Interview: Victor Gama
“Many parts of Angola are still terra incognita almost, in terms of knowing what’s been done musically.”
INTERVIEWED BY NED SUBLETTE
Via Skype from Lisbon / October 25 and 28, 2012
Angolan composer / instrument designer / ethnomusicologist / producer Victor Gama has traveled in Angola’s hard-to-reach rural areas, recording music that otherwise would be undocumented, resulting in his album / website Tsikaya: Músicos do Interior. Together with his album Naloga, which I might inadequately describe as a sonic exploration of the legacy of Angola’s long war, it’s featured in HIP DEEP ANGOLA, PART FOUR: THE CUBAN INTERVENTION IN ANGOLA. He’s collaborated with Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz and C. Daniel Dawson in the making of the book / CD Odantalán, featured in HIP DEEP ANGOLA, PART THREE: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO MBANZA-KONGO.
Victor Gama, “Rio Cubango,” live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
His invented Pangaea Instrumentos are based on traditional African principles of instrument construction, and are as beautiful to look at as to listen to. He’s recently had compositions performed by the Chicago Symphony and the Kronos Quartet. He tweets at https://twitter.com/victorgama
From his studio in Lisbon, he sat down with me for two long interview sessions in English via Skype.
NS: What’s your background?
VG: I’m from Angola. I was born in Ndalatando, although I lived in Luanda from an early age. I was from a very early age fascinated and impressed and, I guess, inspired by people playing musical instruments.
The first musical instrument that I saw being played live was a hungu. My parents would take us to a beach called Corimba, near Luanda. There was this fisherman who would come by playing a hungu. Now, the hungu is usually accepted as being the father of the berimbau. But, also like the berimbau, there are various types of hungu. There’s one that’s really long, with a very big bow. It has a very deep sound, and it was very impressive to me. The sound really transported me. I was probably six years old, and I would go walk along with the musician along the beach. So that was one of the first experiences that really awoke my fascination for music and for making music, or trying to make music. Luckily, very recently, like five years ago, my parents were showing some pictures – some old pictures – and there it was: a picture of this fisherman playing his bow.
NS: How did you become a composer?
VG: I’m more or less self-trained. One of my first instruments was actually a radio – one of those radios that has a kind of an eye, which is a cathode – an x-ray tube, or a cathode tube – that helps you synchronize with the bandwidth, but it’s got this light effect. It’s almost like an iris that’s trying to focus. And I was fascinated by that, so I also started listening to a lot of static on the radio. And that was another sound that really transported me.
I always associated music with traveling. With going long distances. So I became a composer or a creator of music, whatever you might call it, by trying to find my own sound. But I think in reality I’ve always been after those initial sounds that I heard when I was a kid, because somehow they brought me back to somewhere that I felt really comfortable – a place that, I don’t know where it exists or whether it exists, or it’s a fantasy place, or an imaginary place. I’m driven by this quest of a sound that probably brings me to that place, maybe within myself, so that’s probably the driving impulse for me to start creating music.
That brought me to developing my own instruments. Also because I’ve always seen musicians in Angola, but particularly those musicians that work in rural areas or work with traditional musical instruments, making their own instruments and creating their own tunings, or adapting existing tunings to their own style, or their own music. So I’ve been going into the interior of Angola forever – since I could travel by myself in Angola – to try to meet musicians who still work with traditional musical instruments. I’ve kind of realized that the idea of an instrument that has a fixed design, a fixed tuning that you can’t change – I realized that that paradigm was not holding with many musicians that I came across. So that brought me to a lot of music and musicians that actually have the freedom to change the parameters that are initially given, in a certain instrument or in a certain compositional method. From there, I stepped into a territory where there are a lot more variables in the composition process. In the last 15-20 years, I started working with that idea that you can actually include the construction and the development and design of musical instruments in your composition process, and consider those instruments, or those objects, as a writing process.
It’s a bit like what Bárbaro [Mártinez Ruiz] has been working with – the mpungu. Slowly I came closer to the concept of an object that transmits and receives a lot of information. [ed. note: to see an mpungu photographed by Dr. Martínez, go to p. 10 of this]
NS: Tell me about your travels in the interior of Angola.
VG: There was a long period when you couldn’t simply go into the interior. Angola had become a bit like an archipelago. You could only fly to certain places and not even step out of the airport, because many of the small airports were mined, all around them. So there was a long period where it was very, very difficult to go out and visit people in their communities. But after that, I started going – in 1997, during a brief break in the war, and then I continued in Namibia, along the border with Angola, where there were lots and lots of Angolan refugees living there, and so I met a few musicians in the area of Rundu in Namibia. On the other side is Angola, on the other side of the Okavango River. I went back a couple of times, the last time I was there was in 2009.
