After last week’s visit to one of the classical African houses of Lisbon, A Lontra, today I propose taking us to a newer one. The landscape of houses for dancing African music in Lisbon is so dynamic, and the craze for dance is so strong that we can find new clubs opening even in the hardest times of financial crisis in Portugal. A good example of this is Kalema Club: each disco has its own personality, and Kalema attracted my attention from the first time I stepped into the house.
Kalema Club is a warm and welcoming house with a capacity of a bit more than 100 people. It is situated in the northern zone of Lisbon, at Avenida Frei Miguel Contreiras 18C. The golden and earthy colours of the lights and furniture, the comfortable sofas where you can sit freely and the non-huge but crowded dancefloor make you feel at home since the moment you arrive.
Whenever you decide to go to the bar and ask for a drink, you will always find the beautiful smile of Zanatt, barwoman and co-owner of the club with Ricardo Rodrigues.
One night in Kalema: ethnographic description
“Raluca, the promotor of Friday nights of Kalema Club is waiting at the door to welcome us with her shiny smile as we arrive. She is a really nice Romanian young woman who became a lover of African music in Lisbon. As she has great social skills, she has been recently included in the team of promotors of Fridays nights in Kalema. It means that we are on her guestlist and she invites us to sit on her table. The security man gives us a paper card of consumption. This is the most extended system in this kind of clubs in Lisbon: you don´t need to pay when you enter, and everything you ask for will be marked on your card. To anyone who is used to pay right in the moment of serving, this card system makes you feel that you are not spending money at all (until the moment of leaving, of course!). Before you leave, you pay the total amount and your card is stamped. This is the proof of payment that you must show to the security staff to be allowed to leave.
After crossing the entrance door, as you go downstairs you can feel the beats of kizomba reverberating closer with each step. Once at the level of the dancefloor, we go to the table where some friends are sitting. After being introduced to the rest through the smile-and-kiss ritual, we can sit down as part of the group. We can now be considered part of the collective social subject “our table”. I look around and see that all the sofas are occupied by groups of people that chat together and lean their drinks on the tables beside. Everyone is dressed in a weekend fashion, in varying degrees of formality that don´t go to the extremes (neither suits-and-ties, nor sport shoes-and-jeans). All the tables and sofas are oriented looking at the dancefloor and, as the space is not big, it is possible to observe almost every corner from any seat. The dancefloor is never totally empty but never totally packed up, leaving space for dancing without accidents. Most people come back to their original tables of reference after each dance.” (Fieldwork Diary)
This continuous cycle of going to the dancefloor when favourite songs are played and coming back “home” afterwards made me remember what I had witnessed in other African houses such as Mwangolé or Sussussu. But…this is not what I was used to see in any of the typical kizomba parties I have attended here in Lisbon…
The riddle of Kalema
Kalema became a mystery for me since the first night I went there: I was very curious about was what I perceived as a striking mix of ambiences. As far as I have witnessed in my fieldwork until today, in a “typical African disco” of the old style (80s and 90s), we will find people drinking and chatting in groups sitting on sofas beside tables around a dancefloor. Most of the time they will be talking and watching people dance (what is usually called convívio), and only in certain special moments they will jump on the dancefloor. By contrast, in the houses and parties that kizomba school people prefer, most of the time they are not sitting: instead, they are dancing or standing around the dancefloor, so that chatting and drinking is much of a secondary activity. In these contexts (such as Barrio Latino on Thursdays or, more recently, B.leza on Sundays), chairs and sofas become an obstacle for the dance or an improvised bengaleiro (place to leave their coats and bags). Apparently, Kalema broke that rule: being frequented by a mix of kizomba school people and Africans, all of them shared the habit of sitting on the sofas in groups and talking. Why? What was going on? I decided to resolve this intriguing fact that made Kalema such a special place. An interview with the co-owners, Ricardo Rodrigues and Zanatt, finally led me to the answer.
History of Kalema
Kalema Club opened just a few years ago, the 8th November of 2013, as Ricardo remembered immediately. The place already existed, and it was known as Terra da Música. To give it a new life, it was essential to change the name, the decoration, and the ambience. Interestingly, Ricardo spent a part of his life in Cape Verde and opened a house that called RClub. He used to go to another disco that was called Kalema, and the name inspired him. “Kalema” is the name given to a strong swell that beats the Western African coast (what could be considered a metaphor for the emotional state in which people get into through dancing.) Apart from the beautiful sound of the word, one of the reasons why Ricardo chose this name is because, according to him, we can find this term everywhere in the PALOPs: a general reference of Portuguese-speaking Africa that is not specific of any country. In this way, it could make people from diverse African countries feel identified with it. The two co-owners are well knowers of the African nights of Lisbon: Zanatt, from São Tomé, has lived in Lisbon for a long time, and Ricardo, Portuguese, has a quite interesting history of relations with Africa. Their intention was opening up a new African disco with a special personality that could make it different from the others. The boom of kizomba changed their plans: school kizomba lovers started to come and introduced their social rules. As the house started receiving more and more clients of this kind, it became an unexpected social mix and it had to adapt to the needs of both types of public: a good balance of recent hits and old music, a combination of living-room-like space with kizomba workshops some nights. As a result, today we can find a quite interesting mix of nightclub cultures, social rules and dance styles that develop through crossed influences in a small-medium space.
Nevertheless, these cultural diversity provide with some difficulties to keep everyone happy. The first key point is the music: how can the DJ guide such a heterogeneous community through the night?
