By Peter Margasak
Music has traditionally served both to soothe those who suffer from social and political turmoil and to unify opposition to its source. But for decades now, much like the rai singers of Algeria, the most popular artists from Angola have lived and worked abroad. In this case it’s not that they’re censored–it’s just that the country is a mess.
Portugal first occupied the southern African nation more than five centuries ago, and ultimately incorporated it into an empire that included Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe. The 1974 coup in Lisbon that toppled its dictatorship eventually caused Portugal to relinquish its African colonies, but Angola has been wracked by internal strife ever since. Although in 1992 the once Marxist ruling party won a UN-approved democratic election over the renegade forces of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, backed by the U.S. during the cold war), Savimbi never accepted the loss. UNITA launched a brutal postelection attack on government supporters, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Angolans. In subsequent years Savimbi has agreed to several power-sharing plans, but he’s reneged on every agreement, most recently at the beginning of this month. His profits from diamond mining have allowed him to build up his arsenal with black-market weapons, and many diplomats fear that the nation could soon erupt in civil war once again.
Though Angolan stars’ prominence at home has been somewhat diminished by the distance they’ve put between themselves and their native land, it has increased in this country of late. The success of Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora has brought about a strong interest in the music of Lusophone Africa, a subculture that evolved out of an old trade triangle including Portugal, Africa, and South America. In 1995 David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint issued Telling Stories to the Sea, and in 1996 the Tinder label released 1975-1995 Independencia!, a pair of compilations that suggested the breadth and wealth of music produced in the continent’s former Portuguese colonies. And last year the work of some of Angola’s most important singers became readily available in this country for the first time. Bonga’s debut album, Angola 72, is music of that country’s preliberation era, while Waldemar Bastos’s Pretaluz is a reflection of its more cosmopolitan present. But neither man lives in Angola–Bonga left in 1972 and Bastos fled ten years later.
Bonga was born Barcelo de Carvalho in Kipiri, just north of the Angolan capital of Luanda, in 1943. By the mid-60s he was leading a nationalist band called Kissueia, but more prominently he was a superb athlete, a record-setting quarter miler and a member of the Portuguese soccer team. Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, however, he maintained discreet contacts with Angolan nationalists, and in 1972 he fled to Rotterdam, home to many other Portuguese-speaking Africans. That same year he recorded Angola 72, most of which was sung in native Angolan languages. I have a translation for only one of the album’s songs, but Bonga’s lyrics are said to be ardently political. The government didn’t tolerate the proliferation of such messages inside the country, and certainly didn’t support their importation. The album’s content earned him a warrant for his arrest, so he was forced to travel between Holland, Germany, and France for the next two years. Nevertheless, songs like “Mona Ki Ngi Xica” connected with Angolan exiles. That tune is a beautiful lament about leaving one’s native country: “I’m in mortal danger / And I’ve already warned you / She will stay here and I will go away.”
Bonga’s music is imbued with same the quality that distinguishes Evora’s. It’s called saudade, and it has no exact English translation, but it suggests a deep bittersweet longing, often for one’s homeland. The sadness in Bonga’s gorgeously soulful rasp transcends language barriers. Its beauty is enhanced by spare percussion, delivering the lulling native rhythms of semba, which when transplanted to Brazil through the slave trade mutated into samba, and zesty acoustic guitar playing borrowed from Portuguese fado. Bonga, who now lives near Lisbon, continues to record and perform, but his music has become increasingly polished, incorporating a wider range of cultural influences. Nothing I’ve heard of it compares to the lean power of Angola 72–but Tinder will reissue the follow-up, Angola 74, later this spring.
On Pretaluz, his fourth album, Waldemar Bastos also continues to absorb outside influences. He was born in Sao Salvador do Congo in 1954, but unlike Bonga he stuck around long enough to see independence. (He was even imprisoned briefly by the Portuguese authorities.) Even after Portugal pulled out, the fledgling government lashed out at artists who disagreed with the regime–several were killed for their beliefs in 1977. Bastos toured several Eastern-bloc countries in the late 70s and early 80s, but eventually he decided that communists at home were more oppressive than the colonialists had been, and in 1982 he defected to Portugal. He moved to Brazil to record his first album but by the end of the decade was back in Portugal.
Pretaluz was recorded in New York with Arto Lindsay, and like Lindsay’s own work, it’s a glorious mishmash of influences. The saudade and semba are there, but also traces of Afro-Cuban rhythms (a significant Cuban force came to Angola to help fight UNITA in 1975) and Brazilian pop. “Menina” glows with the sunny sound of Caribbean zouk, and the second part of “Rainha Ginga,” an ode to a 17th-century female politician who was able to keep Portuguese colonists at bay for many years, explodes with skittering east African guitars. And “Sofrimento” is a lament sung in fado style–for which Bastos’s combination of restrained warble and soaring vibrato is a perfect fit.
Lyrically Bastos betrays a uniquely Angolan perspective: “Sofrimento,” “Morro do Kussava,” “Querida Angola,” and “Kanguru” all obviously relate to Angola’s plight, pleading for opposing factions to find peace. “Morro do Kussava,” for example, uses Mount Kussava, a hill in southern Angola that’s seen some of the most brutal fighting, in a metaphor for the nation’s suffering, but also as a symbol of hope (“You no longer possess the beauty / That you will one day possess again”).
But pop music’s ability to influence politics is admittedly limited, and so just as important to Bastos’s worldview are the songs that are both too personal and too universal to be exclusively about Angola. The only words to “Minha familia,” for instance, are, “I love my own (my wife, children, and entire family) / As I love all of the people of the world / As you love your own children.” In his liner notes, Bastos writes, “Whereas my parents who have nursed the sick and my brother who treats war’s wounded have devoted their whole lives to healing the body, I have devoted mine to healing the soul.” And Angolans aren’t the only ones in need of that kind of healing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bongo photo uncredited; Waldemar Bastos photo by Michael Daks.