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Kuduro: Electronic Music of Angola – Part One

Kuduro is the electronic dance music of a generation born and raised during Angola’s traumatic and protracted civil war. It started life on Angola’s margins, in the clubs and ghettos of the nation’s capital, Luanda, but its influence can be heard in Angolan hip hop, R&B, and techno. In the twenty-first century Kuduro is the official, state sanctioned international sound of young, post-war Angola. Broadcaster and music obsessive Edward George takes us on a journey through the social history of Kuduro. He looks at what this insistently joyous club music can tell us about the relationship of dance music to the machinations of state power, and what is left unsaid both during and in the aftermath of the civil war.

The podcast was produced by: Alannah Chance



Transcript of Podcast

[MUSIC: Comboio II (The Train) – Os Lambas 6.09]

‘Your backbone is gonna blow. The great battle has already started. I will sing Kuduro until death.’ Such are the sentiments, conveyed with maximum gusto, in the lyrics of Comoio II, by Os Lambas.

I started the show with this track because in this line of work, what’s great is when you find something you love or that loves you and you just want to play it every day. You love it and you want everyone else to love it. And this track, it really is the English breakfast of big Kuduro tunes.

I should point out, however, that I’m not an expert on Kuduro.

My relationship with music, with music and its relation to power and politics, was shaped by jazz, dub, roots rock reggae and punk. I’m drawn to music that in one way or another makes a bid for freedom, gives a sound for the need and the coming, and the passing, of freedom. So I guess I’m drawn to, or am always searching for the sound of the chimes of freedom in popular music. And I have to say, Kuduro challenged some of my preconceptions about music from the post colonial world, about African music.

One thing that drew me to this music was the sound of it. I wondered whether it was meant to sound so distorted, so saturated. It was the excessive, over the top nature of the sound of Kuduro that drew me in.

The word Kuduro means both ‘In hard times’, and ‘Hard ass.’  There are two words that helped me understand what makes Kuduro tick. There is Carga. Carga describes the energy, the forward momentum of the music and its dispersal through dance, language, style, and attitude. Carga is the rhythmic force that compels you to dance.

The second word is Angola di nade, or ‘Angolanness’. It’s an interesting word because, as we’ll see in later programmes, Angola di nade tells us something about how Kuduro connects to Angola’s civil war and its aftermath.

But to really understand what Kuduro is we need to go back to the years between the 1950s and 1970s, when Angola was under the colonial rule of Portugal and was fighting for independence.

And if Kuduro describes an Angolanness which is the rhythm and sound of triumph over the adversities of post colonial Angola – which indeed it does, an earlier style of Angolan music, whose groove was known as Semba, describes the rhythm and sound of Angolanness under colonial rule. This is from a 1973 album called ‘Rebita Number One’. Apparently it’s one of the first albums recorded and released in Angola. It’s by Urbano de Castro, one the leading lights of Semba, and it’s called ‘Semba Avó’.

[MUSIC: Semba Avó, Urbano de Castro (2:30)]

‘Semba Avo’. The sound of Angola in the 1970s.  Urbano de Castro was one of a number of musicians who were initially, briefly lauded by Angola’s post independence MPLA government, but who ended up paying with their lives after criticising the government. As we’ll see later in the series, there are ways in which musicians like Urbano de Castro haunt Kuduro and serve as a kind of warning to Kuduro from Angola’s past.

Kuduro is about surviving in the present and looking forward to the future. It’s about the future, and because of that it’s also about the past. Let’s stay in Angola in the early 70’s, before independence. Two political factions were fighting a guerrilla war against the Portuguese: the Soviet sponsored MPLA, The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, and the American sponsored UNITA, The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

During the war, Angolan’s used music to create a sense of national identity. Through music, Angolans could imagine a future in which Angola was an independent, sovereign state.

In the capital, Luanda, nightclubs were spaces where independence could be collectively sonified, played, sung and danced and styled into existence. And the idea of Angolanidade, or Angolanness, crystalised this new sense of national identity.

After independence in 1975, Semba musicians enjoyed state patronage, and worked for MPLA government. Which on the one hand was great. The musicians had served the revolution and were happy to carry on doing so. The down side was that the musicians were subject to the will of the state and their clubs and infrastructure died under the government’s culture of patronage.