For this reason, the solution found was the following: Kalema offers the possibility of experiencing a night more focused on kizomba on Fridays and a more “African night” on Saturday. At this moment, on Friday night we can find some of the DJs most appreciated in the world of kizomba schools and festivals joining DJ Klaus, the resident DJ. On Saturday, the invited DJs are specialists in African audiences; for example, DJ Zauzito was there for a noite do semba (semba night).
Summing up, if you go on Friday, you may find a kizomba workshop or a show by a well-known teacher; if you go on Saturday, you may find something more similar to the nostalgic African discos of the 80s and 90s. Or you may find a surprise, as new realities are being created every weekend. What are the new shapes that African-ness is taking in Lisbon´s nights? Are we helping the blending of social groups and night cultures through the love for music and dance? The answers are waiting on the dancefloor of discos like Kalema in the next years, starting from tonight. We´d better not miss it!
Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator of Modern Moves Project and will become a full member on September 2015.
The first time I heard about A Lontra disco was the night that Luísa Roubaud, one of the best experts in the dance scene in Lisbon and a great colleague and friend at INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia), talked to me about it. We were enjoying a night out with some of her friends who used to go to African music clubs since the eighties. Having witnessed all the transformations of the last decades, they were making a contrast between nowadays´ kizomba fashion night life and the golden times they remembered in the 70s and the 80s. As memories started popping up, their eyes shone when talking about A Lontra, a mythical dance club that opened in Lisbon after the outbreak of the independence wars of Portugal’s former African colonies. The owners were a married couple that came from Luanda and landed in Lisbon in 1975, running away from the war of independence in Angola, like other more than 500.000 people after-25th April 1974 (see Machado 1974). These frequent visitors of A Lontra remembered that the couple consisted of an incredibly beautiful Black African lady (Dinah) and her husband, a White Portuguese gentleman (Carlos Correia). Just like in fairy tales, the beauty of Dinah was well-known and admired in the kingdom of the African nights of Lisbon. They insisted that I should go and speak to her to know the whole story from her lips. Since that day, I had been looking forward to meeting her and making her an in-depth interview. I had seen the front door with the old metal sign representing an otter (that´s the meaning of “Lontra”) many times when passing by Rua de São Bento, and it was the night of Saturday 28th February that I decided to visit the place.
DOOR OF A LONTRA
METAL ICON OF A LONTRA
As I entered and approached the bar to ask about the politics of consumption, an ageless beautiful lady dressed in an elegant black suit came along walking slowly to attend. At that very moment, I said to myself: “no doubt, there she is”. Indeed, she was the legendary Dinah. I was lucky enough to get an appointment for an interview to know more about the history of the place and its secrets.
A Lontra was opened in 1977, right after Angola achieved its independence. This means that it was one of the first African discos of Lisbon. Like all the people who went to Portugal running away from the African wars of independence, they had to restart their lives from zero. Until they could find a way to make a living, they depended on public subventions aimed at “retornados” (“returned people”) and on the hospitality of their extended family. As they were experienced in managing discos in Luanda (such as the ones they owned, Cave Adão and Veleiro), they decided to start up a new business in the same branch. It was directed in principle to an audience of “retornados” that missed Africa and their lifestyle there. Gathering for listening to their beloved music became an urgent need, and A Lontra came to offer a home to alleviate homesickness through dancing together. The following images show some of the original spaces of A Lontra.
FIRST BAR, A LONTRA
SECOND BAR, A LONTRA
DANCE FLOOR, A LONTRA
A Lontra is situated in an emblematic place (Rua de São Bento 157), less than 5 minutes from the Assambleia da República, the most emblematic political institution of Portugal. It was not long time before some deputies, as well as intellectuals and artists heard of A Lontra and came to satisfy their curiosity. This nucleus of the political, artistic and intellectual elite of Lisbon became a faithful group of clients: these were the golden times of A Lontra, between the 80s and the 90s. In those days, DJing was combined with live music. Among other treasures, Dinah still keeps a large chest full of old vinyl discs of African music:
THE CHEST OF VINYLS
SOME OF THE OLD VINYLS (WE SEE IMAGES FAMILIAR FROM OUR RECENT VISIT TO COTONOU!)
Dinah also possesses a beautiful collection of art handcraft bought during travels to Angola, which are also displayed in the disco.
ELEPHANT WOODEN CHAIR
FEMALE FIGURE IN WOOD
MASK IN WOOD
Another jewel that she keeps carefully is a collection of pictures of those days. Some deputies used to gather in A Lontra for a drink after their sessions in Assambleia da República. Sometimes, they held meetings in a private room that Dinah gently opened for them. It means that important decisions for the future of Portugal were taken inside A Lontra´s walls.
