Take note: delays and outright rejections of visas for visiting artists are among the many noxious "anti-terrorism" actions currently employed by our government. Voices are sometimes strong enough to make governments tremble, if not fall.
The great raspy singer from Angola, Bonga, has one of those voices. During the 1960s, while rebel groups fought for Angola’s independence from Portugal, Bonga was a professional athlete in track and soccer, which gave him a freedom of movement denied to many Angolans at the time. He used this opportunity to carry political documents for the independence movement, an activity which led to his eventual exile from both Angola and Portugal. Taking refuge in Holland, he recorded an album of songs considered so politically volatile that not only was its release banned in Angola, but, as a result of pressure from the Portuguese government, Bonga was forced to flee Holland as well, and live underground. The album, Angola 72, is now considered a classic of African popular music. Even for those, like me, who lack the language skills to appreciate Bonga’s lyrics, his beautiful voice and passionate delivery communicate fully his songs’ plea for justice.
When the fascist government of Portugal fell in 1974, Bonga was able to come out of hiding. But the tragedy of the wars in Angola that followed — with competing rebel groups fighting the superpowers’ cold war by proxy — kept Bonga in Europe, where he settled first in Paris, and then in Lisbon. His second album, Angola 74, recorded in the early days of Angolan independence, is another powerful document of melancholy — it includes an unforgettable version of "Sodade" ("Melancholy"), the song that Cesaria Evora would later make world famous — but it contains hints of an almost buoyant joy. The rhythms and song structures make use of the African semba (ancestor to the New World samba), but also the Portuguese fado, as well as music from other Lusophone countries including Cape Verde and, not least, Brazil. The album is an apotheosis of these easygoing yet supremely danceable rhythms, ping-ponging across the Atlantic.
Subsequent recordings in the ’80s and ’90s, all difficult if not impossible to find in the US, reputedly strained to highlight Bonga’s potential dance appeal; but judging by his newest, easily obtainable release, Mulemba Xangola (Lusafrica, 2000), Bonga’s subtlety and power have survived any such excesses intact. This album is a worthy bookend to his landmark albums of the early 1970s, and the band he leads on it — based on acoustic guitar and percussion, with touches of flute, accordion, keyboard, and the occasional answer of a female chorus in answer to his uniquely hoarse call — falls into a supple groove from beginning to end, without ever delving into dance-music cliché. His touring band, featuring the same acoustic-guitar player as on Mulemba Xangola, Feijo, has been dubbed the "Semba Masters." Above all, Bonga’s visit to Boston is a remarkable opportunity to hear one of the greatest voices in African music, a voice synonymous for millions with the quest for justice and peace — a voice as necessary today, in other words, as it was in 1972.
Bonga plays the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, on Friday, January 10. Call (617) 876-4275.