“Electronic Folklore” Artists Blend Traditional Music & Contemporary Sounds

Electronic Folkore, Chancha Via Circuito

Inset image – Chancha Via Circuito

To spend any amount of time in Berlin is to find yourself immersed in the culture of electronic dance music. Techno booms from clubs and warehouses, bass and kick drum sounds pop up on S-Bahn platforms, parks, and passing cars in the city’s streets. So stepping into a Voodoohop event can feel a bit like downshifting gears. At these nomadic parties, attendees dance to downtempo Latin American rhythms that seem almost defiantly organic compared to the mechanized pace of techno. In a way, its vibe is as distant from EDM as Berlin is from Buenos Aires or Brazil.

Voodoohop was founded roughly six years ago, when German DJ and producer Thomash joined forces with an ascendant crew of South American producers and started throwing Berlin-inspired parties in São Paolo’s red-light district. After several years of living in Brazil, Thomash had begun experimenting, combining elements of house and techno with traditional Latin American sounds. Gradually, he began to connect with a diverse  community of artists scattered all over Latin America who had been doing the same thing for years, only in reverse: shaping a new, club-friendly identity for Latin American dance music by drawing inspiration from the sounds of their homelands.

The resulting music has been called Andes step, slow house, electrocumbia—names that feel too specific to capture the great breadth of its rhythmic and geographical influences. Argentine-born producer and luthier Agustín Rivaldo refers to it as “electronic folklore,” although he admits that he still hasn’t found a name for it he really likes. But Rivaldo, who records under the name Barrio Lindo and co-founded electronic folklore label Shika Shika, likes this term because, although the songs are as distinct from one another as the natural environments that inspire them, the genre as a whole is characterized by musicians probing the mythologies and cultural memories from South America’s past and reformatting them for the digital age.

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Kraut

“It’s how our generation is interpreting the music that comes from where we’re from,” says Rivaldo. “It’s inspired by traditional music and folklore, but uses the tools, technology, and inspirations that we have nowadays.” In this way, modern producers are forging another link in a timeless chain. The natural magic of mountains and jungles that informed the music of indigenous cultures now finds its way into the laptops and midi-controllers of those who currently live in those countries.

Building on the early success of Buenos Aires label ZZK—which, with releases like Chancha via Circuito’s Rio Arriba and Nicola Cruz’s Prender el Alama, helped establish electronic folklore as an internationally recognized movement—Voodoohop, Shika Shika, and other South American labels like Frente Bolivarista, Nomade Records, and Sonido Tropical continue to expose the world to electronic folklore. Producers from Switzerland, Istanbul, and Ireland are all contributing to a sound that musicians in South America started, and record labels Chill Mountain, Multi Culti, and Wonderwheel Recordings release electronic folklore from Osaka, Montreal, and New York, respectively.

“Many people from Europe and other places that aren’t from South America are getting inspired by this music, and they’re learning a lot, researching a lot,” says Rivaldo. “They like the music, and they like the sound, and they learn about it. Germany is the capital for techno and super strong, dark music, but now they’re very receptive to this very soft and light music.”

Electronic folklore also allows producers to connect with a musical consciousness in a way that’s rare outside of South America. “The most traditional European music that is well-known is classical,” he says. “But older versions of traditional European music are not well-known. Here in South America, you still find towns or provinces or places that are really traditional, where the folklore is still alive and where they are still living in the same way as a long time ago. We still have an indigenous community, and that is a really important thing that we need to take care of and to protect.”

With Shika Shika, he’s trying to do just that. In an effort to give back to the natural world that inspires the label’s sound, Rivaldo’s co-founder, Robin Perkins—who produces under the name El Búho—produced A Guide to the Birdsong of South America in 2015, all of the proceeds from which were donated to Ecuadorian NGOs that do conservation work around endangered birds. Shika Shika is currently working on a pair of conservation-minded releases set to come out in the near future—one that will support Central American bird conservation efforts, and another that will aid indigenous communities in Colombia.

Below is a list of several artists from around the world who represent the diverse, spiritual, and psychedelic sounds of the electronic folklore movement. This is a list that barely scratches the surface of the many talented producers who make this music. If you’re interested in digging deeper, compilations from Urban Cosmonaut, Voodoohop, Frente Bolivarista, and Shika Shika are packed with exciting international artists who are bringing folklore to the dancefloor and beyond. 