A LONTRA, A NIGHT IN 1996
Through the 70s and 80s, more African houses opened up in Lisbon. Dinah and her husband Carlos opened a second house in 1980, “Cave Adão”, following the style and fame of the disco they had opened in Luanda, and in 1989 Dinah opened the disco “Rainha Njinga” (an epical Angolan queen known for her fierce resistance to the Portuguese colonizers). The clientele changed through time, and A Lontra started being visited by more and more people from Cape Verde. Vinyl music changed to CD, and later to digital files in the DJ´s computer, and the styles and ambience of the house changed too. With the recent boom of kizomba music and dance throughout the world, A Lontra adapted to the new times and DJs started introducing the most recent hits of kizomba. This is an excerpt of the fieldnotes I took that night:
“The night starts with loud afrohouse music, what indicates that the audience will probably be mainly people in their twenties. As expected, young boys and girls start coming since approximately two o´clock at night. The first beats of recent kizomba hits make some couples jump to the dancefloor. There is a pair of couples doing school-like steps, but the rest are dancing free style. Two boys leaning on the bar encourage themselves and finally leave their glasses on the counter to go and invite some of the girls that gather in groups by the edge of the dancefloor, but they refuse. Only when one of them insists and pulls a girl´s arm she accepts with a facial expression of resignation. Anyway, she abandons him in the middle of the song. It seems that it´s a hard job for boys. Then the DJ turns to Brazilian and international commercial music, such as Enrique Iglesias´ “Bailando” hit. Girls go crazy dancing in groups and having fun. The moment of funaná creates a new atmosphere: there are not many people dancing in couples, but mostly girls dancing among themselves and joking with and through the music. There is a girl dressed in a stripped blue and white tight dress who dances in an amazing and crazy way, moving her hips and feet in every possible way without ever losing the beat. Dinah is looking at her from the counter and smiling with pleasure. Then the DJ moves to batuque and people get even crazier, shaking hips and bumping navels on the dancefloor. Popular music from Cape Verde, mostly from Santiago, is played for a long time and intertwined with musical blocks of kizomba and afrohouse.” (Fieldwork diary, 28th February 2015) (To know more about batuque music and dance in Lisbon, see the work of Ana Flávia Miguel and Jorge Castro Ribeiro, INET-MD)
In conclusion, A Lontra can be proud of being one of the oldest African houses of Lisbon still open today and of having witnessed the recent history of Lisbon. It has resisted the changing times through adapting to the social and cultural transformations of the city. The dance steps of artists, politicians, intellectuals, curious visitors and people of all ages and from every corner of the PALOPS, have written on its dancefloor the history of relations between Portugal and Africa for at least the last 38 years. But, unlike an old museum, music has kept A Lontra young and alive. When asked about the secret for this, Dinah smiles and says: “this is something you do because you love it”.
Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently a member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator in the Modern Moves Project and will become a full member of the team in September 2015.
Machado, Fernando Luís (1994) Luso-africanos em Portugal: nas margens da etnicidade. Sociologia: Problemas e Práticas 16: 111-134
Featured image: Archival photo of A Lontra, a night in 1996
A guest post for the Moving Blog by DJ John Armstrong, who selected the tunes for our Moving Conversation 2 after-party on January 12th. John has recently put together a 4-CD box set of essential zouk both traditional and contemporary, spanning the years from the late 70s to today. You can find it here, amongst other internet places: Simply Zouk. If you’re still one of the intrepid few who prefer to buy their music in a physical shop, you’ll also find it at HMV and similar retailers. Thank you, John, for the music, your knowledge, and the post!’
A while back, I was invited to start work on a music compilation of traditional French Antillean music: gwoka, bele, chouval bwa, biguine, jing-ping, and so forth. I needed some quotable contemporary material from current traditional musicians, and found to my surprise that those approached would only participate if the interviews were conducted in kreyol.
For commercial reasons the compilation wasn’t completed. But the illuminating conversation between Prof Carolyn Cooper and Jocelyne Beroard at January’s Moving Conversation, as well as the wonderful performance by Zil’oKa, a dance group whose average age can’t be more than the early 20s, reminded me that it was in the fields of language and dance just as much as of music that Jocelyne’s band, Kassav’, helped effect a revolution.
Francophone songwriters have been composing in kreyol for more than half a century, true, but it wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that there was general commercial recognition of the fact. Suddenly, LPs from the French Antilles and Haiti started appearing in record-shop racks with pull-out lyric sheets in (to many eyes) an almost-indecipherable script. Kassav’s members, and the composers with whom they collaborated, regarded it as a mark not of nationalistic honour, but of cultural necessity that written lyrics accurately reproduced sung lyrics.
In this, Kassav’ were very much of their time as regards contemporaneous writers in fields other than music. The Negritude writers of the 30s- Aime Cesaire and others- had already extended the scope of the linguistic studies of the Haitian anthropologist Antenor Firmin beyond specialist circles and into wider cultural usage. But it wasn’t until the 70s and 80s, and the appearance of Martinican authors, poets and movie scriptwriters such as Raphael Confiant, Daniel Maximin, Jean Bernabe and Patrick Chamoiseau that kreyol — as a signifier — became almost an everyday necessity rather than an academic nicety, even though such writers were not confining themselves purely to kreyol in all their work.
The same thing’s happening today in Jamaica, although admittedly, reggae has had a much wider world stage for a much longer time than Franco-Caribbean music. Prof Cooper played a track from the recent album by perhaps the most exciting ‘new’ reggae voice in a decade — Chronnix. Just 22 years old, Chronnix is part of a new generation of Jamaican artists that don’t recognise the constraints and conventions of commercial reggae and dancehall. Accordingly, you’ll find lovers’ rock, dub, ragga, dancehall, roots, Rastafari, nyabinghi and everything in between in a Chronnix set, all of it composed in a contemplative and poetic patois, with thematic preoccupations that owe more to Bobs Dylan and Marley than to current dancehall.
What’s more, written Jamaican patois is appearing more often now than a decade ago: for example, in the extraordinary novels of Marlon James, such as A Short History Of Seven Killings, a 700-page, patois-Pynchon-esque mix of fact and fiction about the events and characters surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1977. And here’s the thing: after fifty or so pages, even a white, middle-class English guy like me finds himself internally vocalising and appreciating the flow, beauty and humour of Jamaican patois, and understanding every word.
Here’s a good podcast of current “Reggae Revival” as the ‘new’ Chronnix sound is being tagged.
What’s just as exciting is the way in which Kassav’s ‘kreyol-and-proud’ legacy, as well as the tempos of modern r & b and dancehall, has influenced nouvel’ scene Franco-Caribbean music, as Guadeloupe’s foremost practitioner of back-to-roots modernity, Admiral T, demonstrates below:
Admiral T says to the kids at the beginning: “Mis ti krik!’. They reply ‘Mis ti krak!’ .‘I’m going to tell you a story!’ ‘ Yes, we’re listening!’
