the continents’ outline flashing on a projection screen—two thin layers of a blooming onion of cultural source material available to artists.

Os Kuduristas’ NYC appearance in December didn’t break this mould. Rather than headlining for their own crowd, they were guest dancers at a weekly break dance party, which was unclear from the performance’s advertising. After passing through a welcoming, attractive street team decked out in matching Os Kuduristas branded tees, I descended to the LPR basement where I became disoriented by the funk-and-soul break beats playing to an active crowd of wholesome breakers who made the space look like a late ’90s Volkswagon ad.

Commodifying Angolanidade

After the LPR concert, I asked my mother, who has a PhD in African History, to recommend an article to me on contemporary Angola so that I could start making better sense of what I had witnessed. She handed me Jessica Krug’s 2011 article, “The Strange Life of Lusotropicalism in Luanda: On Race, Nationality, Gender, and Sexuality in Angola,” which explicitly locates kuduro as central to the Angolan government’s media campaign to market modern angolanidade (the state of being Angolan) through re-envisioning vida Luandese (life in Luanda).

With a nod to the awkward appearance of kuduro star Dog Murras in the Angolan government’s 2008 voter registration campaign, she writes, “Angola is in the position of needing to sell a particular image of itself to its own people.” Angola is in that position because of longterm, devastating circumstance: The ruling MPLA party has been in power since the mid-’70s, coming out on top after a bloody civil war lasting two decades. The president Jose Eduardo dos Santos’ is one of the world’s longest running leaders, staying in power through repressive, aggressive tactics.

Although many were suspicious that registration would lead to conscription, the hyper-masculine “hood” image of Dog Murras was deployed throughout the regime’s media campaign to sell the idea that the election would empower the citizenry.  Krug compares the Dog Murras debacle to P. Diddy’s 2004 “Vote or Die” campaign in a year where George W. Bush’s reelection seemed guaranteed: In Angola, the people were also disenfranchised. While the campaign(s) raged on, they believed the election would be fixed no matter what.

This marriage of convenience between government and kudurista was short-lived. Dog Murras released “Angola Bwé de Caras” (The Many Faces of Angola), which articulated the people’s sense of dissatisfaction with the ruling MPLA government by contrasting the “beautiful Angola” offered up to foreigners with the hardships experienced in the daily life of citizens. President dos Santos’ daughter, Tchizé, responded publicly after the song was released; she argued that it was divisive and called for a united front between all Angolans—rich and poor. Krug writes that Tchizé’s response “obfuscat[ed] the incredible differences in the experiences of rich and poor Angolans…[and that] Dos Santos sought to create a disingenuous angolanidade that embraces the discourse of suffering and the artistic products of those who suffer, but which offers no solutions and no concrete programs other than the continued silent suffering of [the people].”

In a recent article for Africa is a Country, Boima Tucker (aka Chief Boima) directly applied some of Krug’s observations about how the government and the private companies associated with them have invested in kuduro and Os Kuduristas. He frames them as a nationalist project strategically conceived of by the Dos Santos camp, saying that they “mark an interesting chapter in a game of national identity politics as an African nation (in the form of a private company) takes a page out of the U.S. State Department’s playbook, and taps into a socially marginal youth culture to assert its belonging and participation in global society.”

Krug and Tucker’s strong assertions bounced in my skull as I interviewed Os Kuduristas’ choreographer, Manuel Kanza. The group undoubtedly plays a role in a game of international branding and diplomacy, but it’s a complex issue to gauge if this role can be reduced to simply a whitewashed tourism campaign.

Kanza’s Kuduro

Shortly after the dancers arrived at Le Poisson Rouge for their second of four NYC shows in one week, I received a text from their tour manager, Susan, who turned out to be a white American woman, and older than most of the kids in the crowd. She seemed a little out of place in LPR’s basement as she maternally ushered the dancers through the sea of flailing toprockers. Kanza was exuberant and overwhelmed at being in the heart of NYC nightlife, to the point of being a little bratty. He wanted more independent time to explore and begged Susan, “Can you just come back here tomorrow and pick me up at 7am?” After she softly rebuked his request she pointed me out, and his demeanor made a complete 180-degree turn. He composed himself with maturity and readied himself for my interview questions. As the strongest English speaker, he did most of the interviews for the group as their de facto leader, and he instantly struck me with his public relations savvy.

Kanza was born in Angola in 1987 and lived in Zimbabwe from 1996 to 2005. In Zimbabwe he learned hip-hop dance, and upon returning to Luanda, he wanted to reconnect with kuduro. He said, “I felt the need to know more, because it had been so long that I’d been away from home. I learned really fast—started to get back what I had lost.” He became so good that he won the nationally televised dance competition Bounce in 2008, a program launched in 2007 by the entrepreneur Ricardo Abrantes and the son of President Jose Eduardos dos Santos, R&B singer Coréon Dú.When I asked him how he became involved in Os Kunduristas I couldn’t tell whether he was being intentionally vague, even after I asked him several times. He said he had auditioned for “the program” and was impressive enough to become a judge for the other dancers’ auditions, ultimately becoming their choreographer and leader.

