Hip Deep Interview: Dr. Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz
Luanda, Angola, July 18, 2012- Interviewed by Ned Sublette
I first met Dr. Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz at the Afro-Cuba at the Crossroads conference, organized by Dr. Henry Drewal at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2007. I listened in fascination as he talked about his work in Mbanza-Kongo, the ruling seat of the old Kongo kingdom in the north of Angola. He invited me to come visit him there. It took me five years to make it happen. It was hard. I’m glad I did it.
The first product of the experience is HIP DEEP ANGOLA, PART THREE: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO MBANZA-KONGO.
Dr. Martínez’s forthcoming book, KONGO GRAPHIC WRITING AND OTHER NARRATIVES OF THE SIGN (Temple University Press), promises a major step forward in our understanding of, among other things, the relationship of Africa to Afro-Cuba.
Even among the field of brilliant scholars we have today, Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz is special. I don’t know of anyone else with the multiple skills that Dr. Martínez has brought to bear on this study all at once, and I don’t know anyone who’s done more arduous fieldwork. He’s revolutionizing our knowledge about basic issues of Kongo culture and its connection to the diaspora, using a multi-disciplinary tool kit that includes art, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, history, religious studies, cultural studies, philosophy, African studies, Latin American studies – and, needless to say, music. –NS
Ned Sublette: Tell me about your background, and about how you first came into contact with Kongo culture . . .
Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz: My first contact with Kongo culture came at the age of three through my grandmother, who was a practitioner of Kongo-based religion in eastern Cuba. I grew up having access to the religions and to the meanings of religious practice that many families in eastern Cuba have. Later I moved to Havana with my mom, and I lived in a neighborhood called Reverbero, near the famous neighborhood Pogolotti, one of the epicenters for Afro-Havana culture. I came to understand my religious training in a more specific path of Kongo, palo monte — that was the kind of religion I embraced, and that had a connection with my previous years back in eastern Cuba, in Oriente.
At the age of eighteen I was drafted into the army, and I came to Angola. I trained for six months and stayed over two years after that. I was deployed in the south of Angola, what is now Ganguela, in the Chokwe area. During my time as a soldier, we didn’t have access to Angolan people. The situation was too dangerous to exchange or even socialize with local people, and it was also forbidden by the army. And despite my curiosity and desire to reconnect to what I thought I was, I didn’t have a proper channel to do that.
I went back to Cuba. I think the only good thing I remember from that time is being very young and opening up myself to a different way of thinking and people interacting. And access to the language — I think that was the other important element at that time.
I went back to university studies in Cuba. I became a professor for five years – a professor of Caribbean art, at the Instituto Superior de Arte, in Havana, and Havana University later. I became a full time professor — the equivalent of a tenured professor in America — for five years.
Right at the end of my five years someone invited me to come back to Angola to do a film about my memories and my experience ten years before. It was pretty much my second chance to come back here and confront my own memories and demons and . . . and sadness – I remember when I was in the army I used to be very sad, pretty much all the time. But I came back, as part of a big project that included three visual artists — one from Cuba, one from Angola, and one from South Africa. I was a filmmaker at the time, and I spent over six months working here [in Angola].
I went back to Cuba, and soon after that I went to America. I was a visiting professor at UCLA, but I never arrived because I got my visa late, and finally I landed at NYU in American Studies for a semester. Later I decided to continue my Ph.D., to do my studies. I got into the Yale art history department, where I did my Ph.D. in five years under Robert Farris Thompson, who was my mentor – still, up to this moment. During the last two years of my Ph.D., I was hired by Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, in which I was teaching graphic writing systems. As I was finishing my Ph.D., I was hired as a full-time professor at Stanford University.
At Stanford I created an institute called Orbis Africa that has three main components. One is dedicated to the study of graphic writing systems — graphic expressions — in Africa and the Americas. The second component is recording. We have a database with a different other institution and independent venue to record verbal history, oral history, from Africa, specifically Angola, and over 20 GB of music being recorded in situ by me and others, like Victor Gama, an Angolan musician and composer. The third component is religions and art.
NS: Tell me about your work in Mbanza-Kongo.
BMR: 1999 was my first trip to Mbanza-Kongo — quite late, when you see my entire time of coming back and forth to Angola for over 27 years. I knew exactly what kind of dissertation I wanted to do. I needed to spend time in situ in a place that not only had a history, but that also played an important role in the memory of many Kongo descendants. Especially in Cuba, Mbanza-Kongo refers to a kind of mystic place that many people come from, but it resonates in a kind of fuzzy way in many different houses of Kongo religion in Cuba. That was my approach, but I didn’t have any literature to give me an overview of Mbanza-Kongo.