Or the beautiful Lycinais Jean, in this adaptation of a Jocelyne Berouard classic:
Q: WHEN IS ZOUK NOT ZOUK?
A: WHEN IT’S BAD ZOUK.
There’s been much discussion among ‘old-school’ Antillean zouk fans about ‘modern’ international zouk (ie post- 1995 or thereabouts). Many believe the current style for the relentless 88-ish b.p.m. tempo is a travesty of original zouk –- party and carnival music which often hit 140-150 b.p.m. in its late-80s heyday. It doesn’t really trouble me either way: after all, much of zouk’s early impetus came from Dominican cadence-lypso and Haitian konpa direct, neither of which styles were unusually frantic.
Nevertheless, I can sort of see why first-generation zoukeurs feel that ‘their’ music has been hijacked by the requirements of the dance teacher! But ultimately, all popular music tends to change in line with the recording techniques and technical advances of the day, and with the blueprint of commercial ‘chart’ music generally. For example, what the music industry calls ‘r & b’ today would be unrecognisable to the r & b artists of the late 40s, like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris -– but it’s still r & b, for all that.
To reiterate a cliché: there are just two kinds of music, good music and bad music. I think the same applies to zouk, whenever it was recorded.
SEMBA AND KIZOMBA- PAULO FLORES- A TRUE ORIGINAL
Speaking of ‘international’ zouk, I believe that there’s a misconception among some that today’s zouk sound developed solely from Antilllean zouk, and that everything else is mere emulation. The fact is, though, that the Luso-African community had a much larger input into zouk’s beginnings in Paris than they’re often given credit for. There’s something about Luso African melody that makes it perfect for zouk, especially its fado-inflected melancholy.
I recently put together a 4-CD box set of essential zouk both traditional and contemporary, spanning the years from the late 70s to today. You can find it here.
I recall seeing many posters for Cape Verdean parties and club-nights in 80s Paris record shops. More importantly, arrangers and composers such as Emmanuel ‘Manou’ Lima and Tito Paris were providing the blueprints for the then-new sound of zouk-love. Many of the great Afro-zouk classics recordings by Oliver N’Goma, Monique Seka, and others bore the unmistakeable print of Manou Lima’s keyboard arrangements, while the Paris and Abidjan dance club soundtracks of the time included many tunes by Luso-African stars — Bonga, Paulo Flores, Tropical Band, Carlos Burity, Eduardo Paim, Juju Delgado, Cabo Verde Show — in the mix among the more instantly recogniseable Kassav’, Kanda Bongo Man, etc.
Which brings us neatly to the much-anticipated Modern Moves conversation between Paulo Flores, the undisputed king and foremost international populariser of Angolan semba and kizomba and Professor Marissa Moorman, whose book Intonations is the essential primer for any Angolan music lover or musicologist. With that in mind, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of YouTube videos that demonstrate beyond doubt the mutual indebtedness of the Antillean and Luso African musical diasporas.
The first is a duet between Kassav’s Jacob Desvarieux and the great Eduardo ‘General Kambuengo’ Paim.
The second between Jacob, once again, and one of the lesser-known stars of kizomba, Nilo Carvalho.
The third link, of course,, shows Paulo Flores singing one of the keynote songs of semba, with a superb band.
So, till then: We ou nan pati la! E ve-lo na festa!
Feature image: Zil’oKA dancers performing to ‘Zouk la si sel medikaman nou ni’ in the presence of Jocelyne Beroard and Carolyn Cooper, King’s College London, 12th January 2015. Photo courtesy of Fareda Khan.
The Meo Arena, with a capacity of 20, 000 people, was almost packed last 19th July for the concert of the celebration of the 20 year-long career of Yuri da Cunha. This was an incredible show of three and a half hours, during which he shared the stage with the most important artists that have collaborated with him and have contributed to the development of his artistic identity.
This was a show that did not need to depend on elaborate scenic production: instead, it opened with just two female dancers presenting movements from traditional Angolan dances, to testify since the very beginning the artist’s emphasis on the importance of Angolan popular and traditional roots for his own work.
The Angolan singer made this concert an authentic homage to Luso-African rhythms: the first round of music presented Yuri’s classics and ended with the powerful performance of the Mozambican singer Lizha James, whose “Quem te mandou“ got the audience really excited and made everyone get up and dance.
During the first part, we enjoyed some of Yuri’s best known songs– “Amigo”, “Tá doer” and “Zig Zig”– mixed in a unique harmonious sequence that revealed in a lively and animated manner the incredible qualities of Yuri’s orchestra and his own unbelievable sensibility as singer. In contrast, the second part of the concert was dedicated to calmer and more songs. An unforgettable moment was when guitars and drums fell silent to slide gently into the theme “Viola” dedicated to the memory of the great musician Beto de Almeida (one of the Irmãos Almeida, who disappeared in October 2013), to remember to all those present the important historical and political value that music has in Angola and to commemorate Beto’s important role in the valorization and development of popular national music.
This intense moment reminded us all that music has had its martyrs in Angola, and that the cheerful character of most Angolan music can still, as always did, even in the most dynamic carnival rhythm, accompany the tragedy of history, the fight for freedom as well as the mourning of political deaths.
That wasn’t the only profound moment of the night, and as Yuri stated, the best was yet to come!!! Yuri invited on stage Don Kikas with whom sang the theme “Pura sedução”, a classic, known by almost the whole arena, and then continued alone with two romantic pieces: “Regressa” and “Sanzala”, a theme that flows from a semba structure to a mixed structure of Semba and Samba, and that prepared the public for another rhythmic journey and a new artist, when the diasporic Caboverdian artist Nelson Freitas appeared to sing “Saia Branca”. Finally, the artists sang together two more songs: “Ir mais longe” and a funana that Yuri had composed some years ago as a tribute to Caboverdian music and culture.