But what happened in Angola was that there were a number of events and periods where things changed radically. A lot of people moved from one place to another or kept moving for some time, so you can’t really trace musical traditions in the way that it was possible before the war. That period of conflict, which was quite a long period, resulted in a big transformation of the heritage, the musical heritage, which was always very difficult to trace and to record. There are very few organized archives about music, and they are usually just about very particular small areas of Angola.
Now, since 2002, since the war ended, it’s been possible to travel freely and without any problems throughout the whole country. The only problem is the lack of infrastructure in many areas. The roads are getting better, but there aren’t roads everywhere. It’s a big country with not that many people . . .
NS: It took us 11 hours to drive to Luanda from Mbanza-Kongo, and that was an adventure.
VG: I can imagine! That road should have been much better by now, because Mbanza-Kongo and the whole of Zaire province is very important economically and strategically.
But one of the factors that’s affecting the production of music in the interior of the country, particularly affecting those musicians that still had their traditional instruments, and they were still playing them, is the evangelical churches, the Pentecostal churches. They’ve been mushrooming all over the country, and they come up with the same kind of evangelistic ideology that was common in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, during colonial times, where priests and missionaries encouraged people to drop their culture, or their musical instruments, and associating those musical instruments to the devil. So, diabolizing again some of the most important elements in the culture of the people. This is going on right now throughout the country, and I’m really surprised that people let themselves be influenced by that. But it’s really happening, and it’s making a big impact again on the very survival of those musical traditions.
In some cases, some churches adopt the musical instruments, and what’s happening now is that musicians are making religious music. So, for instance, the first music on the Tsikaya CD is a religious song that’s praising Jesus Christ and stuff like that. The whole cultural profile, particularly in terms of music, is now suffering a big influence from those churches.
NS: In the Americas, African music and religion enabled each other’s survival . . .
VG: When you go to Brazil, or to Cuba, you see that the religious practices that came from Angola are today thriving and developing. People are publishing books and the practices are open to the public, anyone can go to a terreiro, to candomblé ceremonies, or go to a Regla de Ocha ceremony in Havana.
But in Angola, it’s totally the opposite. It seems like that idea of a religion that became foreign, even to the local people, but particularly to a certain layer of society, is creating this huge cultural misunderstanding. It’s quite amazing.
NS: Do you have a sense of how this might be proceeding differently along different ethnic lines within Angola? For example, with the child witch persecutions that we’ve heard so much about?
VG: There’s like a kind of a witchhunt directed at people who still practice Angolan religions, or African religions. I believe that that witchhunt is not really coming from the official institutions, like the government or the state. It’s more something that’s probably being generated by this overwhelming presence of evangelical churches and radicals that brainwash people into thinking that their own culture is devilish, and is bad, and it should be burned, and it should be thrown away.
NS: You may not have intended to become a musicologist, but composers have often been the best musicologists. The work you have done is so valuable, because I can’t see that anyone is paying much attention to the music of this wildly diverse country. How would you describe the different regions of the country musically?
VG: Well, I would describe it as, like you just said, wildly diverse. And I would say that that diversity comes from the fact that actually most traditions that we believe are long existing traditions, are actually family traditions. They’re small traditions that probably don’t go back that far in time, because they exist within a family group, and families in the interior of the country can be a whole community.
Once again, I’m not a musicologist, although I try to do my best, finding musicians and recording them. But Angola is a huge country. You can’t possibly do 18 provinces in the ten years since the war ended. Many of these people that I’ve recorded are people who are playing something that their father or their grandfather have started. And so they tend to be very, very diverse, even within the same village. You can find totally different ways of playing a musical instrument that everybody knows in the village, but someone plays it in one way, and in another part of the village, there’s someone playing it in a completely different way and singing different songs and different rhythms, different style.
And then what’s also happening is that although there’s this aggression on the side of several evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, I think the DNA of music is still entrenched in people. And so you find young people, sometimes children, coming up with new musical instruments that are totally improvised and created by themselves — sometimes sculpted from pieces of wood, or ready-made or found objects that they attached some strings or some buzzers out of materials that they find on the ground, that they recover or recycle. And suddenly you have this amazing music being done by two kids, and you don’t know where that comes from. And that contributes to an ever-changing map that is actually difficult to grasp, and difficult to scan.
