BONGA - Semba - Angola


Hora Kota: The Time of the Elders. This is Bonga’s thirtieth album - his fifth on the Lusafrica label - featuring eleven faultless new songs reporting on the state of his native Angola where he is again living after a very long absence. Bonga is a sincere man with broad shoulders. He knows how to dig in his heels and push back. The French singer Bernard Lavilliers appreciates that, as he does Bonga’s husky voice and blues that ring true. So the album has two special tracks, two duets: Angola, released by Lavilliers on Causes perdues et musiques tropicales (Lost Causes and Tropical Music), and Dikanga with Agnès Jaoui.

Angola is rebuilding itself and Bonga has returned, drawn by the bonds that tie him to its people: “family negritude joined at the heart” (Lelu). He begs Angolans never to forget where they come from, because if they remember, they will understand where they are going (Fontinhas, a tribute to the musician Malé Fontes Pereira, Zona Bué, DJ Marado, etc.). Bonga loves the joys of the streets, the carnival and the “fina flor da confusao” (or “cream of chaos”) in Luanda. He also underlines its terrible inequalities (Kambua, the spoilt dogs of the rich and hungry dogs of the poor, Kapetas, the privileged).

We also learn (on the track Boto Boto) that Bonga has founded the “Bean International”, focused on the legumes that unify the Portuguese-speaking world: the black beans used in Brazil’s feijoada; makunde, the source of Angolan flour; the white beans that fill Cape Verdean catchupa; Portuguese cured beans; and so on. Betinho Feijo performs on guitar, Juvenio Cabral bass and Malauia percussion, while Bonga sings and plays the dikanza, a very long reco-reco rubbed with a stick. Flavoured with accordion and guitar, the sound is joyous as a Midsummer festival, sad as the lament of a South American exile - and uncompromising too.

Angola is an Eldorado. It has it all: oil, gas, diamonds, waters teeming with fish… Yet thirty-seven years of war have bled it white, making it a playground for plotters and crooks. Having just fought a war of national liberation against Portugal, the nation chose Marxism when it won independence in 1975 - and was instantly plunged into civil war. On one side was the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a party founded by the hero of independence, Agostinho Neto (1922-1979), which was supported by the Soviets and Cubans. On the other was the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi (1934-2002), which served the interests of Apartheid South Africa and the United States. President José Eduardo Dos Santos came to power in 1979 and looks set to establish a new world head-of-state endurance record.

There is a point to this historical reminder: that political battlefield formed the background for the career of José Adelino Barcelo de Carvalho, aka Bonga, born in 1943 in Kipri on the outskirts of the capital, Luanda. His unique, deep, abrasive voice and incomparable feeling are no accident: they were nurtured and honed from Luanda to Lisbon, and then on to the port of Rotterdam, haven of Cape-Verdean sailors and transatlantic melancholy. Born to a mother from Zaire (now R.D.C.), the calm (yet demanding) singer-songwriter carries in his heart the spark of modern Angolan sound, combining Africa’s rhythmic ore with the art of the ballad, a marriage that has brought worldwide success to the musical creations of Portuguese-speaking countries.

In the 1950s, Angola’s Carlos Liceu Vieira and the group Ngola Ritmos worked on a style that was urban, but still faithful to rural rituals (semba, exported to Brazil on Bantu slave ships) and festive genres (kazutuka, from the Luanda carnival). Western scales were introduced on pentatonic instruments including the marimbas, played in repetitive cycles.

This Africanist movement was born in the suburbs of Luanda, where José Adelino adopted the name of Bonga Kuenda. He joined his accordionist father’s group, playing rebita, the music of the Ilha de Cabo fishermen, and then founded Kissueia (“misery of the slums” in Kimbundu), a band that used ancestral styles hated by the Portuguese to comment on the condition of the colony.

In 1959, after the “trial of fifty”, artists including Carlos Vieira and intellectuals opposed to Salazar’s Portugal were deported to Cape Verde and incarcerated in the Tarrafal penal colony. Bonga was their heir. A fine athlete (Portugal’s champion runner in the 400 metres), he embraced the struggle for independence after joining the Lisbon Benfica sports club. Falling foul of the PIDE, the Portuguese political police, in 1966, he fled to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, home to a large Cape-Verdean community. As a political refugee, Bonga was forced to give up competitive sport and turned to music. His Angola 72 was one of the first great “world music” successes in 1972. The ballad Mona Ki Ngi Xica (1972) is still a seminal work of Portuguese-speaking African blues, as is Sôdade, the Cesaria Evora hit that Bonga first sang in 1972.

The Netherlands, Paris, Belgium, Lisbon: Bonga has lived everywhere - and in all those places and more, people recognise his greatness of soul. Hora Kota is not for the “doutores” - the dignitaries that the downtrodden people invariably called “doctor”. It is a remedy for the blues.

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