Roughly a quarter of all Brazilians identify as Protestant. Christian Nationalism is on the rise, globally, and Pentecostal religions have fast-growing political power. In fact, Evangelists hold 85 of 513 seats in Brazil’s lower house of Congress. People of African descent make up more than half of Brazil’s national population, yet they account for only eight percent of the lower house of Congress and only two out of 81 senators are black.
The increase in religious hate crimes appears to coincide with the spread of Evangelical Protestantism in Brazil. Today, of the 100 faith-based organizations subcontracted to run social programs in prisons, 81 are Evangelical churches. This has led to a swell in Evangelical gang leaders who, in Favelas, wield tremendous power of conversion and demonize Afro-Brazilian religions. A hotline dedicated to tracking religious intolerance reported that more than 30 Terreiros (Candomblé places of worship) were destroyed in fewer than 20 days during September 2017. This latter-day crusade by the Evangelists has openly demonized Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, citing them as devil worship. In the past, Candomblé practitioners would say they were Catholic in order to avoid persecution.
As promised in a previous post, I will attempt to give a brief overview of Candomblé – as this, to me, is where the Afro-Sonic Signifier is most exquisitely located. After three weeks in Salvador, my mapping of Afro Sonics has brought me to the firm conclusion that Candomblé, amongst other African-rooted religions, has acted as the incubator and preserver of the sonics that I am tracing. I am arguing that African religion is instrumental in the promotion of interethnic alliances, which have led to innumerable cultural exchanges. This is the case in Brazil, as well as other slave-migration regions of the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. Due to slavery, Brazil has the largest Black population outside of Africa: more than half of Brazil’s national population identifies as Preto (Black), Pardo (mixed race) or Negro (Black and mixed race). Another group consists of both Preto and Pardo.
Candomblé, like its sister Santería, which is practiced in Cuba, is a syncretic religion; many of the Orixás (Orishas, or deities) are also represented by Catholic saints. Each Orisha has a colour: red signifies fire and fury; white, peacefulness and tranquility; yellow, wealth and prosperity. The roots of Candomblé are clearly Yoruba, although it contains Congolese, Angolan and indigenous Amerindian elements, as well. These elements differ according to the type and location of the Terreiro in the country; there is Angola-Congo Ketu, Gege-Nagô, and Ketu–Nagô. Ketu, which traditionally uses Ifá – a sacred oral text – is the most prominent in Bahia. The core of the religion arrived in the 15th century with the Oba Babalawo priests on the Portuguese slave ships from Nigeria. The Nganga priests, meanwhile, came from Congo and Angola. The predominant African language used in ceremonies is Yoruba, though at times, depending on the branch, Mbundu and Kikongo words are also employed. The Yoruba believe that all life is sanctified by proximity and sacrifice to the essential emblems of the major deities: the clay pillar of Eshu-Elegba; the thunderstones of Shango; the bow and arrow of Oshosi; the irons of Ogun; the river stones of the goddesses Yemoja, Oshún and Oya; and the cowrie crown of Dada Bayonni appear on altars in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yemoja is the great mother of all the Orishas. Sometimes portrayed as a mermaid, she is responsible for fertility and procreation and is the Orisha of the sea. Candomblé seeks harmony with nature; it is a religion that has no Bible and teaches tolerance of all sexual persuasions. I met quite a few gay and queer practitioners whilst in Salvador, some very high on the initiation ladder, who had their own Terreiros. It should also be noted that there is an equal number of priestesses and priests.
Umbanda Branca is another Afro-Brazilian religion, which was created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s by Zélio de Moraes. Like Candomblé, it also adopts the worship of Orishas. Umbanda ceremonies are accompanied by practitioners dressed in white, chanting to Atabaque drums. Likewise, Candomblé ceremonies are also accompanied by many types of drums – played both with the palms of the hand and sticks – and instruments such as bells and claves are part of the percussion ensemble. The priest’s assistants continuously ring bells for the Orishas – some of which have four tones.
