Drums, Dreads and Orishas

Sunday at church
Last Sunday, I attended morning mass at Nossa Senhora do Rossario dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People), a catholic church built by slaves for slaves. The mass I witnessed was accompanied by drums, ago-go bells, and other percussion instruments. I must say, this experience was the closest I have come to Congo sonics. In fact, the music was very reminiscent of Missa Luba – a 1960’s recording of a catholic mass in a cathedral in Brazzaville. I own the recording on vinyl.

On arrival the first evening, we offered libations – poured rum on the floor for the spirits, for the Orishas, for the ancestors. The Congo connection was summoned, imagined and was sincerely sought.

Here, thus far in Salvador, Bahia the digitalised wax cylinder sonic Kongo I, carried back to Angola and collaboratively built upon in Luanda, has not yet been heard – that is not witnessed by my ears. I have heard drum patterns to summon Yorùbá Orishas; I’ve also heard the rustle of skirts from the Candomble women devotees dressed in white giving popcorn benedictions. Domingo (that’s Sunday), I attended morning mass at Nossa Senhora do Rossario dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People). It’s a catholic church built for slaves by slaves who formed a brotherhood in 1704. Membership to the brotherhood was strictly limited by an agreement with the Archbishop (D. Sebastião Monteiro) to Africans born south of the Equator from Congo and Mozambique, as well as their descendants. Restriction to membership of the brotherhood became obsolete with the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 and was extended to all Brazilians of African decent in 1896.

The mass I witnessed was accompanied by drums, agogo bells and other percussion instruments. I must say, this experience was the closest I have come to Congo sonics; in fact, the music was very reminiscent of Missa Luba – a 1960’s recording of a catholic mass recorded in a cathedral in Brazzaville. I own the recording on vinyl.

The lively procession after the service carried a deity of a saint through the streets, accompanied by an ensemble. It was very reminiscent of the Sunday 2nd line parades I experienced last year in New Orleans.

From my balcony I constantly hear bells and triangles of all description, which accompany chants to buy eggs, water, cakes and other products here on the streets of the Santo Antonio Barrio (neighbourhood) where I live. It is here that the Revolta dos Males slave revolt occurred, inspired by the 1791 Toussaint l’Ouverture led Haitian revolution. It consisted of six hundred plus Hausa Muslim slaves who rebelled against the Portuguese authorities. The well-documented uprising occurred in January 1835 during the last ten days of Ramadan. The revolt was fought by both slaves and freedmen, which begs the question: can we call it solely a slave revolt? The history of revolts in Bahia, and the new world in general, is long. In order to even begin to comprehend the sonics embedded in the complex race and class structures of Bahia it has been absolutely necessary to do extensive socio-historical research.

“If African slaves are treacherous Creoles and Mulattoes are even more so, and if not for the rivalry between the former and latter, all political power and social order would crumble before a servile revolt.” – Luis dos arcos, Governor of Bahia,
1814.

Noteworthy here is that Brazil won independence from the Portuguese in 1822.

There was a strong division amongst Afro-Brazilian born and African-born slaves. The master class used Creoles and Mulattoes to control slaves; in fact, Africans could not acquire freedom as easily as Creoles and Mulattoes. By using Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, many slaves escaped and created rebellion groups. These runaway groups formed communities known as Quilombos and Macombos.

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I experienced ÀRÀKÁ – a black Queer collective that hails from a local Comunidades. I attended Quaseilhas, their somewhat abstract Afro-futurist performance sung and acted in Yorùbá at the Forte Do Barbalho.

In the built-up urban environment of the busy seaport of Salvador, earning money was extremely important for individual slaves, as it could mean a way to buy oneself out of captivity. Slaves and free people of colour expanded their creativity in devising strategies of survival, resistance, solidarity and struggle. The most organized of these groups was the Muslim community, comprising mainly the Hausa people from Nigeria. The Ewe and the Yorùbá people were also very active as leaders in organized rebellions and revolts. It should be noted that there was considerable conversion to Islam during this period, but no churches were torched in any of the revolts; In fact, we read that a strain of Jihadisim existed, but the goal was physical and political liberation coupled with religious autonomy.