At that point I was coming here like many people came here for more than 500 years — landing with no knowledge whatsoever about the place. I booked a flight, I landed into the airport, and I realized that the city was under siege by the UNITA army — they were expecting to take over the city in the next couple of weeks. And I had a choice to go back on the same flight to Luanda or stay there. I think my curiosity and my desire to accomplish what I wanted to do was more powerful than [the fear of] being killed or kidnapped by the rebel forces, and I decided to stay.
At the time I didn’t have any contact in the city, knowledge of how big the city was, how many institutions, hotels, nothing. I wandered around the city and I ended up in a Catholic mission, where they told me they had already too many people and could not let me stay. Finally I managed to meet the manager of the only hotel in town, Estrela do Kongo — it was under construction — and I convinced the guy to rent me the place for a modest amount. It was a very big amount for me at the time, but it was a modest amount for the cost of living at the time in Angola.
I was very lucky because the museum was next door to the hotel, and I met its director at the time, Matondo Ngo “Bless,” who turned into the most important force in my work up to today. Now he’s in Kinshasa. But I think he allowed me to understand better what I wanted to do, and he made the proper connection for me, and it became a kind of partnership of exchange of knowledge that’s gone on for more than ten years. Knowing of the historical importance of Mbanza-Kongo but having no knowledge whatsoever about the place, I started digging and tried to understand the place from scratch. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing.
NS: What is the historical importance of the place?
BMR: First, it was one of the most important early kingdoms that had contact with European culture, back in the 15th century. It was one of the early kingdoms in Africa that adopted Christianity and developed their own process of syncretism and creolization, as early as the 15th century – 1491, when the king decided to adopt Catholicism, and joined the Vatican and sent a young member of the community to be trained and later became bishop and returned back to the Kongo kingdom at the time.
Pretty much you have a continuum of 500 years of training in the traditions of Catholicism, but at the same time you have an incredible tale of survival of the local tradition called makisi nsi, it’s not really a tradition, but it means, like, what is proper of a place, what the people understand that belongs to them. It could be tangible, like recognizing the actual view of what they look like, like the city’s up on a hill, and that particular place evokes this particular sense of nsi. But also it could be your emotional connection to a place, or your memories into the family in the place, and that way to understand history was deep and powerful for me.
Many historians have written about the Kongo being converted to Christianity, and how Christianity supposedly erased any old trace of local tradition. When I realized that local tradition was living pretty much healthily underneath these many coats of western religious forms that exist in the present day in Mbanza-Kongo, my mission at the time, or my goal at the time, was to unveil all the different layers, to try to understand what is the foundation that allowed a tradition to survive for more than 500 years. If I unpack that foundation, I will have a better understanding of how this tradition will manage to deal and exchange with other cultural forces, and how those forces develop in the diaspora.
Many experts in African art believe Africa doesn’t have to be validated by the African diaspora. It’s kind of purist, in a way: isolate African cultural study from the African diaspora. And you have the other trend that believes that whatever happened in the diaspora is unique to the diaspora, it’s unique to America, it doesn’t have to be counterpointed by what happened in Africa or a sense of origin, it has to be mapped out through time and history. And there is a third trend that believes in a kind of conversation between both sides, a kind of transition between one place and the next, that doesn’t try to place or to create this kind of dependency between African and African diaspora, it tries to understand the cultural process.
Why did something like vodou happen in Haiti, or palo monte in Cuba, or umbanda in Brazil? I think the reason is that there was a foundation that allowed the different traditions to start from the beginning, and that if you have a foundation with principles, there will be enough information for a particular group to reorganize their own culture. That is what I believe should be paid more attention by scholars in the present day. There are a few, like Robert Farris Thompson. He’s the one who pioneered this type of study, and also he’s one of the main figures in the field, but even he has been ignored in many ways. He’s highly regarded and recognized by people, but many other people believe his kind of methodology is too risky for these two other trends that believe in the isolation of the two cultural spaces of study.
NS: It would be hard to name an African culture that has been more influential in the Americas than the Kongo culture.
BMR: But what allows you to understand that would be the demographics. There is a type of historical analysis that uses demographic data that has been very important for the development of American history as a discipline. If you trace the amount of people that came from a particular area in Africa, you will find in America more than 25% that came from central Africa. You will find 35% in places like Cuba. You will find 20% in Brasil, maybe higher. None of the other cultures of a single area in Africa have a higher percentage of the population being traced by this demographic study as the source of African populations in their own country. This pretty much puts the Central African culture, specifically the Kongo, in a very prominent position.
But that as data is not enough. Many different layers have to be traced. The demographic will help you to frame the source origins of a particular group over time, and the fluxes of population through slave trade and after, but the other component would be to do a comparative study: what are the principles of the Kongo culture, or whichever culture you wanted to study, in Africa, and how did they develop in America? You need linguistic study, you need archaeological study, you need anthropology, you need a multidisciplinary approach to understand all the different sets of knowledge that allows a particular social group to be identified in a particular place. It’s very clear when you have the language, the influence of the Kongo vocabulary in the American vernacular, the English vernacular, you will have it in Cuba, you have it in Brasil, you have it in the U.S.
