Angola doesn’t often produce international musicians, but when it does, then they’re usually worth the wait. “Mona Ki Ngi Xica”, from Bonga’s 1972 album Angola 72 (recorded in the Netherlands after he had fled Angola’s colonial Portuguese government) is still one of the most mournful pieces of singing in modern musical history.
When the Portuguese left the country in the mid-’70s, domestic violence prevailed between the MPLA government and UNITA rebels. Lulendo traveled to Europe as a refugee in the early ’80s. In 2001 he released his first album, A Qui Profite Le Crime. Angola is his second.
His distinguishing features are his voice, which doesn’t have a lot of body but is flexible and beautifully wiry like a slender, faithful falsetto snake; and his fondness for the likembe, (or mbira or kalimba or thumb piano, or whatever else you want to call it. It’s the doohickey with the pluckable prongs). The mbira is fairly well known as a Zimbabwean instrument, thanks to musicians such as Stella Chiweshe, and an electrified version of the likembe is the cornerstone of Konono No. 1’s roaring blasts of Congolese street music. Lulendo doesn’t make a big thing of his likembe… it planks and pronks through the songs and then it goes away and there you are. In fact there are so many other instruments involved, and they make so much noise that you could easily lose track of the thing.
I don’t like those instruments, as the way they’ve been mastered has left them sounding hard-edged and lacking in natural bleed. The piano in “Zelie” seems to be trying to hammer its way through Lulendo’s voice, and the violin in “Bandeko” has had the subtler modulations stripped away so that the highs and lows sit close to another on the same narrow, flat plane. In few of the tracks do the instruments and the voice sound as if they’re mingling to create a single impression, a united song. As I was listening to them, I thought of wooden toy blocks. Each block is regular and solid and has its own colour. You can stack them on top of one another and you can stand them in a row, but you can’t blend the blocks together. That’s what the instruments in Angola sound like: a stack of hard blocks.
Lulendo’s voice saves the album. The best moments are those which allow him to sing with very little accompaniment — or very soft accompaniment — and then he has a delicately sculpted sweetness that can make you hold your breath. The album starts off this way, and I was hoping that it would go on this way, and finish this way as well, but we hadn’t even reached the end of the first song before a guitar began clanging all over everything. Can guitars really clang? This one does, I swear. The voice and the instruments get along like good neighbours, and then this brutal guitar decides that the song is a competition and it’s got to win by dominating everyone else.
The styles of music that Lulendo draws on don’t stand up well to this kind of treatment. They’re too gentle; they smile delightfully; soft rock is his favourite. There’s a short, repeated series of notes in “Rainho” that niggled at my brain, until I realised that they were reminding me of Chris de Burgh. In fact I’d say that if the thought of soft rock turns you off, then you should consider avoiding Angola altogether.
A pity though. I still fancy his voice.