Biography of Barcelo de Carvalho, Bonga - angolan singer; songwriter; activist
singer; songwriter; activist
Born Barcelo de Carvalho,
1942, in Dande, Angola.
Became 400-meter champion of Portugal, 1960s; played on Benfica soccer team, Lisbon, Portugal, 1960s; wrote and recorded bootleg songs demanding independence for Angola; moved to Europe to escape oppression from Angolan secret police; became key member of Angolan expatriate community; recorded series of albums in Paris, France; performed at the United Nations, 1973; has sung with the group Batuki.
Known for using his music as a vehicle to plead for independence and peace for his people, Kuenda Bonga has been a key member of the Angolan expatriate community for decades. After moving to Paris in the early 1970s, he was acclaimed in Europe as having "one of the most rootsy, plaintive voices on the Afro-Pop scene," according to Daniel L. Kahn in the compact-disc liner notes for Paz em Angola. His political consciousness has put him in the same class of performer as the Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo and South Africa's Miriam Makeba, whose songs have also brought attention to the quest for freedom in African nations.
Called "a charismatic performer" by Peter Watrous in the New York Times, Bonga often plays an instrument consisting of a gourd and a stick known as a guiro, or other percussion instruments during his performances. Percussion has always played an important part in his music, and Bonga's songs often offer a beat that is irresistibly danceable. His high-pitched, hoarse-sounding voice is especially effective for conveying different levels of emotion, and sometimes he surprises audiences with his wide range of sounds.
As Watrous noted in his New York Times review of a Bonga concert in New York City in 1989, "At times, he [Bonga] would sound like a frog, or he would hum melodies or smack his lips, all the while playing a set of congas." The performer has long been known for his ability to make a connection with people, whether on stage or off. "His [Bonga's] respect for basic humanity and the rights of individuals to acknowledge and promote their own roots endeared him to a diverse group of people," noted Yvonne Marie Smart in the Paz em Angola liner notes.
Bonga grew up in a settlement outside Luanda, Angola, where he was given the Portuguese colonial name of Barcelo de Carvalho. He showed great athletic promise as runner during his youth, and at one point was the 400-meter champion of the country and its territories. He also became a star soccer player, and was on the highly rated Benfica soccer team of the 1960s that was based in Lisbon, Portugal.
While other African countries were being granted their independence from their colonial overlords as Bonga grew to manhood, Angola's pleas for autonomy were ignored under the iron rule of Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Bonga discarded his Portuguese name and reclaimed his traditional one as his outrage over his country's domination developed. He also began giving his voice to the independence movement by writing and recording freedom songs.
As his actions against the ruling order became more visible and Salazar's dreaded secret police closed in, Bonga was forced into hiding and eventually had to leave the country to protect his welfare. He moved to Paris at this time, just when pop music performed by Africans was in vogue. Before long he was recording albums on French labels, and receiving critical and popular praise for his music. When his recordings were discovered back in Angola, he also became a hero back in his home country. Bonga's songs focused on the agonies of his people as they tried to free themselves from the shackles of oppression.
Playing with the group Batuki, Bonga came to the United States in 1973 to perform at the United Nations in a ceremony commemorating Guinea-Bissau's declaration of independence from Portugal. Batuki was truly a melting pot of a group, featuring players and instruments from Martinique, Brazil, the United States, and other countries. The U.N. performance was a big hit, and afterward Bonga and his group were requested to play for the Cape Verdean community in New England. "When they took the stage all boundaries and differences melted and a unique unified music emerged," said Smart of the performance. That year the group continued to tour New England, playing at colleges and even prisons.
When Angola was liberated by Portugal and became an independent country in 1975, rival nationalist groups caused more bloodshed than the Portuguese army had and Bonga still felt that he could not return to his homeland. The new government also took control of virtually all music recording in the country, thus making it impossible to produce any songs critical of the regime.
Bonga continued recording in Paris through the 1970s and 1980s, thriving in the blend of cultures that was active in the French capital. He performed with musicians from Angola as well as other countries such as Brazil, Cape Verde, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau.
Many of Bonga's songs focus on how oppression impacts ordinary people in their daily lives. "Olhos Molhados (Wet Eyes)" addresses all the ways that tears are shed due to the people's suffering, in lyrics that Bonga delivers with a voice that shifts from a gently pleading tone to one of raspy desperation. Bonga has also lamented how Africans who relocate to Europe often lose their African culture. In his "Maria Casputo (Stuck-up Mary)," his narrator complains that the African dishes his wife cooks no longer taste like they did in the old country, blaming her adoption of fancy new European ways of living. In other songs his lyrics are wistful about old customs such as home-made costumes and instruments that he remembered as a boy, but that have long faded from view.
In one of his most moving songs, "Paz em Angola (Peace in Angola)," Bonga pleads to his people for reconciliation after so many years of war. His lyrics in this haunting piece stress that foreigners who wanted to smooth the transition of Angola to independence actually made matters worse, and that only the Angolan people could make a true peace in their country. Keeping his people united in their cause has always been important to Bonga. The desire to reclaim one's roots is made especially poignant in "Mariquinha (Little Mary)," in which the narrator begs his girlfriend to go back with him to Angola and promises her that they can reclaim their lives there as long as they stick together.
Despite the ordeal of his country, Bonga's optimism for a future of peace has remained strong. As he sings in "Portas de Bonda/Kamakore (The Banda Doors/New Times)," "When we walk into a place of our own, oh what a time we'll have!" On a more intimate level, many of Bonga's songs also address people's rights and feelings in their interactions with each other. In his "Currumba (A Woman Swaying)," he stresses that men should respect women's feelings and keep their lust in check.
By the 1980s, Bonga was still offering his music as a plea for a better life for Angolans. "His [Bonga's] lyrics continue to extol the bittersweet virtues of traditional African culture in the modern world," wrote Kahn in 1991. "Though many problems remain in Africa (and Angola in particular) his [Bonga's] commitment to maintaining a national and pan-African identity has been unchanged by years on the music scene," added Smart.
* Angola (Noir, ton pays), Playasound, 1972.
* Racines, Playasound, 1978.
* Kandandu, Chand du Monde, 1979.
* Kualuka Kuetu, Playasound, 1983.
* Sentimento, Chant du Monde, 1985.
* Paz em Angola, Rounder, 1991.
* Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, Richard Trillo, World Music: The Rough Guides, The Rough Guides, 1994, pp. 412~413.
* New York Times, April 12, 1989, p. C21.
* Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes for Paz Em Angola and publicity materials from Rounder Records Corporation.
— Ed Decker
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