But there can’t be only single studies. The direction of the field right now is moving toward a kind of systemic approach, when an argument has to be put together by multiple disciplines, and it’s up to the scholar to negotiate how the different disciplines address the issue. Because the most important thing at the end is to understand the cultural manifestation.
What it is, is something you cannot change. You cannot change vodou. You cannot change palo monte. You cannot change umbanda. It is what it is. But we need to understand why that became, how they got there. And the fact, you cannot change it, but what you can do is explain how it happened, and that is our responsibility, to do such a study, to make the people understand how certain things happened in a certain way.
NS: You’ve been coming to Mbanza-Kongo since 1999, and it’s the epicenter of Kongo culture, yet there’s been very little fieldwork done there . . .
BMR: The first person who did fieldwork in Mbanza-Kongo was Desmond Clark, a famous British anthropologist and archaeologist who wrote an incredible book called The Prehistory of Africa. He visited Mbanza-Kongo in the 40s and early 50s, doing research for his book. In that book he dedicated just one page to Angola, and in that page, just one paragraph was dedicated to the Kongo – the ancient history, the proto-history of the Kongo. During the colonial time in the 70s, right before independence, a few Angolan scholars visited, but didn’t really do extensive fieldwork in Mbanza-Kongo, and I think I was the first researcher that spent a lot of time in the place. I’ve been going almost every year — I think I skipped one year, 2008, when my daughter was born — but after that I’ve pretty much been almost every year back in Mbanza-Kongo.
I’ve met a couple of people who tried to do research in Mbanza-Kongo, but they found the place very difficult to do research. It’s expensive, there are no resources, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, you need authorizations.
The fear of the people is that someone from outside is looking for natural resources, not asking for the culture, and that’s one of the main problems. I’ve tried pretty much to – not to educate, but to allow the people to understand what I wanted to do: I’m not looking for diamonds or for mercury, I want to understand who you are. I want to understand the makisi nsi, and they think the makisi nsi doesn’t have the value that diamonds have, or mercury. But that process of negotiating led them to understand what I wanted to do.
You cannot do that in one year. I’m getting the fruits of this kind of process of exchange now, after ten years. You’ve been to Mbanza-Kongo, you know how difficult the place is.
NS: Can you tell me about the team you’ve put together, and your personal explorations of the terrain, and the various forms of knowledge you find there?
BMR: You cannot do research in a place if you don’t have the local people who understand the place better than you, who can frame certain questions in certain ways, they have a personal contact with the local people, they know the place.
But how do you get them to understand what you want them to do? That requires a second task, which is to train them while you’re being trained by them to learn the language.
The elders, many of them told me, first thing you need is to start writing down the language, and if you can write and spell everything, that will be the first step forward, that will allow the people to endorse you. And the only way I could get that was through the group of people.
They taught me you need to learn the language. The most important thing is not even to speak, but to write down. 90% of the people, they don’t know how to write. They’ve been forced to speak Portuguese. They speak fluently Kikongo, better than Portuguese, but to write Kikongo was forbidden by the Portuguese during the colonial era. Later the government imposed Portuguese as the main language, and many of the people neglect their own language. The Portuguese realized language is the tool for domination, is the tool for deculturation.
I had [on the research team] the museum director at the time, from 1999. I had the person who used to be the oral historian in the museum, who compiled proverbs and tales and short stories. The third person I worked with was a poet, who had been outside Mbanza-Kongo for ten, fifteen years, and just came back at the time I got there in 1999. He had a good knowledge of Portuguese and he spoke Kikongo very well. For me it was an ideal team.
My side of it was to give equipment – recording machines, digital cameras — a set of questions I wanted answered, and a kind of care for the language. That kind of exchange took place. In 2007, the secretary of culture decided to let me have two members of a cultural office to work with me, and one of them is still working with me up to this day. He’s very young, and he wanted to know the history, wanted to know the past. He’s still studying at the university, now in the first year. The other member is a 67-year-old retired person, who used to be a nurse during the colonial time, and later was a priest in a Protestant church. He has a very good knowledge not just of the history of the city, because I need to know the history, because everything is connected to Mbanza-Kongo in the Zaire province, in the Kongo kingdom. Everything from the old tales, the old families, everything of importance gravitates to that place, and I need someone with knowledge rooted in the history of the place. That is the team I have right now, and I’m very happy to have them.
NS: You’ve been all over the area on foot, right?
BMR: I’ve been in all corners of the province. I walked to all those places, up to 54 miles on foot, the longest walk. Many of the farther ones I drove up and walked into the forest. I got lost in the forest for three days.
NS: What was getting lost in the forest like?