Shadism, as we now call it, was in full operation by the Portuguese Colonial Project. In 1884, a group of frightened slave-owners estimated that four hundred plantations in the Bahia area housed only six whites and Mulattoes for every one hundred slaves.

The house slave who poisoned her master’s family, had first to become the family cook: the runaway slaves who created viable communities needed to learn the techniques of cultivation in an alien environment: the slaves who plotted armed revolts in the marketplace, had first to produce for the market and to gain permission to carry their product there.

Mestiçagem (miscegenation) was later interpreted as a mark of national singularity and as a possible solution for the race problem. The de-politicization of race in Brazil and its supposed racial democracy is a fallacy. The mythic melting pot is cracked; it holds no water. There is a major absence of black representation in the government. The voice of racial politics has been stymied. Blacks have been granted the role of ‘specialists of expressive culture’ – what I might term the long parade – which, in a nutshell, has led to the fetishisation of the black subject as entertainer, minstrel, musician.

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Quaseilhas – performance by black Queer collective ÀRÀKÁ.

I only saw and heard one berimbau (a single-string percussion instrument, a musical bow) in Luanda. It was the one that Kabuenha performed with, whilst singing in his native Kimbundu, after depicting the Tchokwe Sansas with dried red earth, transformed to dust, poured on the theater stage. Here, in creolised Salvador, I’ve seen hundreds of Angolan instruments, berimbau’s, cuica’s and reco-recos in all of their various sizes hanging in stores, nicely arranged and all up for sale, but I didn’t find a single one in Luanda. I was informed that, if I was lucky, I might find traditional musical instruments in the rural areas. My dream of buying a Sanza (Kalimba Thumb Piano) was thwarted; but hey, ironically, I often find them on my Belgian flea market trips.

The construction of invented ancestral traditions rooted in genuine African cosmologies, mythologies, and other belief systems, ably accompanied by the necessary paraphernalia needed to perform the rituals, is to be found in many locations in the transnational African Diaspora: the Trinidadian Carnival and the New Orleans Mardi Gras being two examples. Here in Salvador, Bahia, the marketing and merchandising of a re-imagined Africa have long been exploited. The commodification of Bahia African-ness is in full flow; tourists flock to experience and take home a little diluted souvenir.

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Flyer from the festival Arte Como Luta – an excellent subversive performance festival, which ran from August 21 thru 26, hosted by the Goethe Institute of Salvador (Bahia).

Hard-edged inner-city urban music tropes – those with the vertebrae-wobbling bass lines – have not as yet been experienced in this torso of mine. Though I hasten to add, thus far, I have only trod the asphalt pavements, not the dusty paths of the Comunidades (slums). But I have experienced ÀRÀKÁ – a black Queer collective that hails from a local Comunidades. I attended Quaseilhas, their somewhat abstract Afro-futurist performance, sung and acted in Yorùbá, and presented at the Forte Do Barbalho as part of the festival Arte Como Luta. It was an excellent subversive performance festival, which ran from August 21st thru 26th, hosted by the Goethe Institute of Salvador, Bahia. Another performance, held last Friday at their gallery, consisted of throwing a mixture of menstruation blood and urine onto the Brazialian flag, followed by painting the word censorship on the four walls of the gallery space. The radical position that the Goethe Institute have adopted in supporting the local queer and Black community in Bahia is exemplary and highly commendable. Apparently, an engaged radical stance at the Goethe Institute in Salvador is coming from a long tradition. During the 1970s, there was a very engaged director who offered a platform for progressive, radical expressions of protest contra to a stringent dictatorship that was then in place. It has been reported internationally that people have been murdered for being queer in Brazil, but the traits of inclusion are often witnessed in public spaces.

Everywhere I go I see dreadlocked sistrin and bredrin; reggae, dance hall and dub have been wholeheartedly embraced in Bahia and are to be heard in both pure form and a fusion with the various Brazilian genres of music such as Bossa and Samba.