Chancha Via Circuito

At first glance, it’s surprising that Chanca Via Circuito is arguably the most well-known artist in the electronic folklore movement. This isn’t because he’s anything less than a brilliant musician—he is. It’s because his sound is so heavily weighted to the folklore end of the equation, rather than its more accessible EDM influences. Some Chancha Via Circuito songs consist of little more than chanting, others are swaddled in wistful pan flutes, peppered with mystical rattles, or structured around prayer-like vocals. Regardless of what ingredients the Buenos Aires producer tosses into his digital cauldron, the resultant potion tends to be more cult hymn than club hit.

Still, when ZZK released Rio Arriba in 2010, it catapulted both Chancha Via Circuito and electronic folklore into the global consciousness, proving that the Latin American elements that define the genre are more than novel frills sprinkled on dance music; they’re the threads of rich musical traditions that, when given proper exposure, have the power to capture the world’s attention.

On Rio Arriba and the two albums that followed—Amansará and this year’s Bienaventuranza—Chancha Via Circuito does so much more than present an electronic version of cumbia. He approaches his tracks with an adventurous spirit. Whether he’s juxtaposing Miriam García’s folk-harmonies with a stygian two-step on “Nadie Lo Riega,”or drastically changing tempos on “Indios Tilcara,” Chancha Via Circuito reminds listeners that his music is best approached with a completely open mind, with one foot on the dancefloor and the other in a different dimension entirely.

Nicola Cruz

With his 2015 record Prender el Alma, Nicola Cruz became one of the most well-known producers in the world of electronic folklore, and with good reason. Prender el Alma is a transportative album, a journey from the mile-wide rivers to the Andean peaks of the producer’s native Ecuador that gently wraps itself around you and never lets go. In the tenuous balance of ancient and modern on “Puente Roto,” or in the ethereal dream “Colibria” weaves before delivering a bass drop that’d make any DJ salivate, Cruz’s careful synthesis of digital sounds with traditional instrumentation and rhythms paints an aural portrait of a country and continent defined by the unique coexistence of its past and present.

It’s no coincidence that Cruz’s first big break came when he landed a spot on a compilation released by Sunset & Clown, electronic producer Nicolas Jaar’s now-defunct record label. Like Jaar, Cruz’s sense for atmospheric detail and his tendency to use the medium of electronic dance music to create songs that feel far denser and more narrative than your average dancefloor tune is apparent in nearly everything he does. After following Prender el Alma with a couple EPs that found him upping the BPM and embracing a darker aesthetic, Cruz is set to release his sophomore album, Siku, on ZZK late this January.

El Búho

Crystal clear and melodically striking, El Búho’s compositions carry an otherworldly beauty that puts the producer and Shika Shika co-founder in a class of his own. Warm low ends and sparkling highs work together to create an inviting atmosphere, which he then colors with a wide variety of instruments, drawing on a vast knowledge of Latin American musical forms.

The comfort and dexterity with which El Búho navigates electronic folklore’s traditional influences belies his heritage; he was born in the U.K. and spent several years making music in Amsterdam before living for extended periods of time in Buenos Aires and, eventually, Mexico City. But buoyed by his study of and love for the rich musical cultures that lured him across the Atlantic, El Búho’s outsider perspective becomes one of his greatest assets as a musician. His music sounds like breathless entries in a travel diary. With the exception of his excellent Tamoanchan EP, the prolific producer rarely dabbles in darkness, favoring a vibrant and ebullient tone, making palpable all of the wonder, awe, and admiration of someone exploring new cultures with fresh eyes and ears.

Kurup

Asked about the sonic differences between Argentine and Brazilian electronic folklore, Thomash explains that the Argentine sound tends to be “a bit more high-energy, whereas the music coming from Brazil is a bit softer and more melancholic.” He’s quick to note that this is a big generalization, but producer Kurup supports the theory perfectly. Hailing from Brazil’s vast Cerrado region, Kurup’s weighty, downtempo tracks sound like shadows creeping across a forest floor: inexorable, mysterious, strangely alive. The Cerrado is home to the most biologically diverse tropical savannahs in the world, and Kurup’s music reflects a sense of being surrounded by a living, breathing biome. He builds his songs out of earthy kicks and faint tendrils of melody that slice through a canopy of atmospheric delays, and then populates the empty space with clicks, rustles, and rattles, evoking an environment brimming with unseen organisms. Though often very slow, Kurup’s music is prime example of how, even at a low BPM, electronic folklore is highly danceable. Stretched to a lugubrious pace, the Brazilian rhythms he employs on tracks like “Maculala” or “Bossa a la Calle” are every bit as irresistible as at more traditional tempos.