BMR: It was kind of strange. The bishop of Mbanza-Kongo had a Mexican nun visiting Mbanza-Kongo, trained as an archaeologist in Mexico and worked in Maya ruins. She decided to request to go to Africa, and she was sent to Mbanza-Kongo. She became a member of my team in 2007, and I was so lucky to have her there. So during that trip I had this person who wasn’t from the place, and didn’t speak either Portuguese or Kikongo. I had a hunter with me in the team, a Protestant. So I had a Protestant and a Catholic with me.
When we got lost, every person started calling on their own entity to save them. Because we walked for three days and we’re back to the same place. We looped for miles and miles and miles the whole day, and we’re back to the same place. I call it tuta – the forest is right on the border between the DRC and Angola, and tuta is the devil forest, because many people get lost. That forest took a lot of lives during the civil war. Many people tried to escape from war. They got into the forest, and I think the forest was worse than the rebel forces. Anyway, that’s kind of the myth of the place, still pretty much up to today. We didn’t pay attention to that until we walked for the whole entire day.
Around four o’clock, we’re back to the same place, with the fire and everything. That happened two days in a row, three days in a row. And I realized, we didn’t really honor the spirit that inhabits that particular place.
Because the Kongo believe that the vital power — all matter, you know, in quantum physics, is everywhere. I think that kind of concept has been accepted by scientists. The spirit that is the equivalent of all matter in Kongo religion is called simbi – the kind of vitality of life itself that is manifested in many different ways. I’m phrasing something between quantum physics and Kongo religion, they are not really different at all. And there is that vitality of the force that inhabits and keeps the entire force tied together.
In order to walk in that domain, you need to have an authorization, a blessing in a metaphorical or whatever way that had to be performed before. We didn’t. We just get to the place, we get out of the car, the whole team, we walk, we walk, we walk, we walk, for fifty-something miles, we found the place, we took the photograph, but we never even brought what you have to bring to the person who owned that land first. Second, the people who died in that land before the time I got there – it’s one of the most important things. You honor the people who lived there before you. That is the one who commands that place, the one who gives the wisdom to that place. At the time we got lost, the nun was asking for almighty God to help her to find her way out, the Protestant was doing that, and I realized we didn’t even honor the simbi of the forest, simbi makaya and simbi kemasa.
There’s a big river, the Luvo River, that crosses into the forest, and I realized I had a couple of quarters in my backpack. I took them out and we walked until we find the river, and we performed a kind of informal ceremony, and after that, we found our way out, in the third day.
NS: Since we’re already talking about simbi, what does the word mean?
BMR: Simbi in Kikongo means the power to hold, or to sustain. But that would be the etymology of the word. Simbi is singular, isimbi is the plural in Kikongo Kisansala. In Kikongo Kimanianga it would be yisimbi.
Yisimbi is the kind of manifestation of the vitality that gives power to planet Earth. That is, a kind of vitality that is multiplied in multiple forms. That vitality could be physical, could be mental, or it could be also manifest as a combination of both. And that means simbi is essential to understand the environment in which we as humans live and interact, but simbi also could be what keeps us alive. According to the Kongo tradition, there are two things that keep us alive. One is blood and the other one is water, and that gives us our vitality as a living being.
There is a simbi of the forest. There is a simbi of the water — but not just one kind of water, all types of water have a simbi that inhabit, that manifest through that particular type of water. It could be the ocean, could be fresh water of a river that will take the name of a river, or if you have a lake, will take the name of that. Also you have a simbi of one single tree that has medical properties, or you have a leaf that is dried, or a leaf that is still on the tree. You have the simbi of an earthquake, of a tornado, the sun, you have the simbi of a mountain, or the savannah. Each is a different entity. You have the simbi of speech that gives you the power to talk. That is the way the religion is organized, you have Nzambi Mpungu Tolendo, and that is the power itself, and you have Nzambi Mpungu Deso, is the kind of spiritual guide that is invisible, that doesn’t have any kind of intervention in the life of the people. And after that, you have kalunga, that could be identified as life itself, when life is created. And you have the simbi, the multiple power of god manifest in multiple ways, and below that you have the bakulu, the ancestors, that are always in contact with the simbi. And that is pretty much the order, you have nzambi, you have kalunga, you have isimbi, and you have the bakulu. And humans below the bakulu.
NS: You were telling me about how the mbiti [thumb piano] works with the simbi . . .