I’ve heard that tropical exotica type (Tropicália Esotérico) – you know, the type that’s almost whispered, barely sung. It’s muzak, piped through holiday resorts and hotel foyers, principally to create a gentle, numbing distraction, aimed to make you think that you’ve arrived at some utopian melting pot – an oasis where everyone sips cocktails and wears cute selfie smiles. Class and racial stratification are ever present in the syncretised Lusophone tapestry on which we gaze; and let me add, it is very much intertwined in the diverse sonic thumbprint of Brazil. On this, my second Lusophone stop, the coloniser’s culture is present everywhere. Here the locals make a point to inform you that they speak Portuguese.

It’s like I’m following a sonic winding cortege; with the few contacts and clues I’ve been given, I’m attempting to find my way through a complex labyrinthine of chapters of Bahian narratives, past, present, and future. Please wish me well.

At the closing party last Saturday, an improv face-off was staged. The radical position that the Goethe has adopted in supporting the local queer and Black community in Bahia is exemplary and highly commendable. Apparently, an engaged radical stance at the Goethe in Salvador comes from a long tradition. During the 1970s, there was a very engaged director who offered a platform for progressive radical expressions of protest contra a stringent dictatorship that was then in place.

Frequencies of Survival 

Here, one can witness the polar opposites of the vertical constructions on the Luanda cityscape. Many of the skyscrapers seen in this shot (left) are in fact ghost buildings. On the other side of town, the horizontal structures are being suffocated in the red dust and bulldozed down.

In the locating, unpacking, and mapping of music from Angola, one must also unpack the innumerable forced migrations of its people. The estimated total count reports that a quarter of the slaves exported from Africa came from Angola. Those Atlantic sea-soaked, invisible sonic scores, archived/etched in the minds, bodies, and souls of the millions of slaves, were indeed very much preserved. The condition and evolution of that which has remained in contemporary Angola is what I’m attempting to unpack here.

Like everybody in Sambizanga, this man carries a canister of water. The business of water is massive: homes in the asphalt areas are forced to have their own water pumps and generators for electricity.
Like everybody in Sambizanga, this man carries a canister of water. The business of water is massive: homes in the asphalt areas are forced to have their own water pumps and generators for electricity.

The long history of antiphonal exchange and sonic legacy is ever present in the contemporary musics that are witnessed here today; for instance during the yard party that was held the other night one building up from mine. It was in full force til around 4:30 in the morning. The dynamics expressed in the cacophony of distorted, competing conversations and the distortion of the Kuduru beats emanating from a distorted sound system are very much akin to the distortion witnessed in the late 19th/early 20th century digital copies of the phonograph wax cylinder recordings that I have returned (brought back) to this country and in turn borrowed as a fluid foundation on which to create a new African/Diasporian music. Kuduru does not have the sub bottom-end dub sensibility of musics like Dancehall, Grime, or Hip Hop – sure, it’s there, but it’s just not as chakra rumbling. There is an unnerving high-end screech tendency, which is situated somewhere in the max disturb zone; it’s that frequency that screams for change. It demands recognition of the Musseque dwellers, the disenfranchised – that sector of the population that has no running water, that wades in clouds of dust to fetch water, that is forced to syphon electricity from telegraph poles. It demands recognition of those who barely exist in the frequencies of survival. It screams to upset and topple the elite here; it calls for an even distribution of wealth.

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No running water in Sambizanga, but a whole lotta Coca Cola, Sprite and Fanta.

The inhumane torture, the brutality and horror of many, many years of war have impacted its people with a myriad of creolised complexities pre- and post-independence. On that note, worth more than just a mere mention is the celebrated band Ngola Ritmos – created in 1947 – that chronicled and rallied against colonial rule with songs sung in their native Kimbundu language, to the great annoyance of the PIED – the Portuguese secret police. The band leader, Liceu Viera Dias, was a founding member of the MPLA. Dias and co-founding member of the band, Amadeu Amorin, were arrested in 1959 and deported to the Tarrafal Prison on Cape Verde and remained incarcerated there for over nine years. In 1978, internationally renowned visual artist and filmmaker Antonio Ole made a film, O-Ritmos-do-N’gola-Ritmos, which featured the band. The film was censored in Angola for eleven years. In fact, it was Agostinho Netto – the first president of a then independent Angola – who lifted the ban, making it possible for Angolans to view the film.

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I have always been blown away by the unique sense of style that exists in many disenfranchised Black neighbourhoods. The elegance of the clothes, hair styles and beauty products is amazing, Like my mother used to say to me, “Even if you don’t have a penny, never look like it.“

With the various Congo legacies and the weight of drastic conflicts, a very specific brand of Angolan Rock and Death Metal came into existence, coming out of cities like Wambu and Benguela. The award-winning band M’Vula – the most prized Nu Metal Rap/Rock band of Angola – won the All Africa Music award consecutively in 2015 and 2016. It’s kinda logical – in fact, it makes total sense – that this firebrand of rock is conceived in a country whose rural landscape is pockmarked, literally scattered with un-detonated land mines; and whose national lingua franca is the language of the colonial master. Yes, it’s Portuguese – voted in by the people. Please note: it could have been Kimbundu. Many folks here can no longer speak their indigenous languages. Cosmopolitan colonial capitals imposed a self-loathing. Accents and command of language have always been social signifiers and an important element in the stratification of race, class and gender politics.

When I hear the counterpoint syncopation of distorted guitar lines, the condition and evolution of that which has remained in Angola is what I want to unpack. Then, in turn, I look at the oeuvre that was forced – transplanted – from the 16th century on.

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Last day in Sacerdote’s studio. Here, Silas is rendering the Afro-Sonic Mapping album files for the Radio Vial Studio recording sessions.

Here in Luanda on Sunday the 19th – the day of my departure – I reflect on my initial impression of this divided urban sprawl. After three weeks of on-the-ground, intense interaction, so to speak, what have I been able to unravel? What will I depart with and what have I contributed to the varied clusters of folk that have opened their doors and hearts for me to glimpse the conditions of their syncretism of Black Atlantic music, their dialectic of transnationalism?

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MC Khris rapping radical lyrics on her last Afro-Sonic Mapping recording session date at Radio Vial Studio. I was extremely honoured to be able to work with Khris: her very engaged lyrics have added the necessary subversive Angolan female voice to the project.

Alongside all of the in-your-face music, exist what I term the soft, compassionate, courteous genres of music. When you hear Semba, you understand Samba. Hey, the Berimbau and Quica, two Brazilian musical instruments that are synonymous with Brazil, are in fact Congolese-Angolan instruments, and the lull of Bossa has its roots in Angola. And that leads me to the next stop on this Afro-Sonic Mapping voyage: Salvador, Brazil.

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Nuff respect and gratitude to Lumony Zaidy and Zinilda Pafila, who were in the studio complex rehearsing with their band and kindly accepted to collaborate with us on some of the background vocals. Thank you!

Interview with Antonio Ole

Excerpt from an interview and studio visit with Antonio Ole last Saturday at his downtown Luanda studio.

Ole talks in depth about the 11-year censorship of his celebrated 1978 film O-Ritmo-do-Ngola-Ritmos and his relationship with Liceu Viera Dias, founding member of Ngola Ritmos, a notorious Angolan band created in 1947. Ole recounts his firsthand experiences of Angola during the dusk of Portuguese Coloniality, on the eve of independence, reflecting on meeting Agostinho Netto – the first independent Angolan president – and recalls the atrocities meted out by the South African mercenaries during the 27-year-long revolution – the longest war in African history.

Session at Radio Vial Studio

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MC Khris, Activist Rapper representing Angolan women in righteous flow.
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Bony, owner and head engineer at Radio Vial. I’m sooo lucky, as he is not only deft at his craft, but also speaks perfect English.
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MC Khris working on some lyrics.
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The legendary Congolese guitarist and Zapeur Teddy N’singui gracing the Afro-Sonic Mapping tracks with his own brand of criss-cross syncopated grooves.

