During Os Kuduristas whirlwind tour through the states at the end of last year, we were lucky enough to sit down with Manuel Kanza, the group’s lead choreographer. He talked with Afropop’s Sean Barlow and Sam Backer about his dancing history, the Os Kuduristas project, and the meaning (and history!) of Kuduro.
Manuel Kanza: I’m Manuel Kanza, I come from Angola. I was born in Luanda, and I’m 25 years old. I started dancing I think when I was 4. Not because I come from a family of dancers, but- in Angola, in our culture we dance so much. We dance a lot. And I think that one of the ways that people used to be comfortable with life was getting together to dance and have fun. So that became like a, like a habit, a cultural thing.
For me to start with the dance thing, my auntie used to play videos of Madonna, the material girl show. So every time I watched TV, I was watching something that has to do with dance. I don’t know, maybe it was a coincidence, but, I used to every time. So, I think that because of that, I can always learn things fast. I almost feel as if, in terms of dance, when I see something, I can catch up quickly as if it’s something that I already have inside of me.
In 1996, we went to Zimbabwe because things were tough. And because it’s an English speaking country, we had friends coming from Europe and from America, and from all parts of the world, and we shared everything so I started dancing.
Sam Backer : So you started dancing then?
M: Yea, really serious.
S: Okay, so can you tell us more about Madonna?
M: I used to watch the same video of Madonna every day, the material girls show. She would sing the song, and there was a choreography I remember, the guys would walk like robots… And she was like coming from stairs and singing material girls.
S: What was it on a music video channel? Like MTV?
M: It’s like this- my auntie she used to tape videos, and she had friends coming from other places and they used to give her music videos. So, she would play it on cassette every day and keep watching it, because she used to practice dance a lot, and she used to do splits, so I was fascinated by splits. I wanted to learn everything! There were also some salsa movies that they used to play on our national television, and I used to watch those as well, especially Lambada, from Brazil. So all these things, I think they made me really love to dance.
At the beginning, my dad didn’t like that I danced because in my country, I am the first born and if you dance [Laughs], its like ‘Oh my God this guys is going to lose himself, there is no future here for dance,’ and stuff like that. So he didn’t like that. But my mom used to support me every time I wanted to dance, when I needed gloves or anything to make me look cool, she would buy them for me. So I continued, I used to do it behind his back, but every time I was in a competition I always won. I won every competition ever since I was little, like six. I started getting money from dance very young. I used to be, I was that kid you would to take to a party, and dance and people would go “Wow,” and they would throw money and coins and anything. I think that really gave me a start. So, when I was done with all my levels in Zimbabwe, I went back to Angola to do university.
S: What year was that?
M: That was year 2005, but I had to stay years without studying, the whole of 2006 without studying and then the whole of 2007 again without studying because my Portuguese was so bad! And my father was disappointed, so he always made me read the newspaper so that I could practice my Portuguese, and he would tell me to watch the news…. but I hated to watch news, I always wanted to see dance, I wanted to continue doing what I was doing the whole time. So, in 2008 there was a dance competition on TV, the one that Coreon Du promoted, the bounce competition. I wasn’t aware that it was going to happen, so my cousin told me, “Look. There is going to be a dance competition, and we really think you are good, we want you to do it.” I thought that it was just something, you know like, one of those programs that you were going to dance once and that’s it, so I wasn’t really interested. I didn’t know that it would change my life. Ever since I was young, I was used to see things on TV you know? And like every that lives, well Africa is not bad, but people dream of traveling, going around the world, coming to America. So I used to dream that like, I wanted to be there someday, I wanted to do this someday. And I used to tell my friends “look I’m going to be a dancer,” and they were like ‘Oh come on dancing yea right!”
So, there was a time when I tried to give up, but I couldn’t. So I said- “Okay, fine let me go to the competition, let’s see how it is.” So, I went there, I did the audition, and I passed. I was surprised! Then we did the second audition, and I passed. As the program continued, people started seeing that I was different because I had more information in terms of dance. I had a lot of diversity of style because I could do so many things. In a certain way, it gave me an advantage. Also because I was a very dedicated person, I didn’t do it to compete, but I do it for fun. I never intend to challenge someone, I always intend to learn- because if you battle, you always learn more from your opponent, so I always look out for that. That’s why I don’t go out looking for battles, but if I’m caught in the moment where you give me the opportunity to show my abilities, I will show them.
So I was announced as the winner, and then in the second year, 2009, we went to Portugal. The prize for winning was to go to Portugal for 3 months and do dance lessons. So that was the first time in my life that I had dance lessons. And I was like woo class! I’m taking class, Yeah! So happy! and when I went back to Angola, I decided that I wanted to teach, so I started teaching and teaching and teaching.
Sean Barlow: You said you were different because you were able to do different styles, what styles?
M: Ok. I used to do, I do hip hop locking, a bit of break dancing, the basics… I used to mix all those styles because in bounce, they give you different types of music and then you had to dance according to the style. So each week, you would end up with a different choreographer with a different style. [Laughs] So I was lucky that I always ended up with different choreographers, so they were able to see that I could do different things. If you were unlucky, you might end up having to dance the same styles, and you would stay at a disadvantage. So I as really lucky, but also because I was fighting so hard.