BMR: Yes, the mbiti, or kissange. There are three main ones. One has seven keys, one has twelve, and the other has twenty-one. The way many people explain it to me, because the simbi are plural, there are so many of them, it’s very difficult to put them together into one single space. Mbiti is one of the instruments that can bring the many different simbi together, using the key of the finger piano, to have contact, and use as a vehicle in which simbi can manifest their own power through sonic components. At that point music and sound become the force of the simbi through the instrument. The instrument is a vehicle that allows the simbi to manifest into the realm of the living. It’s very important, because it’s the one that can combine different simbi that are very difficult to have all in one single space, or one single object that can speak to them. Because one family knows one simbi. One priest, one nganga mawuko, knows one simbi, maybe two, and works with these two all the time, but they cannot work with all of them at the same time. But mbiti as an instrument can have pretty much the skill of many experts as one, just through an instrument.
NS: Because each key represents . . .?
BMR: Because each sound and each side of the key represents one simbi power. And when you’re playing, you’re not playing music, you’re touching simbi through the music. That is the way it’s conceptualized.
NS: I want to get a quick gloss from you about some of the things I saw in Mbanza-Kongo, starting with the Yala Nkuwu.
BMR: Yala Nkuwu is a tree. According to the record, it’s been there for more than 500 years. You can find in the record from Cavazzi, from Pigafetti, from Dapper, this tree that used to be the tree of justice. When court cases used to take place and criminals used to be prosecuted and even executed under the tree. That is pretty much what the history of the place — the tree being associated with, on one hand, the truth of the tradition, or the translation and adaptation of punishment in an old legal system into prohibition in the present day. When you have a government that neglects important historical facts or does not respect the tradition, I think the Yala Nkuwu becomes the vehicle in which the population knows how to tell the government what matters to them. For example, in 1997, the bishop of Mbanza-Kongo died. In 2007, the Capuchin priest and the main administrator of the province also died, the first in a helicopter accident and the second in an airplane accident – ten years apart. In both cases, the two members of the government decided to trim the tree, for an important festivity for the city. And according to the people, this tree cannot be touched or attacked, because it represents their tradition, the makisi nsi. And from time to time, the government forgets that kind of thing. That became a kind of myth, because you had the two accidents ten years apart, and the myth became the most important force that allows the people to reconnect with what is the tradition, what is the old Mbanza-Kongo. That is pretty much what you have right now, is a quasi-mystical tree that can only be mystical because the tradition is what gives it that power, the tradition that is connected to the people. Every day they’re losing something that belongs to them, something that is connected to the old time, the makisi nsi, what used to proper, what used to be the custom of the place.
NS: What about the kulu mbimbi?
The kulu mbimbi was the church. There is one illustration from Cavazzi in which you can see pretty much the structure of the building. At the time the king used to be a blacksmith, the master of metal, also a hunter, because as a hunter you need the skill of the blacksmith in order to prepare all the hunting equipment.
There are other sites in Mbanza-Kongo. Mpidi atadi is the place where the body of the king used to be. After being cleaned, they’d mummify [it], they’d treat it with particular plants, and the smoke from the plant gets into the body and conserve – the property of that particular plant protects the flesh against time. This is an all-important site. Last time the ceremony of preparing the body of a king to go on vacation—because in the Kongo tradition you don’t die, you go on vacation — the elders performed for me in 2005 so I could have documentation, and they haven’t really performed this since the 50s, since the last king died, I think in ’58, they haven’t really done any kind of ceremony. All this knowledge is disappearing, because the elders who know this, perform like, ndembo – there are maybe three or four that can do that, that have the knowledge of ndembo. But I think in the next ten years they won’t be able to do it.
NS: Tell me about the lumbu.
BMR: Lumbu is a kind of paramount council. Mbongi is the government that they used to have – the king’s adviser in the former Kongo kingdom, and lumbu used to be the legal arm that supported all the king’s decisions. What you have now for more than 500 years is the lumbu. The mbongi disappeared because the Portuguese colonial power appointed the king, who used to be someone who protected Portuguese interests. That particular system didn’t last for many years. But the lumbu stayed up till today, working as a kind of parallel legal system.
When you have the Angolan legal system that operates in a kind of modern pseudo-democratic legal system – and many of the problems the system cannot solve, like land disputes, domestic abuse, rape, witchcraft, adultery, they’ve been transferred to the lumbu and the lumbu had to decide. It’s made out of twenty-one members – they don’t all the time have the twenty-one – they have different positions ranking within them. The lumbu is important because the lumbu represents an important form of knowledge that is still somehow in the vernacular in Mbanza-Kongo, in the proverbs that are cited. For example, in the lyric of a proverb, the problem has to be translated into a song, and the song has to be performed in front of the lumbu. The lumbu answers back to them in the same way, and that process of call and response is very important in the lumbu.
NS: Because the laws are encoded in song?
BMR: The law is encoded in proverbs, and proverbs later become songs. That is kind of the two layers. And everything – memories, everything — has four different verbal forms. And the lumbu allows this interaction between people that takes place in whatever forms. The song is the most common one among the people.
NS: Can you talk about the branches of your work?
BMR: I have three branches in my work, or three areas I cover.
