Zouk Bass: a musical primer with DJ Umb of Generation Bass

"They were playing some awesome tunes that many of us had not heard before and their MC, Kalaf, was shouting "Zouk Bass" all over them and saying it was "a brand new sound". That's how it started, and a lot of people in the Transnational Bass scene were going nuts about this sound." Niall Connolly and DJ Umb explain everything.

What exactly is "Zouk Bass"?

It's a sound, the roots of which derive from Africa and the Caribbean, and which has been updated with modern Electronic Club/Bass sounds (which sounds nothing much like traditional "Zouk", really.)

Where and when did this genre originate?

I'm not even sure whether it is a fully-fledged "genre" yet, maybe it is a sub-genre or just a new name for a scene. Buraka Som Sistema coined the term during a Boiler Room DJ set in February 2013, so it's barely 6 months old. They were playing some awesome tunes that many of us had not heard before and their MC, Kalaf, was shouting "Zouk Bass" all over them and saying it was "a brand new sound". That's how it started, and a lot of people in the Transnational Bass scene were going nuts about this sound. There was no track list for the set and people were desperate for the track ID's for the first 15-20 minutes because the sound was dope and fresh! Eventually, some of the tracks and artists were discovered from comments left on the Boiler Room site. It was also discovered that some of the featured tracks already had a name for a pre-existing genre that pre-dated Zouk Bass. It was called Tarraxinha or Tarraxo and came from Angola.

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Wait, so Zouk Bass isn't really "zouk bass", it is Tarraxinha? What is Tarraxinha?

Many didn't know what Tarraxinha was and had never heard of it, but some of us did know. Generation Bass knew a little about it and had been blogging some of it since 2009. However, we did so very rarely and without actually knowing too much, because you couldn't find enough of this music online or anywhere else and there was no information about it either. Plus it was kind of overlooked and slept on in favour of the public's greater interest in Kuduro, which incidentally Buraka were also involved in bringing to the world's attention.

This is what Buraka said about calling the sound "Zouk Bass":

"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"

Of course nobody can deny that it was Buraka Som Sistema that came up with a "new" name for the sound. However, a lot of people don't agree that it was "born" in their studio. Many of us know it is based upon Tarraxinha. There were producers in Angola and in the Portugese bass scene making this music with a heavier and "clubbier" bass sound, and they were doing it way before Buraka Som Sistema did. Some of these club sounds go back to 2003, 10 years earlier.

So we discovered that the roots of it were not new. We also discovered that there was a whole new underbelly of producers in places like Angola and Portugal who had been making this sound for a number of years. Artists like DJ Znobia, DJ Marfox, DJ Nervosa, DZC Crew and DJ Paparazzi amongst many others were doing it years ago.

So is Zouk Bass actually a "new" genre?

I'd say it's definitely a new kind of "clubbier" sound based on an older one but does that qualify it for being described as new? Does it mean it ought to be given a new name?

It might just be a re-packaged and re-labelled sound, but we all have different reasons for now using it. I'm using it because I want to try to ensure that some of the Portuguese and Angolan artists get carried forward with the renewed interest and are not forgotten. I don't want those artists to be alienated and so they either have to jump on or they get left behind. Some of them might want to stay behind though and stay true to their art whilst others want to seize the opportunity to get gigs and benefit in other ways. Some others agree to be carried forward with it in order to try to ensure that their and other producer's works are not over-looked or sidelined. It's an awful way to look at things but that's the music biz for you.

Then again, a good argument might be made for it being a new sound that needed a new name like "Zouk Bass." It probably has evolved into something quite new and different to "Tarraxinha." Some of it certainly sounds different to my ears.

One of the leading artists in the scene, Deejay Kuimba said this about the now classic and anthemic track that kicked off the Buraka Boiler Room set, "Tarraxo Na Parede", in an interview for the Generation Bass blog:

"Zouk Bass for me it's different than any other style but it is still based on "Tarraxinha" and "Kizomba" but totally different."

So Deejay Kuimba also accepts that it has started morphing into a new sound

How does it differ from more traditional forms of house / dance music?

Well I think one of the leading producers of the new school, JSTJR, puts it best when he says:

"While Zouk Bass differs from traditional dance music in many ways, it can be boiled down to the structure of rhythmic subdivision. Where typical dance music is usually broken up into 4 beats, and further broken down (subdivided) into groups of two (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +), Zouk Bass has mixed subdivisions incorporating odd numbered beats, usually triplets. That's what gives Zouk Bass its 'open', less structured feeling."

For me it definitely sounds more African in appearance than a lot of Dance Music, albeit a lot of dance music does all go back to Africa. The riddims sound more complex and you actually feel transported outside of Europe or the West. You can sometimes feel like you're in some real sweaty underground club somewhere in the heart of Africa where the "distorted" sounding beats are creating mayhem on the dance floor. Or maybe that's wishful thinking!