What a night! Different generations of star Angolan musicians– Maya Cool, Paulo Flores, C4 Pedro and Big Nelo, The Groove– all participated in this enormous event and gave their best– all of them showing highest quality of musical and stage performance.
Then Os Piluka arrived on stage for the climactic moment, showing the power that makes them the most sought-after kuduro group today.
he concert was almost at the end when Yuri da Cunha decided to pay homage Angola and asked the audience to sing with him the Angolan National Anthem. It was the most touching moment of the night, as Caboverdians, Portuguese nationals, and many foreigners sang together with the enormous Angolan community of Portugal to express their respect and love for Angola and its culture. All singing in unison in a spirit of friendship and familiarity and celebrating the continuous cultural exchange existing between Angola and Portugal.
Anselmo Ralph was the last artist to appear on the stage. He sang “Curtição” e “Única mulher” together with the public, who could accompany every word till the point of singing last song till the end leaving Anselmo listening and admiring the effect of the whole theatre interpreting his song.
The celebration of this 20 years career ended with the hits “Atchutchutcha” e “Kuma Kwa Kie” (which in kimbundo means: The Sunrise) while, appropriately, a new day was almost about to dawn. The last song lasted more then 10 minutes to give all the artists the time to re-enter the stage and to dance all together while Angolan carnival started exploding with the increase of the percussion and speed of the Semba flowing briefly into kazukuta to then go back again to the original version.
The whole Meo Arena was jumping and dancing, all people hugging each other celebrating friendship, just as Yuri had asked. This all couldn’t end, of course, without Sabonete Sabão: a popular song to cleanse energies and kill evil.
The dancers on stage began demonstrating the typical carnival movements, improvising and just following the music. Carnival really appeared in all its spirit and all became movement, and the Angolan community was united, proud, happy… and generously open to those who were there to show their love for Angolan music and dance. When Yuri da Cunha presented on the stage his MTV African music award, won for the Best Collaboration, he raised up the award, saying: “Lisboa, Portugal, Angola, this is not mine! This prize is ours Lusophone people, and it’s here for you”.
Yuri da Cunha, this great musician and amazing performer showed another side of his artistic activity: a commitment to Angola and its traditions as a central point for the development of the future of Angolan musical and cultural identity. With his words “only protecting the past we can build the future” he declared that a great part of Angolan past still needed to be analyzed and re-elaborated and in its roots there are the seeds for a much-awaited, democratic development.
On June 28th 2014, Mestre Petchu and his partner Vanessa ‘Ginga Pura’ Carvalo were in San Francisco, conducting a workshop of ‘kizomba, semba, and African tribal dance in the Bay area’. The photo advertising this event on facebook shows the two of them in typical semba pose, wearing outfits in which African fabric features prominently. Face markings in white paint are also visible on both dancers’ faces. The facebook event description states that ‘Dança Makèzú brings you Mr. Tarraxinha & Ms. Ginga, Mestre Petchu & Vanessa Pura Ginga of Angola, to the Bay Area!! Sass, funk, attitude, swagger, confidence, sweat, laughs are all part of learning, as Mestre Petchu and Vanessa lead us through a two-day fun-filled workshop full of kizomba, semba, and African tribal dance. This is not to be missed!!’ (nb: ‘tarraxinha: slow tempo Angolan couple dance; ginga: Portuguese; this term, originating in capoeira, can be translated as ‘swing’, with the added implication here of ‘sexy and dexterous movement of posterior’)
According to the schedule, each day concluded with an hour of ‘African tribal dance’. Unlike the kizomba and semba classes, these ‘tribal dance’ classes were not structured to reflect progression. The final version of the schedule also indicated that an attempt would be made to trace the ‘African tribal roots’ of semba. The dances ‘kizomba’ and ‘semba’ are recognized by social dancers of Afro-Latin style worldwide as having emerged from Angola. Likewise with ‘kuduro’, another widely recognized Angolan dance style (danced solo rather than in partner-hold). All three forms are strongly connected to the history, politics and identity discourse of colonial and postcolonial Angola. But what is this ‘African tribal dance’ that Petchu and Vanessa offered to Bay Area dancers? It seems that nobody really knew: a question I left on the event page- ‘Hi! Interested to know what the ‘African tribal dance’ class will be about?! Thanks!!’ – remained unanswered. The photos of the event now uploaded on the page show Petchu and Vanessa leading the class with physical movements broadly reminiscent of an African kinetic repertoire used when dancers are out of couple hold.
The Modern Moves research team has been intrigued by the word ‘tribal’ as used often by our postdoctoral associate Francesca Negro to report to us developments in the pedagogy of Angolan social dance. This is a word that, in both Anglophone and Francophone discursive contexts, is currently deployed with caution, and best within quotation marks, to signal a troubled semantic and ideological history. Postcolonial theory and colonial discourse analysis has flagged up the use of the category of the ‘tribal’ by all European imperial powers seeking to reduce Africa and other colonised regions (e.g. the South Pacific islands) to a stereotype of primitiveness and savagery. Even in Anthropology, the discipline fashioned around the study of ‘tribes’, the accepted term now would be ‘ethnic group’ or ‘ethnie’. Indeed in mainstream usage the adjective ‘tribal’ is most often seen in semantic contexts where the group described is anything but— e.g. a certain type of urban reveller, a particular sort of fashion choice, etc. It is usual amongst those who work in Africa to point with disdain and exasperation to comments from friends and family enquiring after the ‘tribes’ of Africa.