And then, after a coup in 1977, there was a crackdown on any perceived criticism of the state.

Musicians who were critical of the MPLA government, like Urbano De Castro, who we’ve just heard, were among thousands who were imprisoned, tortured and killed during the MPLA’s political purge. A climate of repression and self censorship, which began with President Augusto Neto, would go on to become, under the leadership of President Eduardo Jose Dos Santos, a prevailing feature of life in post colonial Angola.

I want to play you a song from before the coup of 1977. It’s from 1975, the year of Angola’s independence. The song tells its listener, ‘People hunger sometimes, to free our people. This is the revolution’s price.’ The artist who wrote and performed this song had his music removed from Angola’s playlists and Angola’s cultural landscape. This is David Zé, with ‘o Guerrilheiro’.

[MUSIC: O Guerrilheiro, David Zé, Movimento Records 7’, Angola 1975 (3:45)]

In anti-colonial Angola, The dance floor was a cosmopolitan space. On any given night, you could hear Semba along with Otis Redding or James Brown, or Franco and OK Jazz from the Congo, as well as the big tunes from Brazil and Portugal. For young Angolans, music was a way of inventing a sense of self that went beyond the limits imposed on Angolan identity by Portuguese colonialism.

Cosmopolitanism is also something you can hear in Kuduro. In the late 80s and early 90s the dance floors of Luanda were spaces where DJ’s were mixing techno and house in clubs like Pandemonio or the Barca. In the mid to late 90s, the backdrop to Angola’s club culture was a civil war. War, if you were in your late teens or early twenties, would have been something you were born into.

Dance music from this time and place could be seen as a means of escaping the relentless nature of war and the failure of cease-fire agreements. There are a few artists from around this time that I think really embody the power of dance music as an escape route and who also laid the foundation for Kuduro.

There is the Angolan multi-instrumentalist, Eduardo Paim. Paim’s music, Kisomba, was a precursor to Kuduro, and also had traces of Zouk, the sound of Martinique made popular in Angola by a group called Kassav. Here from 1991, is Eduardo Paim with Kizomba, followed by Kassav, with Soulayé Yo.

[MUSIC: Kizomba, Eduardo Paim, (1991) (5:06)

[SEGUE]

[MUSIC: Soulayé Yo, Kassav (1989) (5.20)]

From the album Generation Zouk (V/A), New Deal records, France,

Soulayé Yo, by Kassav, preceded by Eduardo Paim with Kizomba. Two examples of the foundation of Kuduro. Kuduro started life in the clubs and on the streets as a dance in which you move as if your body has no limbs, as if a part of your limbs had been blown away by a landmine. This was no accident. Landmines claimed the lives of thousands during the civil war.

Kuduro was thought to be a way of visualising and giving a kinetic energy to the experience of the civil war – a way of making trauma communal, cultural, sonic.

But if there’s one person who is the founding father of Kuduro as a style of music, it’s Tony Amado, who kicked things off in a Luanda nightclub called Barca. For Tony Amado, dance music was a way of placing a purchase on a new future. He was born in Malanje, about 250 miles from Luanda, and one of the cities that were hit hardest by Angola’s civil war.

In 1975, a violent conflict between the MPLA and the UNITA in Malanje prompted a mass migration. By the late 1980s political violence, famine and military rule had become defining features of life in Malanje. The sight of corpses in the streets was not uncommon. By 1992 the city was in a state of devastation.

So Adamo left Malanje to start a new life in Luanda, and what he brought to the dancefloors of Luanda was a new energy, a new way of moving, which in time became known as Kuduro.

Here are a couple of tracks, from Tony Amado’s first album, ‘Sexy Muza’, recorded in 1997 – in Boston, Massachusetts, of all places, because apparently there were no facilities available for live studio recordings in Angola. Here’s the first track, ‘Rock Santero’.

[MUSIC: Rock Santero, Tony Amado, From the album Sexy Muza (1997) (6:01)]

[SEGUE]

[MUSIC: Mbrututu, Tony Amado, From the album Sexy Muza (1997), (4:26)]

‘I came to Angola to make money. Fuss in Angola. Work. Work is killing me’. So says Tony Amado, in ‘Rock Santero’, which was preceded by the brilliantly bonkers ‘M’brututu’.

