« Program: Hip Deep Angola: Music and Nation in Luanda

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Spirit of Angola: Granular

Hip Deep co-founder and senior correspondent Ned Sublette recently completed a three-week stay in Angola, and is in production on Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep Angola series, slated to air beginning in September.

SPIRIT OF ANGOLA is part of that project — a blog series that illustrates his experiences visiting Angola’s capital city of Luanda and, in the north of the country, Mbanza-Kongo, epicenter of the historic Kongo culture and religion.

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In Luanda, you have to go granular.

Here’s what I mean.

This is a grab shot, snapped on the fly. I was trying to take a picture of the UNAC sign – the “National Union of Artists and Composers,” a type of institution familiar to those who have worked in Cuba. And of course I always snap street posters. Meanwhile, the street is reflected in the front windows. I saw that much at the time.

It felt furtive, like I shouldn’t be seen with my camera in my hand, as if I needed to squeeze off the shot as fast as possible and get the camera back in my non-camera bag.

You might could pop out your smartphone inconspicuously. But in Angola, where no tourists go, and American journalists are not wanted, a foreigner taking pictures on the street may possibly be questioned by a policeman (I was), and possibly thought an informer by local residents (which you really don’t want).

Well, that was a pretty boring picture. But look a little closer, adjust for the lens distortion, tilt it, crop it, tone it, and there’s a composition there, with a structure of colors, grids, shapes, and cultural dissonance.

That the poster and sign seem in dialogue was surely not accidental on the part of the posterer – but then, casual irony is the posterer’s stock-in-trade.

As it turned out, though, what I was really taking a picture of was Big Brother Popula’s post-Orwellian poster, which I had no chance to stop and read at the time. Zeroing in on that, we get what I think is a truly interesting picture that documents a micro-moment in music history.

This picture reminds me of a flag, with dexter and sinister reversed so that the flagpole is attached to the picture’s right edge. It’s the visual tag of an experience shared by a few people in the nearly hidden city of Luanda one night in June 2012.

See what I mean? You have to zoom in, go granular. As granular as the dustcloud Luandans must breathe. Cough. During the dry season, when I was there. Cough.

Big Brother Popula happened before I got to Luanda, so I didn’t get to attend and therefore missed special guest Mona Star, but you can see Mr. Star on this clip from Sempre a Subir, which has become one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and which we will revisit later.

I wasn’t in Angola to mess with the upcoming elections, drive a bulldozer, or even write an exposé.

I was there for music, which conducts its own transparency check.

[to be continued…]