In visual arts and dance, the creativity of Angolans has not been inhibited by war
It is said that many millions of years ago, before the world's land mass split apart to form the five continents, Angola and Brazil were fused together. In terms of arts and culture, these two countries still seem to be as one.
Some people believe that Angola's traditional semba music lies at the heart of Brazilian samba. Although the two types of music sound quite different, they share similar names and dance forms. As most of Brazil's slaves came from Angola, it is not surprising that some aspects of culture in the two countries are so similar.
Angolan semba is an ancient rhythm, traditionally accompanied by smooth undulations of the hips and belly. Semba was originally danced to celebrate good harvests, marriages, births and other occasions. It developed in Angola's coastal centers, especially Luanda and Benguela during the 17th century. To this day, semba is regarded as the music of the sea.
Before Portuguese missionaries spread Christianity throughout the country, Angolans used to dance semba as a way of worshipping their gods, especially the mermaid Kianda, goddess of the sea. Every year, Angolans would hold celebrations near the sea, throwing food, clothes and other gifts into the water as offerings to Kianda.
Such practices came to an almost complete stop after independence, although animism is still practiced in some parts of Angola. The gods of the forest, known as maiombolas, are held in high regard, especially in heavily forested areas such as Cabinda.
Liceu Vieira Dias, who created the famous Ngola Ritmos band in the 1940s, pioneered modern Angolan music, with its distinctive rhythm and melodious harmonies. Liceu Vieira Dias had been strongly influenced by his aunt, Mary Vieira Dias, a pianist who, at the turn of the century, would play to large gatherings of the Angolan intelligentsia in her grand house in Luanda. Liceu Vieira Dias shared his aunt's passion for music and travelled around the country learning and experimenting with Angola's rich variety of traditional musical styles. He then took these tunes and adapted them to create a different form of music that was influenced not only by Angolan styles but also by African-American jazz rhythms and Portuguese fado music.
However, Liceu Vieira Dias was arrested at the end of the 1950s, along with about 50 other Angolan nationalists suspected of conspiring against the Portuguese colonial authorities. This represented a big setback for music in Angola, although his band Ngola Ritmos played on without him, influencing a new generation of musicians.
During the early 1960s, the Portuguese realized that silencing Angolan musicians and other artists was breeding great resentment against the colonial authority. Instead of ostracizing Angolan culture, the Portuguese started to encourage it, although in a very controlled way. A small local recording industry began, and radio stations started to play Angolan music, promoting musicians such as Elias Dia Kimuezo, Kiezos and Jovens do Prenda.
Although the early post-independence years saw an explosion of local creativity, a government purge of young artists and intellectuals in May 1977 shattered Angola's cultural scene. Many artists, writers and musicians were murdered, including David Ze and Urbano de Castro.
It took several years for Angola to recover from this blow, but a new generation of musicians has emerged, including Bonga, who has become an international star, Andre Mingas and Valdemar Bastos. Angola's musicians are forced to record in Europe, the U.S.A. or elsewhere, because local recording facilities have fallen into disrepair.
Angola has been described as a country in perpetual dance. Angolans dance anywhere and everywhere, in joy, in grief, in life, in death, so music is inevitably the strongest element of local culture. However, traditional art is also vibrant, especially Tchokwe sculpture, which is sought-after by collectors of African art throughout the world. The Dundo Museum, based in the Lundas, used to house one of the world's finest collections of Tchokwe art, but it has been plundered by traffickers of African art and sold to collectors in Europe, Japan and the U.S.
A number of internationally renowned fine artists come from Angola. The two most famous, Roberto Silva and Viteix, have now died, but their work has been exhibited throughout the world. Unfortunately, Angola lacks facilities to train young artists, so even though some new names have emerged, including Van, Zan, Tirso Amaral, Alvim and Antonio Ole, their work is heavily abstract as they lack further formal training and international exposure.
Although most sub-Saharan African cultures are based on oral traditions, the written word has a long history in Angola. One of the most famous early novelists, Castro Soromenho, was prolific at the beginning of the twentieth century. Other writers include Domingos Van Dunem and Agostinho Mendes de Carvalho, both of whom are magical realists, gaining inspiration form Kimbundu myths and legends. The younger generation of Angolan novelists are dominated by Artur Pestana Pepetela, Sousa Jamba and Jose Eduardo Agualusa, all of whom have had their books translated other languages, underlining the apetite for Angola's vibrant culture outside the country.