Unthreading Thoughts on the Riot in My Head

Treason, uprisings, riots and revolts.
Manifestation mais oui yes walk la manif on your bare hands of reason
the creeds on the banners, and the slogans all flutter,
the chants ricochet off the buildings and collide with the cold biting northern wind.
Not incognito, We, we traverse terrains très un-still with
the old detonated land mines of some near-forgotten coup d’état.
Those cosmopolitan Babylon City pavements are tremendously loaded.
Loaded with the daily trundle of footsteps swathed in, in, in some brand or fake brand
the masses that flocked to the capital to seek their fortune
only to find unemployment at the shrine of the Job Centre
and those that fly in, in private jets to exploit those at that very same shrine.
You’re not encouraged to, but you might want to Ne go she ate,
Negotiate with what? with who? negotiate to unravel a crowded future loaded with fossilised burdens.
Yet we all witness the full moon, we all swim the oceans, we all make love,
we all have the propensity to love and be loved.
When the patriarchal stalagmite crumbles into dust and the ying and yang unite
then we might begin to see the light at the end of the long winding tunnel.
– Satch Hoyt, 2018

Tuesday afternoon at Fortaleza de São Miguel

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Tuesday afternoon at Fortaleza de São Miguel – the 16th century, Portuguese-built fort – after a long lunch with my good friend, Angolan visual artist Kiluanji Kia Henda. A part of Kiluanji’s practice investigates his country’s colonial history. Kiluanji’s knowledge and analysis of the post independence period is really impressive, and has led to the creation of bodies of very informative and visceral works. More on Kiluanji and the Revolution later.
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One room in the fort contains floor to ceiling friezes surrounding the room. This one depicts the 1483 arrival of the Portuguese. As Kiluanji so succinctly put it, ‘up to that moment, no white person had stepped onto Angolan / Congolese soil; that was the moment which ushered in centuries of conflict and the trauma is still ever present.’
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Depicted here is the first meeting of Queen Nzinga and Portuguese dignitaries. The Portuguese saw fit to not offer a throne for Nzinga to be seated, so she ordered one of her maid servants to offer their back as her throne.
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The Baptism of Queen Nzinga: she later denounced Christianity and remained a vehement enemy of the Portuguese until her death. She is an extremely important figure in Angolan history.

Humble Obeisances

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I received this sad news from Jared Nickerson, bass player of Burnt Sugar – The Arkestra Chamber.

I would like to send out my condolences to all of the Tate family on the passing of Pops Tate, departed to join Florence: the parents of my very good friend Greg Tate – the writer, cultural critic and band leader of Burnt Sugar. Two amazingly enlightened souls, who graced this planet with their presence and who remained woker than woke – fully engaged in the struggle.

Please accept my humble obeisance.
RIP Pops Tate.

Sonic Resistance

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When we talk of resistance music in Angola we must reach back to 1483. That’s the year in which three Portuguese caravels sailed into Cabinda at the mouth of the Congo River. The Pende have an oral saying, which I’m sure was sung, that chronicles that very ominous occasion.

“One day the Tukusunia Tungunga (white men) arrived in ships with wings, which shone in the sun like knives. They fought hard battles with the Ngola and spat fire at him. They conquered his saltpans and the Ngola fled inland to the Lukala River. Some of his bolder subjects remained by the sea and when the white men came they exchanged eggs and chickens for cloth and beads. The white men came yet again. They bought us maize and cassava, knives and hoes, groundnuts and tobacco. From that time until our day the whites brought us nothing more but wars and miseries.”1

Kingdoms and tax systems were firmly in place long before the arrival of the Portuguese. Politics, power, war, dogma, and domination were no strangers to the peoples of the Congo region.

In an interview I conducted last week with Angolan scholar and journalist Ras Kilunj, he mentioned the last interview he conducted with the late Jaka Jamba (1949-2018): a politician, intellectual and revolutionary. Kilunj refers to Jamba’s chronological four-step breakdown of the associated protest music of the various Liberation movements in Angola.

The first was the pre-independence era; the UNITA period of resistance to the Portuguese colonial presence. There were many songs of protest against colonial domination – not all were sung in Portuguese (the national language). A good example is a folk song sung in Luvale, Salazar Kuputuoku Mona Bonguetu, which translates to mean Salazar sits in Portugal looking at our riches. He gave them to his children, but ours were not taken into account. The topics found in Angolan folk songs have informed and mobilised the grass roots masses, enabling them to find their voice and recount their struggles in the urban and rural areas.

The second step was songs with a more militant military flavour that also chronicled aspects of Angolan history. With the need for a prolonged resistance, the goal of these songs was to mobilise the general population. UNITA, Jamba’s party, took a clear and decisive stand by creating a national song book with traditional themes and included it in their manifesto of culture of the people. These helped win more recruits from FAPLAS, FALAS, and ELNA.