Would you say it has any relation to Moombahton, and what would you say are the main differences?

Yes, I would say it is Moombahton's cousin because they are both partially influenced by the Dembow Riddim. Both are at a low bpm, Zouk Bass is usually at 90bpm but it can range from 85bpm to 100bpm, and Moombahton is usually at 108/110bpm, but can range from 104bpm to 115bpm. Some producers make tracks that they label as Zouk Bass but that sound more like slower Moombahton because they can't duplicate the more complex Tarraxinha riddims and so some confusion does arise.

For me, the main differences, apart from the tempo differences and the riddims being different but sounding similar is that there's more of a jungle/voodoo vibe to Zouk Bass. It just sounds a lot more African and hypnotic. It's not as formulaic sounding as Moombahton and also sounds less Housey. Strong percussion plays a key part in Zouk Bass.

Actually, how would you define 'moombahton' for any readers who might not know what that is?

I think one writer, I believe the first to cover it [writing for The Fader], described it best:

"…essentially Dutch house screwed down to sound like reggaeton's weird little cousin"

Other people can get very technical about it, and rightfully so, whilst others (including the guy who created it, Dave Nada) says it is just a "Vibe"! But for me, the Dembow Riddim is an essential influence, and the track must be at a low BPM around 108-110bpm. It can sound like many diverse genres but is always best when it has a Latin or Transnational flavour.

If you could take 3 ZB tracks to a desert island, what would they be?

Right now, at this moment in time on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I would have to choose these 3 tracks. But ask me next week, or when I am in a different mood, they would have changed.

1. DJ Boda – Tarraxo Suave
2. Once in Your Life – Trap Matic
3. Deep In Zouk Bass – DZC Crew

We seem to be in an era where new dance genres pop up all the time these days - why do you think that is?

Yes, that is true. It's always happened I think. People are always looking for something new or fresh because that's what we are like as human beings, we're a curious bunch. Many of us need new challenges, new things, new sounds to keep us feeling refreshed and maybe to feel that somehow we are progressing?

Of course there's a "hipster" element involved too but deep down inside I think we're all hipsters in one way or another, whether it be with art or fashion or even theories and ideologies.

As a DJ first and foremost (and blogger second) I am constantly on the search for new sounds as that keep me interested and I just love to hear something I've never heard before or paid much attention to. It's like a journey for me and music obviously has many medicinal qualities too. Finding or discovering something new just leads to an amazing historical journey, like it has done with Zouk Bass. We found out that it was not born in a Portuguese studio as the people who named it tried to make out to everyone. We found out that it had a prior history that went all the way back to the Motherland, Africa! That happens a lot with music; it all goes back to somewhere other than where it is found. So never stop being curious and always try to trace back any references to get a fuller picture.

I must admit I have only started doing that myself more recently and it has made me feel quite annoyed with a lot of the artists I use to love. You trace things back and realize there's a whole world of people not being acknowledged and slipping under the radar. Someone more famous has come along and championed an existing genre of music and become the poster boy/girl or band for it.

Do you see any issues arising around new genres re cultural misappropriation?

Yes, a lot of it occurs and sometimes it can come across as an extension of modern colonialism, and that enrages me. Other times it is genuine interest and enthusiasm for a sound or scene by a bunch of people. The people in the latter scenario can be mis-judged as trying to culturally appropriate music when all they are really doing is trying to enjoy it and share it as far and wide as possible.

We all know Cultural Appropriation has existed in music for a very long time even before the time of the Blues.For example the fact that people are calling a sound Zouk Bass instead of its original name Tarraxinha or Tarraxo could be cited as a valid example of Cultural Appropriation and a good argument could be had for it. I mean people could say why didn't you just call it Tarraxo Bass and not Zouk Bass?

This subject has also caused me many personal problems and battles within my own mind. I have also battled with other people about it cause I deeply feel the wounds of colonialism because I am from such background. I have tried to ensure that whatever I champion is always done for good reasons. That might not come across to the public but I don't really give a damn about that. As long as some of the results are achieved for the artists or the scene then those aims might become self-evident.

But I think at times it is important to be a little tolerant of Cultural Appropriation as it can work both ways as black music has in many ways been influenced and used white electronic music to further itself. I mean for me music has no colour and black or white or red music is all "just" music to me but we know certain music is stereo-typed with a colour.

Of course there is a power imbalance because of the politics and practical reality of "White Privilege" worldwide and so when it works the other way, (Africans sampling American R&B or European Classical) it doesn't appear to be as bad. But it is important to be tolerant so that people are not discouraged or left feeling alienated or pushed away, because it is a process, and hopefully through the process at some point they will acknowledge the power imbalances and try to do things as ethically as possible.