One is the rock painting, because I try to understand the process of making meaning. Not the meaning of each independent symbol and sign, which has been pretty much the vogue in linguistic and semiotic studies – you know, the people give you a glossary of all the symbols, but the mechanic of creating meaning, which people never explain. That is the focus of my interest. I need to understand the process of making meaning.
What is the mechanic that is in place that allows the people to understand certain ideas, or meaning, through the visual? And rock painting, I think, is kind of the first step in the creation of a set of standard graphic notations that evolved over time and even came to the Americas. To trace this graphic notation allowed me to go back to the beginning of ancient history, of the population that inhabited the places of rock painting, and I’m moving forward into the present from that time.
The second will be the actual verbal history that is still pretty much alive: how people remember. The people remember through proverbs, the people remember through short stories, the people remember through tales, the people remember through song, it’s the way every aspect of the life of the Bakongo people is remembered, through different verbal forms. And how I can put it together in a systemic way in which the graphic forms have a counterpart that has a sonic component.
In the Kongo graphic writing system called ponto riscado in Umbanda in Brasil, every ponto riscado [drawn point] has a ponto cantado [sung point]. Each one. It’s very important. You cannot separate them. And the firmas in Cuba, you have a mambo that complements the actual graphic notation. That is pretty much what you have in Mbanza-Kongo – you have a graphic notation in the rock painting, also wall paintings, or drawings used in the church, that have a proverb used as a counterpoint that allows you to understand the full extent of the meaning.
What I’ve been doing is collecting those proverbs, and tales, and short stories. I have over 1,000 proverbs, which I’ve tried to put into a standard Kikongo and translate into Portuguese, and I’ve started the process of translating into English. That will be one book. I have a two-book project. The first book will be more about art, and the second book will be about verbal history, and I will try to analyze the rhetoric of writings.
And the third area is the religions. The religion I think is the one that suffered the most. Because what the people think about religions in Mbanza-Kongo is about Catholicism and the Protestant traditions. But people who have studied them never think about the importance of local tradition that didn’t have anything to do with Catholicism and Protestantism, and even used to be there before that. What you’re calling right now nganga mawuku or nganga ngombo or nganga nkisi – in the popular belief they’re called witchcraft practice, or fetish, feitiçaria. And you have that campaign that a historical component came from – a historical Portuguese colonial deculturation process that demonized those religions.
But the other thing, I think, that is more problematic for me – you have many scholars who work in the area, anthropologists, who talk about those traditions as something from the past, that died in the 19th century, in the early 20th century, and they used to be the last witness of these dying traditions. That gives an incredible amount of power to those anthropologists to review and write a book about a tradition that died at the moment they’ve been doing field work and they were the last witness! For me I found this very offensive, and undermined the capacity of the Kongo people to overcome the situation, and prove that this tradition is still alive. What I’ve tried to do is understand how they survived. Why they survived.
The third, and more important: what are the principles? Do we have only the understanding of a nineteenth-century missionary’s account? Give the voice of the local people a chance to speak about their own traditions. We have a little space for them to talk about what they think about it, and how they conceptualize this practice. But we think that religion, we have another level – the level of the hybrid religion, where you have Mpeve ya Nlongo, or BDK, or Botanical Houses in Mbanza-Kongo, or Simon Kimpangu church, where you can see how what we call tradition and we call western religious form, how they come together, and how they negotiate their existence by negotiating compatible principles all together.
You have a range of three layers of religious practice in the same place. But when you go there what you see is the Catholic Church, and you see the Protestant Church, and you maybe see the Simon Kimpangu church. And everything is underneath that. And in one day, one week, it’s almost impossible to see that complex level of exchange and interaction between three different spaces of knowledge that were there historically but are also still in this process of negotation in the present day.
NS: Can you tell me a little about the lungoyi-ngoyi?
BMR: Lungoyi-ngoyi is a fascinating instrument. Lungoyi-ngoyi used to be the viola that was played in front of the king. There is an important family name: Seke. Seke is one of the last names of the twelve founders of Mbanza-Kongo, the Kongo kingdom, according to the oral account. Seke – his family title used to be the historian that used to sing the history of the place, and I recorded him in 2002, right before he died. But he used to perform the history of Mbanza-Kongo through songs, and the lungoyi-ngoyi used to be the instrument – and mbiti – to help him to tell the story.
It’s an instrument made out of two cords. The important thing that I notice in the lungoyi-ngoyi is they have three ways to control three types of sounds. When you hold the upper part of the lungoyi-ngoyi, where you have the three fingers – three, because it represents makuku and matatu — the three Kongos – Kongo Angola, Kongo Kinshasa, Kongo Brazzaville. But three is very important, because three has to do with the foundation of the family. You start with three. Because every family should have three stones they use for cooking.
