My wife is Portuguese. Actually, she's of mixed Portuguese and Angolan descent. Her mother and father fled Luanda during the first years of the Angolan civil war, and settled in Lisbon. We now live in Los Angeles, but often visit her home city. Lucky for me, she's never had any qualms with my scouring of Lisbon's used-record bins for the still living, breathing music of her heritage.
As far back as the 1960s, there was a thriving recording industry in Angola. The largest record company of colonial ruler Portugal, Valentim de Carvalho, set up a pressing plant in Luanda and officially pressed licensed repertoire from labels like CBS and EMI. But some of the labels that existed before Angola's independence (Rebita and Ngola, circa 1972-1976) and its brutal civil war (CDA and Merengue, circa 1975-1977) sound nothing like the David Bowie and Barbara Streisand schlock that was hocked to the Portuguese people the 15 years prior.
Urban Angolan music from the 1970s was made for a populace in revolt. It is a heady, rhythmic sound that swings with the recognizable semba (which, as you might guess, draws from the same rhythms as the Brazilian samba) as often as it does with the Angolan merengue. It can jump into uncharted frenetic realms that are a unique mixture of local rhythms like rebita and semba, imported rhythms like samba and merengue, and rumba from neighboring Congolese tribes.
On a recent four-day stint in Lisbon, I made the familiar rounds. I picked up clean copies of beautiful Angolan 7"s and an odd LP that was exported to Portugal prior to the havoc-wreaking civil war, when production ground to a halt. The evening before I left, my wife introduced me to a Portuguese-Angolan friend; he's a DJ in Lisbon, but also an in-demand selector in Luanda. "Tell me," I inquired, hoping a like-minded DJ could settle the matter for me, "Why didn't any of Angola's '70s musicians play 4/4 funk? They play their guitars through wah-wah pedals, and they had access to all of the music that neighboring African countries took to so readily..."
"4/4 funk!" he laughed, in a response similar to those I'd heard from '70s musicians from neighboring Zambia. "Now why would an Angolan limit himself to a straight 4/4 funk!" Pointing at the records I carried with me he continued, "This music of ours that you love — this is our funk."
Kisua Ki Ngui Fua
A pre-revolution lamento that was released on the stalwart Rebita label, Nunes’ “Kisua Ki Ngui Fua” is a haunting dirge, where Nunes speaks to his mother about his death. Its a funky 4/4 that features an ever-present wah-wah guitar, and is backed by dancing polyrhythms. The song is an excellent introduction to the wonders of '70s Angolan music, and a portent of what was to come in the brewing civil war. Nunes, like thousands of his countrymen, perished during a failed military coup on May 27th, 1977. His angelic voice was silenced until compilations like Lusafrica’s "Soul Of Angola" recaptured his fleeting offerings and presented them anew.
Di Manha Cedinho Na Praia
This semba, like Luiz Visconde’s “Chofer De Praca,” is a pre-independence favorite of mine. Its powerful music bed owes much to backing band Jovens Do Prenda and the overwhelming sorrow that Jose Keno coaxes from his electric guitar. I’m struck by the triviality of Da Silva’s subject matter: an everyday routine that would become a luxury during the civil war.
Like many of the songs recorded under António de Oliveira Salazar’s rule, it is sung in a Portuguese creole. “Di Manha Cedino Na Praia” is about waking in the morning and fishing on the beach, and carries with it a wistful nostalgia for youth. In a few short years, songs like this would become less commonplace in Angola, as the hardships and spoils of war became subject matter de rigueur.
David Ze was a member of Agostinho Neto’s MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which was the leftist party that has ruled since Angola's independence. His first album 'Mutudi Ua Ufolo/Viuva Da Liberdade (Widow of Liberty)', was released immediately after independence on the crucial CDA label. Ze espouses the MPLA’s philosophies in liner notes and sembas of the record. The description of “Nguma/Inimgo (Enemy)" reads: “Those who mistreat and kill us are the enemy, and only organized will we be victorious.”
The jacket’s notes end optimistically, however: “Between the two aspects of being a guerrilla, David Ze forgets the ardor of battle in order to involve all of the Angolan people in songs of encouragement. Thus, his songs have strength, and in his voice there is a glorious dawn.”
Sadly, Ze, like Nunes and the star Urbano de Castro, was killed on May 27th, 1977. CDA went out of business later that year, leaving behind rare artifacts like this album. Recently used as a sample in Nas and Damian Marley’s “Friends”, the record is a reminder of that time.
N’gui Messene Uamufuno
This semba, like most released on Sebastiao Coelho’s CDA stable, is backed by The Merengues--a top Luanda-based ensemble lead by bassist and musical director Carlitos Vieira Dias. Their pull was so powerful that Jovens Do Prenda star Jose Keno joined their orbit. “N’gui Messene Uamufuno” is more about the interplay between Keno and Vieira Dias than it is about Morais’ raspy drawl. Marching powerfully and mixed loudly, Keno’s guitar playfully dances around Vieira Dias’ felt-plucked bassline. This is a rhythmic masterpiece.
This historical narrative owes as much to the voice of living Angolan treasure Rui Alberto Vieira Dias Mingas as it does to bassist and songwriter Carlitos Vieira Dias. It purports to be about the letters and correspondence ferried by boats traveling between Luanda and Lisbon, but could also be about human cargo. This album spread far beyond its CDA press-at-origin. It was pressed in both Portugal and in France where it was oddly adorned with stock photos of the same model seen on the cover of Nico Gomez’s 'Ritual' album. Thus, Mingas was fortunate enough to see his music hit European markets.
Egon is the general manager of the Stones Throw label. He also founded Now-Again Records, which reissues American funk and soul albums, and the Soul-Cal imprint with Peanut Butter Wolf. He DJs funk and psychedelia sets at venues all around the world.