A lot of people are still moving, they go from one village to another, and a lot of musicians are actually working the land. It’s not very easy to go in and discover them, find out where they are and who they are and what they do, so many parts of Angola are still terra incognita almost, in terms of knowing what’s been done musically.
NS: You’ve been to the isolated southeast of Angola . . .
VG: Yes. I’ve been to Cuando Cubango, though not as much as I would have liked to. It’s a place that I would like to go back to and try to understand better. Cubando Cubango was probably one of the most affected during the 80s and 90s, during the 80s because it was a strategic point, or a strategic province for the South Africans to try to reach the rest of the country, and they were stopped by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale. And during the 90s, the base of the UNITA movement was in the southern part of the province of Cuando Cubango. And also it’s not a province that has that many people. The other areas that I’ve come to know are parts of the Rio Cubango, the Okavango River, and parts of the Cunene River, and the Cunene province. And also places where big battles took part, particularly with the South African forces during the apartheid years, in the 70s and 80s.
One of the things that I found in Cunene and Cuando Cubango was children coming up with musical instruments that were made out of pieces of blown-up military materiel. Because in some of those villages and communities, there was just so much military materiel on the ground that, coupled with the situation where people were totally isolated because they couldn’t move from where they were, and they couldn’t receive anything coming from the outside, people recycled a lot of those materials to build their houses, or to build fences, or whatever it was useful for. Children would make their toys, and many times musical instruments, out of these leftovers of the war – you know, tanks, whatever was left on the ground up to those big battles.
NS: Do you have sound?
VG: I’ve got some recorded examples. I’ve got pictures. I did a project with the Kronos Quartet very recently. I went to Rio Cunene and to Rio Cubango, and I collected some of those instruments. And some of them are with the Kronos Quartet, because they are a part of a piece that I wrote for them. Some of them are like, pieces of artillery shells, or the magazine of a Kalashnikov with corn inside, used as a shaker. There is a video about this project.
NS: How would you explain the difference between Kongo and Angola cultures to someone who didn’t know anything about it? How do you see the role of Kongo music in Angolan culture?
VG: Kongo culture is really important in Angola, because Angola is Kongo also. The northern part of Angola is Kongo. There is a shared cultural heritage. Historically, Mbanza-Kongo had an influence far beyond the borders of what was the entity then, the kingdom, whatever we might call it. And it’s still the case today. You can see lots of influence of Kongo culture in Lunda. And so it has a huge influence, but probably more in the 70s and 80s. The urban music of Kinshasa was almost equally heard, or equally important and popular, in Luanda. You had groups of Congolese musicians coming over and even living in Luanda and playing and being part of the scene there in the late 70s and early 80s. Obviously then there was a lot of migratory movement, which started creating some conflict, and so there has been a kind of – some conflict there, because of a large movement of people. But on the other side as well — a lot of Angolans had gone over to the DRC and so, I think that influence is going to continue in the future.
NS: How did you become aware of Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz’s work?
VG: We met in ‘96 or ‘97, and we traveled together to Cuando Cubango. I started being very interested in graphic writing systems, probably before I even met Bárbaro, and then I realized that Bárbaro was working on those graphic writing systems, and he actually was part of that, because he was into the religion in Cuba. So we started cooperating, or I started going to Bárbaro and trying to understand a bit more of that writing. I think that a writing system is really at the core of a culture, and so it’s really important to look into it if you want to understand the culture of a particular place. So that’s when Odantalán came up – the idea of doing some creative work, and trying to bring people from different countries that had been influenced by Kongo-Angola, bring those people together to Luanda, and work around the main concepts that you can identify in the bidimbo writing system, or the firmas. So it was very important that Bárbaro was there to guide and to make the link between the two, because he’s actually studying and researching and is now one of the leading researchers into the continuities of the graphic writing system from Angola to Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad. So for me it was a big boost in trying to understand the country I come from. And from there we’ve been collaborating and . . .
NS: In mounting the Odantalán project, did you get any sense of how the players from the Americas differed from the players from Africa in their approach?
VG: Well, we were all quite new to this material. All of us that came together on Odantalán were people from cities, we were urban people. So the differences weren’t that great. We had Giba Conceição from Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, a percussionist who is is specialized in the cuica, which in Angola is called pwita, but he’s very experienced in Afro-Brazilian music. We brought Hugo Candelario from Colombia. He’s a Western music-trained musician and composer, and he plays plays a type of upright marimba that’s from the Pacific coast of Colombia. So we brought him to three marimba players from Angola, from the area of Malanje, where’s there’s this big tradition of marimbas in Angola. And we had them playing and exchanging their instruments, and you can see on the Odantalán album there are two pieces for marimba played by the same musicians. The three Angolan musicians that play marimba de Angola, they play Hugo Candelario’s Pacific Coast marimba. And it’s called a marimba de chonta, because it’s made of chonta keys — chonta is a type of palm tree.
