It started with a WeChat Sight I received from my mom at 7 a.m. one morning. I squinted sleepily at the silent preview, amused by the elderly Asian woman’s adorable dance moves. Then the music kicked in, and I woke up fast. The woman was dancing on a sidewalk somewhere in Thailand, but the Portuguese rapping and the beatbox beat were unmistakably Brazilian.
This is the kind of world-spanning electronic music thing I live and skip meals for. I spent all my free time over the next two weeks investigating.
The music I care about the most hasn’t settled on an umbrella label, but I know it when I hear it. To generalize wildly: it’s the kind produced by and for young people using pirated software all over the world. It’s loud enough to be its own drug, with a heavy foundation of bass to give people something to gyrate to at dance parties. It’s released online with file names that end in “FINAL DRAFT 05–12.mp3,” and is also sometimes sold in homemade mix CDs by street vendors. Often, it’s raunchy and violent enough to incite moral panic.
Well-made dance music, like design, is a highly functional form of art created in conversation with those who enjoy it. New songs are tested live at parties, often well before they’re finished, and co-evolve alongside the dance forms and fashions they accompany. Many of the genres are so tied to spaces that they’re named after their venues: dancehall, ballroom, or just (Baltimore/Jersey) “club.” The lyrics and instrumentals of the music are prone to sampling, soaking up references to mainstream music, pop culture, current events, and tech with in record turnaround time. The tracks are raw glimpses into their birthplaces, each one reflecting the place not as it was or as it would like itself to be, but as it is in the instant it’s made.
Though the sounds and contexts of these musical genres differ from place to place, they share a lot in common these days: production tools (Ableton Live, Fruity Loops, Roland drum machines), distribution platforms (SoundCloud, YouTube), and demographics (kids who want to party). These commonalities have allowed these regional club scenes to find, borrow from, and even work with each other. The dynamics of this interplay mostly reflect the globalization that connected the world in the first place, with European and American labels acting as brokers and gatekeepers. But occasionally an unexpected cross-pollination appears— like a Thai grandmother dancing to Brazilian music on the sidewalk.
The Brazilian song in the video, it turns out, is the totally run-of-the-mill funk carioca tune “A Minha Amiga Fran” by São Paulo’s MC Jair da Rocha. Like many other funk carioca songs, it features chopped up pop samples, a beatboxed tamborzão beat, and a ridiculously catchy chorus; relative to the rest of the genre, the lyrics are pretty tame. The video features MC Jair da Rocha partying with women who cloyingly demonstrate the chorus’s lyrics. (My friend Fran drops it low with her finger in her mouth all crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy…) At time of writing, the video of the original has 200k+ views, mostly from Thai fans.
The version heard in the WeChat video, though, sounds more like an electro remix of the song made by DJ Chois, a frequent collaborator of Jair Da Rocha’s. The remix, posted on YouTube 2 months before the video of the original, plops down a more straightforward beat, loses the Katy Perry sample, and throws in a lot of Dutch synths. In other words, it replaced the regional production peculiarities of the track with something safer and more palatable for international consumption.
Neither Jair Da Rocha nor DJ Chois were big stars even in Brazil when their song blew up in Thailand. According to his YouTube page, Jair Da Rocha has been a funk MC for at least the last seven years, but he doesn’t have any big runaway hits in Brazil, and his older videos have a couple thousand views at most. DJ Chois still only has a few hundred YouTube subscribers and the world’s most seizure-inducing personal website. Their online presences are plastered with numbers you can call to book them for your next party.
In other words, no one outside of São Paulo should have even heard this song. Instead, it traveled halfway around the world and blew the fuck up.
At time of writing, the most popular version of the song on YouTube is an audio-only copy of DJ Chois’s remix, titled in both Thai and Portuguese, with over 29 million views since it was uploaded in August 2014. In Thai, the song is referred to as กาโว กาโว กาโว (kāwo kāwo kāwo, which seems to be an onomatopoeia for birds cawing), a mis-transliteration of the chorus’ “lou(ca lou)(ca lou)ca”.
I’m still not sure of the specific details of how the song made it from Brazil to Thailand, though I strongly suspect that the missing chapter happened on Facebook or WeChat. If you know anything about what happened, please get in touch. I’m dying to know the whole story.
The first instance of “Kawo Kawo” I can dig up is from April 2014 — the song soundtracks a video that follows local party host dj.aun as he takes part in Songkran, the nationwide waterfight/rager that rings in the new year and is Thailand’s answer to Brazilian Carnaval. There are a handful of videos that use the song between April and August of 2014, but “Kawo Kawo” (sometimes also transliterated “kavo” or “gavo”) really became a phenomenon by September. A handful of local Thai DJs made their own remixes in the Thai 3cha style, which seems to involve speeding it up and adding more cowbell. Then the dance videos started rolling in.
Back in Brazil, Jair da Rocha started titling all of his videos in Thai and addressing his Thai fans in English. They’re really excited for him to come tour in Southeast Asia.
The popularity of the song has started leaking over to neighboring countries, too. Here, some Cambodian boys enthusiastically demonstrate their favorite dance moves to the song:
And just over a month ago, Cambodian pop star Khemarak Sereymon recorded his own version of the song complete with a set of lyrics in Khmer that turns the “louca louca louca” chant into “kalok kalok kalok” (“cocktail”) and an incredible music video.
The way dancing gathers people around both physical and digital communal spaces is what makes dance music magical.
IRL, dances take place in hard-earned public spaces ruled — and sometimes run — by young people. These dance floors are important liminal spaces where identities and communities can be explored, normalized, and established, and where young people can simply have unsupervised, escapist fun with their peers.
Online, dance floors are asynchronous and global. People share videos of themselves dancing — sometimes in groups, often in their bedrooms or living rooms — and watch each other’s videos in turn to learn new moves or just to take a hit of contagious joy straight to the amygdala.
“Kawo Kawo” itself is not the pinnacle of music production, but it’s remarkable both as the result of an unlikely global discourse and as the rallying call for some incredible dance videos. It’d be overly naïve to claim that dance music alone can breed some kind of universal empathy, but in the success of “Kawo Kawo” I see a glimmer of hope for new global connections born in the rapture of music rather than in the trauma of colonialism.
When the sun is hot and the music is blasting, whether it’s during Songkran or Carnaval, anything seems possible.
Christina Xu is an organizational designer, ethnographer, and enabler based in New York.