It’s natural for aspiring musicians to learn through imitation. But in smaller countries, the first impulse of artists — at least those with commercial inclinations and YouTube access — may be to imitate hits from abroad, potentially impeding the growth of a rich local scene with its own sound and style.
As a member of Buraka Som Sistema and on his solo debut album Atlas, the producer Branko has been working to ensure that this doesn’t happen in Lisbon. Styles from around the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) world mix in Lisbon; Branko’s goal is to elevate this blend into global conversations. He continues this effort with Nosso, a new album out Friday.
“In my mind, I feel like this is stage two, and we need to get to stage three,” Branko says. “The second stage is about making the necessary local changes in clubs so that everyone can play, so there’s ambition for a younger kid to be able to look into music. That’s happening: a second generation Cape Verdean could easily be a hip-hop producer today.”
To move to the next phase, “instead of doing someone else’s hip-hop, you can do your own version,” Branko continues. “When that kid picks up a computer and decides to make music, he already knows he wants to make that Lisbon sound. There’s nothing else to do, in his mind. Stage three is this idea of being proud of your roots, your background, and being able to make music with all of that without it being a question.” Nosso means “ours” in Portuguese.
Nosso came out of markedly different circumstances than its predecessor, Atlas. “That was a very specific project: I went to five cities, spent one week in each, and every day I would collaborate with someone different,” Branko recalls. “It was more of a closed conceptual project. This time I wanted to put Lisbon more in the center and use the city as the starting point for all songs, even if I’m recording with a Congolese-Canadian vocalist. That [the presence of Lisbon] is [felt] through the instrumentals and beats — every one of those is originally from a genre in the Portuguese-speaking universe.”
Still, Branko ranges far in search of collaborators. He connected with Madame Perine, lead singer of the Colombian group Monsieur Perine, after “she posted a video on Instagram Stories in the gym dancing to one of my songs.” On their eventual collaboration, “Agua Con Sal,” Madame Perine’s lilting vocals soften the jabbing energy of Branko’s propulsive productions.
If “Agua Con Sal” started over social media, “Lucuma,” with the group Dengue Dengue Dengue, was a more old-fashioned collaboration involving flights and leg-work. “We did a two-hour trip to a village called El Carmen where a lot of the Afro-Peruvian movement comes from,” Branko says. “We met up with these legendary percussionists and tap-dancers from the Afro-Peruvian scene, and we got them to record a bunch of percussion we used for the song.” “Lucuma” is basically wordless, with extra avalanches of drums functioning as a hook.
But some of the strongest songs on Nosso originated closer to home. “Bleza” is a tribute to the Lisbon club B.Leza, where Branko’s label, Enchufada, hosts a monthly party. “A lot of the rare-groove Angolan and Cape Verdean records that have a special feeling about them, a lot of them were recorded in African clubs in Lisbon during the afternoon while the artists were sound-checking,” Branko explains. “They’d have all their gear set up, just bring in an eight-track and record the album.” With “Bleza,” Branko honors that history and updates it, adding nubby guitar lines reminiscent of those old records to a streamlined electronic barrage.
Nosso arrives in a more welcoming world than Atlas: Even in the last three years, various strains of once-local pop music have found new global audiences. Fans of the Nigerian singer Mr. Eazi, for example, hear his influence emerge a continent away in the K-Pop group BTS. Brazilian baile funk hits amass hundreds of millions of views on YouTube.
This means that aspiring artists outside of the Anglo mainstream may no longer be tempted to make the sort of aesthetic sacrifices that were once required to reach a global audience. In the 1990s, Marc Anthony had to abandon his signature salsa sound to sing English-language ballads in order to have a crossover hit in the U.S. That type of concession is no longer necessary.
So it’s probably not a coincidence that Branko can already feel stage two tipping towards stage three in Portugal. “We just had the first full Portuguese-speaking afro-house song go big in terms of commercial radio locally,” the producer says, pointing to DJ Dadda and Plutonio’s “Cafeina.” “I’d have done that [song] a little differently, but these are the moments. When you’re a kid growing up, you always want to be like someone. You just need to put the right examples in front of them.”
With Nosso, the kids will have several more strong examples to choose from.