The fact that a lot of the music I'm really into (Tecnobrega, Kuduro, Tarraxinha etc etc) is hard to get hold of, is often down to those communities wanting to protect it from European and American eyes because of their past experiences of Cultural Appropriation. It took me a while to understand that and instead I was thinking they are missing out on all of these opportunities, including earning money. Then I also found out that some of these Artists don't want to be championed by the West, they don't need our/my help. They are quite happy where they are. For example Kuduro artists are better paid in Angola, and there is a thriving Kuduro industry there. Same with the Middle East and Arabic pop, they gain enough recognition and /or money there. Even talking about this topic can feel awkward at times because we have to talk in an awkward language so that people can understand what I a trying to say. The good ethical language is not in usage yet. I mean to get some of my points across I have to describe music as being "Black" or "White".

Hopefully, one day soon, we will reach a time when music will not be described in that way. Even I am afraid of saying the wrong thing and often when you do discuss these things online you are made to feel to be in the wrong for bringing it up as a topic for conversation.

Many people in Europe and America are still not ready to have this open conversation. Some of them still accuse you of making them feel guilty because you are talking about it. I don't want them to feel guilty, I am not bitter about history but I am upset and bitter if history keeps on repeating itself.

I just want them to move forward, just like Mandela did when he came out of jail. Mandela faced physical imprisonment (psychological and mental too) but these people are just too imprisoned within their own colonial mindset. They need to free themselves from it; they are the ones that need emancipation.

When and where Generation Bass was launched, and was there any kind of manifesto or ideology behind it?

As a blog we started in 2009 and there are 2 partners/owners. There's my partner Vincent Koreman who hails from the Netherlands, and of course me, from the UK. Plus we have a great team of music enthusiasts who curate content for us from all over the world. The only manifesto/ideology we have behind it is that we do what we want and post what we want. We don't like e-mails from PR companies or blog submissions, we prefer to find the content ourselves. Occasionally, very rarely in fact, we get sent some good stuff but I don't look at 99% of my e-mails and so I wouldn't know.

Our motto has always been:

This is GENERATION BASS, platform for cool music from wherever.

And how has the label progressed?

As a label we started in late November 2010 and so we're less than 3 years old. In just under 3 years, we are not doing too badly.

It has been very hard to establish ourselves as the market is so over-saturated at the moment, with so many people forming their own labels and giving out music for free. And of course, nowadays you can't make any money from it. Our releases are free for a month or two before they hit the digital stores.

However, I do see the label progressing and establishing itself. One of our releases was nominated for an award by MTV and another for a video award in Germany. Some of our releases have reached fairly big and "legendary" names within the music business. So I'm very happy about that. Also a division of Sony/BMG in the USA has licensed a large proportion of our catalogue for licensing synchs. So that's not bad at all in less than 3 years. Plus this has all come to us, we didn't chase it. We don't chase anything! Though we are still waiting to make some money. It's an ongoing thing and so I hope to continue to cement and enhance the label's reputation.

Of course you have to remember that we are also releasing sounds that are often unique that people can't get their heads around. A lot of our releases are usually a few years ahead of time, in terms of genres establishing themselves. So there is always a curse to being too early. But one of these days we will time it right!

Why the decision to put these comps out for free?

Well, it is very hard in the current climate to get music heard, even if it is for free. There is so much competition and almost everybody is giving it away for free in the underground scene.

We do it to try to reach a bigger audience and so that the sound travels. Plus of course it cuts out all of the bureaucracy and headache of licensing, etc, and also it means that we can include unofficial remixes and/or bootlegs. It gives you a greater sense of freedom in many ways and I honestly enjoy the free releases more than I do the official ones. There is so much preparation and paperwork involved with the official releases.

When it's free, bang it's out there and a lot of people pick it up!

So, where can we get them?

Here are the links:

ZOUK BASS Volume 1

ZOUK BASS Volume 2

I'd like to add that the Zouk Bass compilations were put together in association with 2 other people. Between the 3 of us there was a lot of disagreement as to which tracks qualified as Zouk Bass, and so we got quite a diverse range of opinions on the sound incorporated within the compilation. Volume 1 was pretty unanimous but Volume 2 is a pretty much a mixed bag. The other 2 involved in the selections were:

Caballo, who used to be my understudy at Generation Bass and is now a successful blogger and producer who writes for a number of sites, including Mad Decent and his own site, Latino Resiste.

Filipe Ribeiro of Zouk Bass TV was also involved. Zouk Bass TV is a You Tube channel dedicated to educating people about Zouk Bass & Tarraxinha.

Published 6:00 am Fri, Aug 23, 2013

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