And the results were amazing. One of the things I think was quite common was on the improvisation side. Everybody was quite used to improvising, so it was very easy to switch instruments and see the bridges appearing between these instruments that had traveled over time and over huge distances and had involved into somewhat different instruments, but the genetic code was still there, and that was really a tremendous experience. We also brought Felipe García Villamil, who came with his batá drum, and added that element of ceremonial spirituality, so it was very enriching.
But the main idea of Odantalán was to reflect on certain concepts that are made more clear when you understand these graphic writing systems that Bárbaro’s been studying. Ultimately writing is a tool for communication, so we were more concerned about working within the concept of dikenga, the cyclical representation of the universe represented by the four moments of the sun, and so we had these discussions and read Bárbaro’s work and writing by people like, Robert Farris Thompson and Wyatt McGaffey. We had a number of meetings to discuss these concepts that people know about, but they don’t really know what they mean until you go a bit deeper.
And the other concept of mpungu or nkisi, was also a center of discussions and a center of focus on Odantalán.
NS: Dikenga, mpungu, nkisi — what are these and how did they work into the music of Odantalán?
VG: I wouldn’t want to go to much into the differences of mpungu and nkisi – we have to leave that for Bárbaro. But basically, dikenga is a cosmogram that represents a vision of the universe. And for me, the most important aspect about dikenga is the fact that it entails cycles. And I see it as a fractal development of cycles – a cycle within a cycle. Things are moving within. Francis Bebey, a Cameroonian composer who died in 2001, used to say that African music is based on very small elements, a little bit like atoms that are constantly moving around each other, a bit like granular synthesis that composes a body of sound that is always moving. I want to understand what makes people make music in a certain way. That became really important for me in my work.
The main idea in Odantalán was to work around certain concepts, so that we wouldn’t just drift and start improvising and doing things that we all like to do when we are in the studio together making music. You can just make whatever comes to your head, but there we tried to focus on certain concepts. I don’t know how well we did, but the idea of dikenga and how it tries to represent the universe and the cosmos and life itself, how it is divided in those two parts: one, the more material side of life and the other one that’s more the spiritual, and how things turn around these two dimensions. And obviously, a concept like that, a cosmogram like that, isn’t finished with this description, it’s much more than that, but that was one of the things that drove Odantalán.
The other idea was the concept of mpungu, an object that is a mediator and establishes communication with the ancestors’ world. What it does by memorializing the actions of that person that wants something, some help from the other side, the other dimension. An object that as a mediator of dialogue between dimensions is also constantly changing, accumulating energies, accumulating meanings. How it becomes a semiotic interface, because there are so many meanings that have been put into it, and the many cross informations going in and coming out that it supports. This was really very, very important stuff for us. Because we hadn’t known this before. We’re still somehow quite new to this. It’s not something we can say that is part of our culture, because we’re all coming from cultures that are diverse but go more or less in one direction, which is the consumerist culture, the materialistic culture, in the cities we live in. So that was basically the main idea of Odantalán, to create a body of work around concepts that twenty years earlier we didn’t know existed.
NS: But which have existed!
VG: But which have existed for a lot more time than we can even grasp. That’s one of the things Bárbaro is doing in Mbanza-Kongo, is going around caves. He discovered a system of caves that’s actually a library, that was created probably, if not in prehistorical time, thousands of years ago.
NS: When you say a library, you mean in terms of the paintings?
VG: Mainly in terms of the paintings, but also because of the graphic writing in them. Bárbaro discovered that each time there was a new king, he would have to go around those caves in a ceremony, praising the ancestors.
VG: From what he described to me, this system of caves is quite complex. It’s almost like a circle of caves around the capital of Mbanza Kongo, but a big circle – like 30 miles in radius. Bárbaro has been going for the last 10 years to Angola every year, and every time he goes there he goes looking for more caves, and he discovers more caves, and all of the caves have a keeper. But the keeper is someone that is very difficult to find, because none of this is public information. These people are just like underground keepers of that type of heritage, which, as we’ve spoken about. You also mentioned those problems with the children [accused of witchcraft]. This type of knowledge is associated with witchcraft, and witchcraft in Angola is seen as something terrible, and people are persecuted and killed. So none of this is official knowledge. It’s being kept underground, this type of knowledge.
