Dance Duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul Want to Make You Move, Laugh, and Squirm

In this Rising interview, the Belgium-based artists discuss the power of humor and camp in sugarcoating complex ideas.

Laughter might be a universal language, but not everyone across cultures will crack up at the same thing. When they made their North American live debut in February 2020, Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul, the provocative pop duo from Ghent, Belgium, were surprised to find that the lower Manhattan audience roared after every line, which wasn’t the case back home. “Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me this,” Adigéry sang with faux humility to the amused crowd. “I felt like I was doing comedy with Charlotte, because people really resonated with the lyrics,” recalls multi-instrumentalist Pupul over a recent video call. During their time on the road, they found that Anglophone audiences paid more attention to the words sung by Adigéry, while Dutch and German fans were focused on the beats. “But that’s also nice,” Pupul says, “to see people dance and just vibe.”

These memories are top of mind as Adigéry and Pupul prepare the live set behind Topical Dancer, their electrifying new album that will surely delight and confound audiences on tour this spring. The project, which is mostly in English with some French and Dutch, revels in teasing out the inherent absurdity of navigating a world shaped by colonialism. (Adigéry has roots in the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe, while Pupul is of European and Chinese descent.) Through galaxy brain-level punchlines and Adigéry’s satirical vocal delivery, the duo highlights the nonsensicality of both racist insults and the pursuit of political correctness, and how words and concepts get distorted in translation (“Huile Smisse,” the French pronunciation of the name Will Smith). These songs pose the question: When everything—from art to language and determinants of identity—can be constantly referenced, appropriated, and given new contexts, does anything have true meaning?

Uninterested in moralizing or finger-pointing, they see humor as a way to “invite people to join our conversation,” Pupul says. But the main vehicle for their dialogue is the album’s irresistibly danceable beats, built on a constellation of influences from the exuberant Caribbean styles of zouk and compas, Kraftwerkian electropop, and the funky dance-rock stylings of their DEEWEE label heads Soulwax, aka David and Stephen Dewaele, who helped write and produce.

Adigéry and Pupul are also students of pop, drawn to stars who used the bizarre and avant-garde to make larger-than-life statements on culture and identity. Tucked between Topical Dancer’s addictive basslines and inquisitive rhythms are art-world references to René Magritte, nods to Dadaism, and lyrics inspired by the cultural criticism of Reni Eddo-Lodge and Ayishat Akanbi. The duo list off the B-52’s, Grace Jones, David Byrne, David Bowie, and OutKast as major touchstones. “We love camp, we love glamor,” Adigéry says. “We love art that really knows how to combine absurdism with humor to be unique and thought-provoking.”

Pupul is reminded of a recent interview, where a white Belgian journalist confessed that she was dancing to Topical Dancer’s “Blenda” in her kitchen and was suddenly made aware of the heaviness of the lyrics when she caught herself singing, “Go back to your country where you belong.” “That’s how we work: We sugarcoat the message, but we put it in your mouth,” he chuckles, pretending to hold a lollipop in his fist and shoving it toward the screen.

When we speak a few weeks after Topical Dancer’s release, the two are fielding press in three different languages in between tour rehearsals. They are often joined by Adigéry’s seventh-month-old baby Rocco, who has already begun to pry microphones out of his mother’s hand and “fight to the music,” as Pupul puts it, imitating a cranky baby stretching and punching the air. Today, they’re speaking from the book-lined home office that Adigéry shares with her husband while Rocco sleeps downstairs, leaving the two collaborators to let loose and tease each other, coming off like bickering siblings who express affection through playful insults.

Case in point: When Pupul admits that he doesn’t recall the moment they met, Adigéry won’t let him live it down. “I’m very memorable to this guy,” she scoffs, explaining that they first chatted on the terrace of a Ghent jazz café around 2013. The two properly connected two years later, when Soulwax paired them up for the soundtrack of the 2016 cult film Belgica. At the time, Adigéry was in the early stages of her punky solo project WWWATER, having played in bands since she was a teen, and Pupul was gearing up to share his solo debut in between releases from Hong Kong Dong, his synth-pop band with his sister and brother-in-law.

