A Composer For Every Country: Angola

In school, I learned about the “Cold” War, without often (or ever) stopping to ask “‘Cold’ for whom?” Angola would be one country which would find the moniker disingenuous. During Angolan attempts to gain independence, no fewer than three nationalist movements were involved. Protracted infighting made progress towards their goals difficult, but eventually, the Marxist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola won out, ruling the country from 1975. While the Soviet Union never sent actual troops, Cuba did, and none other than Che Guevara lent support during the war for independence. Coupled with the Angolan Civil War, the country saw military strife, some years more intermittent than others, for almost 40 years.

Jumping in the Way Back Machine, Angola was first settled by Khoi and San groups in the Stone Age, nomadic hunter gatherers who were eventually displaced by Bantu speaking groups around 1000BC. Prior to their fall to the Portuguese in the 19th century, the Kingdom of Kongo was the most dominant polity in the region, encompassing Northern Angola, parts of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon. 

This kingdom lasted from 1390ish to 1857, when it became a vassal state of Portugal. One modern political movement, the Bundu dia Congo, wishes to see a revival of the Kingdom of Congo. Since this would mean secession of land from four different countries, I’d say they have their work cut out for them. Especially since the leader was recently arrested.

The Portuguese themselves were never entirely successful in settling and controlling the interior of Angola. Among problems were repeated famines. One scholar, John Iliffe, noted the Portuguese suffered a famine about every 70 years, killing between ⅓-½ of the population each time. Coupled with political upheavals on the European continent and intense competition with the Dutch East India Company, Portugal had a hell of a time in the region.

Looking towards music, we find it intimately tied to dance. The semba is the oldest of current popular dances, and is performed in everything from parties to funerals. It continues to be enormously popular. The kizomba is a dance genre that emerged in the mid-1980’s and is a slower, more sensual type of dance and has developed a global popularity. Related is the kuduro, which emerged in the late 1980’s. It has a faster tempo, and the dance style is marked by a kind of herky-jerky movement and independence of limbs.

About that: in one interview, the movement in kuduro can be drawn from just about anything. It could be frogs jumping, military marches, whatever catches the dancer’s fancy. But there was one that stuck out at me. During the Angolan Civil War (and today), many people were mained and wounded by landmines. The kuduro dancers often incorporated the movements of those debilitated by these weapons in a kind of sublimation of grief. As landmines continue to be a threat in the region, the process of turning disability into dance is a practice which remains relevant to this day.

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Today's composer is José Adelino Barceló de Carvalho (b.1942), stage name Bonga. Before turning to music, Carvalho began with a career as a track and field athlete. During Portuguese Angola, this career allowed him unusual freedom during the rule of Estado Novo. He took advantage of this to bring communiations between exiled pro-independence fighters and those still in Angola. His pro-independence stance would land him in exile, as well, in the early 1970's. Post-independence, Carvalho founded "Semba Tropical," and worked to restore a music scene in the country. When Portugal left, they destroyed a great deal of musical equipment and instruments, and musicians had to start building from scratch. A prolific writer of semba and folk songs, Carvalho has 31 albums to his name. This song, Mona Ki Ngi Xica, is a lament sung from the perspective of a child fleeing Angola. It is featured on his protest album, Angola 72.