On querying Francesca about this puzzling use of ‘tribal’, it came to light that the phrase ‘African tribal dance’ in the Angolan context can be attributed almost certainly to one actor: Mestre Petchu himself. It is he who has popularised this term within Angolan dance pedagogy, and his most prominent students (e.g. Paulo Cruz) have generated its subsequent popularisations. The Mestre and his disciples have both defined and captured this part of the Afro/ Latin social dance market. Kizomba is now gaining popularity in the US through an axis of interpersonal connectivity that has brought its earliest American practitioners into contact with established ‘autocthonous’ leaders such as him. The concept of ‘African tribal dance’ is spreading precisely through this axis to neophyte, Anglophone, consumers across the Atlantic. The word ‘tribal’ is, in the process, constantly and progressively ‘re-normalised’ (at least for this group of users), the quotation marks silently being done away with.
After all, if a visibly ‘African’ person, a professional dancer in fact, uses the word ‘tribal’ to describe his dance practice, can the rest of us find it objectionable? I do not propose that we start berating Mestre Petchu for this (non politically correct) use of ‘tribal’; rather, I propose we use it as a point of entry into his psyche as a postcolonial Angolan person currently living in Portugal. Thinking harder about why he would use the word ‘tribal’ in this manner can, moreover, help us clarify our methodology as a research team in the face of some criticism from dance scholars that many of our activities that involve dance practitioners of African heritage succumb to ‘essentialism’ and ‘anti-intellectualism’. As a team, we acknowledge Mestre Petchu’s right to express a preference for the word ‘tribal’. Indeed, to analyse it as an example of what Gayatri Spivak first termed ‘strategic essentialism’ is more helpful for our overall research aim: to elucidate the intricate, often hidden relationships between dance, identity and the phantasm of ‘Africa’ for a spectrum of differently formed modern subjectivities.
Let me, at this point, quote from the following biographical notes on Petchu (Pedro Vieira Dias Tomas) and his partner Vanessa ‘Ginga Pura’ Carvalo. This information is supplied within the same facebook event page referred to earlier: ‘Mestre Petchu and Vanessa are one of the greatest world authorities in the field of Angolan culture of music and dance. Living in Portugal for many years now, Petchu was the first to teach kizomba and semba there. He is known to have spread kizomba, the dance, throughout Europe. Petchu is the founder of the African ballet group, Kilandukilu and has been leading this group for 25 years of his 30-year career. Vanessa, also a member of Kilandukilu, is [known] internationally for her Ginga, and is one of the best female Kizomba and Semba dancers in the world.’ While Petchu was born in Luanda in the 1960s, Vanessa is from Sao Tome e Principe. Their weekly classes at Studio Jazzy, Lisbon, conducted under the banner of Ballet Tradicional Kilandukilu, constitute one of that city’s many manifestations of Afro-Luso-postcoloniality. http://www.jazzy.pt/pt/about
This postcolonial Afro-Luso flavour of Lisbon is evident in its thorough permeation by dance and music from Portugal’s former African colonies. Downtown in the Baixa Chiado area, one can hear and see African groups playing live music on every street corner, while clubs lining the regenerated quayside play kizomba, semba and Cape Verdian dance forms alongside salsa and r n b. While Brazilian music is known and enjoyed, it is the visible, audible and kinetic presence of Portuguese-speaking Africans in Lisbon that makes Portugal seem an extension of PALOP Africa- as Mestre Petchu himself declared in a recent interview to the TV channel dedicated to the PALOP world, STPtv. In the same way, Luanda feels somehow very European, or at least it did so to me when I visited it a few years ago. I had to remind myself that the Portuguese presence in Africa was centuries older than the British presence in India. One has to really think of the concurrent movement into modernity of Lisbon and African cities of the Portuguese empire such as Luanda and Lourenco Marques (Maputo).
The evolution of creolized couple dances on the African mainland and Cape Verde, like those of the New World, brought together African dance repertoires and the frame of the couple hold (parallel syncretisms were taking place in the music). This evolution reveals long processes of cultural transfer, which would have indelibly transformed the valence of the ‘traditional’ in the realm of social dance and music. The conceptual framework here can draw from studies of colonial modernity and tradition(alism) in Africa and elsewhere (by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Benedict Anderson, Partha Chatterjee, Achille Mbembe, Frederick Cooper). This work needs to be married to our ongoing work on excavating the complex evolution of the couple dances ‘kizomba’, ‘semba’ and ‘tarraxinha’ and of their accompanying music genres (the latter largely through contact with French Caribbean zouk music). Rather than go into those details here I want to signal that when Petchu uses the word ‘tribal’ he gestures, at least subconsciously, to the modern (read: ‘Europeanized’) forms of couple dances which have gained international prominence in post-Civil War Angola.
Angola’s double trauma of recovering from colonial rule, followed immediately by a prolonged Civil War, complicated immeasurably nation-building attempts after decolonization. These postcolonial processes must be seen on the micro-level of individual subjectivities as creating a yearning for an authenticity coupled with what Stefanie Alisch calls the ‘postcolonial schizophrenia’ binding together Portugal and its African ex-colonies. This contradictory psychosocial state may well be the reason why an Angolan such as Mestre Petchu can propagate couple dances with evident European genealogies on the one hand as ‘authentic Angolan dances’ as well as ‘African tribal dances’ comprising a repertoire of steps that are meant to transmit another kind of ‘authenticity’. It appears that by ‘tribal’, Mestre Petchu actually means ‘traditional’; Francesca explicated that he reserves the adjective ‘tribal’ for the actual nomenclature of the classes (whether he gives them in Lisbon or abroad), replacing it with ‘traditional’ in discussion with her and others. The Mestre’s interview with STPtv corroborates this statement but also nuances it in ways that confirms my hypothesis.
