Various Artists: Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1965-1976
Analog Africa isn't the only Western label making a commitment to African retrospectives, but ben Redjeb's excellent ear and his enthusiasm for the less well-represented countries makes it significant.
The first Angolan musician I heard was Bonga, and the album was Angola 72, his debut, released in 1972 while the musician was in Dutch exile after a clash with Angola's then-colonisers, the Portuguese. As colonials, the Portuguese were unusually adherent. They hung on in Angola until 1975, and their expulsion left a power vacuum that led to decade of war. Hundreds of thousands died. The recording studios were devastated. Musicians were killed. Some of them appear on this album. David Zé, a supporter of the postcolonial government, was murdered during a coup attempt in 1977. Hear him canter radiantly through "Uma Amiga". Misfortunate Angola.
Angola 72's outstanding song is a lament called "Mona Ki Ngi Xica", a piece of pro-independence sorrow that caught on in Europe. That was one of those rare moments when Angolan music made itself known to the English-speaking world. The words were incomprehensible, or rather uncomprehended, but the sadness was clear.
A few years after I found my copy of Bonga's album in a library, I came across "Mona Ki Ngi Xica" again, on a Luaka Bop compilation of songs from Portugal's African colonies, Telling Stories to the Sea (1995). Other labels were dabbling in similar territory. In the late 1990s, Buda began to release Angolan retrospectives, a series that ended, I think, at its fifth album. It was this series that caught the attention of Samy ben Redjeb.
"Listening to Angolan music," he writes, "suddenly became part of my daily life and when my label was founded a few years later, the idea of releasing an Angolan compilation was never too far away from my mind." Now, after a detour through compilations from Zimbabwe, Togo, Ghana, and Benin, he has reached Angola, and here is the idea in material form, an outstanding 18-track album that doesn't sound like anything else in Analog Africa's discography.
Angola borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the pleasures of Angola Soundtrack are some of the same pleasures you can find in Congolese rumba of the same period: sharp fingerwork, flirty singing, and guitars played so fast that the dancers of the '70s must have looked as if their thighs were caught in washing machines.
But where rumba compilations will leave you thinking of Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, and the influence it had on the Congo, this album has a more broadly Afro-Latin sound, not so tied to the clave. Portugal shipped Angolans overseas to work in their slave colonies, and so there is a connection between this country and that other Portuguese-speaking nation, Brazil. The music, like Brazilian music, is both loose and tightly-layered -- a sound that jumps outwards, but the jump doesn't move in a straight line like the smashing strum of a rock guitar. Instead, it agitates its way towards you in a series of steps, kicks, and squirms, close together. It arrives by way of a labyrinth.
A strain of melancholy appears sometimes inside the songs, but this is not a sad album, not a contemplative album, not a mellow album, and anything that drifts like "Mona Ki Ngi Xica" has been avoided. The "Semba Braguez" of Os Combos punches right and left, the "Eme Lulu" of Quim Manuel O Espirito Santo knots a percussive shuffle together with jabs from guitar and brass, and the "N'Gui Banza Mama" of Santos Junior does something brilliant with a local dance, or at least I think it does; my preview copy didn't come with ben Redjeb's essay-booklet. The funk that provided his recent Benin albums with so much energy brushes past, but briefly, just enough to show us that, yes, the Angolan musicians were alert to the possibilities of outside sounds. The power here has been focussed in a different place. This is about feet and hips rather than deep pelvic belly-strut.
Analog Africa isn't the only Western label making a commitment to African retrospectives, but ben Redjeb's excellent ear and his enthusiasm for the less well-represented countries makes it significant. The fact that he chose a Zimbabwean band for his first release, when other labels were paying attention to South Africa -- a richer country, one with more publicity clout -- looks, in hindsight, like a promise, a sign of a confident eccentricity. One of the best things I can say about Angola Soundtrack is that it lives up to the rest of the Analog Africa discography.