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.