Angola’s musical and cultural tapestry springs from its frenetic energy. In this soul-tingling part of equatorial Africa, diverse influences coalesce into a booming, modern culture unlike anywhere else in the world.
Words Benjamin Lebrave
At first glance, downtown Luanda looks like one gigantic construction site. The government is bolstering business and tourism, rebuilding bridges and roads, and investing in infrastructure at an impressive rate. Ten years since three decades of brutal civil war ravaged the country, stability is now opening the doors to opportunity.
Everywhere you look, skyscrapers are sprouting, surrounded by tall cranes coordinating their movements like a well-choreographed ballet. The most captivating moves, however, are to be found on the ground: Angolans can dance, as you will quickly realise anywhere there is music – which is virtually everywhere in Luanda.
Welcome to Angola, a country that seems to be changing by the minute. The engine behind this renaissance is oil: with approximately two million barrels drilled daily from Angola’s offshore fields, the nation has enough to sustain robust growth for years to come. Although the future is bright for Angola, its history has left a complicated legacy.
A History Of Settlers
Modern-day Angola was home to a large portion of the Kongo Empire, which stretched all the way to modern-day DR Congo, Congo and even southern Gabon. Portuguese settlers arrived as early as the late 15th century, when they established trading posts along the coast. In particular Benguela, Cabinda and the future capital Luanda quickly became crucial trade ports. Portugal only snatched the rest of modern-day Angola following the Berlin conference in 1880.
The atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade, and later on the inhumane conditions of the different forced-labour regimes in Angola’s farms and mines meant sustained economic growth for the coastal cities. Consequently, Angola became a strategic territory for Portugal, which was extremely reluctant to let go of its colony in 1975. On a brighter note, the hustle and bustle in these cities allowed for a flourishing mestiço culture: for centuries, Angola’s local traditions have been fusing with Portuguese culture, and cities like Luanda have long been cultural melting pots. Hardly anywhere else in Africa have colonial cultural elements come together like they have in Angola.
Musical Melting Pot
There’s no better exemplifier of this cultural interaction than music. All over the Atlantic coast of Africa, hybrid musical genres emerged in the first half of the 20th century. Local bands who trained to play for foreign crowds started to play for increasingly African audiences, fusing local rhythms into their music. Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba or Angolan semba all developed around that time. But where highlife or rumba sound nothing like English or French music, semba clearly draws key elements from Portugal’s rich melodic tradition.
Semba is the genre that emerged as Angolan musicians transposed traditional rhythms to the guitar. Because the guitar can carry both a rhythm and a melody, it enabled artists to create more elaborate songs, based on more complex chords. As they did so, these creative Angolan musicians incorporated melodic elements from Portuguese folklore, fusing together a unique genre that is fundamentally Angolan and inextricably rooted in local African tradition.
Semba played a fundamental role in shaping Angola’s national identity in the years leading to its independence. To this day, many semba songs mean a lot more than just a good time. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Portugal held an iron grip on Angola, freedom of expression was constantly threatened, so semba became a weapon of choice to spread political and social messages. Often sung in Kimbundu and Umbundu, two dominant local languages that the Portuguese often didn’t understand, semba songs traveled through the entire country via radio, educating and encouraging Angolans to revolt against their colonial rulers.
Today, semba is still a genre that unifies generations, though it’s not necessarily the most common type of music in Luanda. Instead, your ears will be bombarded with frantic uptempo beats no matter where you wamder. Today is a new era, and life has a new beat.
Kuduro, Angola’s most famed musical export, exemplifies this new energy. It emerged in Luanda’s peripheral musseques – unplanned neighborhoods, oftentimes slums – in the early 1990s, and has fully entered into the mainstream in more recent years. Kuduro’s fast beat, reflecting modern dance music and made using software, incorporates many of Angola’s traditional rhythms. It almost always features MCs rapping on top of the beat – the kuduristas.
Outside of Angola, kuduro is mostly known through MTV award-winning artist Cabo Snoop, whose songs Windek and Prakatatumba took the entire continent by storm last year. Kuduro dancing is striking: it lies somewhere at the junction between local African dances, American-style breakdancing, and a severe case of epilepsy. Witnessing kuduro dancers first-hand is a treat; the variety of moves – and the speed at which they are coordinated – is simply mind-boggling. Angolans, instead of emulating foreign sounds are creating their own by fusing – once again- their own incredibly rich rhythmic heritage into the versatile house-music matrix. In addition to Kuduro, Angolan house beats are intricate and complex, and more to the point, unmistakably African. And this is the beauty of Angola: different cultures and influences are consumed, digested and turned into a distinctly Angolan hybrid culture.