Sean: You said that you would battle. Can you talk about the battles, about the culture of it?
M: The battles in Zimbabwe were at school. We had like talent shows, so at talent shows usually at school people always want to match, they always want to see if you’re any good. I would always challenge people that are older than me. That way, my level of skill grew really quickly, because I always challenge people who had more experience.
S:Were dancing Kuduro before you went to Zimbabwe?
M: Yes. Because Kuduro is our thing. It wasn’t something that I was worried about the technique of because it’s something that we do, so we just do it naturally.
S: So how long have you been dancing Kuduro?
M: Well, um, professionally this year, since I decided I needed to do this for my country, I needed to show well, because if you are going out to these other places, and representing Kuduro for all the dancers in Angola, you really need to take it seriously. But if you ask me how long I have been dancing Kuduro I will say my whole life, even though I only really started taking it really seriously this year.
S: How has the dancing changed?
K: Its changed so much! In the early 80’s, the dancing was in the party on the streets. People would climb the speakers, throw themselves on the ground, and then they get up again and they would grab somebody and shiver…. It was just CRAZY you know? It’s like letting yourself be free, almost like the rock culture, so you know, it would really be crazy, they would break chairs, throw themselves on tables, not everyone but… That is called the Kuduro underground. That’s the style of Fogo de Deus. He’s one of the oldest Kuduro dancers that we have, and his style is the old underground. He auditioned when I was the judge in January, and me and the other choreographers, we-I wanted to highlight the various different styles of Kuduro dancing. So you see that the four of them all have very different styles.
Fogo de Deus has the underground style of Kuduro, and Celestino has the early ’97 -2003 style of Kuduro, which is like Dumbalo, which is a lot like our traditional way of dancing, our traditional dance of our country, it’s mixed. Fogo de Deus is like the electronic way, popping way, which is underground, really strong, really crazy. Olivera’s style is more like the modern style of Kuduro, the way things are happening now. For example- if we see a folk dancer, we will imitate his movements and make fun of them, but not make mock it or to irritate somebody, but to make it into a Kuduro flavor. So that’s Olivera’s style. And then Mirene covers all the styles of the girls. Form the beginning up to now. So my idea was to let people see this difference, so that when we show the world what Kuduro is, they can see how much it’s changed throughout the years. So, when I was asked to be a part of this project, I had the obligation to show all of that, to make the program a kind of dance dictionary.
A Kuduro dictionary!
Sean: A dance dictionary?
M: What that means is I made a video. We made a video whereby somebody comes to do the pantsula, and then somebody do the frog dance, and somebody do the chameleon, and those would all be named, that so when you are watching,you see the names and stuff like that. For people that don’t know kuduro, they can see, and try to imitate that. And all of that’s on the website.
It’s like this: each movement came out with the song. For example, I’m an MC –I’m gonna invent, hmm, let me think about me suga Okay, so which movement is me suga? For example, if I say me suga you do this, right? So you’re gonna say Me suga! Ay me suga! [rhythmic] So people are gonna come, they’re gonna see your movement. And they will like it if the beat is nice; it’s gonna be a blast. So that would be a move. Somebody else comes and sings about frog. Frog dance. So this is how the kuduro style, the kuduro movement came up. Taking things from your surroundings, making it. Which means as long as things are still happening, there will always be movement for kuduro.
S: So the dances and the music, they go together?
M: Yes. In the beginning, it was more the dancer than the MC. Because, for example, I am a kuduro dancer, I invented the carmortero. The carmortero, like the soldier coming from the dead. Yeah. Fog de Deus is the inventor of the movement carmortero. So, lets say that I invent that movement. and then I say “hmm… I wanna do a show, a showcase.” So I look for an MC that’s really good; he makes the instrumental beat. And the people would say Carmortero! Carmortero! And I would be dancing carmortero. So each dancer would have their own MC to call out the names of their style. That way, they can become famous. So what happened later on is that the musicians started working alone without the dancers. So things kept up, and now we have kuduro music. [laughs] It started like electronic vibe, really strong. But now the beat is also..it changed a lot.
S: It reminds me a little bit of what happens in hip hop now. People take videos with their friends and then it spreads all over the internet.
M: It is quite the same thing for kuduro…
Sean: Is there a tradition or practice of any social commentary in the kuduru songs? Like are you are commenting on how men and women are relating, or anything that’s like a tradition, or anything that people are talking about in society?
M: In the beginning, Kuduro was more like calling out names of styles. Then during the 90’s, everybody just want to sing kuduro. But not everybody had equal talents, so they would do their own way. In the neighborhoods, some guys that used to rap, they would rap in kuduro. They would also sing about stuff in the country, public stuff about the poor, the rich and differences –stuff like that. But those kuduro singers didn’t hit because it did not go on the radio. It was such a strong message that you couldn’t put it on the radio. And others also sang about sex, privacy, private parts of people…
Sean: And that wasn’t on radio either….
M: No, no. It was out of control! That was from the nineties until about 2003-2004. That was when kuduro was out of control. Then, musicians started to see that singing bad things didn’t take them anywhere. and they started changing. They started singing about schools, about good things. And this is how kuduro changed. Because they needed to be somebody, they felt the need to do something good with it. Because they had talent and the MCs were really good, the dancing was really good and the ones that were becoming really famous were the ones who were giving out a good message. This is how kuduro changed. In the beginning, it was the DJ calling out the names. Then everybody wanted to sing kuduro because they thought it was cool and they were singing the wrong stuff. Then they felt the need to get something out of this. Then things started changing, and now there are good message in kuduro.
S: Is there an underground that carries on those older trends, or has it mostly shifted?
M: There are still underground things happening, but it doesn’t go on radio and stuff like that.
S: So that shift accompanied kuduro getting on the radio?
M: Which shift?
S: That earlier stuff, was that getting on the radio or not?
M: The rude stuff?
M: No no no, that could not go on the radio.
S: So they had this change…
M: They had to change to get on the radio. Because what happened is the kuduro singers in the streets, in the neighborhoods, they would have beef with each other. But what really happened is that this beef, this battle between singers, it made them grow up and change their game. Because what happened is that they would say “You’re trying to sell but you won’t make it because your song has no message. You think you can dance but you cannot” and stuff like that. So the one that had good message made a lot of money, and the one that didn’t have good message didn’t make any profit.
And the other thing is women didn’t dance much kuduro then because of discrimination. Because kuduro is so crazy, the girls would dance with short stuff and show their private parts. The parents, the adults, didn’t like their children, their girls, dancing kuduro because it wasn’t good. So that’s why we don’t have many good female dancers of kuduro until recently. There are some, but very few. Mostly the dancers are boys.
S: As the message has gotten more positive, that allowed girls to…
M: At allowed girls to start dancing because before there was a girl called Salsici, a famous kuduru dancer that was a girl. But what really happened was that people were calling her names so she had to stop and now she is grown up and everything. But now there is Dama Eletrica. She was a choreographer in Bounce in 2010, the second edition of Bounce, and she is a really good dancer of kuduro. She is really strong like a man! [laughs] She’s really fast and really crazy, which is good because kuduro is about being yourself, being your inner-self, take it out, be yourself. So she inspired many girls to start dancing. And there’s also Fofando and Noite Dia (night and day is her name) but they are singers. These two woman, they are really strong. They are singers, not dancers, but they dance really well. They also invented a lot of movements. Noite Dia does a lot of dombalo (the spinning of your waist) and quasaquasa (the hitting of your knees). So, the only thing that girls usually do in kuduro is shaking the bum or do the kambwa (its like the dog); sexy stuff. But boys are more technical.
I think we only started to have a lot of girl dancers since 2010 when Dama Electrica started showing her talent on the program. So that gave a lot of inspiration for many dancers. In the 80s-90s, there were some girls, but not all of them were allowed to dance kuduro because the name kuduro was not okay to say in front of people. Cu means ass so you can’t say that in front of adults –that’s why they had to change the c with the k so that it would look like something else.
S: You said a lot of the female singers are also good dancers. Are there a lot of people who do both, or are you usually one or the other?
M: No. In kuduro, if you are a singer you have to dance. There’s no such thing like Okay I’m a kuduro singer and I don’t dance. Pssht! Nobody will listen to you because when you sing, you need to show the moves. Yes. Most movement of kuduro depends on the music; the music comes with the move. So you can sing about good message –about going to school, but you need to do a movement about going to school or what a schoolchild does or something.
S: What would a movement about going to school look like?
M: That’s what you have to think about. If you are going to sing about people going back to school, you can do a movement of a teacher writing on the board or something like that. And that would become a dance! You don’t have to worry about inventing moves, but you have to think about the basis of our traditional dance (like tchianda) because our traditional dance has a lot of influence in kuduro.
S: Given the influence of hip hop on Kuduro, what’s it like to be in New York?
M: It’s really cool to be here, because this is like the dream of every dancer –in other places people don’t have the opportunity to come to the roots, you know? This is where things started happening to spread around the world. So, it’s really cool to be here. I hope we get to see more dancers, I hope we get to know more dancers and give workshops to see how far people will accept our kuduro. Because it’s like this: I have been doing hip hop for a long time. I’m not saying I’m really really good at hip-hop, but I know a lot of basics of hip-hop. And if they make use of kuduro in hip-hop, especially in house dance or popping, it’s gonna be a blast! Because kuduro has so many levels and there are so many things you can learn in kuduro in the theory and in the practical. To be able to learn things in these two ways is really good. Sometimes we know our bodies but if somebody doesn’t tell you “Look! Your body can do this and can do that,” you will keep in the same level no matter how much you try; you cannot open space in your brain to be able to do something else if you have no idea how to start. and kuduro has so many things, so much creativity in it. Because I think people take dance too seriously. But in kuduro we don’t take things too serious, we take things fun and at the heart. So I think it’s important for people to relax more, have more fun. I feel in all other styles around the world people take it really, really, really serious. Kuduro is the opposite. It’s also serious, but it’s more fun.