Culture in Angola: Luanda is Luminous
DJ K.O. on the beach in Luanda: a city is reinventing its culture (Photo: Stefanie Alisch)
22 May 2012
Whether on the 30th floor of a high-rise ruin or behind the Baroque façades in the city centre: the arts scene of Angola’s capital city Luanda is booming – melodic and shrill, restless and optimistic. Some of it is even spilling over to Europe. By Bartholomäus Grill
Sleepless in Luanda. The night traffic is clamouring in front of the Pensão Invicta, the air-conditioner rattles, and mosquitoes are in attack mode. Add to that the infernal hammering and humming billowing over from a high-rise behind Largo do Kinaxixi. I tumble from my sweat-soaked bed and head there! The high-rise is a run-down concrete skeleton with corridors full of trash, the stench of urine, and a few homeless people on cardboard boxes. Then, at the top, on the 30th floor, I find the source of the noise: uma festa, a wild party at two in the morning.
The hollow building is vibrating while hundreds of amped kids dance the kizomba, the kuduro, the tarrachinha, the samba: the dances of Angola. Some moves look like a sexual act, a stiff-hipped white man should not enter the dance floor and make a fool of himself. So I merely chill and watch in amazement, drink a cuca, listening to the hip sound from the musseques, the poor districts of the city. I peer through the empty window frames at the sea of lights. Luanda is luminous! The once sleepy city is no longer recognizable.
A photo shoot with Rui Tavares, Angola’s number one art photographer who made it into the Revue Noire, the definitive book about modern photography in Africa. We meet him in the Old Town surrounded by pretentious skyscrapers, at the Travessa do Teatro Providencia between weathered Baroque edifices from the Portuguese colonial era. The aura of saudade permeates Luanda’s centre. The two “models,” Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga and Shunnoz Fiel, are already at work. They are wearing men’s morning suits and wellingtons, cufflinks with Kalashnikovs, and bowties and handkerchiefs in the loudest carnival colours. They call themselves fashionistas, but it is misleading for their Projecto Mental aims far higher than snooty fashion design.
Mental reconstruction“After the civil war, it’s not simply a matter of the physical reconstruction of our country, but of mental reconstruction,” explains Tekasala. “We want to overcome the confusão,” the great confusion in the minds after five hundred years of foreign rule and thirty years of war. In the spirit of Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba, or the négritude of the sixties, it is about the decolonization of thought, the search for Angolanidade, for their very own cultural identity – a process of self-discovery that is firing the imaginations of Luanda and its musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, fine artists, writers, and intellectuals.
This spirit of departure is perceptible everywhere, in the studios, cinemas, and theatres, in the Dom Q or any of the city’s many music clubs, at the extolled appearances of the rap band Ikonoklasta, at the Studio Ghetto Produções and the TV show Sempre a subir, where DJ Sebem presents kuduro stars such as Muana Po, Tony Amado, Zoca Zoca, and Gata Agressiva. This creative activity could stand under the motto of last year’s exhibition for the 435th anniversary of the founding of the city: Luanda – Suave e Frenética: Luanda – Smooth and Frantic.
Word has not yet gotten to the north; most Europeans do not even know where Luanda is located. Somewhere in Africa, the continent of wars and crises, of disasters and poverty, they say. The present famine in the Horn of Africa seems to confirm this perpetual cliché, which has stamped itself into the collective memory of the outside world over the centuries of conquest, subjugation, and exploitation of Africa. It simply does not fit into this perceptive matrix that there is a very different Africa as well; an optimistic, creative, cheerful Africa where civil society, cultural life, and the music and arts scene are blossoming in its big cities.
Flaking façades are the runwaysWe return to the Projecto Mental and its performance in the heart of the city. The two designers throw themselves in the gutter and pose with tattered Lusitanian history books. They transform the flaking façades into vertical runways. Finally, they dangle themselves with electric cables to a traffic light right across the street from the steely tower of the state oil corporation Sonangol. It is an ironic commentary on Angola’s biggest wealth mill, in which billions of petrodollars ooze away while the majority of the population remains poor as church mice; as poor as the passersby who are observing the stylized self-execution with amusement. “Clothing, fashion, information, education,” rattles fashion designer Shunnoz with his tongue hanging out.
“For the elite it’s only about material values, luxury, and unrestrained consumption. Upbringing, education, and culture are sadly neglected,” says António Ole. He is the nation’s most famous artist. In 2010, at the African exhibition Who knows tomorrow in Berlin, he set up a huge container wall in front of the Museum Hamburger Bahnhof; a sort of fetish of the globalized world of consumer goods. At home, he has to fight. His fantastical large-scale sculpture Mitologias II at the Marginale is set to be moved and that rankles him.
At the same time, however, Angola’s rapid wealth is opening up unimagined horizons to art. One merely needs to visit Fernando Alvim in whose private home thousands of initiatives run together. In 2006 he put Luanda’s first triennial on its feet and he is presently planning the first museum of contemporary art in the city of seven million people, “So that Africans can finally be seen by Africans.” As the vice president of the Fundação Sindika Dokolo he can make use of the art treasures in its pool, such as the spectacular collection from the estate of the late German art collector Hans Bogatzke.
Breathless, optimistic exhilarationFernando Alvim is himself an event, an artist, a hyperactive cultural manager, chain-smoking, restless as the whole city, always at top operating temperature, vulcanissimo, so to say. The west is gradually losing its monopoly; it has served its time as the dominant global culture, interpretive power, and development model. Only Portugal, the ex-colonial power, has retained some influence. “The innovative stimuli and ideas come from Africa, Brazil, and the Afro-American world.” This can be felt in all of the continent’s cultural centres, in Lagos, Cotonou, Johannesburg, and especially in Luanda. “Insane location,” raved DJ Spooky, the trip-hop artist from New York who occasionally drops by. We met him during our last visit to Bahia, the coolest lounge on the Baía, as they were just beginning to transform the boulevard into a sort of Copacabana. “Cross culture, the south meets the south. You go to Rio or São Paulo and suddenly realize that the origins of many music styles are in Angola. The semba became the samba, brought along by the slaves that the Portuguese hauled off across the Atlantic.” Now, the “cultural exports” are returning home, blending in with the diverse local musical traditions, and becoming global: kuduro and other forms of ghetto-tech from Luanda are conquering the clubs in Berlin, London, and New York.
A city is reinventing its culture – and rediscovering its old culture. In November of 2010 the Frankfurt label Analog Africa brought out the CD Angola Soundtrack – The Unique Sound of Luanda (1968 – 1976). It is simply sensational, pure lusotropicalismo, a blend of Congo rumba, Caribbean meringue, Cuban grooves, and psychedelic guitar riffs. The album, which was produced with support from the Goethe-Institut Angola, immediately received the annual award from the German record critics.
“It is a magical journey in time to postcolonial Africa and a fascinating insight into transatlantic musical migrations,” the jury lauded. The sampler resurrects legendary bands like Ngola Ritmos, Os Kiezos, and Jovens Do Prenda, maybe they will have a similar impact as the Buena Vista Social Club of the old Cuban masters, which “reactivated” Ry Cooder. In autumn, some of the musicians will launch their first international tour. Then Europe will also hear the pulse of Nova Luanda, this breathless, optimistic exhilaration that robs one of sleep.
This article was taken from the latest issue of the Goethe-Magazin. You can discover even more exciting reports, backgrounds, and interviews on the subject in Luanda leuchtet – Angola im Aufbruch.