Oblations are poured and sometimes animals are used in a sacrificial ritual called Orò. The species and their mode of sacrifice are supported by beliefs and myths associated with the religion, and depend upon the preferences of the Orisha. The colour of the animal also corresponds to the colour preference of the Orisha to whom it is offered. As the myths and practices associated with Candomblé originated in Africa, some of the animal species used in sacrificial rituals either occur in parts of Africa, or are substitutes for African species. The principal reason for sacrifice is to please the Orishas in order to keep life in harmony. This is accomplished by feeding them, in a spiritual sense, through sacrifice – thereby maintaining a perfect link between mankind and the gods, and a connection between the material world (called Aiyê) and the supernatural world (called Orun). The participants, predominantly dressed in white, wear many necklaces made from materials such as glass beads, shells, mini calabashes and feathers, which correspond to the colour of their particular Orisha. The congregation continuously chants in Yoruba, escalating to otherworldly crescendos, during which the participants enter into states of ecstatic possession; in fact, possessed by their own Orisha, with whom they become one. They are then led out of the main room of the Terreiro, dressed in the garb and bedecked with paraphernalia befitting of the Orisha. At some point, Ogun’s bread, contained in a large basket, is distributed to the congregation.
*Axe is pronounced Asche. This Yoruba word meaning Soul, Light, Spirit is used in Candomblé. It is also used as a greeting, meaning Peace Be With You.
After enduring nearly three weeks walking past the Michael Jackson casa, situated just a stone’s throw away from Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People) in Pelourinho – which can be seen 23 seconds into Jackson’s video for They Don’t Really Care About Us – I finally got over all the tourists taking selfies and group shots with drummers, all the trinkets, souvenirs and the out-and-out commodification of the house as enterprise, and started to analyse, in this present moment of social and political unrest in Brazil, just how loaded Jackson’s act of shooting the video for They Don’t Really Care About Us for his 1996 album, HIStory: Past, Present, Future, was at that time – and still is now. Jackson embraced and empathized with Brazilian Blackness at the height of his lightness. His brief sonic migration to Brazil to make a socio-political statement of that magnitude remains extremely relevant today. Jackson’s gift of giving global visibility to Brazil’s racially stratified, class-based society that continues to lock black people in Favela poverty where social injustice remains in the hearts of those impoverished Brazilians, is deserving of big accolades.
Stills from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.
Musically and visually, Jackson also entered into a Transnational African Diasporian dialogue with the activist bloco-afro drum collective, Olodum. It gave them massive exposure, not only garnering worldwide success, but also facilitating their educational and social programs in Salvador. To drive home the point and give the project more political weight, he hired activist filmmaker Spike Lee to direct two videos for the song, which was the fourth single on the album (the second video was shot in a US state prison and featured inmates, as well as archival images of historic police brutality towards African Americans).
Fifteen hundred police officers and fifty locals were hired to cordon off the filming location in the Santa Marta Favela in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government was strongly opposed to Jackson shooting the video there, as it exposes Brazil’s slum conditions to the world. State authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the production of the music video. In fact, Ronaldo Cezar Coelho, then state secretary for industry, commerce and tourism, demanded editing rights. A judge had even banned filming entirely; however, the ruling was overturned.
To summarise the video, we first hear a woman’s voice softly state, “Michael, Eles não ligam pra gente”, which is the title of the song in Portuguese. In the juxtaposition in the opening shot of the famous open-armed Jesus monument above Rio de Janeiro, Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), and Jackson’s outstretched arms at the window of the Salvador house, I clearly read an activist plea, delivered with angry, provocative desperation. Thirty to forty seconds into the video, a muffled, near-inaudible voice is heard, which sounds to me as though it’s coming from a police intercom. Jackson first exits through a doorway; raising his arms, he gives the finger to the military police, and continues to make that statement throughout the video. This is, no doubt, the most politically engaged song in Jackson’s entire oeuvre, which, twenty-two years after its release, in today’s Black Lives Matter epoch, remains a timeless anti-racist anthem. The lyrics and imagery percolate into an audacious, subversive, abrasive amalgamation of all the genres of music that Jackson was embracing at the time, seamlessly adding quasi-militaristic Olodum samba drum patterns to the mix. Jackson was relentlessly defiant and jumped hurdles to enable the world to see Favela disenfranchisement – which could be lightly compared to parts of his pre- Jackson 5, Gary, Indiana upbringing. Michael Jackson flaunted his world-star position to tell the continuing narrative of race and class disparity and police brutality, which is still prevalent in contemporary Brazil and the Transnational African Diaspora at large. At the last dinner I attended in Salvador, I was informed that 37 black males were shot in one week by the Salvador police force: RIP Marielle Franco; RIP King of Pop.
