ANGOLA: Recados De Fora - Bonga
On the surface, famed Angolan musician Bonga's latest album is just a set of pleasant, melancholy tunes, but dig deeper and you'll find profound themes and resonances
Recados de Fora, meaning Messages from Elsewhere in English is the 31st album released by veteran Angolan musician Bonga in the semba style. Singing in Portuguese, the legacy of colonialism is evident in the music, and not just in the instruments or language used. Born in colonial Angola in 1942, Bonga rose to prominence first as an athlete, and then as a singer, releasing his first album in 1972, just as the Portuguese colonial hold in Africa was crumbling. Not content to stand on the side-lines, Bonga used his status as an athlete with relative freedom of movement and lack of harassment from the authorities to act as a messenger between exiled pro-independence Angolan activists in Portugal and their fighters and compatriots back home. To do this, he used his birth name, José Adelino Barceló de Carvalho as his professional name, and the pseudonym Bonga Kuenda as the name he would use to surreptitiously send messages back to Angola. Eventually he was rumbled by the Portuguese political police, and was forced into exile in Rotterdam, where he released his first album, tellingly credited to his political pseudonym, Bonga. His political songs so infuriated the Portuguese authorities, that warrants were issued for his arrests, and he spent three years on the lam in Belgium, Germany, and France, before Angolan independence and the fall of Salazar’s authoritarian regime in 1975. He returned to his native Angola, but the joy was short-lived. Soon after independence, Angola descended into a bloody and irretractable civil war that saw Bonga relocate once again, this time to Lisbon, where he remained a fierce critic of politicians of all stripes, advocating peace and unity. What does all this have to do with his most recent album? Well, it seems to me that when he was recording this album at the age of 74, Bonga was, intentionally or otherwise, going through his life in music and politics with a mournful, reflective gaze.
“This is an album by a man looking back on his life and his career and wondering what was worth it, what he has achieved, and where he has failed.”
The lyrics of the album all speak of sadness, loss, even if the music is sometimes more upbeat. Ten of the songs are original compositions, and the one cover is Sodade, Meu Bem, Sodade, a love song that translates as “I miss you, my love, I miss you”. While written from the perspective of a person who is pining after a lover who has left them, considering the album title, one could widen this out to Bonga singing about his homeland, lamenting his exile and the circumstances that ensured it. His exile from Angola looms large in the work, especially in the title track, which warmly recalls his youth in Luanda, as well as possibly referencing his time as a messenger for the pro-independence forces. Now an old man, Bonga’s song is full of romanticised reminiscences of his past (“there’s kanjice, kizaka/What I ate was enough for me”), yet there is always a tinge of sadness in what he sings, as the facts of his life can’t be ignored. Some songs are more obviously plaintive, like Banza Remy, a tribute to Remy Kolpa-Kopoul, a French DJ and journalist who was a supporter of Bonga’s work and world music in particular. Some songs read like calls to action, like Anangola, or Ngo Kuivu, where Bonga sings about the price people pay for speaking out against injustice, and about the direction in which the world is heading. In Outros Tempos, Bonga sings “my song for you, my cry from a foreign land exists to help me reach you”, and goes on to sing about how “history is shattered as if to obliterate truth”. Even in his twilight years, and 31 albums later, he is still dedicated to the causes and beliefs he held when releasing his first songs, rallying against repression, oppression, and the erasure of traditional cultures.
Bonga’s time in Europe has no doubt shaped his musical style, which is identifiably European at points. The guitar is reminiscent of fado music, and in some occasions, it is more like flamenco, such as on Anangola, and the accordion on the title track is very French sounding. Yet Angolan influences remain, such as the call and response style of singing that is present on several of the songs. The sounds are often slow and mournful, yet some are more vibrant, like Espalha. The album passes by very pleasantly, and Bonga has an expressive, characteristic singing voice that makes him intriguing to listen to. Even when I didn’t understand the lyrics, the sadness in his voice came through. I listened to this album without the surrounding context, and I thought it was good, but not exceptional, but now having read about Bonga’s extraordinary career and deeds, I am more impressed than I was before, and more moved. This is an album by a man looking back on his life and his career and wondering what was worth it, what he has achieved, and where he has failed. He looks back on relationships past, with people and with his nation, and wonders where we are headed now. It is an album that is not sentimental or falsely optimistic, rather it paints an often painfully honest depiction of what has gone wrong for Angola over the past 40 years of independence. And yet, his love for where he is from and his hope for a better world remain as resolute as ever.
All translated lyrics were taken from Bonga’s website, accessible here: https://www.bongakuenda.com/lyrics