Though there was a definite chill in the air, you couldn’t tell from inside my car. Clear blue skies and a natural sharpness to the sunlight threw the whole thing into question, especially when aided by the warm breeze coming out of the dashboard vents. I put Bonga’s Angola 72 into the car stereo for the first time, and as his rough but melodic voice began singing against an unusual musical backing — not quite European, not quite African — the illusion became complete, and I was instead traveling in relative comfort through the dog days of summer.
Bonga, born Barcelo de Carvalho, grew up in Angola, a Portuguese colony at the time. Angola’s terrible recent history (like that of many emergent African nations) is beyond the scope of this magazine; suffice it to say that events took Bonga, an accomplished runner, into Portugal, where he became a national champion. Still, his sports hero stature could not keep the authorities from becoming increasingly discontented with his political outspokenness, and shortly before the release of Angola 72, his first album, he found himself living in exile in the Netherlands.
That first album may be over a quarter of a century old, and it may be in a language I can’t understand, but the plaintive cry and obvious joy found within (sometimes simultaneously) are timeless. Some calls to Tinder Records, the label reissuing Angola 72, resulted in my obtaining a string of numbers which, when punched into a telephone, would connect me with Bonga. Hoping it wasn’t 4 in the morning wherever it was I was calling, I got Bonga on the phone. My rusty Spanish, hauled out of the closet for the occasion, worked well enough with Bonga’s Portuguese inflections (and occasional Portuguese word). A translation follows…
Is Bonga there?
Yes! Let’s go! Who’s speaking?
Carlos, with Ink Nineteen. A magazine in the United States. Where am I calling?
You’re calling Bonga’s house.
I mean, which country?
What are you up to these days?
Working! With music, putting together shows for carnaval. I’m waiting for the record to hit over there, since I have a new record waiting to come out.
What’s holding up its release over here?
Waiting for contacts… you have to make those contacts first, then everything happens pretty easily. It might come out on Tinder, maybe, maybe not. It depends on many things. I’m open for any contacts!
What is this new record about? Carnaval music?
No… it’s not specifically for carnaval. In Angola, we have the carnaval as a popular event, for the people, so every time we make a record, a work of music, naturally we have to add, in between those ten songs, one that talks about carnaval. But the others — they’re about everyday life, about the situation in our country. What are the children doing, since now we have bombs, we had a war. About coming out of Angola, and about staying behind. This record is about many things.
Do you feel that your music has made a difference over the years? [I think he interpreted this as “has your music changed over the years?”]
Not really. I can change the harmony — I have an open door to musician friends of mine, American, from Brazil — since we’re not locked in inside a ghetto here. We have a wide field. But the main context, the themes of the songs, they’re always the same. Like the Argentineans making tango, the Brazilians who make their samba.
You’ve had experience as an athlete…
A long time ago… I was a champion in Portugal, in the 400 meters. I was prime material, and I came up here because at the time, Angola was a Portuguese colony. We had an administrative legislature that was Portuguese, and whenever an [Angolan] athlete distinguished themselves, we would come to Portugal. I stayed. That was in 1969, the Portuguese championship. The music came later.
Did those interests ever exist simultaneously?
Of course, but not too strongly. Once the sport was over, the music took hold.
What do you think of today’s Olympics?
It’s very commercial. I really want to answer this question! Obviously, for an athlete to excel, there must be a lot of preparation, and the costs can be enormous. But things have become very commercial and political; you have to win for the flag of your country, and you have to do all these other things… it’s ruined.
Was any of that around when you were participating?
No, not at all.
It was still about being an athlete.
Yes, an athlete — sweating through your shirt, doing it for your health, a healthy body. Unhappily, these days the politicians control everything, and this is very bad. Normally, athletes worked without contract, and it’s a great thing, to do sport. It’s better to do sports than smoke macoña. [Laughs].
[Olympic] encounters, are universal exchanges, international without discrimination. But behind everything there’s a huge machine, devouring everything. That’s very bad.
The whole planet seems to viewing itself from the point of commerce — business, profit…
…business, profit, prostitution. It’s all terrible, and it’s hard to figure out what to do. Organize your communities, and keep out this poisonous aspect.
Would you consider yourself a political person?
I think I always need to have a political message inside these songs. We’re living in a situation where the vote is an option, a political opinion. I think all musicians, especially in a place like Angola, which had such a terrible war and amassed a powerful armament, to use against itself… we always need to have a word for hope, for anger, shouts of revolt. Songs can work towards this, to vindicate these things. But I don’t consider myself political — politics is so dirty that I can’t see myself doing it.
So it’s better to fight politics outside politics.
I was three years old when Angola 72 came out…
…but when I heard it last year it really touched me. I couldn’t understand a word of what you were saying, but the feelings were clear. The music is also very interesting.
That was my first record, so it’s the most important recorded work I’ve done. I’ve made 26 records, and written almost 200 songs. We’re preparing for the Celebration of 200 Songs!
What’s a Bonga concert like?
It’s a party! Great people, all getting to know the cultural, musical, rhythmic context of these great African people. It is not too well known, that particular part of the globe, Angola. I do this to integrate everyone within that context.
Do you have a favorite show you’ve performed?
I’ve been doing this quite some time. I’ve sung for people all over the world, and this music has made a great service to my land, since every time someone speaks of Africa, it’s about weapons, war, famine, and that’s not good. It exists, but it’s not good. I try to show people that there are different things — music is best for this, since it’s such an international exchange. This is great! All of you over there calling for Bonga, to know what he’s doing, about the records. I think it’s all a great thing!
I suppose a concert in Africa is very different from one elsewhere.
Completely different. The people know the songs, know the context, adore the artists. My last show over there, we had 60,000 people in a public plaza in Angola, in Kinasish.
About how many people come to a European concert?
If you have a multinational doing the promotion, working to bring out not just the African people but also the Europeans… we can have a lot of people. Twelve thousand, fifteen thousand. But the atmosphere is completely different. Even the Africans who come to those shows are a bit withdrawn. They don’t seem to like to sing along, to dance. Europeans seem to be unable to completely let go. In Africa, there’s no problem with this because everyone is letting go. In Europe, when we play louder, stronger, they call the police on us! This is an important part of our music, too, that you have to be open. You have to fight fascism and racism, since every one is what they are. The color of your skin is nothing; the head is more important. Your manner of being, your customs, your culture!
Any chance of coming to the States?
I’d like to. I’m thinking that with all this interest from journalists over there, I might be able to make it. I’ve been over there before, with a big show, sang in New York, Boston. But now, I’m waiting for those contacts! If they don’t call, I can’t go. There’s so much for me to do, in Africa, here in Europe…
There’s an organization people can write to: Organizacion Discografica ViDisco, Lisboa, Portugal. My phone number is also a fax number: +011 351 1 435-4622
Can we publish that?
Of course! I have nothing to hide. I’m no Michael Jackson!