But Bárbaro has been discovering these caves, and he’s been going in with equipment to try to record what’s written and what’s painted on those cave walls. And what it seems is that those walls were used to record knowledge. So it’s like a library that’s hidden. And it’s literally underground, because they’re caves. But it’s also underground in terms of the way that people have to avoid being persecuted because of being associated to witchcraft into a practice that’s wrongly seen as being associated with something evil. It’s highly influenced by the past evangelization and the colonial heritage that is still in some way reigning in people’s minds.
NS: Talk to me about how the idea of mpungu fits in your work.
VG: That was one of the main concepts within the Odantalán project. There are some other concepts, but the concept of mpungu is something that, in my opinion and also in my work, I really wanted to understand better. It’s difficult to grasp, but basically, it’s the concept of an object that allows you to communicate. So it’s an object that is a mediator of communication, and this communication is established between the person who works with the mpungu and who through the mpungu is able to establish communication with the other dimension, with the ancestors’ world and the spirits of people living on the other side of the kalunga line. It’s not that we’re getting into a spiritual, religious, or magical mode of working, because these things are really complex, but that concept of an object that aids communication or is a mediator of communication to something other than our real world, our physical world, is something that I think is very close to the world of music, to the world of dealing with a symbolic language. So in a way we are dealing with an object that is more like a semiotic interface. It’s an object that becomes active, becomes empowered, when you invoke meanings, when you evoke certain symbols, certain elements. And so it becomes a power object, because it carries a meaningful relationship to the world, or to the cosmos.
We didn’t use mpungu in a literal sense, but we wanted to work with the concept, not with the object, and we invited people who worked with that type of object. Bárbaro was one of them, and Felipe García Villamil was another one, and through them we were able to discuss and try to understand the meaning of mpungu. But the objects that were closer to that object were our musical instruments.
We had, for instance, batá drums [from Cuban Yoruba tradition]. We had the marimbas. In many cases, these objects are mpungu, because they’re used in ceremonial rituals and they have a role, they play a role in trying to establish that bridge between our world and what is usually called the world of the ancestors, the other side of our world.
For me, Odantalán was really the point where I started to understand where my music project was going, and that’s where I more or less moved into – let’s say, a new way of looking at musical instruments and at music. That’s where it became clear to me that a musical instrument doesn’t necessarily have to have a fixed design. Like, for instance, you have a violin and the violin is forever. But you can have a musical instrument that is not forever the same, and so its design becomes a variable, and that variable is linked or dependent on the meanings that you introduce in your compositions. So I’m connecting the musical instruments to the elements of the narrative of the composition.
NS: The counter-argument would be that instruments have arrived at the forms they have because large numbers of musicians over generations have helped them attain a kind of perfection, or optimal form . . .
VG: There is no contradiction in that, and in fact I think that’s the process that takes an instrument to its final form, where it’s absolutely well-developed and its potential is maximized by its final design. But I started looking at the way musical instruments metamorphosed throughout history. You see lots of examples of instruments that have been changing, each time they travel, or with time. That was an indication, but for me the fact that an object that is a container of meanings that then you use to activate a certain power, it’s an object that is empowered by meaning. And also by the way you interact with it. Or the way it interacts with you.
And that’s quite close to that concept of mpungu, because mpungu’s form is changing each time a new contract is sealed between the nganga and the client, and it evolves over time and its design changes, because of all those little narratives, little stories, little elements and symbols and evocations that have been going throughout its existence.
NS: In the video of Ovana Voinaimwe’s performance, there’s a young man playing a homemade percussion setup, but it’s set up to be a salsa timbalero’s rig. He has all the parts, plays those rhythms . . .
VG: He was trying to get there. These kids, they watch videos, they’re not that isolated. They travel around, they move around, they’re nomadic. They move, they go to Namibia, then they come back. Basically these are kids that collect money from playing on the streets in the small villages they live in or they go to.
That’s the type of little projects that you see in remote areas of Angola that are springing up and changing completely the map of music, and it’s very difficult to keep a record of that – of what’s changing and how it’s changing — but it’s tremendously interesting.
NS: Could you tell me about Naloga?
VG: Naloga — there was an ideal album that was produced and finished, but never released. This was in 1998. Then a lot of things happened, and so Naloga is several things, but one of them is that it’s a compilation of works from more or less 1996 to 2006.
I had a project to follow the movement of conflict, or the movement of troops, from Cuito Cuanavale down to South Africa and then via Namibia and into the Cuando Cubango province, which was one of the most affected in the conflict against South Africa.