They Don’t Really Care About Us [Verse 3]
Skin head, dead head
Everybody’s gone bad
In the suit, on the news
Everybody, dog food
Black male, blackmail
Throw your brother in jail
When the revolution is exoticised and commercialised, it begs the question: What the fuck are we fighting for? Capoeira was used as a lethal weapon during the slave revolts, and it remains a very important spiritual doctrine that many people embrace. Nonetheless, it has been commercialised. Where is the Brazilian patois to be found?
Calunga was a cryptolect, a coded secret language that originated in the Minas Gerais region. Calunga’s lexicon has elements of Kimbundu, Umbundu and Kikongo. Slaves from Angola and the greater Congo region were transported inland to work in the Minas Gerais gold mines. Calunga, along with Caipira Portuguese was outlawed by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquise of Pombal in the 18th century.
I only saw and heard one Berimbau in Luanda. Here in creolized Salvador, I’ve seen hundreds of Berimbaus along with quicas, and reko rekos – all those Angolan instruments in all their various sizes – hanging in stores, nicely arranged, all up for sale.
It seems to me that solidly in place here in Salvador is an all out aversion to feeling the pain: what pain? The smart of the rope-burn pain. I heard that pain/sound yesterday on the boat ride back to Salvador from the island of Itaparica. I recorded it on my Zoom, but it had already been recorded in my memory bank centuries ago. It’s the pain of one’s/a people’s core integral identity being wrenched away, the depths of ones’ being. Where is the rage and how has that rage been smothered? Has it really been smothered? Whenever I witness the feel-good factor at such high decibels, my mixed-race trauma-soaked self shifts into interrogation mode. It’s like folk here are wrapped up in a blanket acceptance of the way things are – that to dis ere Jamaican chip on your shoulder Londoner is unbelievable – coz everywhere that I’ve been I see enclaves of shanty-towns on hills squeezed between office buildings and, what I would describe as normal-living-condition neighborhoods. The race and class disparity machine is revved up to full throttle.
Phenotypically, I’m surrounded by every type of black mix I have ever known, from the lightest beige to the deepest darker-than-blue: the sea of unfixed floating identities is kaleidoscopic (Vera Cruz, Itaparica).
Turning on the TV, let me rephrase – seeing TVs on everywhere – who do you see representing the country? A Telenovela reality which stars next to no dark-skinned, and very few brown-skinned, black folk. Picture all of this against a backdrop of 16th century imperialist Portuguese architecture and the ever-present lingua franca of the colonial master. In fact, the invisibility of the guilty master is so present, it’s like he never left; he is the primordial ghost haunting a people. It’s just another strain of the Lusaphone expansionist doctrine that’s firmly in place here in Salvador, Bahia. Even if you removed all of those buildings and introduced a patois to the black community, the haunting would continue. In tandem with all of that, there is a certain melancholic sonicity, uncannily akin to the blues that I have detected in certain strains of Brazilian music. It’s the melodies that float on, in and through the minor chord progressions; it broaches on an out-of-tune-ness. It’s a careful choice of clashing notes. Yeah, it’s subtle, but it’s there; and those notes – they grate, they grind; and, perhaps it’s that same melancholy that was diverted into evangelistic embrace yesterday. It’s crescendo reached a fervor pitch on the boat ride back from Itaparica, where a bible-clutching brother suddenly started preaching; but no one reacted, either positively or negatively: no ‘Hallelujahs’, no ushers, no hecklers, no speaking in tongues. So with all the smiley and not-so-smiley stuff, that at times broaches on a tropical minstrelsy trope, I’m detecting pangs of painful denial.
