Thursday, April 17, 2014

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An Interview With Batida

The Angolan DJ discusses semba, rap and revolution.
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Batida hard at work.

“A musician is political just by being free; I don’t need an obvious agenda. My freedom makes me a political and social representative.” 

After speaking with Pedro ‘Batida’ Coquenão, semba music – that gloriously upbeat snapshot of Angola's capital Luanda in full carnival mode – will never sound the same again. Soundway Records’ latest signing paints a bleak picture of Angola on a newly independent high, tragically manifested in the hope and optimism of its musicians. 1970s semba heroes David Zé, Os Kiezos and Jovens do Prenda were all tools of the government, he told me, and as with any tool they were all “discarded once they stopped being useful".

Is it ethically right to enjoy semba in the knowledge of what happened next? Evidently so. Batida is unique for his incorporation of semba – often through direct sampling – into Angola’s modern electronic sounds. He has given a second voice to his heroes, tackling politics and social commentary with a similarly relentless party atmosphere. And, in the build up to the 2012 elections – “33 years with the same president!” – there is surely no more important a time to be a social representative for Angola.

There's a lot of nostalgia for Angola in the 1970s on the album. Will semba always be the golden age of Angolan music?

It’s easier to understand the importance of things in time. There’s no doubt that the 70s were a golden era, because semba had a key role in creating a sense of being Angolan for the first time. But nowadays I feel that rap- conscious rap or 'revolutionary rap', as it’s known in Angola – has a similar role and importance. Guys like MCK, Ikonoklasta, Carbono, Jang Nómada and Mona Dyakidi are demanding a better life and are doing a better job than the opposition parties in parliament, and a better job than the church on promoting positive values.

Their role in society is essential. Many people’s sanity depends on having artists saying the same things they see everyday. There are two different countries in Angola – the country portrayed by the media and the real one. People listen to this music so they don’t feel alone. I’ve seen revolutionary rap concerts with 200 people in 2007 and I see the same concerts with 5000 now. MCK sells 10,000 CDs on a release date, so this is an important era too. Time will tell if it is an era made of gold, made of blood diamonds or made of oil.

Who are your semba musical heroes, and how did they react to the government at the time?

I hold a special place for David Zé, Os Kiezos and Jovens do Prenda. They created a sense of national identity that didn’t exist before. Angola was of course mapped out by Europe, and many different people were congregated within a territory who didn’t have a common culture before. Some Angolan artists, especially in Luanda, started using local languages instead of Portuguese – that by itself was a bold political statement.

Assuming original languages was a way to assume a new identity from Portugal. So, to some extent, they were the main actors on reaching a cultural independence, a social awareness and even a political power. Most of these artists were thus used as political propaganda by the government. As with every other tool, they were discarded once they stopped being useful. Some turned to alcohol, others fled the country and a handful got murdered during the MPLA Action Committee coup on May 27, 1977.

How has the internet played a part in Angola's recent protests?

Internet access in Angola is still very limited. About 3% of the population can afford the providing fees. But it has been useful in keeping these few connected, especially to communicate with the exterior and show what news agencies are not showing. There’s a complete documentary waiting to be made from the footage on Youtube. Protesters posted video, photo and audio evidence on Central Angola, a website that started after the first protest attempt on March 7, 2011.

Do you think we'll see a similar reaction to in the Arab Spring countries?

Angola has a lot of international partners keen on keeping things as they are. Also, people are petrified at the prospect of a new war after over 40 years of killing – both our struggle for independence and our civil war have been very bloody. Everyone wants to avoid chaos. Proportionally though, these small protests have the same meaning as any in the Arab Spring countries. This hasn’t happened in Angola since our independence. It’s still early stages, but I hope the protests are kept non-violent and grow and spread throughout the country. If we force a change, Angola will become more balanced with all the wealth fairly divided. It should be used to assure the basics – more healthcare and access to a better education for everyone. I’d like to include my brother Ikonoklasta on this reply:

Ikonoklasta: It will take time for common people to beat their fears, get used to this new tool called public protest and adhere on a massive scale. I don't think we should make comparisons between North Africa and Angola yet. If you take Egypt, a deeper look into their blossoming collective conscience shows that it didn't happen overnight. Neither was it solely inspiration from Tunisia’s success that ignited the masses to come forth. There were political activists planting the seeds of revolt for many years within the minds of common Egyptians, protesting every year in smaller numbers but sending out strong signals.

We also need to take into account the differences in literacy levels of our populations. North African countries are ranked high – above 85% – and can be compared to developed nations in that field. Angola has a scandalous illiteracy rate of just over 60%. That gives us a clear view of the gargantuan task ahead of us. It’ll take time but eventually justice will prevail.

The album was recorded in Lisbon. Is there a good Angolan music scene there? Do they still play semba or more modern styles?

The album was made in Lisbon, but recorded in both Lisbon and Luanda. The dialogue between the cities didn’t stop after independence. The bad conditions in Angola during the civil war forced a lot of artists to record abroad, and Lisbon was a popular choice. In Lisbon there are many clubs dedicated to Angolan and Cape Verdean music. If you look at Portuguese charts you always have Kizomba, Funaná and Kuduro compilations in the Top 10. In the suburbs you always hear hits from Cape Verde and Angola playing out of pimped up cars and mobile phones. Angola has a new breed of young artists.”

Batida is released by Soundway Records on March 26.

His track Tirei O Chapéu is available to download for free.

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