As you know, South Africa invaded the south of Angola. For almost 12 years, it was a constant presence. There was a very intense front in Cuito Cuanavale – in other places as well – but Cuito Cuanavale’s kind of like the main point where Cubans and Angolans were able to contain the South Africans. And we’re talking about the 80s basically – the late 70s and the 80s, until finally the war with South Africa was over in 1988, ‘89.
That project was kinda put on hold for a time, and I recovered it when I started a new project called Tectonik: Tombua. That project goes back to the same questions and to the same theme, which is that conflict with South Africa, but looking at it from the point of view of South Africa’s being a military power that had developed nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and weapons of mass destruction, with very clear programs that had started way back in the 50s. The project reached its peak of development in the 70s and 80s. So it’s looking at South Africa as a huge military power that, because of a number of tests they had made in the late 70s, particularly the nuclear tests that they made in the South Atlantic, very close to Antarctica, that power was certified.
Basically it set on fire that whole region, because of their drive to stop the independences and the communism and all of that ideological stuff they believed in. So it was one of the main causes of the destruction of the infrastructure, and the destruction of Mozambique and Angola, the wars that went on for decades. But we rarely hear anything about it these days. It’s rarely seen as – it’s kind of been wiped out, that period of history. So very few people know about the nuclear weapons program that South Africa had at the time, and because of which a lot of operations took place in the south of Angola.
An independent young Angolan anthropologist named Augusto Zita N’Gonguenho started a research project that was going to be his thesis. He had studied in Russia and in Cuba, and he had this argument that the concept of Utopia was almost exclusively a European concept, and that it had driven European expansionism toward the rest of the world. But specifically in Angola, the search for Utopia, the search for a perfect society, and so he made a comparative study between many literary utopias, starting from Plato’s Republic and going to Thomas More’s Utopia, and in most of them it’s true that there is this perfect society, but it’s always supported by a class of servants. So he took a particular road that goes from the city of Namibe to the city of Tombua in the southwest of Angola, in the desert of Namibe, as his field research work. Basically, because it reflected what the Portuguese administrative system during the colonial times, the colony, and particularly during the Salazar regime, because what that regime basically wanted was to create a system of administration that was the same in all of their colonies, so that they could call all of that territory Portugal. So Angola was a province of this big Portugal country, the metropolis. That was very interesting, although it’s very fragmented, there’s very few information about it, and I started following his – trying to somehow reconstruct what’s missing,
NS: How did he die?
VG: He was killed by the South Africans, by the SIS, which was the CIA of South Africa at that time, the Secret Service. The South Africans had lots of incursions into Angola with special forces, and they took away a lot of people, and they made lots of sabotage operations inside Angola. Sometimes they would even come in submarines and launch operations from sea. But most of the time they would come by plane and bomb, or by helicopters. Apparently he didn’t have anything to do with the war with the South Africans, but he wanted to use satellite pictures to analyze the terrain – the relief.
His research made an accommodation of scientific and nonscientific methods, and one of the methods was to use divination systems. He was actually from that region of Cunene, and so he believed that the animist system of belief, that everything has a spirit, trees have a spirit, but even stones can have a spirit, amd that that was quite useful in terms of analyzing a place – a place where you didn’t have people to ask questions to, so, no eyewitnesses, but since everything has a spirit, then everything can be a witness of what had gone on for a period of time. So he was inquiring what he wanted to inquire, but using plants, animals, ruins of houses, stones, basically everything. And that was really amazing. We don’t really have the result of that.
He collected sand – different types of sand, looking at the grains of sand, and he also made apparently a huge collection of photographs of a certain type of plant that exists in the Namibe desert, which is called a welwitschia, it’s a desert plant, and he collected lots and lots of pictures of them. No one knows where these pictures are, but the idea was to look at the leaves, and somehow gather information. His work started as a gathering of information that was potentially crucial to what he was looking at, and so looking at it without knowing what the results were, and what he was really going to come out with at the end of it, because it was never – finally, he disappeared. It kind of looks like an art project, you know.
It’s the same kind of relation that it has when you as a musician or as an artist tackle a concept like the mpungu. Because things are so complex, and because we are dealing with a type of communication that we and our westernized societies reject, it’s difficult to go back to and to try to integrate it again into our lives, so I’m working on this, but through my music. Through my daily practice. And so it brought me back again to that same questioning, and it doesn’t necessarily – I mean, I didn’t necessarily put it in the music.