“We realized that we felt as if we knew each other for a long time,” Adigéry recalls of her first long conversations with Pupul. Their time in the studio went so smoothly, they ended up making four songs in four days. The moody electronica tracks were released two months later as Adigéry’s self-titled 2017 EP. “We didn’t have any ambitions,” Pupul says. “The both of us went back to our other projects, and [Soulwax] were like, ‘Hey, let’s make a second one,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’”

The nudge led to the duo’s 2019 breakout EP, Zandoli, finding them fans among Jamie xx, Fever Ray, Iggy Pop, and Neneh Cherry, who invited them on tour. They honed their tongue-in-cheek style with singles like “Paténipat,” a gwo ka and techno track whose Creole hook is about a gecko, and “High Lights,” an ode to the transformational power of synthetic wigs. They also invented an origin story for Pupul, saying he’s a “descendant of the first and only wave of Chinese migration to Martinique” in the project’s press release, as if to create a deeper mythology behind their bond. While it is true that Indian and Chinese indentured servants were brought to the Caribbean, Adigéry explains, “We wanted to spice up our bio because we’re from Ghent. It sounded a bit boring.”

Though they frequently navigated instances of racism, both Adigéry and Pupul have fond memories of growing up in the Belgian capital, an arts and culture hub whose medieval architecture gives the city a magical air. Adigéry’s mother Christiane, who appears on Topical Dancer’s “Ich Mwen,” owned the first cocktail bar in Ghent, called Madinina, after one native name for Martinique before Christopher Columbus reputedly fucked it up. Musicians like Dire Straits and Eric Clapton came through the bar. One of her mom’s friends had a private zoo with camels and lions, and an ex-boyfriend lived in a beautiful old aristocratic manor. “We were surrounded by really cool people from all over the world,” Adigéry says.

It was her mom who taught Adigéry to use “humor as a coping mechanism,” as well as how to sing and harmonize, a form of communication in a household filled with music. Adigéry frequently gets compliments on her silvery voice, but she says it’s “just a means of telling the story.” She elaborates, “It’s like if I was a chef and somebody was in a restaurant and said, ‘Wow, your kitchen is really nice.’ No, the kitchen is where I make it, but do you like the result? Do you like the story I’m telling?”

Pupul was born Boris Zeebroek and raised by a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and his Belgian father Kamagurka, a well-known cartoonist and comedian, who has also made music and TV shows. His dad would “experiment” with him and his older sister when they were very young, playing songs by weirdo heroes like the Residents, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. “It was a lot of crazy, weird, scary music for a baby, but I must have gotten something out of it because it’s still music I feel close to,” he says. Around 13, he picked up the guitar and started writing his own tunes.

Though many people assume that his comedic sense is from his dad, Pupul is quick to bring up his late mother. Chuckling, he recalls an early memory of her standing up to racists who called out in the street, “Ching chung,” to which she responded in a deadpan, “Chung,” before driving away. When he had to decide on an alias for his solo project, he chose Bolis, as his maternal grandmother would call him, and Pupul, a silly sound that his dad would repeat to help him fall asleep. “Seeing both of those names next to each other, it felt like paying homage to both sides.”

Now set on being creative partners for the foreseeable future, Adigéry and Pupul prioritize play in their process. “Anything’s possible and there are no mistakes,” Adigéry says of working with Pupul, while he adds that her collaborative spirit has helped him shed self-doubt. Together, they use levity on Topical Dancer to release some of the heaviness of the world, not dissimilar to a school of thought that believes laughter can be a form of meditation, made popular by the new-age artist Laraaji. As artists who make dance music, though, Adigéry and Pupul understand how it can also be a communal way to shake off life’s weariness. They imply as much on “HAHA,” a house banger that reveals how easily the sound of a good cackle can slip into a choked sob. As the sound is chopped up into the underside of a hi-hat pattern, Adigéry and Pupul blur the lines between laughter, language, and music once more.

Pitchfork: When you first started working together, what were the things you connected on the most?

Charlotte Adigéry: I remember Boris asking, “Is there something that inspires you right now?” I played the Slits, and he also loved them. I said, “I don't necessarily want to make post-punk music, but it’s more the approach to music, which was very childlike, playful, and intuitive.”

Bolis Pupul: They’re not masters on guitar, but they have this DIY approach, where they use their guitar as a percussion instrument, or sing out of key, or do weird harmonies and funny rhythms. Those are the things that inspire us: using your imagination. We don’t have to be perfect musicians to make music. We can make music like Charlotte. She plays guitar like a 7-year-old.

