A Composer For Every Country: Angola

In school, I learned about the “Cold” War, without often (or ever) stopping to ask “‘Cold’ for whom?” Angola would be one country which would find the moniker disingenuous. During Angolan attempts to gain independence, no fewer than three nationalist movements were involved. Protracted infighting made progress towards their goals difficult, but eventually, the Marxist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola won out, ruling the country from 1975. While the Soviet Union never sent actual troops, Cuba did, and none other than Che Guevara lent support during the war for independence. Coupled with the Angolan Civil War, the country saw military strife, some years more intermittent than others, for almost 40 years.

Jumping in the Way Back Machine, Angola was first settled by Khoi and San groups in the Stone Age, nomadic hunter gatherers who were eventually displaced by Bantu speaking groups around 1000BC. Prior to their fall to the Portuguese in the 19th century, the Kingdom of Kongo was the most dominant polity in the region, encompassing Northern Angola, parts of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon. 

This kingdom lasted from 1390ish to 1857, when it became a vassal state of Portugal. One modern political movement, the Bundu dia Congo, wishes to see a revival of the Kingdom of Congo. Since this would mean secession of land from four different countries, I’d say they have their work cut out for them. Especially since the leader was recently arrested.

The Portuguese themselves were never entirely successful in settling and controlling the interior of Angola. Among problems were repeated famines. One scholar, John Iliffe, noted the Portuguese suffered a famine about every 70 years, killing between ⅓-½ of the population each time. Coupled with political upheavals on the European continent and intense competition with the Dutch East India Company, Portugal had a hell of a time in the region.

Looking towards music, we find it intimately tied to dance. The semba is the oldest of current popular dances, and is performed in everything from parties to funerals. It continues to be enormously popular. The kizomba is a dance genre that emerged in the mid-1980’s and is a slower, more sensual type of dance and has developed a global popularity. Related is the kuduro, which emerged in the late 1980’s. It has a faster tempo, and the dance style is marked by a kind of herky-jerky movement and independence of limbs.

About that: in one interview, the movement in kuduro can be drawn from just about anything. It could be frogs jumping, military marches, whatever catches the dancer’s fancy. But there was one that stuck out at me. During the Angolan Civil War (and today), many people were mained and wounded by landmines. The kuduro dancers often incorporated the movements of those debilitated by these weapons in a kind of sublimation of grief. As landmines continue to be a threat in the region, the process of turning disability into dance is a practice which remains relevant to this day.

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Today's composer is José Adelino Barceló de Carvalho (b.1942), stage name Bonga. Before turning to music, Carvalho began with a career as a track and field athlete. During Portuguese Angola, this career allowed him unusual freedom during the rule of Estado Novo. He took advantage of this to bring communiations between exiled pro-independence fighters and those still in Angola. His pro-independence stance would land him in exile, as well, in the early 1970's. Post-independence, Carvalho founded "Semba Tropical," and worked to restore a music scene in the country. When Portugal left, they destroyed a great deal of musical equipment and instruments, and musicians had to start building from scratch. A prolific writer of semba and folk songs, Carvalho has 31 albums to his name. This song, Mona Ki Ngi Xica, is a lament sung from the perspective of a child fleeing Angola. It is featured on his protest album, Angola 72.


Composer for Every Country: Thailand

One thing I am really struggling to come to grips with in the process of writing this blog is the sheer scope of European colonialism. Despite all of the talk about colonialism and de-colonization I see, I feel like awareness of the issue is limited to about a depth of “it happened, and it was bad.” I mean, it did happen, and it was bad, but it misses quite a lot, especially the global scale of it all.

In the case of Cambodia, for example, sometimes regions turned to colonial powers for protection against local aggressors. Turned out to be a bit like making a deal with the devil to save yourself from Satan. And in the case of Thailand, sometimes a region avoided direct colonization but were still strongarmed into unequal treaties. For Thailand, treaties made in the early 19th century would last almost a century until their participation in WWI on the side of the Allies allowed them the political opening to renegotiate them all. 

Today, Thailand’s population remains largely rural, with rice farming being the foundation of the economy. Theravada Buddhism is the main religion, and most of the country’s art focused either on depictions of the Buddha, either as Gautama or in various Jataka stories (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives), and depictions of the Buddhist heavens and hells. Stylistic influences come from the Mon, Sri Lanka, and China, with linear perspective being introduced in the mid-19th century by Europeans.

Musically, I am struck by the broad geographic origins of Thai instruments. The sources of instruments range from Persia and India, to China and Indonesia, no doubt owing to the region's central location on a peninsula of military and trade importance. Thailand has a strong classical music tradition, divided into several genres which use different types of orchestras. Piphat uses a small orchestra, and is the music of various ceremonial purposes and traditional theater. Krhueang Sai uses the same core instrumentation of the piphat ensembles, but adds strings, flutes, and sometimes extra drums. It is likely of Chinese origin. The last of the classical genres, Mahori, is traditionally the only ensemble in which royal women were allowed to play.