Within this interview, broadcast under the title ‘Amor e Danca’, 2nd June 2014, Mestre Petchu describes the work of his company, Ballet Tradicional Kilandukilu, through repeated use of the word ‘traditional’. Although he refers to breakdance and (non-specified) modern dance as examples of what they do not do, the major point of contrast is with the social dances kizomba and semba, which, all present at the interview agree, has been the door through which Angola has entered transnational dance. Kilandukilu, however, which means ‘enjoyment’ in Kimbundu, was formed in Luanda, in response to the needs of young people to return to their dance roots. These traditions demand the gravitas of pedagogy. They must be distinguished from kizomba, rather dismissively (but affectionately) described by interviewer and Mestre Petchu as the dance of the street (rua) and backyard (quintal). This understanding of Kilandukilu’s manifesto accords with Francesca’s explication that Petchu sees his ‘tribal dance’ classes as a way to ‘save’ steps but from other parts of Africa from ‘disappearing’– presumably due to a generalised modern malaise.
It is another matter that some of these dance steps and forms– for instance the sabar of Senegal and the khassonke of Mali– are neither purely ‘traditional’ forms (what, indeed, is?) nor in any need of rescuing. What is interesting is that an Angolan dancer based in Lisbon should see this rescue act as his mission. A certain kind of aspirational latter-day rough-and-ready pan-Africanism emerges through these attempts to forge an African tribal/ traditional dance style. A similar logic underlies Maxwell Xolani Rani’s creation of pedagogy for the B.A. in African Dance awarded by the University of Cape Town and taught at its once exclusive School of Dance that was renowned for Ballet. But Maxwell Xolani Rani has– thanks to the structure imposed on him by the needs to devise a university degree course, travelled through the African continent collecting steps and styles, whereas Mestre Petchu admits repeatedly in the STPtv interview that by Africa he really means ‘Angola’, which is what he knows best. I also doubt that UCT would use the word ‘tribal’ to describe the origins of these steps.
Bringing together these two points, we can deduce that Mestre Petchu’s adoption of the word ‘tribal’ occurs in the context of a self-confessed lacuna in detailed knowledge and a self-evident desire to invoke an idea of Africa that is greater than the nation he represents. This conglomeration is increasingly evident in the STPtv interview, where the word tribal first appears only two-thirds of the way into the 50-minute interview. Until that moment, Mestre Petchu has been using the word ‘traditional’ several times; he even corrects the interviewer’s use of ‘traditional African’ with a ‘parenthesis: by ‘African’ I mean 90 percent Angolan’. Only when describing the classes he conducts at Lisbon, he mentions that the class of traditional dance is called ‘tribal’. The interviewer picks this up, signalling through an exaggerated intonation the existence of quotation marks, ‘these “tribal” dances, these African dances- who are the foreigners who want to learn them?’ But even she is soon transfixed by the spell of the word– the next time she uses ‘tribal’ towards the end of the interview it is with a palpable note of pride- ‘our African tribal dances’.
It must be clarified here that the host of the STPtv show, Abigail Tiny Cosme, is from Sao Tome and Principe, and the channel’s raison d’etre is to promote art and culture in the wider PALOP world. So it is striking to see the speakers– Mestre Petchu and two female dancers of Kilandukilu, and Cosme herself– progressively bond over this idea of ‘us Africans’, with dance in our blood, with dance penetrating and shaping every activity of ours, even ostensibly sombre ones like funerals. ‘Africa is all the rage’, Cosme concludes the programme triumphantly while saying, and thanks Petchu for his work in bringing African culture, ‘our continent’, to the world. Given this desire to embrace rather than reject a (presumably) pre-modern communal corporeality as coded in the joy of movement and festivity, the idea of the ‘tribal’, proposed by Mestre Petchu and enthusiastically adopted by Cosme in course of the programme, makes quite a lot of sense. The Mestre’s use now seems a strategic attempt to re-articulate postcolonial schizophrenia into a viable and autonomous concept that has the added value of marking a distance from ‘non-tribal’ Europe.
It is one thing for a host from the archipelago of Sao Tome and Principe to go along with Mestre Petchu’s use of ‘tribal’ and ‘traditional’ in positing an overarching ‘Africa’ within whose kinetic regeneration all things Angolan are apparently playing a prominent part. What about representatives of other African nations– how would they feel about this capture of ‘Africa’ by Angola? This process of approximating ‘Africa’ to ‘Angola’ marks all scales and levels of the kizomba dance scene– most prominent being the dance competition and festival ‘Africadançar’ which started out eight years ago as a platform for a range of African social dances but now has become almost exclusively the showcase for Angolan forms– including Mestre Petchu’s version of ‘African tribal dance’. The organisers of Africadançar, being mostly from Portugal, are apparently not so concerned about the implications for the meaning of ‘Africa’ – their concerns appear far more pragmatic and commercial. In the meanwhile, individual actors enact the Afro-tribal’s dialogue with ‘modern’ in a postmodern-postcolonial way to reinterpret all the terms in the mix- ‘afro’, ‘tribal’, and ‘modern.’