Phenotypically, I’m surrounded by every type of black mix I have ever known: from the lightest beige to the deepest darker-than-blue. This amazing sea of unfixed, floating identities is kaleidoscopic, and it came about through the white man’s love of sugar. From deep mars-black molasses to refined translucent titanium-white granules, that refining and redefining of the race from the sugar plantation plantocracy to today is what has been in play for centuries. In fact, miscegenation was well underway before the first slave ship ploughed through the Black Atlantic arriving on Brazil’s Amerindian shores to encounter yet another phenotype in the racial mix mash-up. Nina Simone’s song Peaches rings in my ears – mix that with Aretha’s version of Young, Gifted and Black and segue to Billie’s Blood on the Leaf. I see, and deeply relate to, the burden etched into the faces I encounter; a post-traumatic slave trauma that time has failed to ameliorate. It’s a complex situation that berths in all ports of the Transnational African Diaspora. It’s where the pain resides; it’s where the DuBoisian double consciousness, now ratcheted up to quadruple, floats on the ebb and flow of unpredictable xenophobic seas.
Painting by Alina Dos Santos (2010) describing idealized and de-racialised Creolizations of Brazilian society. This naive genre of painting is seen everywhere in Salvador.
I was informed, by a new Bahian friend who just spent five years in the USA, that Salvadorians just want to forget the painful chapters of the past. This state of agnosia is a comfort zone for some; a place where people attempt to opiate and dilute their burdens. Due to the centuries of race stratification, many Salvadorians feel no need to affirm their Blackness – they de-compose their sonorities of identity and relegate them to states of blurred flux. I find myself dissecting Black Brazilian pain, attempting to unpick the knotted threads in the tightly woven tapestry of colonial and post-colonial slave narratives. No doubt I’m trawling my own tragic mulatto complexities, but when I was told that Carnival was a segregated spectacle until the 1980’s, a few pennies dropped; and when I was told that the top three stars of the Salvador Carnival are white women, a few more dropped.
Detail images from a painting by Alina Dos Santos (2010). The painting describes idealized and de-racialised Creolizations of Brazilian society – a naive genre of painting that is seen everywhere in Salvador.
Yesterday afternoon I spent four hours with the legendary Salvadorian visual artist and costume and set designer Alberto Pitta. Alberto is the president of Cortejo Afro, which, I have been informed, is in fact the most important Salvador Black Bloco (Carnival camp). The costumes and concepts he has created since 1998 are totally Afro-futurist, though he created them without having any awareness of the Afro-futurist movement that we know. Alberto works with both Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. When the Black Bloco created a contest for the most African woman, the white participants accused the black community of using Carnival as a political platform. In a nutshell, Carnival is a political platform – whether here in Bahia, Trinidad or London. As a youth participating in early Notting Hill Gate Carnivals, I remember the police would be holed up in a schoolyard close to the Portobello flyover and would bum-rush attack the participants and the Black general public. The London Caribbean community fought to install Carnival, and now it’s one of the biggest summer events in Europe. Whether you choose to trace the roots of Carnival to the Congo or Venezia, the socio-political implications are manifold.
In the 1980’s, the import of non-Brazilian black influences helped create a transnational identity rooted in early forms of Pan-Africanism. In these current times of heightened right-wing political tendencies, the overlapping containment/boundary lines of ethnic, racial, national and cultural identity are amplified. Withn a polyphonic hybrid landscape, lies layered under-pain. The sonic interrogations of that encrusted, fossilized under-pain, helps me further understand the material malaise that binds us to entanglement of both the skin-trope condition and varied strains of self-loathing.
Cortejo Afro in rehearsal on a rainy Monday evening in the Pelourinho district. This highly respected local Salvador Bloco (collective) has been together since 1998, with its prime focus being the Salvador Carnival. As can be attested by their magnificent Afro-futuristic costumes, one could mistake them as being the Salvador branch of Sun Ra’s Arkestra; but, from what I heard on Monday, they do not dwell in the regions of experimental avant-garde music.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.