As far as folk music goes, I’ve only found reference to three main genres. Luk Thung is a genre which developed in the 20th century. I’ve seen it compared to American country music, with an emphasis on the plight of the poor and the down and out. Mor lam is mainly associated with Northern Thailand, and has close ties with music from Laos. Finally, there is kantrum, played by Khmer in Thailand. I did read that minority groups in Thailand, like Mon, Hmong, Burmese, and people of the hill tribes all continue their own musical traditions, as well, but I can’t find enough to really write about at the moment. I assme I'll come across more as I continue reading.

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The composer for today is Piyawat Louilarpprasert (b1993? I can’t find an exact date of birth), originally from Bangkok. Starting as a trombonist in his school orchestra, an injury redirected his musical interests towards composition. He first studied with Dai Fujikura in London for two years before going to Cornell University to study with Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri. As a composer, Louilarpprasert tends to focus on the experimental, combining traditional instruments with electro-acoustic creations and “non-instruments” like AC tubes. In pieces like “pizz...off” (2018), you can hear how, even when he does work with ensembles like the string quartet, he still looks to find new ways of creating sounds within them.



A Composer for Every Country: Cambodia

Cambodia entered my awareness through a very unexpected avenue. The grounds of the grand temple, Angkor Wat, was used as one of many global locales in a video game called “The Illusion of Gaia.” While the faithfulness of the reproduction is questionable for many reasons, the structure made a strong impression. Alas, the culture and history of Cambodia was not filled in during the intervening years, something which ths blog can only take the smallest of steps towards correcting.

Cambodian culture draws from several strands of Asian and European history. The oldest roots are mostly lost to time, but Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism form the first waves of preserved culture. Hinduism is oldest, with both Vishnu and Shiva being deities of worship. Mahayana Buddhism came later, around 450, and would eventually become the predominant religion of the Khmer Empire’s Angkor culture.

The imagery and monumental constructions of the Khmer Empire is probably the core of most visualizations of Cambodia. The aforementioned Angkor Wat is the largest, but it is only one of thousands of temples constructed between the empire’s founding (usually attributed to Jayavarman II in 802) and the height of the empire’s power in the 13th century. The stonemasonry is marked by both size - Angkor Wat covering about 400 square kilometers - and attention to detail.

A third cultural strand began during the Khmer Empire: Theravada Buddhism. The religion’s influence reads first as very slow then very fast. King Jayavarman VII first sent his son Tamalinda to Sri Lanka to study the new religion in 1180, and then, by the end of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism was adopted almost wholesale across the entire empire. It would continue to be the state religion to today, with some disruption in the 20th century because of the Khmer Rouge.

The last major cultural strand came in the 19th century, when Cambodia became a protectorate of France. The decision was made when the country was under considerable pressure by both Vietnam and Siam (Thailand). Artistically, this brought European style painting, sculpture, and music into the mix. This would prove a volatile combination during the 20th century. During their rule after the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) enacted a campaign against anything and everything Western. This went alongside forced “repatriation” of all kinds of professionals, from doctors to artists, and the imprisonment and mass killings of minority groups like the Cham Muslims. In the end, between 1 and 3 million people would die in the purges and genocide.

As far as Cambodian classical music goes, there are three main genres. Pinpeat is a ceremonial genre in which an orchestra accompanies a variety of ballets, shadow puppetry, and other theater. Mohori is a genre meant for the pleasure of the ruling class, while arak is a style of music used for healing and religious purposes. Folk music includes epic storytelling (chareng chapey) and a call-and-response style (lakhon ayai). Cambodian music of all types is undergoing a revival after the Khmer Rouge’s cultural purge. Ethnomusicologist Sam-Ang Sam is a vocal proponent of Cambodian music education, and has done much work to preserve and catalog Cambodian genres and styles.

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Chinary Ung (b. 1942) came to America in 1965 to study clarinet, completing his musical education with a DMA from Columbia University in 1974. A full decade of his life was dedicated to helping resuscitate and preserve Cambodian musical culture before returning to composing in the mid-1980’s. As one might expect, his compositions reflect his Cambodian heritage, both in compositional elements and in choice of instruments. The work linked below, Spiral, is composed for violoncello, piano, and percussion and might be considered a dialogue between academic classical music and Cambodian musical culture. It won the Friedheim Award in 1989.

Chinary Ung - Spiral

Composer for Every Country: Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a huge country, the area of which is comparable to most of Western Europe. Gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the DRC underwent a number of name changes. I still remember having a globe which labelled the country 'Zaire.'. Like many African countries, there’s not much written history prior to European contact, but there were a number of kingdoms in the region prior to colonization. Among these were the Kongo, Luba, Yaka, Lunda, and Kuba people.

