Around the time that Angola’s independence movement was taking hold in the mid-1960s, a young runner for the national track team set the record for the 400-meter dash. He was asked to join the national football team and, as he traveled Europe to compete, he used this freedom to carry communiqués from independence movement revolutionaries in Angola to exiled freedom fighters. But the athlete now known as Bonga made a more significant mark as a banned musician whose messages of freedom and justice were brought to the world. Those proclamations continue on his latest CD, Kaxexe, to be released on Times Square Records on March 9, 2004 and in the repertoire of his March-April, 2004 North American tour.
When authorities clued into Bonga’s underground information network, he changed his name from Barceló de Carvalho to Bonga Kwenda, and went into exile in Rotterdam in the early 1970s. During his time in Holland, he was exposed to the sounds and rhythms of Brazil and began to play and perform with other Angolan and Cape Verdean emigrants. He soon entered the studio to create one of the most endearing albums in African music history, Angola 72. The music was an effective soundtrack for revolution as the lyrics spoke of the plight of Angolans and their struggle to gain independence from Portugal. The album was banned in Angola, and is considered by many to be the first modern interpretation of the music and dance style called semba.
Semba’s roots run deep in the traditions of Angolan people. It was originally used to celebrate harvests, weddings, and births, and—prior to the arrival of Portuguese missionaries—semba was used as a dance form associated with worshiping the gods. When Angola came under the colonial control of Portugal in the sixteenth century, many Angolans were enslaved and sent overseas to other Portuguese colonies. This exodus brought Angolan culture and music to the New World, most notably semba, which also had a major impact on Brazilian samba. Both styles share the familiar pulse, but semba melds vocal styles and phrasings of both Portugal and Brazil, without the use of a large band often typical of Brazilian samba.
At the heart of Bonga’s music is his characteristic voice. As Gerald Seligman writes in Songlines, “The inimitable voice is back—raspy, scratchy, sandpaper smooth—and the accomplished songwriting is couched in arrangements that are tasteful, understated and lovingly rendered.” On Kaxexe, which means “In Hiding,” his voice is front and center, with a supporting cast of acoustic guitars, bass, accordion, percussion, and fluid back-up vocalists. Bonga himself plays the dizanka, a traditional bamboo scraper, and the puita, a distinctive “friction drum” played by applying pressure to the drumhead as a small wooden rod or cord is passed through a hole in the membrane (slightly different from the Brazilian cuica). Bonga’s musical language has been assembled from his travels around the world. Subtle rhythms and instrumental flourishes give rise to Bonga’s soulful melodies.In the years since Angola 72, Bonga has remained active in politics. The post-colonial era in Angola brought about constant power struggles, resulting in a brutal civil war that has lasted for three decades. Bonga—whose name means “he who searches or “he who goes ahead”—remains critical of both sides of the political equation and continues to use his music to inspire peace and prosperity. As Seligman continues in his five-star review, “We have known suffering, the songs and melodies seem to say, but we prevail. …Bonga is not only a standard-bearer but a standard-setter, and Kaxexe is a gem from start to finish.”