DJs, producers and club owners played a really important role in Kuduro’s transformation from a dynamic dance energy into a form of electronic music. Marcus Pandemonium, owner of the Pandemonio nightclub, set up the first Kuduro record label, RMS, with his brother, DJ and producer Luis Esteves in the early 90s.

The first Kuduro CD’s were released around the same time. This next piece is from one such Kuduro album. Released on RMS in 1996, this is ‘No Fear’, by Bruno de Castro. It’s worth listening to because it puts the mood of 90’s techno in a new, African context, and because I think you can hear the title of the track as a response to the climate of fear and repression that the civil war had created. Here is ‘No Fear.’

[MUSIC: No Fear, Bruno Castro, (6:37)]

[SEGUE]

[MUSIC: Angola Me Leva Pais Do Futuro, Rei Helder (1995) (3:35)]

‘The people are happy with the arrival of peace. Look and dance.’ So says another early Kuduro producer, Rei Helder in his 1995 track, ‘Angola Me Leva Pais Do Futuro’, which we’ve just heard. One thing that’s striking about Rei Helder’s track is that it’s a party anthem, a club banger that is also an early example of Kuduro artists using this new music to find ways of talking about nation and belonging at a time when Kuduro was still being invented.

There will be more on the subject later, but let’s stay a while in the nineties with the founding voices of Kuduro. There is another key figure you should know about, and his name is Sebem.

Sebem was an MC and a DJ on Radio Luanda. In addition to freestyling over beats associated with Kuduro, Sebem hosted parties that helped Kuduro to become an underground phenomenon.

In 1998 the Portuguese label Sons d’Africa released Sebem’s first album, ‘Tá…Sebem!’ What I’m going to play from this album extends Kuduro’s usual three to four and a half minute duration to a brilliant fourteen minutes, and it captures the vibe of Sebem’s shows. It’s ‘Rave Ao Vivo’.

‘Rave Ao Vivo’ is actually a live, new years jam, a rave, with Sebem broadcasting live from Radio Luanda 99.9, streaming, he tells us, live on the internet. He’s giving shout outs galore to Kuduro’s DJs, dancers and musicians, he’s announcing calls from Kuduro fans in South Africa, and Portugal, and he’s describing party people getting it on and doing it to death. ‘This song,’ Sebem says, ‘Is pure dongolow’.

[MUSIC: Rave Ao Vivo (1998) (14:00)]

Sebem with some dongolow business, in ‘Rave Ao Vivo’ from the CD ‘Ta… Sebem’, which really is an essential example of Angola’s electronic music revolution.

The Barca nightclub was one of the clubs, if not the club, where rap music and Kuduro were first brought together, and ethnomusicologist and historian of African music, Marrisa Moorman, tells us that three founding Kuduro rap acts, ‘NSex Love, the South Side Posse, aka SSP, and Big Nelo all made their first public appearances at the Barca.

I get the impression that Kuduro was a galvanising force for a dialogue with US R&B and hip hop. It does seem as though Kuduro and Angolan hip hop were born intertwined.

SSP were Paul G, Jeff Brown and Kudy. They released three albums that saw them throwing down dancehall, rap and R&B party bangers. First up, from 1998, is SSP with ‘Canta Comigo (Essa Keta)’, followed by Big Nelo’s more recent ‘Nahima’.

[MUSIC: SSP – Canta Comigo, Essa Keta, 1998 (3:59)]

[SEGUE]

[MUSIC: Big Nelo, Nahima (4:06)]

Now come on, does this music make you want to hit the clubs and shake a leg and do your thing? Of course it does. Nahima by Emannuel de Carvalho N’guenohame, aka Big Nelo, who was a founding member of SSP. Nelo went solo in 1982 and is doing quite nicely for himself as a rap and R&B solo artist, producer and songwriter.

Listening to Nelo and SSP you do get the impression that the Barca, the birthplace of Kuduro, was also a birthing space for an Angolan electronic pop, rap and R&B hybrid that was an integral part of Kuduro’s soundworld.

