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African Legends

Bonga

By Eliseo Cardona
Published November 14, 2006

Over his 30-year career, and an equal number of albums, Angola’s Bonga has traced the arc of his country’s recent history, from the Portuguese colonial experience to Angola’s struggle for independence and the scars of its recently-ended civil war.

Born Jose Adelino Barcelo de Carvalho in the impoverished town of Kipri, he gained his initial fame as an athlete, setting a record for a 400-meter event in Greece. He later joined Angola’s national football team, adopting the name Bonga Kuenda (“the one who looks forward”) to carry communiqués from independence movement revolutionaries in Angola to exiled freedom fighters in Europe.

In the early ’70s, he was forced into exile himself for his activism in the left-wing Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA). After Angola won its independence from Portugal in 1975, the MPLA took power and, in order to escape the ensuing civil war that would soon consume his homeland, Bonga moved to Europe, where he recorded the superb Angola 72.

Eventually Bonga established himself in Lisbon, where he’s remained ever since. The singer-songwriter has transformed his nostalgic vision into an act of faith, buoyed by extraordinary music that nourishes the soul while moving the body. The recently-released Kaxexe (“Hidden”) proves the point.

Singing in a gravelly mixture of Portuguese and Kimbundu, one of Angola’s indigenous languages, and wielding his trademark dizanka (a traditional bamboo scraper), Bonga is a master of semba, the infectious Angolan rhythm traditionally played by a small combo of guitar, accordion and light percussion.

But Bonga has big, inclusive ears, and incorporates sounds from all across the Lusophone world and beyond, making his sound an appealing blend of Portuguese cantiga, Cape Verdean morna and Congolese soukous. Unlike artists such as Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora, or Angola’s Patricia Faria, who polish their music into a subtle pop sheen, Bonga has kept to his credo that music should evolve from tradition, and should be wielded as a political weapon, even when it brings unwelcome results.

Recommended Recordings
Angola ’72 (Lusafrica)
Kaxexe (Times Square)
Bonga Live (Lusafrica)