I pieced together through the This is Africa story that dos Santos’ son and Os Kuduristas management hired the same creative consulting agency, Semba Comunicaçâo, to develop their visual brands. And sure enough, the agency also lists the TV show Bounce (not to mention the Development Bank of Angola) among their recent clients. This connection to the dos Santos family, who is among the richest in Africa, might provide some clues as to where the funding came from—a coherent branding campaign with a slick bilingual website, and a world tour complete with street teams and merchandise do not come cheap.

Nonetheless, I had trouble doubting Kanza’s sincere intentions. He told me, “My job is to make it clear for the people to realize there is a difference [between kuduro’s songs, styles, and moves] because kuduro has many different faces. From the ’80s to the ’90s, there was a style and from the ’90s to 2002 there was a different style and from 2002 until now there has been a different style.” He took personal issue with the way international fans lumped everything kuduro into one simple, definable thing without giving it a chance to have depth and diversity.

While I could sympathize with his desire to present kuduro’s nuances and distinctive character, there was a twinge of elitism in the way that he talked about the goal of the Os Kuduristas project. He continued, “[kuduro] has changed so much, because when it started, the movement was not something you would want to choreograph. It was more like street dancing. But now you can choreograph it. If you look online, you can see the website. I can show people more than 54 moves of kuduro…these movements are inspired by everything—there is ‘the hopping of the frogs’, ‘the chameleon’, ‘the crippled person’—even crippled people can participate! Kuduro is for everyone.”

Os Kuduristas present facets of the “beautiful Angola” fantasy that Dog Murras references in “Angola Bwé de Caras.” The description on their homepage reads, “Os Kuduristas is a global program kicking off in September 2012 with inaugural events in Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm to promote and raise awareness of Angolan Kuduro music, dance, culture and lifestyle.” The dancers portray a digestible, family-friendly version of the genre, devoid of the grittiness of the streets or even the potential for dirty language and political transgression that rapping allows.

Choose Your Own Intermediary

The twenty-first century’s hip, urban “world music 2.0” consumers are used to a certain type of intermediary when it comes to digging up booty-shaking diamonds and gems—DJs, bloggers, renegade ethnomusicologists, and adventurous globe-trotting label owners, for the most part. I personally have turned to Frederic Galliano, Chief Boima, DJ Zhao, Diplo, and others for their kuduro selections. Diplo’s Mad Decent label, in particular, can take credit for boostering Buraka Som Sistema’s international fame. I asked Kanza about them and he, in true diplomatic fashion, wanted to give them credit for their innovations that stray from kuduro standards and mesh with other global trends. He said, “I would say their style of kuduro is modern, but if you are looking for the roots of kuduro, you have to go to Angola. Because Buraka Som Sistema sounds like house with a nice beat, a nice vibe, but kuduro has a unique flavor.”

Casual observers might not perceive the fundamental differences between a DJ and a corporate marketing agency. We are used to having DJs, blogs, and record labels connect us with new music from foreign geographic locales—serious fans with the necessary free time and funding have even made trips across the world to embed themselves in these regional music scenes. In this case, we’re seeing African artists piped through to global audiences by corporate parties with potential ulterior motives. Nonetheless, regional artists need lots of money and friends in high places to give them an edge in breaking through to international markets. For consumers, the next level of parsing out funding streams, current political affairs, and intra-national beefing can become an extra headache—and to what end? By investigating how the sausage is made on occasion, I would argue that listeners empower themselves to make the important and personal decision on how ethical they want their listening to be.

Furthermore, kuduro’s exportation—and indeed the way we in the States and Europe consume African music in general—has very specific consequences in local (in this case, Angolan) contexts. Krug writes, “[t]he commodification of black bodies that is at the root of the formation of the African diaspora continues to inform the shape of the cultural exchanges within it.”

Alongside these issues looms the notion of authenticity. Because Os Kuduristas are products of an international marketing campaign, it is easy to begin to cast suspicions of their validity writ large. And yet, I still feel moved by Kanza’s warmth and devotion to his art, and cognizant of outside judgment. In “Be Like Mike: Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire,” Michael Eric Dyson convincingly warns against being judgmental towards talent and achievement, even if it is being used as a tool to promote global capital. It’s true that corporations repackaged the genius behind Jordan’s airtime to sell sneakers, underwear, and Big Macs, but “there is both resistance and consent to the exploitation of black bodies in Jordan’s explicit cultural symbolism, as he provides brilliant glimpses of black culture’s ingenuity and improvisation as a means of cultural expression and survival.” Ultimately, the dancers of Os Kuduristas are talented, attractive, and rightfully revel in their own star power. Through their positive enthusiasm for body movement the dancers communicate a real power to excite, to heal, to create positive energy and vibrations.

I asked Kanza about the future of kuduro. He told me, “I think there is a bright future for kuduro. If we keep working, we will really get where we want. We don’t want to take away from anyone. We want to share what we know. Because dance is something that should not die. I think the more we learn, the more the dance continues.”

The lesson embedded in his comment—the propagation of art through education—isn’t “solution-neutral” at all. It offers a clear direction for those who are passionate about the art form and its survival, and it’s clear that Os Kuduristas create more than just a “brand experience” in their performances and web lessons. The complexity of Os Kuduristas shows us that many of the stories behind these global dance genres are extremely difficult to convey in a DJ compilation or marketing campaign. The nuance that sets apart different courses of reaching consumers—DJ, Starbucks compilation, marketing agency—is a channel that runs both deep and wide.

Images by Benjamin Rosser, a New York-based portrait and fashion photographer.