The third step was the live reciting of engaged national poetry, some of which was translated into song and widely broadcast on regional radio. The propagandistic role that radio played in the mobilisation and politicisation of the masses will be investigated later in this essay.

The fourth step was songs that reached the masses through the church. The Africanisation of Christianity in Angola has roots that reach far back into the early 16th century – the Mani Kongo Ngola was baptised Dom Afonso. The UNITA party engaged Henriques Capingala Sukakuetchu, an organ player whom Jaka Jamba considered an important personality, who was able to combine religious songs with the concerns for the liberation of Angolan people from colonial repression, which was then in full force.

Music has and always will accompany every revolution; when the call for change is announced, it’s the artists who herald in that change. Music, dance, theater, literature, and cinematography all play a major role in bringing about revolutionary change. Here in Angola, whenever I open up a conversation on the subject of resistance music the first reference given is Semba music. Some of its main protagonists are David Ze, Lilly Tchiumba, Sofia Rosa, Teta Lando, Elias Diarimueco, to name a few. Bonga, Waldemar Bastos, and Paulo Flores are now living abroad in Portugal. All mentioned above were an extremely important force and vital element in bringing about change. Marissa Mormon describes 1961-1974 as The golden years of Angolan music. After 1975, music was used as a nation-building tool: Music became politicised: Music served as a template for independence.

In Sambizanga, which is one of the most celebrated Musseques/slums in Luanda and from which many important people hail (i.e., the former President, Eduardo dos Santos), the sound of resistance is a multi-layered crescendo, resplendent with myriad cacophonies and melodies, dominated by the gritty, grinding sounds of on-the-edge survival. The diversity of the merchandise for sale and the animation of the vendors in the Sao Paulo urban market place is quite mind boggling. Stalls are placed within one foot of each other – one is literally obliged to turn sideways to enter some of the narrow alleys. Once inside, one witnesses every Chinese manufactured copy of top brands under the sun: Gucci, Fendi, etc. That’s the inner core on the square; lining the outer periphery are more vendors, either seated on the floor or on plastic stools, selling fresh fish, chicken wings, used clothes and shoes, vegetables, florescent sneaker laces, etc. When it gets dark, they switch on their little LED lamps, or ignite kerosene-soaked rags, which spew out of the neck of beer bottles, accompanied by mid-range calls to buy buy buy. This frantic urban performance is within walking distance from my abode. The distorted megaphone calls beckon one to purchase wares; the clash of the un-megaphoned voices in unison with the throngs of people moving thru the streets like conveyor belts, accompanied by their competing conversations, with the click of flip-flops and sliding feet, literally creates big A-tonal chord clusters.

The candongueiros’ announcements of places they travel to are boisterous and penetrate the air. In general, the noise pollution reaches deafening decibels. The frenzied urban drone tones of this city occupy unique dynamic frequencies. Let’s just say that after spending ten days in Luanda it’s really no surprise to me that Kuduru music was born here, because Kuduru’s extreme 140 BPM, armed with all its distortion and spat-out lyrics, existed way before the music format was invented – way before the term was coined.

1 G. L. Haveaux, La Tradition Historique des Bapende Orientaux.

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Last session in Sambizanga

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Skiminy, a Congolese Kuduru producer, visited the studio last night. He, Sacerdote and myself created a fierce beat, then I played a bass line. That, folks, is #11. I now have 11 foundations, so to speak, on which to add layers in Salvador and Lisbon; but the Congo element in Luanda is far from over. Tuesday we move to the next level with former Franco guitarist Teddy N’sugui. I will also add some spoken word by inviting some MCs to spit lyrics on certain tracks – more on that when it happens.
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Sacerdote and I in the studio. The last session was long: from 11am to 12:30pm – lots of rendering and laying down track #11.
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Silas, the engineer, with a friend of the studio and some of the budding DJs/MCs. There has been a constant flow of neighbourhood children drifting in and out of the studio. Their presence became part of the process and they kept it realer than it already was. Sacerdote and his team are doing an amazing job mentoring kids and youth from the local community. Sacerdote was born in the house that is now the studio. His mum turned up after church on Sunday.