In a city where new buildings seem to pop up on a daily basis, club music cannot possibly capture everybody’s attention. Angola’s musical panorama also includes kizomba, or Angolan zouk: and tarraxinha, its more sensual cousin.
The country’s infectious tapestry of tunes tells a tale of a larger energy, one that’s inviting rapid-fire growth, investment and new visitors. Transformations – some gradual, some rapid – in both lifestyle and popular culture are simultaneously being fuelled from the top and bubbling up from the creative hubs of Luanda’s poorer communities.
The Angolan government are making strides to diversify the oil-driven economy by investing in industries such as fashion and tourism. Luanda’s fashion scene is now hot on the heels of cities like Dakar and Jo’burg thanks to events like Fashion Business Angola. The continent’s largest fashion expo sees around 30 designers, 130 exhibitors and over 12,000 participants arrive in Luanda annually for the event.
It’s not just in the style stakes that things are moving forward. Angola’s tourism industry is also expanding. In April 2012, Pedro Mutindi, The Minister Of Hotels And Tourism, pledged to contribute to the nation’s GDP with at least $4.7 billion annually from 2020.
With 1,650 km of stunning coastline, and a myriad of natural attractions, cultures, and ethnic groups within its 18 provinces, the nation is fast becoming an international hotspot for adventure travellers, much like countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia were in the early 90s. New roads and infrastructure are opening up a world of unforgettable destinations and tour groups are rushing to meet the opportunities.
However, to get a real sense of the zeitgeist, there’s no better place to start than at a Sunday quintal. A quintal is a typical Luandan home built around a small courtyard, where it is common to have parties on Sundays. The quintal tends to be smaller and is often covered, making it an ideal setting for social gatherings. Being invited to a Sunday quintal is a wonderful opportunity to share Angolans’ friendly hedonism. Eating, drinking, dancing and socialising are a way of life for Luandans.
Social activities in Luanda overlap way beyond the weekend alone, and you might find yourself in a packed club on virtually any night of the week. No trip is complete without a night out on the Ilha, the very narrow cape stretching far into the Atlantic ocean, across from Luanda’s city centre. If nightclubs aren’t your cup of tea, at least stop by during the day, and enjoy some live music, delicious seafood, and the cool ocean breeze. Entertainment on the Ilha seem endless: Lookal, Miami Beach, Chillout or Tamariz are popular hangouts, open night and day. All are great places to grab a bite, have a drink, or listen to some of Angola’s best music.
As Angola’s economy grows, so does its nightlife, and posh clubs have been sprouting all over town. The most hopping spots are probably Don Quixote, just off of the Marginal (the scenic seaside road in downtown Luanda), and Kasta Lounge in Semba. But new places seem to be opening constantly, and a little spontaneity might lead you to countless other venues. Even in the midst of Luanda’s dense traffic and high prices, you will always find comfort in its inhabitants. After a short stay there, it is the people of Luanda and their irreverence and energy which will leave you with the most lasting impression. Many who leave recite a common phrase that means “I yearn for Angola” – Saudade de Angola.
Benjamin Lebrave is a DJ, columnist at Fader Magazine and founder of Akwaaba Music, a digital platform dedicated to African music and pop culture. Lebrave has produced works with more than 70 artists from 15 African countries.
Get out of town
Dramatic waterfalls, chilled-out beaches and moonlike cliffs – five of the best spots to explore
Ilha Da Mussulo
Escape Luanda’s frenzy for this popular beach destination just outside the city. It has diamond-white sand and clear water. There are bars, huts and high-end resorts. However, day-trippers should watch out for the early curfew. Boats stop running late afternoon.
A short domestic flight from Luanda, on TAAG, Angola’s national carrier, takes you to this small town in a valley by the Huala Plateau. It’s surrounded by waterfalls, volcanic fissures and Portuguese architecture.
Quedas de Kalandula
Africa’s largest waterfall after Victoria Falls is located in Malanje, east of Luanda.
This transfrontier conservation area is potentially the world’s largest. Kavango-Zambezi spans five southern African countries, including Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The area equals the size of Italy and contains Angola’s Moxico and Cuando Cubango provinces. kavangozambezi.org
Miradouro da Lua
I Love Luanda
10 things to adore about the coastal capital
Gindungo The local type of spicy pepper. Locals use it sparingly with specific dishes – it is quite easy, however, to develop an addiction to it.