A note before moving on: I am abashed to say that the Second Congo War happened while I was in junior high and high school, and it somehow never penetrated my awareness. I have vague memories of the Rwandan civil war and genocide on the news, but you’d think that a war which involved almost every country between Libya and South Africa would have made a bigger impression. Then it occurred to me - how many African current events am I aware of right now? Not many. I can think of many reasons why this might be the case, and that might become a blog post later, but for now it’s worth remembering how insular our lives can be.

In the DRC we find a dizzying array of languages and cultures. The major language group is Bantu, and of the languages within that group, the four that stand out are Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili. Groups outside the Bantu languages include the Pygmies, Adamawa-Ubangi, and Central Sudanic peoples. French is used as an official language, owing to the history of colonization by Belgium, and just about everybody is multilingual by necessity.

Christianity is the dominant religion, by far, but it is often blended with local practices and beliefs. One religion unique to the area is Kimbanguism, named after its founder Simon Kimbangu. Growing out of a number of prophetic religions at the beginning of the 20th-century, Kimbanguism had a strong anti-colonial bent, and continued to flourish even after Kimbangu died in prison in 1951. It remains a popular form of Christianity to this day.

Musically, there’s one genre which is especially associated with the DRC, and that is soukous. It has roots in the Congolese rumba, drawing on folk music, soul, Caribbean, and Latin American rhythms and instrumentation. Soukous spread as a popular genre across Africa, becoming a great influence on highlife, palm-wine music, and many others.

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Today’s composer is Joseph Kabasele (1930-1986), known more by his stage name Le Grande Kallé. The main progenitor of soukous, Kabasele started his music career with a group they called OTC. In 1953, he founded the group that would make his fame, L’African Jazz. The band rose in tandem with a growing middle class during the 1950’s. As part of this, they became intertwined with increasing national pride and the independence movement, and Kabasele wrote the song, Independence Cha-Cha, to celebrate the independence of the Congo from Belgium. 


Composer for Every Country: Republic of the Congo

If you’re looking up the Republic of the Congo and find yourself confused because you’re reading something about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, well… Even Google gets confused. A number of the musicians I read about while searching for “Republic of the Congo musicians” ended up being from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Made finding a composer for today a bit of a mess, it did. In more colloquial terms, the Republic of the Congo is often called Congo-Brazzaville (Brazzaville being its capital) to differentiate it from Congo-Kinshasa.

Like many countries in Africa, Congo-Brazzaville is quite new. It gained its independence in 1960 after having been part of French Equatorial Africa since 1880. Focused on resource extraction and “infrastructure modernization,” French colonial rule led to some truly brutal projects like the Congo-Ocean Railway, a building project which led to the deaths of almost 14,000 people under the guise of humanitarian aid. Given that, it is somewhat bizarre that French Congo became a bastion of Free France during the Nazi occupation of Paris with Brazzaville serving as a symbol for de Gaulle’s fight against the Germans in Africa.

Information prior to Portuguese contact is scarce, but the main political power in the area, starting around 1400, was the Kingdom of Kongo. From what I have read, the Kingdom of Kongo had a complex relationship with the trans-Atlantic trade of slaves, mostly participating under Portuguese duress, although attempts were made to cease the practice. Ultimately, the slave trade utterly transformed and destroyed the Kingdom of Kongo, leaving it vulnerable to conquest during the so-called Scramble for Africa.

Culturally, the people of Congo-Brazzaville are Bantu, with a majority being of Kongo ethnicity. Religion tends to be syncretic, a combination of local practices and Catholicism. Artistic products of note include Bembe statuettes and a variety of nail fetishes called nkondi, part of a religious practice of hammering nails into statues to secure oaths or to hunt-down and punish wrong-doers. I guess there is a huge market for tribal art from the Congo because most of the websites I found while searching for examples were Etsy, Ebay, and Pinterest pages.

Musically, xylophones and the mvet (a zither related somewhat to the kora, of which I wrote months ago) are traditional instruments. The Republic of the Congo shares the popular genre, soukous, with its similarly named neighbor. Some will find the travel of African music to the Americas and then back to Africa an interesting trip, and the Congo has close ties with Cuban music in both directions. Like everywhere else in the world, hip-hop is also popular.

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Our composer today is Spirita Nanda (b.1985), a woman from Brazzaville. She wrote her first song in 1997, not long after the end of the First Congo War (I’ll get to that when I write about the DRC). It apparently impressed her father so much, he wanted to give it to Kofi Annan, a famous Ghanian politician and diplomat. In the one interview I could find with her, she says that everything she does is in support of her family. The song linked below, Kitoko, is a call for African women to see and celebrate their beauty and power.


For today, I also have a double feature! Almost all of the Congolese musicians I found are from the DRC, so I want to at least give a shout out to Bisso na Bisso, a hip-hop collective that performed during the 90’s.