If you don’t have your own fire, you cannot have your own family. Three is associated with the particular tree and the three stones on the pot. There is a proverb that you find in Brasil, and a beautiful drawing — in the forest you see three stones that are rolling, rolling in the forest, and they have eyes and they are talking to each other, that are inspired in this Kongo tale, makuku and matatu, malembica makongo. It’s the three Kongos all together.
NS: Three is also the number of the classic drum ensemble. I was a little surprised not to see any drums played in Mbanza-Kongo.
BMR:Because you have to walk. You have to go outside the city. You won’t see them in the city. You have all the government, you have administration. You have to go into the village. There’s one not far – less than ten kilometers, they have a very important drummer that performs all the time. You have to go the BDK. BDK, they have drum. You go to Mpeve Nlongo, they have drum. You go to the Catholic church, they have drum. You go to the Protestant church, they have drum. It’s interesting, because those instruments should be banished from these very religious places, and you have drumming as a main instrument that is allowed to perform even the Catholic exigencies. It’s very strange by European standards, where you have an African base to perform a religious matter that doesn’t have anything to do with the reality of the place.
NS: Can you talk a little about the batuke [drum] and dancing?
BMR: You cannot dance without understanding the language of the drum. The drummer can see if the dancer is getting the sound in a proper way, because it will exacerbate the movement in the dancer’s body and he can see that from a long distance. The drumming has to be completed by this conversation with the dancer. Otherwise the drum doesn’t make sense. That, I think, was one of the most important things at the time to realize. You cannot just be a drummer.
Like in Cuba, you have people that are famous because they are good drummers. They are celebrated for their skill as a drummer. Here you can have that, but you cannot operate on the level of individuality and selfishness that you have in a place like Cuba. I found that very remarkable, and maybe it’s one of the differences. Kongo culture is still in the kind of universe where everything is interconnected.
Maybe there has to be a historical reason why in Cuba – maybe it has to do with the professionalization of modern music, the skill of the musician is very important when you’re playing jazz, or even Afro-Cuban music. When you have a healthy music tradition in a place, you need to have a kind of high-profile musician. But in Kongo, what you have is tradition that is undermined by the government, and the survival of the tradition depends on this kind of collective effort, not selfish enterprise, selfish attitudes.
NS: You say that in Cuba, the batuke became the tambor yuka.
BMR: I think the actual shape of the design of the yuka drum in Cuba is exactly the same. The yuka drum sits on, I think four legs, but I think that’s the only difference. The batuke has three most of the time, but there are some with four. It’s a tall drum that has a particular sound, and they have different dimensions and they play together, the one open and the other one closed. The batuke is the one that’s open.
When they did the demonstration of the mummification of the body of a king, the batuke’s the one that had to perform, he’s the one that opened the ceremony. In the old times, they used to call the entire community. You want to call, batuke’s the one that has to call. There is a phrase that is played with that drum, that the people know is for gathering, a call to coming together, and they will concentrate in a particular place. The way the onomatopoeic of batuke sounds, every single person in Mbanza-Kongo will know: paku ndungu pele keté. Paku ndungu pele keté. It’s the actual sound on the skin of the batuke drum: paku ndungu pele keté. Paku ndungu pele keté. Every single person knows that particular phrase. But also there are Kikongo words that represent sounds in the drumming patterns. It’s incredible . . .
NS: You mentioned your recording with Seke. Is there one whose meaning you could gloss for me?
BMR: One of the songs is about a girl who’s ready to leave her family, and she wants to go to another place to look for opportunity. And the father creates a song for her. When she’s in danger she can sing that song, and have a kind of mental connection between daughter and father. The beginning of the song is, Ngele ngele, musila kongo. Musila kongo – that means, I’m on my way to Mbanza-Kongo. The story of the song is that the daughter was looking into things and saw a basket, and when she put her hand inside the basket, the snake bit her, and she was afraid, because the poison could kill her. And the tone tells that moment of fear that allows the father to recognize the fear through the mental connection. That is an incredible song. The song says, I’m on my way to Mbanza-Kongo, I want to go back to see you daddy. That’s the family, it’s a metaphor for going back to be protected by the family, and it tells you the importance of the family.
NS: Could you tell me a little about your work with Victor Gama and Odantalán?
BMR: We decided to do a project with different Kongo traditions from different places. We invited a musician from Colombia, a marimba player. We invited a musician from Bahia [Brazil], Giba Conceição; Felipe Villamil from Cuba; and Victor Gama from Angola.
To allow the musicians to enjoy each other’s type of music, we decided to exchange the instruments. We asked the musician from Colombia to play the marimba from Angola, and the marimbeiro from Angola to play the marimba from Colombia. They are very different. And they have a different kind of result, even the instruments are maybe connected but the morphology of the instruments, and the marimba in Angola, specifically the one from the Kimbundu people, they play with three people at the same time. The marimba in Colombia is just one solo – it tells you about this individualistic approach you will find in the diaspora: it’s one single marimbero, playing with high skill, incredible super-fast. In Angola you have three marimba players negotiating how to play together. Learning how to play together is more difficult than manifesting your great skill as a musician.