You also get the impression that while this new cosmopolitan Angolan pop was created in an environment of civil war, much of this music at least appeared to sound as if it was taking place less in dialogue with the war and its effects, but in spite of the war, as if the pleasures of rhythm, sound, sex and sartorial elegance could be understood as reasonable, necessary, life affirming responses to the hardships that were part of everyday life for young Angolans at the end of the twentieth century.

Perhaps its worth bearing in mind that like the SSP and Big Nelo, N’Sex Love were all born in or around 1975, the year of Angola’s independence, but also that 1975 was the year when the country took its first steps itself into a war which dominated the lives of these artists, even as they were starting their careers.

With all that in mind, here’s NSex Love, from their 1998 album Loucura, with ‘Soly, ’an R&B jam for dark nights during terrible times.

[MUSIC:‘NSex Love – Soly (1998) (5:16)]

‘Soly’, by ‘N’Sex Love, who were Walter Ananas, Bigu Ferreira, Joao [jewao] Paolo, and Henda Pitra. Listening to the tracks I’ve played you, I think what fascinates me is what is not being said here. It feels as though there’s a silence that’s present and at work in the sound and lyrics of the music, in the smoothness of N’Sex Love and the roughness of Os Lambas.

I was wondering whether there’s a kind of internalised repression, a self silencing at play here, a silencing of things to do with life and war and death and freedom and sound and silence, which have to remain unseen and unsaid in music, in order for musicians to stay alive.

And I’m beginning to wonder whether Kuduro’s unrelenting joy, its dissonance and smoothness, the limbless, rhythmic forward momentum, the energy and energising force of Carga, could be a way of both revealing and concealing that silence.

I guess what I’m trying to understand is how Kuduro deals with Angola’s past. This is, after all, a music formed in the middle of a twenty-seven-year civil war which ended in 2003 after claiming thousands of lives.

I want to end the programme by returning to Sebem and Helder Rei for an early example of how Angola, the world in which Kuduro was born, was represented in the song and sound-world of Kuduro. ‘Felicidades’ is the title track from Sebem and Helder Rei’s collaborative album, ‘Se Bem Felicidades’.

Let me give you an idea of the song’s context.

In January 1995 a meeting of military leaders from the MPLA and UNITA failed to bring the fighting to an end. There were hopes for peace: remember that line i quoted from Helder Rei’s song, ‘Angola Me Leva Pais Do Futuro’ – ‘The people are happy with the arrival of peace?’ Well, an influx of new weapons from Russia and the Ukraine guaranteed that the arrival of peace would be deferred and the civil war would be kept alive.

In 1996, when Helder Rei and Sebem recorded ‘Se Bem Felicidades’, Human Rights Watch published a report which said that UNITA were using children as combatants and that in addition to committing extra judicial killings, the MPLA were detaining and murdering Angola’s journalists.

This was the state of Angola when Helder Rei and Sebem recorded ‘Se Bem Felicidade’. In the song, Sebem says, ‘Hey Pops Chico, Chico Viegas, lend me your sound system. I have to play at Bordao. I swear that the marriage of Wittiti will be today.’ There is togetherness and there is a celebration of love through music – through Kuduro.

I think the song makes a kind of minimal demand from Angola’s powers that be, I think there’s a sense in the song that in a time of terror, the least you can hope for, and perhaps the last thing that might be possible, is a sense of joy. I can also hear a radicalism in the sound of the music, in its texture and tonality.

But I also think that Felicidade is the Kuduro song in which something of the legacy of Angola’s musical past comes to life. I can hear Urbano de Castro and David Ze, haunting the song with a warning to Kuduro of what can happen in Angola when music enters into dialogue with power: if Kuduro can be considered a kind of electronic revolution in Angolan pop, revolution just might come with a price.

It might help to know that ‘Felicidades’ translates as ‘Happiness’. Goodnight.

[MUSIC: Felicidades, Helder Rei & Sebem (4:30)]

Edward George (UK)

Edward George is a writer, researcher, and presenter of Black Audio Film Collective’s ground-breaking science fiction documentary Last Angel of History. Edward is a founder of Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998), the multimedia duo Flow Motion (1996-present), and the electronic music group Hallucinator (1998-present). Read more