What I’m doing now in the Tectonik: Tombua project is decoding his notes, and performing what he was performing, collecting photographs, types of sand, videos, and also sound. He had this really amazing way of trying to collect data by going around dragging a stick on the ground in the desert. He was going around a whole area of the desert, going over different types of terrain, different types of ground, and recording the sound of the stick being dragged on the ground, and collecting all of that for further research. [Laughs] So basically that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve collected that sound, and I’m going back to collect more, because . . .
There’s this relationship with these houses that have been abandoned for decades now, and they’re in ruins. It’s about seven houses that were built along this road. The road is about 90 miles long, so the houses are separated by about 12 miles, 13 miles, between each other, and it’s just one house and you don’t see anything else. And the house is empty and it’s in ruins. There’s no roof anymore. They were the houses of the people that were maintaining the road in the early 20th century, when there was no tar and so the roads had to be kept passable. This was an effort of the colonial administration, to keep those roads and to keep the system going. So the aim of studying that road with those houses with those – a few more elements that were part of the administrative system, was really the focus of his work. And so the houses have been photographed hundreds of times, from many different angles, and videos have been made.
And so in a way I’m trying to reconstruct his archive, the archive that disappeared, that no one knows about.
NS: Tell me about “Three Rivers in the Sky.”
VG: “Three Rivers in the Sky” was the first piece in that first Naloga that never came out. I went to Cuito Cuanavale in 1997 during a break in the conflict between the government and UNITA. I was in Cuito Cuanavale for about two, three weeks, and then I couldn’t get out because there were no planes. So I had to get out by truck, through Menongue and then back to Luanda by plane. When I was there in 1997, Cuito Cuanavale was basically the same as in the 80s, as when the Cubans left and when the South Africans left, and everything that had been the battlefield and what was left on the ground was still there – the tanks, the trucks, the helicopters, the fighter jets. Pieces of it were broken and taken by nature. This was about ten years later. And so that history of the war was still fresh in people’s minds, and I recorded a number of musicians there. One of them was Master Dembo. He was a peasant, and he came with another friend of his, and they both sang, although Master Dembo was the composer of the songs. There are no instruments, just singing, and it’s a very particular type of singing, very interesting.
It’s basically a story that he’s telling, and in that piece, “Three Rivers in the sky,” he’s talking about the battle of Cuito Cuanavale and he’s asking for help, saying that we have a lot of problems here in Cuito Cuanavale, we are totally isolated. So I think that was a kind of an improvisation, and also taking the chance of a microphone and some people that were there that they viewed as journalists or people that came from the city and were going back, as a way of sending a message. That song really made me realize that that role, you know, of almost a message in the bottle type of thing – here’s a message, go and release it, and hopefully somebody will do something.
Later I went to South Africa, and I went to Johannesburg, and I did lots of recordings in Jo’Burg at that time, 1998, and I was particularly interested in hearing what people knew about the war, because the war with Angola was largely kept silent there. People didn’t know what was going on. People mostly knew that there was a war going on, but they didn’t really know where, and they didn’t know the details. I went to lots of places and asked questions and interviewed people.
One of the people I interviewed was an actress that had happened to be in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, with a theater company, and they traveled up to Rundu, which is on the border with Angola. And the army was there. One night they were told that something was going to happen on the other side. On the other side was the village of Caalai, in Angola. People from the SADF and people from Rundu put their chairs on the side of the river to watch the action that was going on the other side of the river. So it’s a description of what was happening that almost nobody knew in South Africa, in Jo’burg — in particular the white South Africans who thought their army was going to defend the country against the Communists and all of that stuff. And then, the last little song that you can hear on “Three Rivers in the Sky” is a guy that I found by chance in a psychiatric hospital near Johannesburg. I went there to record a choir of workers, and as I was setting up, this guy comes running, and he asks to record a song. And he starts singing that little song, which is a religion song, and so suddenly that shows the tremendous amounts of layers, of stuff that was going on…
NS: He was a war veteran?
VG: Yes, he had been a soldier in Angola, and he’d basically been living there at the hospital for many years, like ten years or more. It was totally by chance. He didn’t know who I was, or what I was doing, he just said he wanted to record that. So in a way that piece is like a little puzzle that configured itself, like making a tracer of a trajectory from Angola, from the very spot that was the most intensive spot of conflict between South Africa and Angola, and then into South Africa and into Namibia.
NS: Here’s the question I’ve been waiting to ask. What would you say is the net effect on music of all those decades of war in Angola?
