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Travel in music: Chapter 19 - 2002, Angola

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2002 – Chapter 19 | I called my project in Puerto Rico the ‘turning point’ when the relationship with my employers began to sour. Angola was the catalyst. Everything accelerated from there and all trust was definitely broken. These posts are about the places and not about my frayed professional relations so I will spare you the sordid details. In Angola’s case, they do matter a little bit because, as a result, I spent nearly 4 months hitting a brick wall and twiddling my thumbs – workwise, that is. For on a human level, my stay in Angola was an unforgettable experience in many regards.

When we landed in Luanda, the country was in the last throes of a civil war that had been raging since it achieved independence in 1975. Considering the long war of liberation against Portugal (of which Angola was an overseas province) that preceded it, continuous war had beset Angola for 40 straight years. Longer than I had walked the earth at the time... There were entire generations lost to war in this sparsely populated country!

We rented a house in the Maianga district, behind a run-down, art deco cinema. The cracked water tank leaked, so we ran out of water every few days or so. The electricity supply was equally erratic and the phone lines barely worked. To guard this rotting, cockroach-infested palace, two Uzi-toting sentinels worked shifts, aided by two mean dogs who had never smelled a white man before (one of them almost killed me on a night I entered the garage without warning – I still bear the scars). Those two guards were as sweet as you can be but they were both illiterate. In snatches, they told me their stories, which were not that different. Militias had kidnapped them both on their way back from school, when they were about 12. They joined an MPLA fighting unit and served for six full years before they could even let their families know they were alive. With unfeigned shame, they explained that they chose to be security guards when they finally left the army because weapons was all they knew.

Most roads out of Luanda were impracticable: unsafe because of a nasty habit both warring parties shared. They planted antipersonnel mines everywhere. The only way to reach the interior provinces was by plane. That did not stop us from enjoying our surroundings. Ilha was our favorite weekend playground. A narrow strip of land jutting out into the ocean at the western edge of Luanda’s bay, it contained an array of beach bars where alcohol and music flowed freely. On Sundays, Banda Maravilha would perform live. Before hitting the beach, early in the morning, I also played football there with the Minister of Defense and his bodyguards. A jovial character, who loved to share his cold war stories, he seemed to have walked out of a John Le Carré novel. He had studied in the USSR and completed his training in guerrilla warfare in Cuba. He spoke perfect Russian and Spanish. He claimed to have only two thirds of his liver left because of a failed poisoning attempt. After football, he liked to play cards and share a whisky or two (at 10 am!). One day, though perfectly aware that I was a ‘reporter’, he boasted of his proudest achievement: his reconversion into business. He had invested in a canvas factory. When demand was low, he ordered tents and uniforms. “I am my own best client”, he said with an ear-splitting grin. “Genius, right?”

Of course, he was not the first communist turned capitalist in government. Throughout the civil war, the USA had supported Savimbi’s rebel UNITA and the USSR had propped up Dos Santos’ official communist MPLA government. The former financed his guerrilla activities from diamond extraction, in the northeastern part of the interior (convenient to smuggle them out via Mobutu’s Congo). The latter relied on oil revenue to fund his anti-rebel military campaigns. The country’s mineral riches were its curse. Both warring parties had a ready supply of cash, a bankrolling, weapon-supplying superpower patron, and proxy soldiers – on the communist side, Cubans, and on the other, South African apartheid troops – a sure recipe for the war to drag.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, José Eduardo Dos Santos won elections narrowly over his rival. He morphed into a champion of liberal democracy literally overnight, after having been a Marxist-Leninist ideologue for over half his life. In the MPLA Secretary General’s office, with no hint of irony, hang several portraits of Dos Santos shaking hands successively with Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev, Bush Sr., and, finally, Bill Clinton. Transition could not have been smoother. Except for Savimbi, of course, whom Ronald Reagan had once called the ‘Abraham Lincoln of southern Africa’. Now that US oil companies had free access to the vast Angolan reserves, he was little more than a hindrance. Although Bush Sr. still sold UNITA weapons into the 90s, the US quickly forgot him.

Thanks to diamonds and his old pal Mobutu, Savimbi hung on for a while longer. The Angolan army killed him in a skirmish while I was in Luanda. With his death, broadcast along with all the gruesome images of his bullet-ridden body, war in Angola had finally ended. A few days later, I attended a special ceremony in Parliament, where starveling UNITA generals in oversized army fatigues signed the terms of surrender.

I may have felt as if I was reliving Kapuscinski’s ‘Another Day of Life’, some 27 years later, but our project was headed nowhere fast. In over three months, we had barely secured ten interviews and not signed a single contract. In spite of that, the agency decided to prolong our mission and sent us on a visa run to South Africa. On the company’s dime, I saw Cape Town for the first time. I distinctly remember sitting atop Table Mountain and thinking: “One day, I’ll have to find a way to live here”. What a premonition, that was! The Angolan visa procedures in Pretoria took almost half a week. I checked us out of the expensive business hotel they had booked us in and splurged the same budget on a safari weekend in Sabi Sands private game reserve. Back in Luanda, it was with guiltless glee that I sent my agency the expense report with its leopard-head-logo invoices.

On the music front, Angola was a treasure trove. Of course, we danced frenetically to Kizomba in Luanda’s nightclubs but I preferred the soft, folk melodies of Semba. You can hear the distant echo of Fado in Semba notes. They express a similar longing. On the same Luaka-Bop CD I had discovered Susana Baca years before, I had heard Waldemar Bastos’ beautiful song ‘Sofrimento’, in which he laments his country’s enduring pain. I had subsequently bought his debut album ‘Pretaluz’ and, by chance, seen him live in a small club in Lisbon. We had exchanged a few words and his account of the deep, rich musical tradition that existed in his country had spiked my curiosity. He spoke of politically engaged singers with romantic names: Carlos Lamartine, Sofia Rosa, Carlos Burity, Lourdes Van-Dunem, Felipe Mukengua, Jacinto, and, of course, Bonga. The names stuck with me and I found them again in Luanda, helped in part by Paulo Flores’ tribute song ‘Angola Que Canta’, in which he pays homage to all those artists. Upon knowing I was on my way to Luanda, a close Brazilian friend with family roots in Angola mentioned Bonga as well and sent me this song. This is a tribute to him.


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