Candongueiro The ubiquitous white and blue minivans, which go anywhere, are an ideal opportunity to mingle with everyday people.
Ilha This narrow cape has the Atlantic ocean on one side, Luanda’s skyline on the other, and plenty of entertainment in between.
Mufete A typical Angolan dish of grilled fish with sides of boiled yam, chopped vegetables, beans and cassava flour. It’s highly compatible with a trip to Ilha.
Shopping At Tunga N’go market in the Rangel neighbourhood or the chi chi boutiques found at places like Bellas Shopping Mall or Mahinda Prestige (67 Rue Rainha Ginga), find Italian designer duds or local souvenirs.
Cuca Luanda’s pride is the local beer of choice, brewed in Luanda. Lately it has undergone an impressive marketing makeover from casual to classy.
Projecto Mental This fashion label by duo Shunnoz Fiel and Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga makes Sapeur-esque menswear. Sharp, colour-pop suits are a tribute to rebirth. Some are torn to symbolise the memory of war. Some have hopeful proverbs and prayers embroidered in the lining. Souvenirs never looked this stylish. projectomental.com
Chinese Restaurants There are so many to choose from! Many people say Chinese food in Luanda is the finest in all of Africa.
Colonial Architecture Palacio de Ferro was designed in the 1890s by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the Eiffel Tower. There’s the strikingly curved Banco Nacional de Angola and numerous other historical buildings tucked away on side streets.
Fashion And Business The third edition of Fashion Business Angola, set for mid-October 2012, aims to diversify the national economy. Once you see Angola’s design talent, alongside designers from Jo’burg, Lagos, London and New York, you will understand why.
Angola by Numbers
Staggering growth, sharp contrasts and a lot of elephants
The number of dollars the average Angolan lives on
per day. Donating to a reputable NGO or community organisation is highly recommended
to visitors and residents alike.
The number of elephants flown from Botswana and South Africa, in 2001, to Angola’s 2.5-million-acre Kissama National Park, two hours south of Luanda. Giraffes, wildebeest, ostriches and zebra were also transported.
The percentage of real GDP growth expected in 2013, up from 3.4 percent in 2010.
Arik Air operate flights between Lagos and Luanda. Arikair.com
It is advisable for first-time visitors to arrange transportation before arriving. This can often be arranged through hotels. Afri-Taxi offer a reliable service but can cost at least USD 40 for a short ride. Car rental firms including Hertz and Avis have offices in Luanda.
Domestic air travel within Angola is easy and it’s usually possible to book the same day, on the national carrier, TAAG (+24 4923 190000, Taag.com). There are also a few other domestic carriers. Many flights to places like Benguela and Lubango cost around the $100usd mark.
Where to Stay
Hotels in Luanda are rarely cheap, with many rooms going for at least a few hundred dollars per night, and not always with the service to match. At the moment at least, high prices seem par for the course.
Situated on Rua Luanda Sul, facilities include an outdoor pool, tennis court, business centre, a number of bars and well-appointed rooms. (+244 226 424 300, hoteltalatona.com)
Beginning at $285 per night, services in this tastefully decorated hotel include wireless internet, a gym and a business lounge. The hotel has sea views. (+244 222 334 241, hotelcontinentalluanda.com)
One of highest-rated hotels on Tripadvisor is also one of the newest. Facilities include a great pool, well-appointed rooms and conference facilities. (Tel: +244 222 642 600, luanda.epic.sanahotels.com)
Places to visit
This is a great multi-cultural space right in the centre of downtown Luanda. It’s doomed for destruction within months so try to catch an event there before it is gone.
A low key bar hidden inside a park at the heart of Kinaxixe has one of the most relaxed atmospheres you will find in the capital.
Located on Ave. Murtala Mohamed, this bar is one of the many beachside spots on Ilha to grab a bite, party or listen to music, and more importantly: to people watch. (facebook.com/MiamiBeach.Luanda)
Museu de Antropologia
Built by the Portuguese in 1576 the museum is the city’s oldest building. The fort houses the Museu Central das Forças Armadas from where you can see the city spread out below. The colonial Museu de Antropologia has African masks and indigenous artefacts and the Museu de História Natural is home to two permanent exhibitions (Rua Friedrich Engels)
Banco Nacional De Angola
Luandans will easily recognise the domed pink façade of this iconic building designed by architect Vasco Regaleira and inaugurated in the 1950s. (Av 4 de Fevereiro)