VG: Well, I think that one of the main effects was the deterioration of the musical heritage in the rural areas, in rural Angola where a significant part of Angolan music was played, or is played. But it’s not heard. It’s a kind of a silent zone. And that was mainly because of the movement of a large number of people. Millions of people moved from place to place during those three decades of conflict. In the Tsikaya project I don’t work with the urban musics, although obviously they are linked with the traditional musics from the interior, but those two spheres have been largely separated. I’m mostly working on the music of the interior of the country. That’s why Tsikaya is called Tsikaya: Músicos do Interior.
Once I recorded an old man who had a tchiumba — a small harp with five or six strings, it’s got a more or less rectangular body, and then some rods are sticking out from one end of the rectangle and then strings are coming to the other end of the rectangle, so it’s a kind of a small portable harp that you play on your lap and you’ve got about six strings. And this man told the story of that instrument, and this was an important element: he was living in a small community of people who had been, who had fled their village, and they came to Catumbela, very close to Benguela. They were living there for many years already, like eight years. They had to walk a huge distance, hundreds of kilometers, to get there, running away from the war. And he told me, well, this harp, this tchiumba, I brought it from my village. And the circumstances were extreme, because they had to pack and leave in less than an hour and run away, because troops were coming in and they were burning everything. And so one of the few things that he brought was that tchiumba, and in fact it was the only one in the community of about 3000 people, and that was really amazing. And so it shows a bit what effect the war has on the music and on the music production, on the instruments, on the heritage.
That’s one of the effects. The other is that it completely shuffles, or reshuffles, things. If you went to a certain area 20 years ago when you go back now, you don’t see the same instruments there. You don’t see the same music. You don’t see the same people. It changed the profile, the cultural context changed a lot.
NS: What are you doing next?
VG: I’m going to Huambo, which was highly affected by the war, but it’s also been one of the fastest recovering cities in Angola.
NS: Huambo was a stronghold of UNITA . . .
VG: Well, UNITA took Huambo following the elections in 1992, when UNITA didn’t accept the results and they still had a huge army, and they took over 80% of the territory of Angola. The government dislodged them by bombing the whole city from the air and from ground, but mostly from the air. So Huambo was destroyed, basically. It was in ruins after ‘94. But the province of Huambo is one of the richest in terms of culture, and so I’m really looking forward to going there. I hardly know it. I’ve been to Huambo, but a long time ago. I know some work that was done by a priest in the 60s, he recorded some people in an area of the province, some music, but again it’s – there’s not a lot. So I’m wondering what I’m going to be able to find.
But in general, it’s quite difficult to find people playing traditional instruments. When I say traditional, I mean instruments that belong to the instrumentarium of Angola, the ones that we know of. It’s a quite diverse collection of instruments. They were systematically recorded by a self-made ethnomusicologist called José Redinha, and he’s got a book, Instrumentos Musicais de Angola, about those musical instruments. There are other publications more recent, but this is one of the most systematical. And the diversity was amazing, at least in the 60s, when he did that. I don’t believe that diversity still exists, but there’s still a lot, and there’s some new stuff, you know — improvised musical instruments like that drum from those kids, and little guitars and things like that.
NS: Could we talk about the Pangeia instruments?
VG: That’s what people will listen to when they listen to Naloga, and by the way, if they want to listen closer, they can go to Soundcloud or iTunes or Spotify. They will be listening to music by instruments that I’ve made myself, and some of those instruments are now part of my tools to compose. In my composition work, I tried to bring the design, the construction, the concept of the musical instruments into the writing process. So considering that an object can be a mediator of meaning, and so as a container of meaning it’s also a written score, and therefore in terms of music it can be part of the score of the music. It’s a visual part, a 3-D component, and it’s a guiding object, because it’s going to guide you, it’s going to take you to a territory that’s unknown for you. I find that it’s really taken me to unknown territory, and so now I’m trying to learn – obviously, you have to learn how to play those instruments, because they demand that from you as a musician, and they also demand to become better at what they do, so it’s an ever-evolving process. A composer that works like that has to go back to the scores many more times than if he’s just writing a score on paper or on a computer.
You can look at the instruments on my website, victorgama.org, or pangeiainstrumentos.org. But in terms of the scores, I’m using Sibelius to write scores, to write the music down, it’s just a tool to communicate with other musicians that are going to play with me. And particularly the new piece that’s called Velas 6911, which is a follow-up to Naloga and is within Tectonik: Tombua. Velas 6911 was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and it was premiered at the Harris Theater in Chicago last March, and now I have the chance to present it here in Lisbon at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, but in a bigger version. I have more time. So right now I’m writing those scores.
NS: Thank you, Victor Gama.