CA: [Laughs] And he means that as a compliment.

BP: Sometimes you want to be able to play freely without having a concept or knowing all about the instrument. And Charlotte, because she’s not that smart, she uses it as a percussion instrument. I had to tell her there’s strings on it and you can make melodies, but no, she was hitting it and said, “I’m going to make a beat.” Then I just record her, and we make a song.

CA: It’s for his ego. Actually, I’m a virtuoso on the guitar, but I pretend.

As two people of color who grew up in Ghent, you’ve had to kind of uncover this colonial history of how your people got there. Was there a time in your life you started unpacking your identity?

BP: For me, it was when my mother passed away. I was 22. In my childhood, I was bullied a lot because I was Asian, so I wasn’t proud of it. I just wanted to blend in. My dad was famous and my mother was from China, so I didn’t want to be like, double special. When I got older, I became more self-aware and started meeting other people. I didn’t see it as a restriction or something bad anymore.

So when my mother died when she was 49, I obsessed about China and Hong Kong. I wanted to go back, and I hadn’t been there my entire life. Eventually I went there and looked for the place where my mom was born. Now, it’s weird to say, I’m just totally okay with it. You can’t hurt me by telling me I’m Chinese. The funny thing is, so many times when people were yelling something racist to me like, “You dirty Chinese.” I was like, “Dammit, he’s right.” [Laughs] Anyway, Charlotte, how about you?

CA: I was aware of [my heritage] early on because of my mom. I remember her saying once that she really wanted me to grow up in a Caribbean household. Also, I was always discriminated against because people had something against Africans. I made it clear to them that I wasn’t African, as if being African was a bad thing, but in my head [back then] it was. That idea was confirmed often, because when I told them, “No I’m from Martinique, I’m from Central America,” then I was okay. It was like, “Ah, ooh, [you’re] exotic but not African, or not that Black.”

My mom took me to Martinique a lot. Every time I went back, I was like, “Oh, what a relief,” because I looked like everybody else there. I love the culture and the food, everything about the island. I was so proud of it, but I remember hating my last name. I wanted to have this white name, because Adigéry sounded too exotic. I also remember looking at my face and thinking, I wish I was blonde and white. Then, being optimistic, looking at my chin and thinking, At least my chin looks white. [Laughs] How does a chin even look white? It’s funny now, but actually it’s so sad to think that way when you’re small, not being able to accept who you are.

What was it like making “Ich Mwen” with your mom, and what did you want to capture about your relationship with her?

CA: We have such a tight bond, so I really wanted to capture and honor that. We talk a lot about deep things, she’s very philosophical and loves to psychoanalyze. She really gave me all of the tools to lead a good life. I was turning 30 and got married, which was a very symbolic and spiritual way of evolving, and also resolving some pain with my dad, who has Alzheimer’s. I felt like, “Okay, now you have to start to love and accept yourself.” My mom and I had conversations in the studio with Boris, because I trust him, and it was such a special moment. I asked questions about being a mother and becoming a mother, even though I didn’t have any intention of becoming a mother myself back then. But then it happened.

A lot of artists compare releasing their albums to having a child, did you feel like you were having parallel experiences with Rocco and Topical Dancer?

CA: There’s a lot of similar feelings. The anticipation, working towards it, [asking], What will the baby look like? What is the album going to be? And then sharing it with the world. I see my child and I love him and that feels so real, but the rest feels surreal. I have the same feeling with the album. You try to imagine that people are listening to it in their house or while they’re running, it feels so abstract. It’s a very joyous thing.

BP: Maybe the difference with a child is, you have to let it go slowly. An album, you have to let go very suddenly. Will it mingle or will it be a loner in some kind of record store in downtown Manhattan?

What do you think good dance music should do besides making people dance?

BP: Uplift their spirits. Also help them let go. When I start to dance, I have to let it go. I have to lose a bit of shame. I’m getting better at it, at least onstage.

CA: It’s the same effect as meditation. [Helping people connect] with themselves and with others. To me, having a good experience on the dancefloor is being able to be aware of the essentials in life. When you get these endorphins and you realize, Oh, this is quite a nice place, this planet, and people are actually really nice. How nice to be human.