Some other African practitioners of Angolan social dance appear as not too worked up about Angola’s strategic capture of ‘brand Africa’. Thus the Atlanta-based teacher of Angolan dance, Mwangi Maina, reveals in his facebook page and on his website that he is from ‘Kenya (Africa)’, where he grew up with music, and describes kizomba as an ‘African contemporary social dance’ with no mention of Angola at all. Here we see the de-Angolanisation of kizomba being manipulated to become useful for another African in diaspora to create a sense of self and identity through what the dance represents to him and to the world. As Mwangi Maina is one of the instructors gearing up to receive Petchu and Vanessa on their soon-to-begin US tour, it can be surmised that he does not see his act of self-definition vis-à-vis kizomba as intruding on his relationship with or respect for them. In the meanwhile the other promoters of this tour, who are organising the ‘African tribal dance class’ in San Francisco, are a dance couple consisting of a Latina woman (Chalianna) and a Haitian man (Yair).
The ‘Afro-tribal’ via Angolan dance offers what Achille Mbembe calls African Modes Of Self Writing, and these are clearly also open to use within ‘Afro-diasporic modes of self-writing’. Mbembe concludes that essay with some suggestive comments about ‘stylizng’ in the process of ‘self-writing’. His term goes beyond Stephen Greenblatt’s influential earlier coinage, ‘self-fashioning’, returning decisively to the body as the ground of style (and fashion)—although Mbembe’s article itself proffers a philosophical rather than materialistic exploration of what we can call ‘self-styling’. In short, then, ‘Afro-tribal’ participates in acts of self-styling by people who wish to demonstrate ancestral connections to ‘African-ness’. It operates – not unproblematically– within the rebuilding of a post-diasporic, postcolonial self through bricolage, and it works best through a visual register. Face paint, animal skins, grass skirts, horn and bead jewellery, patterned textile, even spears and other ‘primitive weapons’, are thrown into the mix.
A fascinating supplement to this visualisation of the ‘Afro-tribal’ within dance is the use of ‘Afro-tribal’ by some DJs to label a particular kind of electronic music. In “>DJ Ras Sjamaan’s ‘Afro-Tribal’ mixes, rhythms typical of house and techno music are overlaid with sonic flashes of Africa to remind the listener what s/he is listening to. On a deeper level, dialogue between binary and ternary rhythms brings these mixes closer to the rhythmic logic of some kinds of African music. But less subtle references to Africa are established through human vocal items– voices, style of singing, chorus, shouts, often in non-European languages— and additional sounds produced by acoustic instruments– idiophones (bells, shakers…), drums. In case these descriptive sonic tags are not enough, geographical indications are liberally sprinkled throughout- such as shouts of ‘AFRICA’ and ‘ANGOLA’. A heightened version of this anxiety of recognition reappears in other examples of ‘Afro-tribal’ music, such as the ‘This Is Afrodelic’ series featuring tracks like ‘Afrika’, ‘Africa’, ‘Stereotype’, ‘From Apes to Humans’, ‘Tribal Work’ and, yes, ‘Tribal Ways’.
What work does the word ‘tribal’ do for these tracks? And what does it mean to ‘tag’ Africa — geographically as well as sonically — in them? These tags operate on a descriptive level within the tracks, and on a suggestive level paratextually. They insist on connecting the listener to a ‘afro’ and ‘Africa’, but coded as ‘tribal’. But who is the listener and where is s/he located? At home in front of a computer, or on a dance floor? If the latter, where in the world might this floor be? The mobility of music combines with music’s fundamentally abstract representational mode: if this track traveled out of Africa and onto another dance floor, who would know it originated in Africa? Did it, in fact?. We do not know where this track is composed, we do not know who assembled its YouTube pictoral version embellished with visual images of ‘Africa’. There is an anxiety of authenticity here—somehow the track’s value is augmented by its alignment to the African, where the African is ‘tribal’. It doesn’t matter if the Africa it references is the urban Africa of Afro-house music- as indicated by the debt of one of Ras Sjamaan’s mixes to ‘mete mete mete, não estou a sentir nada.’
Mestre Petchu’s use of Afro-tribal and house music’s use of ‘Afro-tribal’ seems to arrive at the same term through different routes, with rather different consequences for consumers (both African and non-African). While it is the black or brown body (especially, it seems, the male body) that participates in Afro-tribal self-styling through dress, the dance styles taught under this rubric are of course available to anyone who wants to embrace (for whatever purpose) their ‘inner African’, channelled— it would seem— through their inner ‘tribal’. However no one actually adopts that sort of costuming for party outfits. Inspiration for self-styling on the dance floor comes from fashions that are definitely Afro-modern, even Afro-Dandy– such as the style statements of Kizomba and Semba dancers, or the famous Congolese Sapeurs. In the realm of music, in contrast, we are less committed to changing our body style to declare our adherence to the ‘Afro-tribal’. The visual contrast between the typical world music aficionado and the AfroPolitan exhibiting swagger on the dance floor could not be starker.
Last week, examining the Afro-tribal against a reading of Mbembe’s essay (‘Modes of African Self-Writing’), the Modern Moves team was led to reconsider our own embodied relationships to Africa. Discussing our tattoos, hair braids, African saris and –even in one case—the decision not to overtly self-style after African style, took us back to our earliest years, the roots of our intellectual formation, the foundations of our curiosity about that which is not ‘us’. While we are still thinking about the range embedded in ‘Afro-tribal’, this self-examination suggested how we may take further Achille’s concluding observation: ‘Because the time we live in is fundamentally fractured, the very project of an essentialist or sacrificial recovery of the self is, by definition, doomed. Only the disparate, and often intersecting, practices through which Africans stylize their conduct and life can account for the thickness of which the African present is made.’ Not just the African present, then, but a planetary present through which ‘Africa’ and Africa traverse.
This Moving Story was written by Ananya Kabir, with generous inputs from Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, and Madison Moore. Its concepts and arguments have been developed during the Modern Moves team’s weekly conversations.
All photos by Ananya Kabir unless otherwise noted.