We worked for three months, and we recorded an incredible CD, called Odantalán 02, that collects the experiments of working with musicians together. I wrote an essay for a book on religions and all this kind of thing, and the way the setting of the place – it was at the Portuguese embassy at the time, and I used to prepare a short conference before we used to go and play music. We had the auditorium for us. I used to give a lecture about religion, and after that we used to go and play music, and we would go and record every day, every day, and Victor – I used to live in New Haven at the time – flew to Connecticut . We worked on the book and worked on the CD. We’re planning to do it again. The idea was to do it in San Francisco next year or the year after.
We decided also to join Pangeia and Orbis Africa to create this musical archive – that is what we’re doing. We have a database of music we’re building up together. Our idea is eventually to record music, and the profit has to go back to the musicians. It will be mp3 files that would be easy to download and the money can be transferred straight to the musicians.
But the most important thing I wanted to do with Victor Gama right now is to create a musical language, using graphic writing traditions as a way to make music in the present day. One of the professors from Stanford wants to translate the graphic writing system into a notational system to allow a musician to compose music, perform music in public with a large-scale music ensemble. That is kind of the future of a very experimental, uncharted territory we’re planning to do.
NS: How has Mbanza-Kongo changed in the time you’ve been going there? Is this an endangered culture? What are the forces at work and what can we do?
BMR: I think Mbanza-Kongo has changed a lot. In 1999, Mbanza-Kongo used to have 8,000 people living in the city. Now it’s over 200,000. In ten years, the population multiplied at incredible speed. [Note: The last census in Angola was in 1970; a census is scheduled for 2013.]
But I think it is a culture in extinction. A little work and effort from the government to protect the local culture [would help.] You have not just the local misunderstanding and lack of support from inside the country. Also, you have a government in Angola that – you know, it’s very difficult to do fieldwork. If you wanted to open a company here, you would get a visa. But if you want to do cultural study, it’s very hard to get a visa. And you have that problem – that this mentality of being neglected by their own country, but at the same time preventing the people who want to study from having access to that culture. In the next ten years, if the government does not change that mentality, I think there will be little work to do in that place. The people will continue, but people will speak other languages. Now Kikongo is the minority. It used to be 90% of the population used to speak Kikongo in 1999. Now 99% of the population speaks Lingala. In less than ten years, you have another language that came from the Kongo, take over, and have a minority, even over Portuguese.
NS: The people who are coming in are coming in from . . .
BMR: . . . Angolan refugees who spent most of their life as refugees during the civil war in the Congo, and they’re back in Angola, but they grew up in Kinshasa speaking Lingala. They forgot their own Kikongo. They do not speak Portuguese. It’s going to erase Kikongo as a language in the schools – I think they plan to do this here – that, I think, is the next step.
Make the people write in, and love, their own language. Few people can write the language any more. But that’s not really the problem. The problem is, none of the experts in Kikongo language have a consensus how to write down the Kikongo language. From the academic point of view, that is the big problem. As a scholar, we cannot get together to decide, what is that? And sometimes the arbitrary consensus doesn’t mesh, doesn’t represent the reality of speaking the language in the place.
NS: What about the demonization of the local culture as witchcraft?
BMR: Angola’s moving into this kind of modernized society. They believe that what is traditional is incompatible with modernity. It’s a risk. Because many of the people who are working in the government already put their money into the horse of modernity. In their own mind, tradition is something that will prevent Angola from embracing fully a capacity as a country in the path to modernity. And I think that kind of mentality allows the government to demonize this cultural belief by using witchcraft as a way to classify or denominate those religious practices.
NS: What can people from outside do? Would the talked-about UNESCO designation of the kulu mbimbi as a World Heritage Site be helpful?
BMR: Initially it would be helpful, but I think the UNESCO designation would be a political move. Angola needs that because it’s part of the ego of the country, to have a listed World Heritage Site so it can say, we are a country that is important, culture is important to us as France or Italy. But they didn’t start out of preservation of the local culture, because little work toward preservation is being done in the present day. There is no effort to collect the proverbs from the government point of view, to do archaelogical work, to open the country to allow people to come. They will have the nomination of World Heritage Site, but you’re still doing other things underneath undermining the vitality of the local culture. That plays well in politics, but it doesn’t help the people.
NS: Is there anything we can do?
BMR: To pass on our love and respect for that place, and whatever we’re doing, do it with clarity and with the conviction that even with all the problems, it still makes sense to be doing the work.
Ned Sublette’s research in Angola was undertaken with the support of a 2012 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion, a program of the University of Southern California’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion.