Luanda, Angola – Not Quite the Monaco of Africa…Yet

by Jacob on April 7, 2012

Angola is filthy rich…or at least that’s what people keep telling me. During my brief visit to Luanda, Angola’s traffic-clogged, madhouse of a city, it was easy to see evidence of both filthy and rich, but not usually together, in fact often quite far apart.

As we drove up the main hill overlooking the city we passed numerous skyscrapers being built by oil companies and banks, evidence of the massive wealth and speculation being generated by Angola’s oil fields. Unfortunately, it was also clear that much of the money is going into the pockets of Angola’s wealthy elite and politically powerful, as well as foreign oil companies and investors, while the people living in shanty towns at the base of the skyscrapers are still waiting for the legendary “trickle-down” effect.

I have long wanted to visit Luanda. I had a very romantic image of the city, one created by photos of the beachfront of the city in 1950s and 60s that I had seen on album covers. Some of my favorite musicians, Bonga, Paulo Flores, developed their sound in the streets and nightclubs of Luanda.

The National Geographic Explorer ship had left Lobito the night before and docked at the port in Luanda on the morning of April 2. The Angolan musician Wyza Bakongo (www.wyzabakongo.com) had flown down to Lobito to meet us and performed on the ship on our way north. He played solo on acoustic guitar in the ship lounge, singing lovely songs in the Kikongo language, which is native to the northern provinces where he was born.

Wyza performing on board

At the age of seven, he and his mother were forced to flee the region because of the war and they settled in the relative safety of Luanda.

Wyza promised to show me around the city and take me to a few record shops, but my morning was dedicated to joining one of the groups from the ship on a bus tour of the city. The traffic in Luanda is horrific, perhaps one of the worst examples of urban congestion I’ve ever seen.

The beachfront has a four lane highway that has been under construction for years, forcing all of the traffic onto a overcrowded, anarchic two lane path lined with illegally parked cars and unloading trucks. Our bus tour quickly slowed to a crawl.

We managed to make it to the National Anthropology Museum, a dusty, basic collection of tribal artifacts assembled in the once elegant home of a former Portuguese slave trader. One highlight was the marimba players jamming on the museum terrace. The dude in the traditional African garb had his pack of cigarettes and cell phone poorly hidden under his seat, but I thought it was a nice touch.

Marimba Players in Luanda

The marimba or balafón is made from tuned wooden slats strung over a series of resonating gourds. Usually the gourds have a hole with a thin membrane stretched over it to give the sound the “buzz” that is popular in African music. Often instruments will have metallic discs, membranes or other rattle-creating elements to create the desired buzzing sound, which can sound odd when you are used to a clean, sharp aesthetic.

Our city tour ended with a drive up to the hill overlooking the city, passing the aforementioned skyscraper constructions sites. Our view overlooked the shantytowns and garbage-filled lots.

Luanda panorama

There is a lot of garbage in Luanda and in many of the other places I have visited in Africa so far. Waste disposal is clearly an issue here, and it can be shocking to see piles of garbage practically everywhere. I have heard that similar scenes were common in the US until the 1950s and 60s when anti-littering campaigns raised awareness.

There’s a bit of Havana in Luanda, although the standard Bauhaus-bland concrete buildings common from Brazil to Tel Aviv have replaced most of the rotting colonial architecture. It’s clear that this is a city on the move, and in ten years it will be barely recognizable.

I met up with Wyza at the port and as we walked through the chaotic streets to his car people greeted him and stopped to take his picture, including the port security and customs officials. While Wyza is not known outside of Angola he is quite famous in Luanda as a musician and producer.

Me & Wyza

Our first stop was the Afonso Quintas record store, which had a great selection of local music as well as Cape Verdean, Guinea-Bissau, Latin and US pop. A DJ was spinning awesome classic Latin tracks.

 Afonso Quintas Record Store

Angolan CDs

Angola is not cheap. In fact the prices are much higher here then in the US and in most of Europe. In fact, Luanda recently topped the list of the world’s most expensive cities. It’s hard to believe, given the general disrepair of the city, but it costs more to live in Luanda then London, Tokyo or New York.

CDs aren’t cheap either, they were over $20 each, but there was too much to pass up that is impossible to find outside of the country. I discovered some amazing young talents and picked up a number of rare classics. Here are a few of the many highlights:

Puto Portugues “Geraçao do Semba”

Its great to see young musicians performing classic semba with great arrangements and a youthful spirit.

http://www.putoportugues.com/

 

Yuri da Cunha “Kuma Kwa Kié”

A hot young talent with some great tracks and a few schmaltzy ones.

 

Banda Maravilha “As Nossas Palmas”

The semba masters latest album

http://bandamaravilha.com/

 

 

 

Paulo Flores “Excombatentes”

The magnum opus from Angola’s leading musician. A three-CD set filled with wonderful sembas and other styles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a beer and conversation, and a brief stop by a corrupt traffic cop who confiscated Wyza’s driver’s license until he paid him to get it back, we went to visit the director of Wyza’s record label and production company, Maianga.

Sergio Guerra is originally from Brazil and has lived in Angola for many years. We knocked on the door to his stylish apartment just as he pulled up on a large, fancy car and hopped out with two other businessmen dressed in fine Italian suits. Guerra was also nicely decked out, but his ponytail and rakish attitude made it clear that he wasn’t a typical businessman.

As it turns out, Guerra is a magnificent photographer and filmmaker who has spent many years living with and documenting the Herero tribe of southern Angola. For the next two hours he showed me his beautiful photos, lavishing upon me copies of his many books featuring photography from Angola and Brazil and screening rough cuts of his forthcoming documentary film on the Herero.

 

 

It’s clear from the film that Guerra has gained the trust of this insulated community, as he captures many revealing conversations and special moments that few outsiders get to see.

Meeting Sergio Guerra was certainly a highlight of my visit to Luanda. I’m attracted to creative, visionary people who are just a bit, or maybe quite a bit off kilter. Yet their passions lead them to produce amazing things.

I returned to the ship overloaded with books and CDs, as well as a hand drum as a gift from Wyza. I donated the books to the ship library, where more people will be able to enjoy them. You can find out more about Guerra’s work here:

http://www.sergioguerra.com
http://www.hereros.com.br

We disembarked from Luanda that evening and headed north to Pointe-Noire, Congo. It was a small taste of the city, but one that revealed a great deal about the current realities and future challenges of Luanda. It’s a great city whose glory days may lay in the past, but a revival is clearly in the works. If the country can maintain stability, avoid corruption and share the wealth, Luanda may one day be the Monaco of Africa.

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul April 9, 2012 at 5:23 AM

Hi Jacob, Lovely to read your reports, so glad that you managed to fit so much in whilst here in Luanda. Keep on spreading the nice sounds !

Kind Rgds Paul

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: