Monday music: Angola – songs of anger and joy

I once sat in a plane in Luanda airport for a couple of hours. The doors were open so I got up and looked out. Unmemorable, like airports everywhere. Although I do recall everyone clapping when the plane landed.

As that’s about the sum total of my connection with Angola, I thought it was time I went on another voyage of musical exploration, given that this week marks Angolan independence from the Portuguese (11 November).

At first, I thought all Angolan music might sound like Bonga.

This lively, superbly danceable number from one of Angola’s most popular (and, literally, revolutionary) singers, shows the strength of the Portuguese connection — both in the Latin sound and in the lyrics, which apparently refer to Angola’s struggle for independence from Portugal … from 500 years of colonisation!

But of course Angolan music doesn’t all sound like salsa. People like to homogenise Africa; to reduce it to stereotypes and simplify its complexity, so I shouldn’t do the same to Angola, which clearly has as diverse a music scene as anywhere else.

Here’s a remix that you won’t hear every day.

Now that was a whole new spin on Afro-celtic fusion. Well, Irish-Norwegian-Afro fusion. The melancholy backing track is Nocturne, 1995 winner of Eurovision. Listen to it here. Rapper MCK, in ironic contrast to these sentimental, privileged westerners, is a boy who grew up in the slums of Luanda, whose songs criticise the current Angolan government. More on the music-politics connection, and more videos, here.

But I never expected death metal to make an appearance in my investigations of Angolan music.

To be honest, I’m not a fan of this genre, although I can understand why the woman behind the push to bring death metal to Angola sees it as a potent means of expression for the youth of a country wounded by civil war. So perhaps I will check out the movie when it comes to the Sydney Film Festival next year.

Personally, I go for a more upbeat sound. When I first heard Congolese soukous in the 80s I was impressed by how optimistic and joyful it was; at the time it seemed like music really was the only good news coming out of Africa. A bit like this sweet guitar …

Possibly the optimism of soukous was due to all the musicians being safe and comfortable in Paris; but perhaps not. I have noticed, over the years I’ve been listening to music from all over the African continent, that I’ve hardly ever heard the heavy, angry, clashing sound that’s so characteristic of western rock music, even though there have been plenty of reasons for African musicians to be very angry indeed.

It’s one of the things that’s attracted me to African music. There’s sadness, yes; yearning, yes; powerful, uncompromising voices and lyrics that criticise corruption and demand human rights and justice, definitely … but, dare I say it, none of the dark, bleak, barrage of noise that’s metal, punk, grunge & their ilk. I’d be sorry to see the optimism of African music lose out to (what sounds to me like) extreme hopelessness and negativity. And really, I think they’re doing fine without it – see MCK, above, for a start. But then, it’s not my call. I’m just interested to see what they come up with next.

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