Dengue Dengue Dengue

Dengue Dengue Dengue

Peruvian duo Dengue Dengue Dengue are far and away the most eccentric act on this list, and that’s only partially due to the fact that they play all of their live shows wearing bizarre, psychedelic masks. While most electronic folklore producers blend Latin American influences with slowed-down house or techno, Dengue Dengue Dengue often look to other genres of dance music to make up the digital side of their sound, resulting in a cross-cultural patchwork of bold hybrids, all of which are anchored by the thump of molar-rattling percussion.

Dengue Dengue Dengue seem enamored with Jamaican dub and dancehall, at times sending cumbia and dub on a full-on collision course (“Serpiente Dorada”) and at other times placing some of dub’s characteristic sounds onto a backdrop of electronic folklore (“Bugutu”). Their ravenous exploration of dance music from every corner of the globe also finds them accelerating electronic folklore to juke’s blistering BPM on “Murdah,” and even sneaking the rapid-fire triplets of footwork under a lumbering cumbia beat on “The Enemy.” No matter how fast they push the tempo, or how far they venture into new territory, Dengue Dengue Dengue still manage to wreath their tracks in Latin American ritual, sending timeless sounds hurtling into the present.

Barda

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As a producer, musician, and music teacher, Barda has been an integral part of the electronic folklore scene for some time. But after several years spent releasing collaborations with fellow producers like SidiRum and Spaniol, the Buenos Aires producer has begun to carve out a specific niche for herself as a solo artist with her own, unique take on the genre. Building on the strong foundation of her 2015 debut for Fértil Discos, Barda’s 2018 release via Shika Shika, Lembrança, finds her infusing minimalist compositions and hypnotic, danceable beats with playfulness and curiosity; it’s this exploratory irreverence that sets her apart.

Throughout Lembrança, but particularly on its title track and the album-opening “Mofletes,” she stages little conversations between the digital and analog instruments, as if she’s giving them an opportunity to test each other out before eventually letting them fall in step. Little touches like these are well-suited to Barda’s generally welcoming and gentle sonic palate. But even on the darker cuts from Lembrança, like “Cuenca,” Barda manages to integrate a buoyancy into her sound without compromising the black-clad stage set by her selection of bass and kick tones.

Kraut

Much like El Búho, seasoned Dutch DJ and producer Daniel Zuur approaches electronic folklore with a palpable sense of excitement. Diving into the genre under the moniker Kraut, he produces rhythm-forward tracks that probe Latin American traditions while incorporating some of the hallmarks of European electronic dance music. The addictive stomp he conjures on “Marimba” is made all the more enthralling by his expert use of drops, curtailing and unleashing an intricate web of percussion at just the right moments. “Marimba” is exemplary of Kraut’s style: pulsing, pounding, and highly danceable. But on the occasions when the producer turns down the heat, as he does on “La Selva,” he proves himself just as capable of evoking budding plants and unfurling leaves as he is at channeling the dust-shaking echos of whatever passed for raves in prehistory.

Gama

As just 21 years of age, Rio de Janeiro’s Gama is an electronic folklore prodigy. The strength of their live DJ sets has earned them a consistent place in the line-ups of Voodoohop parties, and having released music through Osaka’s Chill Mountain, Berlin’s Urban Cosmonaut, and Rio’s Frente Bolivarista, they are already something of an international ambassador for the movement. Gama’s strength as a producer lies in their ability to transmute the sounds of Latin America into lithe club tracks that drip with an alluring mischievousness. “Sagitta,” their contribution to German label and collective Urban Cosmonaut’s first compilation, is a psychedelic lure, reeling the listener into a slow techno groove that is nearly impossible to escape. With several albums lined up for release through Voodoohop, Gama’s addictive breed of downtempo dance tracks is set to continue its laid back world takeover.

-Ben Grenrock

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